In an unorthodox appeal called "Take Our Jobs," the United Farm Workers of America wants jobless citizens and legal residents to seek farm jobs that usually go to migrant workers living in the United States illegally.
"One of the most honorable ways of earning a living is off the sweat of your brow," said Michael Rubio, a Kern County supervisor backing the campaign. "I'm looking forward to seeing who might take advantage of it."
Will the jobless in urban and suburban America heed the call, or is the union cofounded by Cesar Chavez simply sending a message that the nation desperately needs the scores of undocumented workers who harvest its fields?
Labor leaders say they are trying to spotlight the importance of immigrant workers and the need for agricultural reform, but they are also serious. They wrote a letter to lawmakers pledging that farm workers are "ready to train citizens and legal residents who wish to replace immigrants in the fields."
"The opportunity will be provided for people to go work in the fields," Rubio said. "I think it's real."
The union will be asking members of Congress to direct their constituents to United Farm Workers (UFW) offices throughout California and the country. The closest offices for Bay Area residents are in Santa Rosa and Salinas.
"Employers will be on hand at each site to answer questions, meet prospective employees and assist in the application process," said a statement from the organization. "All who are interested or unemployed and are legal residents or U.S. citizens are encouraged to apply."
Arturo Rodriguez, the president of the UFW, and his staff declined to elaborate until they hold a news conference Thursday afternoon. They are already scheduled to take the cause to "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central next month.
Rubio, who is also a state Senate candidate, said he hopes the campaign also brings some attention to the need for the federal AgJobs immigration bill that would legalize undocumented farm workers. The farmworker union, in a rare partnership with the farm industry, has been fighting for the bill's passage for years.
Salinas farm labor contractor Paul Powell had not heard about the "Take Our Jobs" campaign Wednesday, but said he doubted that most unemployed Californians would be up to the challenge.
"There may be a lot of folks who show up and don't stay for more than a day or two," Powell said. "They don't realize how hard the work is. Field work is not easy."
He added that farmers face a host of problems in California, from water shortages to tough labor regulations, but a lack of workers has not been a major issue for him. He directs operations at Foothill Packing, which employs about 900 migrant farm workers across the state.
"We've really not experienced any shortage of labor once the winter season was done," Powell said. "We stay fairly constant."
California farmworkers typically get $8 to $9 an hour, often for six days a week over a period of about four or five months in a year, and most Americans would not want their jobs, said Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, an advocate for farmers.
Cunha said his group is not involved in the campaign, but agreed with the message the UFW is trying to send.
"Come out here and climb the ladder, pick tomatoes, and oh, by the way, you've got to prune, and oh, by the way, it's seasonal work so you have to move all over the place," Cunha said. "They're trying to put the point across -- it may be humorous, but the serious part is people have lost the work ethics in this country."
He said the campaign resembles a program in the 1990s, when a severe farmworker shortage in California caused the state and farm industry to encourage former welfare recipients to apply for farm jobs. Of the tens of thousands of eligible people, Cunha said only a few hundred applied.
"It was an absolute wreck," he said. "People were not that hungry. It was the biggest failure, but we showed that U.S. workers aren't going to take those jobs."