Association offers helping hand to farm workers


On the Ides of March in 1991, a sacrifice was in order.

A migrant farm worker opened his bi-weekly check, cut by a Stockton company.

With deductions for taxes, room and board, his total pay amounted to 1 cent — for several hours farm labor.

Times like these are why volunteer-run organizations such as the Western Farm Workers Association (WFWA) are needed.

WFWA’s Stockton chapter has aided San Joaquin Delta College students since 1983.

The chapter is currently located on 930 North Hunter Street, and serves about 25,000 members.

“We started on the East Coast, with the Eastern Farm Workers Association,” said Jacob Ruff, an assistant to the chapter.

Farm laborers in Long Island formed the EFWA in 1972 as a response to poor work conditions. The organization spread across the country, eventually reaching Texas.

Texas workers helped form an affiliate organization on the West Coast that would be able to serve farm laborers as they moved “up the migrant stream,” Ruff said.

Today, WFWA’s major duties are to aid migrant workers, inform the community and fight against what Ruff said are injustices forced upon workers.

The Stockton chapter makes weekly visits to farm labor camps. As part of an organizer training program, WFWA “camp crews” visit San Joaquin Valley farms and talk with laborers about their working and living conditions.

“Every week, we visit another camp, where our members gain information firsthand,” Ruff said.

Such visits were vital to uncovering a rent scam in 1996, in which the California’s Office of Migrant Services illegally doubled the rents of farm laborers.

Following a steep increase in food requests, the WFWA and the Concerned Coalition of Legal Professionals (CCLP) brought the case to court. A settlement was ratified in 2004.

WFWA also uses these camp visits to sign up members, who may access benefits for only 62 cents a month.

“With the benefits program, the idea is to build a base below which no one can fall,” said Ruff.

He noted that many of WFWA’s student volunteers are themselves working part-time, low-wage jobs that offer scant benefits.

“Census results just came out, saying that for half of the lowest-paid workers, incomes fell by a certain amount; meanwhile, the top five-percent’s income increased,” said Ruff.

He is referring to the Census Bureau report released Sept. 17, which revealed that as of 2012, the bottom 80 percent of income earners were still making less than they were before 2009, while the top 5 percent of income earners had recovered their losses.

“The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” said Ruff, “Meanwhile, we see less agricultural jobs, less full-time jobs, less permanent jobs, and more jobs that one can’t raise a family on.”

To help allay these negative impacts, WFWA delivers food baskets, offers free legal consultation via the CCLP, and participates in activism for those who cannot afford to do so themselves.

WFWA sent volunteers to attend the recent California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) hearing at the Stockton City Council Chambers held on June 10. Held to determine PG&E’s eligibility to raise utility rates, the meeting was scarcely noted in local media.

According to Ruff, such oversight is typical in today’s world.

“People are talking about Kanye’s baby and Miley Cyrus,” Ruff laughed. “They’re not talking about why we’re signing trade agreements that result in no jobs for college graduates.”
To fill this niche in local media, the WFWA issues its own newspaper, the Western Farm Worker. Its San Joaquin Valley edition has been in publication for about 30 years, and has recently returned to quarterly distribution.

“We need to be putting publications very regularly into the hands of our members,” Ruff said.  “So, we’re putting out the call for more students, who can learn how to put out an independent publication.  All the training is on the job.”

The newspaper continually needs more reporters, writers and photographers.  Students who wish to contribute may contact the WFWA Stockton office at (209) 467-1193.