"March for water" was not a farmworkers' march.
People have asked me my opinion about the "March for Water" that was sponsored by the California Latino Water Coalition from April 14 through April 17. I was out of state during the four-day march but later reviewed newspaper and TV news accounts of the event, which got extensive coverage from San Joaquin Valley media but little play in the rest of California or the nation.
The march was supposed to be about farmers and farmworkers working together to protect their mutual interests but noticeably missing from the event was the United Farm Workers Union or representatives of organized labor.
As UFW spokesman Armando Elenes said on Fresno's Channel 30 news, on the day the march started: "This is a grower-sponsored march, a grower-organized march, for water for growers. This is not a farmworkers' march."
Curiously, Channel 30 was the only Fresno area news outlet to report that the UFW was definitely not participating in the march. The Fresno Bee, with coverage that bordered on the excessive, never mentioned the UFW. Nor did the rest of the local television stations.
The New York Times, however, did mention the UFW, in its only story (April17) on the march.
"[S]ome labor organizers and advocates for rural areas contend that the marchers' goals reflect only the desires of agribusiness and not the real needs of farm workers," the Time story said, adding "many of the protesters were paid by their employers to march in lieu of harvesting crops." Missing from accounts in the Fresno Bee and other Valley newspapers were that the marchers were being paid to march, or the obvious longstanding conflicts between farmers and farmworkers.
"In reality, this is not a farm worker march, '' Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, the 27,000-member union founded by Cesar Chavez, told the Times. ''This is a farmer march orchestrated and financed by growers.''
The New York Times' lead paragraph of the story read as follows: "Hundreds of farmers, farmworkers and local elected officials walked along dusty roads in the Central Valley on Thursday, part of a four-day march to protest federal cutbacks in water supplies."
Estimates of the size of the crowd varied widely. On the windy morning the march started, Fresno's Channel 30 estimated the crowd size at 400. As the march continued estimates ranged from the New York Times estimate of "hundreds" to localmedia's assertion of several thousand marchers. None of the news accounts I reviewed said WHO was making the estimates of crowd size or how the numbers were arrived at. Sacramento Bee reporter Matt Weiser, normally a solid reporter on water issues, wrote in an April 26 column that an "estimated 10,000 farmers and farmworkers marched 50 miles across the gasping San Joaquin Valley." Who made the 10,000 figure "estimate" was never revealed but it is a certainly that 10,000 people did not walk all 50 miles. As to what he meant by a "gasping" San Joaquin Valley, perhaps he was referring to the fact that the Valley has some of the poorest air quality in the nation with one of six children suffering from asthma or respiratory problems. He certainly cannot have been referring to the entire San Joaquin Valley losing out on water supplies since the cutbacks are basically limited to parts of the west side of the Valley. Many irrigation districts in the Valley will be receiving their full allotment this water year (or most of their average water supply), a fact conveniently omitted from most of the press coverage.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger met the marchers at the end of the march at the San Luis Reservoir and said he would continue to champion the cause of getting more water for western Valley agribusiness. He was promptly attacked by conservative Republican congressman Devin Nunes who called for Schwarzenegger's resignation for allegedly failing to deliver on proposed new taxpayer-funded water storage projects. The Metropolitan Water District, the Nisei Farmers League and the Western Growers' Association quickly came to the governor's defense, rejecting Nunes' attack, which critics said was merely grandstanding by the volatile congressman.
Following the march, KMJ Fresno radio news commentator Ray Appleton, who participated in the march and has become the new best friend of comedian Paul Rodriguez, the head of the California Latino Water Coalition, blasted the UFW. Appleton said during his noon hour show ijn late April that the United Farmworkers Union was the "enemy" of farmworkers. Appleton, who works for a radio station that probably runs more pesticide advertisements than any radio station in America, is treading on thin ice by attacking the UFW, which has the long-standing support of many Southern California Latino legislators. Their votes will be critical to any new water projects in California and Appletons anti-union diatribes will not endear him to those legislators.
The UFW, in a statement issued on the March for Water, said it did not necessarily oppose farmers getting more access to water for irrigation but that it should be tied to getting farmworkers access to clean drinking water. The UFW press release noted the state of California continues to deny basic rights for farmworkers and the governor continues to oppose efforts to make it easier to unionize farmworkers.
In my view, the coverage of the march by San Joaquin Valley media outlets was little more than cheerleading for the regions biggest industry. Not one reporter asked whether or not Comedian Paul Rodriguez is being paid for any of his efforts, nor how much the march cost, or who actually is bankrolling the California Latino Water Coalition although it seems obvious it is the growers and not the poverty-stricken farmworkers. Six farmworkers died in California fields last year from heat stroke and the UFW continues to contend that growers and farm labor contractors are not doing enough to make field work safer and more tolerable.
Despite the lack of tangible results from the March for Water, the Latino Water Coalition is now planning to take its show to Washington, D.C. to lobby members of Congress and the Obama Administration to suspend the Endangered Species Act and order more pumping from the beleaguered Delta Estuary. Meanwhile, the Delta ecosystem continues to collapse and the commercial and recreational salmon fishing season has been cancelled for the second year in a row. No word on whether thousands of salmon industry families thrown out of work also plan to march on Washington, D.C. to demand that more water be kept in the Delta. Maybe the West Side growers can explain why their water needs are more important that the salmon fishing families.