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Canadian Farmworkers Union
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Dates of existence
On February 26, 1979, after a series of casual meetings, Raj Chouhan, Harinder Mahil, and Charan Gill formed the Farm Workers’ Organizing Committee (FWOC) in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. They were joined at this first official meeting by Sarwan Sidhu, Pritam Singh, Amarit Pal Mann, and Gurnam Sahota. Sarwan Boal and Judy Cavanagh soon joined the FWOC as organizers. A series of public meetings followed to spread awareness of the new group, address farmworkers’ concerns, and advocate for their rights. In the spring of 1980, at a founding convention, members of the FWOC formally established the Canadian Farmworkers Union (CFU). Chouhan was president, Jawala Singh Grewal was vice-president, Gill was secretary, and Boal was treasurer. Cavanagh was a chief organizer. The motto of the CFU was “Zindabad!” (“Long live!” in Urdu). Areas of concern and action for this new union included farmworkers’ pay, housing, working conditions, and work-related legislation. The CFU advocated for childcare for farmworkers and raised awareness of the racism the predominantly Indo-Canadian workers often faced, and also participated in numerous rights-related events and causes in solidarity with other organizations. The CFU was assisted financially by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) from founding until 1991.
In 1979 the FWOC began publishing The Farmworker, a Punjabi/English newspaper with the purpose of educating workers about their rights on the job and their right to organize. The CFU continued publishing this paper through the mid-1990s.
In the early 1980s the CFU focused on recruiting members and gaining certification at some farms, and also picketed and fought in court to defend farmworkers’ right to unionize and to protect workers from mistreatment by farm owners. In November of 1980, the collective agreement signed by the CFU and Bell Farms was the first ever signed by a union representing farmworkers in Canada. The union was also particularly vocal about the exclusion of farmworkers from various legislation protecting other workers’ rights and safety. In 1983, farmworkers became eligible for Workers’ Compensation Board benefits, but were still mainly exempt from health and safety regulations.
In its early years, the CFU tried to organize farmworkers outside the Fraser Valley and Lower Mainland, reaching out to workers in the BC Okanagan and Ontario. It did not succeed in the Okanagan, due to conflict between CFU executives and local organizers, and in Ontario its success lasted only a few years.
In addition to its unionization and advocacy work, the CFU responded to its membership’s needs with relevant educational programming. In 1982 the union began running “ESL Crusade” classes, developed specifically for Punjabi-speaking farmworkers and including both everyday and farmwork-specific English lessons. The “preventable homicide” of worker Jarnail Singh Deol by pesticide exposure led to the establishment of the Deol Agricultural Education and Research Society (the Deol Society) in 1983, as an internal branch of CFU created for the purpose of applying separately from the union for funding grants. The Deol Society’s main concern was education of farmworkers on the health risks and safe handling of pesticides, and it also ran ESL programs. In many projects, jurisdiction was shared by the Deol Society and the CFU.
The CFU researched a wide variety of subjects related to farmworkers and workers in general, in order to educate its members and spread awareness of many issues, from global struggles for workers’ and women’s rights to immigration and multiculturalism in Canada. CFU executives and members participated in union, labour, and activist groups and committees, and were vocal in numerous letter-writing, fundraising, and awareness campaigns. The union also participated in rallies and protests on many subjects.
By the mid-1980s the CFU was nearly bankrupt due to the ongoing difficulty of collecting dues from underpaid seasonal workers. The union briefly considered merging with other similar unions but, convinced of the unique needs of its membership, it was determined to retain its own name.
In 1986, Chouhan stepped down, principal organizer Judy Cavanagh and founding member Charan Gill left, and Sarwan Boal became president. Boal was replaced in 1991 by Jawala Singh Grewal.
In the 1990s, the provincial New Democratic Party government extended health and safety legislation to farmworkers, solving one of the CFU’s main areas of concern. The Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society (PICS, formerly Progressive Indo-Canadian Community Services Society) and its founder, Charan Gill, took over management of the union and its work. The CFU still exists in name, but is essentially inactive.
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Simon Fraser University Library, Special Collections and Rare Books
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Created April 2015.