Personal tools


The University of California, Santa Cruz is ideally situated to couple the extensive resources of a politically and socially a

Building Networks in the Field:

The United Farm Workers Embrace IT




The university is ideally situated to couple the extensive resources of a politically and socially aware university and student body with the expanding technological revolution of the Silicon Valley. The Silicon Valley, just a 20-minute drive from our city was booming when we first arrived at college, and its effects were felt throughout the region. A large influx of new money and young professionals brought capital into the area; nearly every student at our university and other universities in the area had direct access to the latest computers and high-speed Internet access. Yet, mere miles to the south, in the farm working communities of Watsonville and Salinas, technology was much slower to catch on.

Unfortunately, this trend is indicative of many of the economically depressed communities throughout California, the United States, and the world. The United Farm Workers (UFW) are a local example of a community network which has fought for and won enormous concessions for the migrant, mostly immigrant farm workers. This union is still highly active and influential in bringing about positive social change. Yet, the gap between their access to and knowledge of technology and ours was extensive. The Watsonville Research office operated on old, slow, and unreliable machines, only a few of which had Internet capabilities. Pentium I and Windows ’95 were the norm; antiviral programs without clout "protected" the computers; research was frustratingly slow, not to mention the frequent computer crashes that caused many in the office to lose hours of work. As the office responsible for generating all strategic research for the UFW, their abilities to do so were extremely impaired by this outdated technology. The research office can be likened to the five senses of the UFW body. This office generates company reports, the vital indicators in the decision of whether or not to organize at a specific company. They are in charge of uncovering the information essential to the many field offices within the union. Without a competent research office, the UFW is at a severe disadvantage when facing opponents in the agricultural industry who have exactly such tools of technology at their disposal.

Unfortunately, the computer infrastructure of the research office was indicative of most United Farm Worker offices. Only the offices of La Paz and Delano were keeping astride of technology, and they didn’t even have high-speed Internet connections, a UFW server, or a networked office. As for the rest of the offices, which stretch across the U.S. – concentrated in California, Texas, and Florida – and extending into Canada, the technology simply wasn’t economically viable. Clearly, this is no way to operate such an extensive union that relies heavily on networking and communication. The union, despite the passage of years, seemed like it had not changed much in regards to technology since its birth with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

Multiple phone calls, faxes, and surface mail – unacceptably slow as a means of communication by today’s standards – comprised the communication void. Often, union leaders would drive several hundred miles for a meeting with other union leaders. The Canadian staff simply did not have any access to the Internet, nor did the Florida office. The union has one president and five vice presidents but only two of these six union leaders consistently used email as a form of communication.

Across the plaza from the UFW Research office, the main UFW office for the Watsonville region is situated. Fifteen employees, including a vice president and several organizers work out of this office. Yet, because it was absolutely void of Internet connections, they would come over to our office to send an email, or research information on the web.

When a database or graphic needed to go to another office, it was usually packaged and shipped. When a new contract with a company was signed, individual offices were notified by telephone. List serves did exist in the union, but they only went out to those connected to the Internet. Important memos never reached some offices because, like an Olympic torch, they had to be exchanged through many hands before – if ever – they reached their destination.


Our hopes this summer were to lay a strong technical foundation at the UFW research office so future interns, as well as ourselves, can continue to upgrade each office, and train union staff, in an effort to bring this socially-minded organization up to speed with the technology boom. The UFW research department had received a small grant, and finally had the funds to upgrade the deteriorating research office equipment. The project had been on a back burner until we arrived, however, because they lacked the money to hire a specialist with the command of computer knowledge to purchase the computers and related technologies. Fortunately we were previously involved with the Global Information Internship Program at the University. While we definitely don’t qualify as "specialists", we have had the opportunity to learn and teach other computer-related topics during our experience with the program.

Our first step was to completely re-equip the research office but we first had to research our options. Union funding is quite different from venture capitalist funding: dues come from the hard labor of working people. As we had to keep in mind that every dollar spent on unnecessary extras was a dollar taken from programs to improve the lives of impoverished working families, we quickly decided to buy computers that were reliable, cheap, and durable.

We weren’t able to buy "cutting edge" technology due to the high price, but we were determined not to buy computers that would be immediately outdated. Additionally, the computers needed to access and capably deal with the applications the UFW would need for the research office.

The UFW settled on three new, high-speed, Internet-capable Pentium 3 computers, two new Toshiba Satellite notebooks, a scanner, a CD-RW, and a new printer. After installation, the next step was to lay the essential technological foundation: training.

Our goal this summer was not to establish video conferencing, office networks, or streaming audio and video from the UFW website. Our goal was to abolish the fear of technology that seems to have gripped the UFW since 1983; to open the eyes of the UFW to all of the possibilities that technology presents; and to dispel the illusion of mystery and confusion they have coupled with computers.

We did understand that every organizer wouldn’t be communicating with email after our summer internships: it just wasn’t economically feasible. We did, however, want organizers to understand how technology and computers work, and that they can communicate with email in order to work more effectively and efficiently.

From the time we setup the computers until the last day of our internships, we tried to apply a one on one, hands-on approach to every level of our work. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to stay with the union forever, and so we took every effort to teach the UFW staff to be self-reliable.



Research was now more productive, as researchers could work faster and with fewer frustrations. We also introduced the research office to the California Digital Library and ReferenceUSA, two useful online databases. We also wanted to introduce UFW personnel to online networks. In addition to connecting the Watsonville office with the La Paz and Delano offices, various central coast staff are now doing administrative work online.

The research staff also learned basic web page creation. They learned how to use a web editor and an FTP program to post their pages on a server. Along with web pages came image creation. Prior to this summer they only had low-quality clip-art CDs for their petitions and fliers. Now they have the knowledge and ability to create an image that applies directly to the issue at hand.

Although most central coast organizers do not have Internet access, most of them know people who do. In such, we made our best efforts to familiarize them with the universal programs most computers contain. We taught them how to operate Word programs more effectively, which will overlap into other Office Suite programs due to their similarities. We also introduced them to the Internet, showing them how to get free Internet access, and free email accounts. We taught them how to use search engines, and many other free online services, such as the multitude of translation and map services. We hoped that by getting them fascinated with the free and fun tools of the Internet, they would increase their computer use and familiarize themselves with the different facets of computer technologies.

The real accomplishment of this summer wasn’t the plant that we harvested, but the seed that we planted. The research staff now feels confident with technology, and knows about the tools that are available. More importantly, they see the need for technology in the everyday research and communication they do.

The UFW holds a convention every two years, and we were lucky enough to be working at the same time that the 2000 convention took place. We were happily surprised to hear one of the resolutions contain excerpts that specifically addressed the need for technology in the union: "Therefore, be it resolved, that the UFW will develop administrative systems using the latest technologies…using expert staff and current technology." Finally, the genuine understanding of the need, and opportunities, for such technologies had saturated the entire union, and was manifesting its way into policy.



Lessons Learned

What are the social implications of information technology? While the implications vary for different groups within society, the social implications affecting the agricultural worker are clear. The microelectronic revolution has emerged simultaneously with neo-liberalism, or the renewed confidence in the "invisible hand" of the marketplace. Within this neo-liberal paradigm the worker is just one faceless part of the labor market, an input that’s value is determined by supply and demand and not through collective bargaining. The communications infrastructure that corporate agriculture has harnessed must be duplicated by organizations representing the agricultural worker if this faceless-input identity is to be overcome.

In addition, at the present time there are a number of concerns surrounding the legitimacy of information technology. These concerns include access, set-up costs and exclusivity. The digital divide is growing at both the household and institutional level. Most farm laborers cannot afford computers for their families, yet the growers and landowners of the fields they toil in can. As an organization that is dependent upon worker union dues, the United Farm Workers are not financially capable of technological renovation. Yet it is this lack of the presence of information technology that inhibits their effectiveness in the battle against corporate agriculture. It is this continual cycle that has kept the UFW from enjoying and benefiting from the technological boom. This cycle is a perfect example of the digital divide, a problematic social implication of technology that exists wherever technology is found.

The UFW has made impressive progress during the summer of 2000. However, due to its inherent nature as a membership organization serving the dispossessed, the UFW does not have the necessary funds to finance many of the short and long term goals listed above. It is dependent on union dues, which come directly out of the pockets of hard-working, low-income field workers, and to an extent, donations from supporters, fund-raisers, and grants. Most of these funds go directly toward salaries and expenses. In short, the UFW would benefit greatly from financial and/or technical support and would continue its forward technological progress.

In Conclusion: New Partnerships to Meet New Goals

Clearly, the UFW has made important technological progress. But it still needs to build on the groundwork we laid this summer.

Short-term goals include:

    • Training all staff to a level of basic computer proficiency and confidence.
    • Equipping all UFW offices with reliable and high-speed computers and components.
    • Standardizing the protocol for office software and file storage throughout the union.
    • Building more online networks.

Long-term goals include:

    • Establishing a UFW server.
    • Establishing UFW Intranets in field offices.
    • High-speed Internet connections at major UFW offices.
    • Expanding and upgrading the UFW web page to include audio/video capabilities.
    • Referencing past historical and legal documents onto disk, and disseminating hard copies out to community libraries and information institutions.
    • Using the Internet to do research in ways not yet explored.


Partnership is the only solution for the United Farm Workers. While the UFW has been so late to enter the technological arena, they have now realized the might of the computer in the organization of migrant labor. They are ready to develop technological innovations at every UFW office similar to what has taken place in strategic research. Universities, students, and non-governmental-organizations (NGOs) are indispensable to the short and long term goals of the UFW. Creating partnerships with local institutions of higher education and tech-friendly NGOs will ensure expert interns and consultants. The UFW will utilize the tools of technology in their ongoing crusade for social and economic justice for the migrant worker, but only after technological expertise is established through partnerships with local groups. The bridge that traverses the digital divide will undoubtedly be built upon partnerships between these key players.


Archived CPSR Information
Created before October 2004

Sign up for CPSR announcements emails


International Chapters -

> Canada
> Japan
> Peru
> Spain

USA Chapters -

> Chicago, IL
> Pittsburgh, PA
> San Francisco Bay Area
> Seattle, WA
Why did you join CPSR?

I want to be part of the solution. I think CPSR is working to guide society in the proper creation and use of technology.