ROCHESTER — Jim Schmidt described the experience as surreal: Forty-four years after escorting Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to migrant camps in Wayne County, Schmidt found himself presenting Kennedy’s daughter, Kerry Kennedy, to migrant workers in Genesee County.
"I don’t know how to describe it," Schmidt explained on May 12 during Rural & Migrant Ministry’s 10th-anniversary celebration of its work in western New York. "It brought back a lot of memories and the impact he (Kennedy) had on my life. His words and what he did influenced me to stay in the kind of work I’ve done all these years."
Sadly, life for the workers has hardly changed in those four decades, which is why efforts to fight for a better life for them must forge ahead, added Schmidt, former director of Farmworker Legal Services of New York.
"It’s frustrating," he acknowledged. "Workers are still oppressed. Workers are still exploited."
Kennedy toured migrant camps with Schmidt prior to speaking during the Rural & Migrant Ministry event at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester that also honored the ecumenical organization’s 30 years of social-justice work throughout New York state.
In an interview prior to her speech, Kennedy said that she began her work as a human-rights activist 30 years ago. She recalled choosing Cesar Chávez for a sixth-grade biography assignment and a friend’s ignorance about the migrant workers’ champion who founded the National Farm Workers Association and later cofounded the United Farm Workers of America with Dolores Huerta.
"But these are issues that have been around my household, which I’ve grown up with," she explained. "In my world, they were more familiar, certainly much more important."
In recent years, Kennedy has stood with farmworkers in New York state, calling for legislators to pass a bill that would grant them the same labor rights as other workers. The state Senate once again defeated the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act last summer after a decade of attempts to pass it.
One of the biggest challenges in passing the bill, Kennedy explained, is that farmworkers have no political power. They don’t vote; they aren’t wealthy and they don’t have a leader like Chávez to fight for them as he did for workers in states like California in the 1960s, she added. Kennedy said she also empathizes with farmers of smaller operations who are struggling themselves to survive.
"Nobody wants to see the closing of family farms," she said. "The answer to stopping poverty is not put more people in poverty."
Additionally, this is largely a Latino issue and most of the legislators who represent Latinos in New York are from urban districts.
"Their constituency doesn’t know about these issues," she added. "And they don’t care because that’s not what they’re grappling with."
Whatever the obstacles, Kennedy said, there is no reason that explains why the United States allows the workers who gather their food to live in squalor and misery.
"How is it possible that the richest nation in the world allows this (injustice) to happen?" Kennedy said. "I think change will happen. … But the biggest changes happen because (of the work) of small groups of determined people."
Because this issue is so important and complex, Kennedy said that she did not hesitate to support Rural & Migrant Ministry’s efforts when she first learned about the organization many years ago. And, she added, she applauds the tenacity of its members in demanding fair and equal labor laws for farmworkers.
"They have made a certain amount of headway," she said. "But we have a long way to go."
The Rev. Richard Witt, Rural & Migrant Ministry’s executive director, said that the Albany-based organization began its foray into western New York when farmworker activists here realized they needed a faith component to advocate for systemic change. The Rochester Diocese’s Hispanic Migrant Ministry thus became one of its main partners, he added.
Accomplishments include marches across the state; "Harvesting Justice" conferences in Batavia and Rochester; and a film festival, public-policy workshops and the creation of a new education center in Wayne County, Witt noted.
Francisco Olivera, who performed with fellow farmworkers in a musical group during the event, said that the support of organizations such as Rural & Migrant Ministry has a great impact on workers. He said that he remains hopeful that the farmworker bill will get passed.
"You feel really good," said Olivera, who is from Oaxaca, Mexico, and has lived in the area since 2000. "It re-energizes us to keep doing our jobs and continue the fight for a better future for our children."