by Angela Lynn
American history will tell you that Senator Robert Kennedy did not want to travel to California and meet with farm laborers and their leader Cesar Chavez back in 1966, when there were many pressing issues that faced Americans that garnered his attention. But he went, and what Sen. Kennedy saw and heard from the farmers and laborers inspired him to get involved with the rights of the farm workers.
I was growing up in the farm areas of California back in the days when Chavez went on a hunger strike and Robert Kennedy came to our state to sit with Chavez and be there for the farm laborers. And then again, I remember when Sen. Kennedy returned on his last fatal visit to campaign for President.
We are faced with a history in agricultural politics and history today with our farm laborers here in Virginia.
A bill to remove the exclusion of farm laborers from Virginia’s minimum wage (ultimately, raising it to $15/hour) will now go to the Virginia Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, having already passed the House of Delegates 55-44 on February 2.
What would that pay raise mean to the farm laborers? We can only imagine how much more affordable and dignified living will become to people who work hard all day to bring food to our tables, and who return home to scarce resources themselves.
I remember growing up in Fresno and working for a few summer weeks in the sun of the San Joaquin Valley grapevines to earn spending money. I remember how terribly hot and dirty the work was – hours of cutting and laying grapes out to dry into raisins, amounting to little money for a day’s labor.
A life of this work seems unbearable, except for the promise of a brighter future. Yet, when I looked at the others in the fields, I knew they would not have the same future as I could have. Their hope was in what we saw and what we might do. Can we also put ourselves in the position of Robert Kennedy, as he sat next to Cesar Chavez and asked “What do you want and how can I help?”
So now, the Virginia State Senate has the opportunity to make change hard-working people’s lives for the better, by ensuring that farm workers receive the same minimum wage – ultimately, $15 per hour – as everyone else. Let’s hope that State Senators recall Chavez’s words – delivered by another, because he was too weak from a hunger strike to speak – “It is how we use our lives that determines what kind of men we are.”
The ones who I ask now to help are those on Virginia’s Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, who should use their power to make lives better for hard-working people by removing the exclusion of farm workers from Virginia’s minimum wage laws. I urge them to vote yes on Del. Jeion Ward’s HB1786.