Agriculture in Arizona goes back at least a thousand years or so, when the Hohokam people irrigated their fields with water from canals they built. Some of those same canals, more recently renovated, carry water to fields in the Phoenix valley even today.
Around the state, farming accounts for some $23 billion in revenue, and that amount steadily increases with each agricultural census.
All those carrots, all that lettuce, corn, tomatoes, alfalfa, and celery gets planted, weeded, and harvested by hand by someone, or by someone operating a machine.
Since the 1940s, Arizona and other states struggled to find enough people to harvest the crops. The U.S. and Mexico established the bracero guest worker program to alleviate the shortage. This program brought temporary Mexican citizens into the U.S., including Arizona, as needed to address the labor shortage.
For a variety of reasons, that program ended in 1964.
Cesar Chavez, one of the founders of the United Farm Workers Union, was born, and died, in Arizona. His family were farmers, and he spent the first ten years of his life on a farm in Arizona.
The UFWU brought profound changes to agricultural work, but much of the change was temporary, and none of it originated from or focused on Arizona fields and workers.
All these events, people, and land suggest that Arizona is the perfect place for farmworkers to unionize, yet no unions organize farmworkers. Why?
Several factors make it difficult to unionize ag workers in the state. Arizona’s Right To Work law means that employees cannot be forced to join a union in order to be hired for any job. This has discouraged the use of the central tool of unionization, collective bargaining.
Another law is the Arizona Farm Labor Law, passed in 1972, complicated and thus discouraged the process of voting for unionization. Though the law was controversial from the beginning, the Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that the law was constitutional.
According to Marc Grossman, spokesperson for the Cesar Chavez Foundation, it was this law alone that accounts for the lack of unionization of farm workers in Arizona.
There may be other factors. For instance, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average hourly wage in 2016 for a farmworker in Arizona was about $21. That was more than any other state except Lousiana, and including California.
Phoenix area farmer Neal Brooks says he has no use for union member workers.
“If we had union labor, I would leave,” he said. “ A union is when you’re failing as a manager. I really try hard to take care of our people. I’m handing out 100 dollar bills to the guys at our construction site who are doing a great job. There’s no problem paying for performance.”
Frank Martin, a farmer in Phoenix, thinks maybe the issue is that fewer and fewer people want to work in agriculture, unionized or not. They aren’t willing to get up at 2:30 in the morning to work in the fields.
But the fields need worked, and in the last several years, farms in Arizona have nearly doubled the number of requests for temporary work visas, called H-2A visas. Almost all of those requests have been granted, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The need is there, the workers are there, but the unions are not. It may be that those who do get up at 2:30 in the morning have representation enough to negotiate decent wages and work conditions, on their own.
Until some union members are found to talk with and say otherwise, it looks like an agricultural workers’ union is simply not needed in Arizona.