Organizer recalls migrant farm worker movement
JANESVILLE—For Jesus Salas, the coming of spring meant long hours harvesting asparagus in Illinois.
His family owned a small café in Wautoma in central Wisconsin, but it wasn't enough to support a migrant farm family with six boys in the 1950s and 1960s.
When the soil thawed, Salas put down his textbooks for weeks at a time.
“It impacted my future career in college,” he explained. “It took me 10 years to get my bachelor's degree.”
The third-generation migrant farm worker learned a lot, including tenacity, in a childhood filled with work and striving.
He will share some of his unique story as a farm worker and organizer when he visits the UW-Rock County campus Tuesday, March 7.
“I will talk about the migrant workers' drive to self-determination,” Salas said.
The 74-year-old played a key role in the state's farm worker movement and struggle for justice.
By 1959, more than 10,000 migrant workers were coming to the state annually.
After Salas graduated from high school in 1961, he advocated for improved migrant working and living conditions.
He read about Cesar Chavez, who gained fame in the 1960s for leading a nonviolent, national grape boycott to raise awareness of migrant farm worker conditions in California.
“I thought to myself, 'That's what we need to do here,'” Salas remembered. “We need to make people aware of what's happening to farm workers in Wisconsin.”
On Aug. 15, 1966, the 22-year-old Salas led about 20 farm workers on a march from Wautoma in the morning rain.
They walked past fellow farm workers harvesting cucumbers. Carrying banners supporting unionization, they kept walking for five days and 80 miles until they got to Madison.
There, they presented their demands to state agencies at the Capitol. Among them were a $1.25 per hour minimum wage and improved housing, accident and hospitalization insurance for migrant farm workers.
The effort got the attention of state officials, but the struggles of the farm workers' union—Obreros Unidos or United Workers—continued for several years.
“It didn't happen overnight,” Salas said. “When we marched in 1966, I never thought I would stay with it as long as I did. But the workers responded to our collective bargaining efforts.”
In 1969, Wisconsin migrant leaders urged a statewide grape boycott and became part of a nationwide movement to gain union recognition for migrant labor.
Salas is speaking in Janesville as part of the Wisconsin Humanities Council's Working Lives Project. The project's goal is to have a conversation about what it means to make a living and a life.
Also sponsoring the talk are the history and Spanish departments at UW-Rock County and the Workers' Rights Center of Madison.
Elizabeth Jozwiak, associate professor of history, said Salas and his life are relevant in the community and on campus, which both have significant Latino populations.
“We'll be able to open up the conversation about the issues facing migrant and immigrant workers today as well,” Jozwiak said.
Salas earned a bachelor's degree in education and a master's degree in political science. He taught for many years at UW-Milwaukee, UW-Madison and Milwaukee Area Technical College and also served on the UW Board of Regents from 2003 to 2007.
“I want to tell people about the contributions migrant workers made to the economy of Wisconsin agriculture,” he said. “I want to tell them about the contributions we continue to make once we have relocated here.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.