« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Creating immigrant leaders: Labor organizer Ramon Ramirez

  WOODBURN, OREGON — Disoriented, poor and unorganized, Latino immigrant farmworkers traditionally have not had a lot of political power in the United States. They often do the low-wage jobs American-born workers won’t do, working in an industry that largely precludes its workers from bargaining through unions. And because many immigrant farmworkers have entered the United States illegally, they are hesitant to speak up in the face of unpaid wages or miserable working conditions. But in the berry fields and nurseries of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Ramon Ramirez is helping to change that.

In a converted Methodist Church in downtown Woodburn, Ore., Ramirez runs the Northwestern Treeplanters and Farmworkers United, known as PCUN from its Spanish name, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste. The group organizes over 5,000 members — in the U.S. both legally and illegally — to fight for better working and living conditions in the surrounding fields.

"Immigrants are capable of taking on leadership roles," says the 49-year-old Ramirez. "They know the ins and outs of their communities. They know how to communicate."

Once solely focused on farmworker rights in the Willamette Valley, PCUN has expanded its advocacy to include other civil rights issues, global farmworker issues and immigrant rights. Most recently, PCUN helped beat back several bills in the 2003 Oregon Legislature that would have prohibited farmworker strikes, allowed police officers to cooperate with immigration officials, and required legal residency for driver licenses.

Ramirez "has the ability to unite different constituencies and organizations in ways that most people might not perceive," says Tarso Luis Ramos, director of the Research and Action for Change and Equity program at Portland’s Western States Center. "That requires a level of political courage and leadership."

Ramirez’s style evokes a fellow Latino labor organizer, Cesar Chavez, the founder of United Farm Workers, which led boycotts to demand higher wages for workers in the 1960s and ’70s. In fact, it was Chavez who ignited Ramirez’s labor-organizing career. When Ramirez was 15, Chavez spoke at his East Los Angeles high school.

"It really resonated with me," Ramirez says. "Cesar Chavez was like, ‘You can make a difference now.’ "

Ramirez took those words and ran with them. The son of a Mexican-born farmworker-turned-housepainter father and an American Indian mother, he had long been aware of farm labor struggles and immigration issues. He remembers the anguish his family experienced when the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) deported his brother-in-law when his sister was six months pregnant. During frequent immigration raids in the Los Angeles area in the 1960s and 1970s, INS agents stopped him and his father and asked them, both U.S. citizens, for their immigration papers. "There was a lot of anger there," Ramirez says.

When he graduated from high school at 16 and enrolled at Colegio Cesar Chavez, a short-lived private college in Mt. Angel, Ore., Ramirez fell in with a "new family" of immigrant farmworkers who worked in the Willamette Valley’s plant and tree nurseries, berry farms and vineyards. After witnessing many of the problems he had seen in California — poor living and working conditions, little recourse for redressing grievances with employers — Ramirez decided these workers needed to organize.

With Chavez in mind, he pursued more effective ways to communicate, taking photography classes, working at a community newspaper and learning how to use a video camera.

In 1975, in response to large immigration raids, the 20-year-old Ramirez teamed with fellow activist Cipriano Ferrel to create the Willamette Valley Immigration Project. Over the next decade, the Project worked to defend the human and civil rights of immigrants who, while not necessarily in the United States legally, were part of the country’s taxpaying workforce. Ramirez and Ferrel formed PCUN in 1985 with 100 farmworkers. After Ferrel’s death in 1995, Ramirez became the organization’s president.

PCUN has taken a page from the immigrant labor movements of the early 20th century that brought together German, Italian, Polish and other immigrant worker communities. Ramirez has expanded the alliance further.

PCUN has teamed up with national civil rights organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And when PCUN wanted to fight proposed Oregon ballot initiatives it saw as anti-immigrant, it teamed with the Rural Organizing Project, which began as a coalition to protect the rights of sexual minorities and had experience with ballot initiatives. The partnership was no small feat, Ramos says, considering the homophobia that often runs deep in Latino communities.

PCUN also brought a broad base of support to a nine-year boycott of one of Oregon’s largest food processors, NORPAC, a company owned by 240 Oregon farm families. When NORPAC refused to allow its workers union representation, PCUN urged prominent food buyers like Sodexho not to purchase NORPAC products. The boycott cost NORPAC some important customers, and the food processor eventually agreed to draft guidelines for labor relations between farms and farmworkers.

Now, PCUN and others have begun to pursue a collective bargaining law in the Oregon Legislature. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act gives other manufacturing and service industries collective bargaining rights, but farmers were left out, according to some, to protect the agriculture industry’s interests. Among Western states, only California has a law giving farmworkers the right to collective bargaining through unions.

Last year, the Ford Foundation chose Ramirez as one of 17 people showing extraordinary leadership in fighting "some of the nation’s most entrenched social problems." He was awarded $115,000, with which he plans to found a leadership institute for immigrants.

Ramirez may have extended his concern to farmworkers all over the world, from Korea to Honduras, but hanging out with those who live in the Willamette Valley still comes first.

"You have to listen to what immigrants are saying," he says. "It’s something that you need to keep in front of you at all times."

The author writes from Portland, Oregon.