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The Hightower Legacy and Labor
The 1980s Pesticide Wars made the United Farm Workers Union and the Texas Department of Agriculture allies, which, being Texas, is not something one would ordinarily expect.
Except the 1980s weren’t ordinary. The 1980s were special. The 1980s were the Hightower years of the Texas Department of Agriculture.
Hightower considered farmworkers as Texas citizens who should be able to call on the resources of the TDA for aid solving problems. He was quite clear in a PHIT interview in Dec. 2022.
“Farmworkers were a constituency of the Texas Department of Agriculture.
So were farmers.
So were consumers.
So were environmentalists.
So were small towns, small town businesses, and public schools in the rural areas.
The whole rural community was a part of our constituency, and farmworkers are a central part of that. We were going to be an advocate.”
Juanita Cox was director of the Texas chapter of the United Farmworkers Union. PHIT interviewed her in 2021. She pointed out in an emphatic manner that the Hightower alliance was a key part in the successes gained by farmworkers in the 1980s.
“The Hightower successes for farm workers were part of a three-prong strategy we used. We had a really strong organizing base of farm workers, union members. Because we were a labor union, we could directly endorse candidates. The farm workers would question all candidates and then vote on who to endorse, and then we would work our behinds off to get them elected. We also filed lawsuits against the state of Texas on discrimination of farm workers. It was through the organizing, the political power, and lawsuits against the state of Texas. That’s how we started.”
It was rare in Texas that any labor union or group of workers saw a state agency as an ally. But Hightower consistently responded to the issues that the farmworkers were raising. As director of the state UFW, Juanita Cox, however, was constantly pushing for improvements.
“When it got to Hightower that the farm workers were trying to have a pesticide law that protected us, it was about that time that the Union in California had won very strict pesticide regulations under a collective bargaining agreement. Texas is not a union state. Even though we were members of the UFW, we couldn't do what they were doing in California. So we had to figure another way of bringing protections to farm workers without a collective bargaining agreement. We did it with the organizing, the political strength, and lawsuits. While California did it with collective bargaining, with Hightower, we were able to get even stronger pesticide regulations than what California had at that time. We were very proud,
The TDA, through its regulatory power, required crop sheets to be posted that would explain the dangers of pesticides and the right to know which pesticides had been applied. That knowledge was essential to a healthy work environment. Medical personnel simply didn’t know how to treat pesticide exposure because they didn’t know what pesticide they had been exposed to. Some people died from that lack of knowledge.
The crop sheets achieved legendary status among farmworkers of that era.
Juanita Cox explained, “With Hightower, it was just about showing them the dangers of pesticides. The crop sheets were not interesting to too many people but to farm workers they were, because when the farmers were starting to plant, the crop sheets would tell us what they were putting into the soil, and when the crops began sprouting they would tell us what pesticides were going to be on that. When we were ready to harvest, the crop sheets would tell the farm workers what they were going to be exposed with.”
“Those crop sheets were very valuable. As a union organizer, we took those to the fields and gave them to the farm workers to tell them that if they were exposed to these pesticides that the farmer was using, if they felt dizzy or had some symptoms of being exposed to pesticide, then they should take it to the doctors. There was a case where this farm worker was administered the wrong medication after he was exposed to pesticides, and he passed away. There were other cases in the Valley also. People didn't die but the doctors didn’t know what to treat you with. Those crop sheets were very important to know what you were being exposed with and for the doctors to know how to treat it.
The use of the short-handled hoe was another major farmworker grievance. In a recent interview with Hightower, he was still irritated about the stupidity of the demand that workers use short-handled hoes.
“The short-handled hoe was a mean spirited, vindictive tool that big farm operators, agribusiness giants, plantation owners—they still call themselves that—used down in south Texas to demean farmworkers. Short-handled hoe is a hoe. Instead of a hoe that you do this with. You have your back straight, your legs moving, and you got to bend over. You're bending down to power was what it was all about. It was a huge issue in the farm worker movement. First was wages, second was water, then just basics—housing, etc. The short-handled hoe was right there because of the symbolism of it. They're making us bow down. It is extraordinarily torturous to your back, muscles, and etc, and you're doing this in the heat of Texas, very vicious. The farmworkers brought that to us too. They said, ‘Yes, we want your help on wages and getting facilities to these Colonias etc. But, we would like something done about the short handled-hoe.”’
Try it yourself. Stand up and hold the tips of your shoes and walk up and down the room. See how many times you can do it. Personally, it has been a long time since I have been able to bend over and touch my toes. A pro-active Texas State agency decided that something had to be done about this abuse.
“I don't recall that we had any particular authority that said, ‘you may regulate the short-handle hoe,’ but we had some general regulatory authority. I had authority as a statewide elected official to talk about any issue I wanted to, to carry it to the legislature, to get support there, or use whatever regulatory tools we had to generate support from Texas A&M, the Extension Service, etc. because anybody you talk to, they would say there's there's no need in the world to have a short-handled hoe out there. They're just torturing workers.”