Found 20 Resources containing: UFW
¡Únase al boicot! ¡No compre vinos Gallo!
En julio de 1970, a cinco años de iniciada la huelga de la uva, la UFW alcanzó un logro histórico al firmar contratos con veintitrés compañías, incluidos los grandes productores de Giumarra. El ochenta por ciento de los productores de uvas de mesa en California estaban ahora bajo convenios colectivos. Sin embargo, la victoria duró poco, porque el sindicato antagónico de los Tronquistas empezó a competir con la UFW en Salinas. Sin la aprobación de sus miembros de Salinas, los Tronquistas firmaron convenios que favorecían a los rancheros, ya que a pesar de que concedían a los trabajadores pequeños aumentos de sueldo, no ofrecían ningún beneficio marginal. A raíz de esto, la UFW intensificó su boicot con nuevas huelgas. Las relaciones entre los sindicatos se tornaron más tensas cuando los Tronquistas comenzaron a emplear matones para intimidar a los piqueteros de la UFW. En 1973, las bodegas Gallo, ubicadas en Modesto, que eran la productora de vinos más grande del país y una de las primeras que firmaron contratos con la UFW en 1967, decidió, al expirar el contrato, firmar con los Tronquistas. Chávez respondió con un boicot a los vinos Gallo.
George Ballis (1925–2010)
Cartel fotolitográfico, c. 1973
Galería Nacional de Retratos, Instituto Smithsonian
Photographed at his headquarters in California, Chavez stands in a doorway bordered by Aztec eagles—the UFW’s symbol, which Chavez helped to design.
And what should I say?
That I am tired?
That the road is long and the end is nowhere in sight?
I did not come to sing because I have such a good voice,
Nor do I come to cry about my bad fortune.
From Delano I go to Sacramento to fight for my rights.
These lyrics from “La Peregrinación” (“Pilgrimage,” 1965) by acclaimed musician and composer Agustín Lira capture a pivotal moment in this country’s labor history: the 1966 march from Delano to Sacramento, California. Spearheaded by Mexican American and Filipino agricultural workers, the movement’s leaders would eventually join to form the United Farm Workers (UFW).
In the song, Lira—a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow—breathes lyrical voice into his life as an activist and former farmworker. He contributed significantly to the movement by producing music that mobilized the workers into action. Now a Smithsonian Folkways Recordings artist based in Fresno, he continues to chronicle the experiences and little-known histories of Chicano, Indigenous, and immigrant communities in California.
Lira will perform at the 2015 Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s annual Ralph Rinzler Memorial Concert, accompanied by his group, Alma. The lineup also includes Los Angeles-based Viento Callejero, an urban-style tropical music ensemble. The concert is Sunday, June 28, at 5 p.m. on the National Mall, in front of the National Museum of the American Indian.
Curated with the Alliance of California Traditional Arts, the concert honors the memory and legacy of Ralph Rinzler, co-founder of the Folklife Festival. Rinzler’s support for performances by “citizen artists” was unwavering and forms the backbone of the event’s commitment to promoting public engagement, fostering social awareness, and building bridges among communities. The performance is also part of the Smithsonian’s pan-institutional Our American Journey/Immigration-Migration Initiative.
The Delano Grape Strike
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the September 1965 Delano Grape Strike launched by the farmworkers movement. Delano—located in the San Joaquín Valley of Central California—became ground zero for the movement. Its prodigious table grape crop became symbolic of the farmworkers’ struggle when grape pickers from the area walked out of the fields and refused to collect the ripening fruit, protesting their poor wages and abysmal living conditions.
During this strike, Lira and Luis Valdez co-founded El Teatro Campesino, an organization that performed on picket lines and at union meetings to energize and bring attention to the experiences of farmworkers. The grape strike lasted five years, buffeted by national and international support from consumers, students, activists, unions, religious institutions, and other public sector entities. The effort forced major grape growers to sign landmark contracts with the UFW. As a product of the Chicano Movement, I spent many hours in picket lines during the grape strike and subsequent lettuce boycotts.
A Multicultural Movement
“Some of the songs I sang for the Filipinos came from the Filipinos themselves, because they sat and worked with me and taught me the verses. And we worked out the music and sang it with them together before I would go up on stage to sing.”
— Agustín Lira
It is important to appreciate the multicultural nature of the farmworkers movement. The United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) emerged in 1966 from the consolidation of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee—led by Filipinos Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, and Pete Velasco—with César Chávez’s National Farm Workers Association. The merged union later affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
Unfortunately, the role of the Manongs (the Filipino term of respect for an older man) in forging the farmworkers movement is not well documented or celebrated. In fact, 1,500 Filipino farmworkers were the first to walk off their jobs, thus launching the 1965 strike. The UFW, under the leadership of the charismatic Chávez, tended to overshadow (unintentionally, one can argue) the Filipinos’ role, as well as the participation of other ethnic farmworkers. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend watching “Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers,” a half-hour documentary by Marissa Aroy and Niall McKay.
Remembering Dolores Huerta
There was a special woman who marched from Delano to Sacramento in 1966: Dolores Huerta. Huerta was the pragmatic counterpart to the charismatic Chávez. The pair co-founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, which became the aforementioned UFWOC in 1966 and eventually the UFW. Fearless, persuasive, and tactical, Huerta realized her vision of a better day for farmworkers, leaving her distinct fingerprints on each major UFW victory. Throughout her career, Huerta embodied new models of womanhood, inspiring generations of women activists. Today, at age eighty-five, the mother of eleven children is no less inspiring.
On July 3, 2015, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery inaugurates One Life: Dolores Huerta, an exhibition that highlights the decisive role she played in the farmworker struggle and serves to further commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike. The exhibition features forty objects, including photographs, original speeches presented by her to the U.S. Congress, UFW ephemera, and Chicano art.
“Dolores Huerta has not gotten her due for the pivotal role she played in the farmworker movement, especially when compared to César Chávez’s notoriety,” curator Taína Caragol says. “Featuring her as part of the Portrait Gallery’s One Life series allows us to shed light on the life and accomplishments of this extraordinary American.”
Continuing the Fight
In coupling the Agustín Lira & Alma concert with the Dolores Huerta exhibition, the Smithsonian is able to acknowledge an important chapter in this country’s labor history by celebrating two of its notable leaders. At the same time, these programs serve to remind us that the farmworker struggle is not over. Today’s farmworkers compose sixty percent of all farm labor in this country. Despite previous labor victories, they are underemployed and subject to challenging working and living conditions. Most are seasonal workers performing tedious and back-breaking tasks, yet their pay still has them at or teetering at poverty levels (averaging $9.16 per hour). Only 28 percent have the equivalent of a high school education. According to the Wilson Center’s Migration Policy Institute, from which the above statistics were drawn, demand for labor-intensive fruits, nuts, vegetables, flowers, and other horticultural specialties will continue to rise, further impacting the lives of these workers. Presently, the estimated value of these commodities exceeds $50 billion annually.
Americans depend on the hard work and sacrifices of farmworkers and their families for large portions of our food supply. Agricultural employers are exempted from some key employment law protections, and current enforcement levels are less than desirous, leading to widespread violations in some sectors.
While we acknowledge and celebrate the accomplishments of the past, we would do well ethically to maintain a high level of awareness of present-day agricultural production and labor practices. It is important to understand that the continuing struggle of farmworkers and our own sustenance are intricately connected. Let conscience be our guide.
La marcha no ha terminado. The march is not over.
Agustín Lira will perform at the 2015 Folklife Festival’s Ralph Rinzler Memorial Concert on Sunday, June 28, at 5 p.m. Festival visitors are also encouraged to visit the One Life: Dolores Huerta exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition opens July 3 and will be open through May 15, 2016.
Eduardo Díaz is the director of the Smithsonian Latino Center.
The Farmworker’s Champion Dolores Huerta Receives Her Due, Even as the Struggle for Justice Continues
In the lyrics of his song, “La Peregrinación,” or The Pilgrimage, the acclaimed Chicano musician and composer Agustín Lira captures a pivotal moment in this country’s labor history—the 1965 Delano Grape strike and the subsequent 1966 farm workers’ march in California.
“From Delano I go to Sacramento/ To Sacramento to fight for my rights,” Lira wrote, breathing lyrical voice into his life as a community activist and former farmworker.
Spearheaded by Mexican American and Filipino field laborers whose leaders had joined to form what would soon become the United Farm Workers (UFW), the effort forced major grape growers to sign landmark contracts with the UFW.
Lira, a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, mobilized farmworkers into action:
And what should I say?
That I am tired?
That the road is long and the end is nowhere in sight?
I did not come to sing because I have such a good voice.
Nor do I come to cry about my bad fortune.
Today, the singer/songwriter continues to chronicle the experiences and little known histories of Chicano, indigenous and immigrant communities integral to California’s cultural fabric. His headliner performance this summer at the Smithsonian’s annual Folklife Festival—accompanied by his own group, Alma, and the Los Angeles-based Viento Callejero, an urban-style tropical music ensemble—was a wild success.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the farmworkers movement, when the San Joaquín Valley of Central California became ground zero in the struggle against exploitation and oppression. There in the fertile fields, the prodigious table grape crop became the symbol of the workers’ struggle, when grape-pickers from the Delano area refused to collect the ripening fruit to protest their poor wages and abysmal living conditions. The strike lasted five years, fueled by wide national and international support from consumers, students, activists, unions, religious institutions and other public sector entities. (As a product of the Chicano Movement, I spent many hours in picket lines during the grape and subsequent lettuce boycotts.)
It is important to appreciate the multicultural nature of the farmworkers movement. The United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC)—which later became the UFW—emerged in 1966 from the consolidation of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, led by Filipinos Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz and Pete Velasco, and César Chávez’s National Farm Workers Association. The merged union later affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
Unfortunately, the role of the Manongs (Filipino term of respect for an older man) in forging the farmworkers movement is not well documented, despite the fact that it was 1,500 Filipino farmworkers who first walked off their jobs and actually launched the strike. The UFW, under the leadership of Chávez, tended to overshadow—one can argue, unintentionally—the Filipinos’ role, as well as the participation of other ethnic farmworkers. The half-hour documentary Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers, made by Marissa Aroy and Niall McKay in 2014, has recently been screened across the country and is bringing new light to their important role.
Playing a tactical counterpart to the charismatic César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, a fearless, persuasive and pragmatic woman, marched to Sacramento in 1966 with the farm workers. (The pair had cofounded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962.) This summer, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery cemented her legacy with the opening of the exhibition, One Life: Dolores Huerta, highlighting the decisive role Huerta played in the farmworkers movement. Organized by Taína Caragol, the museum’s curator of Latino art and history, the show features photographs, original speeches, UFW ephemera and Chicano art.
“Dolores Huerta has not gotten her due for the pivotal role she played in the farmworker movement, especially when compared to César Chávez’s notoriety,” notes Caragol. “Featuring her as part of the Portrait Gallery’s One Life series allows us to shed light on the life and accomplishments of this extraordinary American,” she says.
Huerta realized her vision of a better day for farmworkers, leaving her distinct fingerprints on each major UFW victory. Throughout her career, Huerta, mother of 11 children and now 85, continuously embodied new models of womanhood, inspiring generations of women activists.
With the coupling of the Agustín Lira and Alma concert and the opening of the Dolores Huerta exhibition, Smithsonian audiences are being introduced to this important chapter in U.S. labor history with a celebration of two of its notable leaders.
At the same time, these programs serve to remind us that the struggle is not over.
Today’s farmworkers, still mostly composed of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants, compose 60 percent of all farm labor in this country and are subject to challenging working and living conditions. Despite previous labor victories, they are still under-employed, underpaid and poorly educated—only 28 percent have the equivalent of a high school education and seasonal workers average just $9.13 per hour.
According to the Wilson Center’s Migration Policy Institute, demand for labor-intensive fruits, nuts, vegetables, flowers and other horticultural specialties will continue to rise, thus further impacting the lives of these workers for the foreseeable future. Currently, the estimated value of these commodities exceeds $50 billion annually.
The Institute’s 2013 study, Ripe with Change: Evolving Farm Labor Markets in the United States, Mexico, and Central America, notes that while many workers would like to move up the agricultural job ladder, “the job pyramid in agriculture is steep, offering relatively few opportunities for those who begin as seasonal workers to move up to year-round jobs in agriculture or to become farm operators.” The situation is exacerbated by the workers’ limited access to capital in these capital-intensive agricultural sectors, an impediment to becoming operators themselves.
And, the situation is further complicated by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal’s recent decision to deny the Department of Justice’s request to stay the temporary injunction of implementation of the expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which included the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA).
Nearly 50 percent of all farmworkers are foreign born, mostly Mexican and Central American. Farmworker Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, estimates that 700,000 farmworkers and their spouses could be eligible to come forward to apply for temporary protection from deportation and work authorization under these deferred action opportunities. The uncertainties around the future of President Obama’s executive action, issued last November, further cloud the future of these workers and the operations of farm operators, not inconsequential when you consider the financial impacts and human factors hanging in the balance.
Americans depend on the hard work and sacrifices of farmworkers and their families for large portions of our food supply. Farmworkers work grueling days. Their tasks are tedious and backbreaking. Their pay has them at or teetering at poverty levels. Agricultural employers are exempted from some key employment law protections, and current enforcement levels are less than desirous, leading to widespread violations in some sectors.
While we acknowledge and celebrate the accomplishments of the past, we would do well ethically to maintain a high level of awareness of present-day agricultural production and labor practices, understanding that the continuing struggle of farmworkers and our own sustenance are intricately connected. Let conscience be our guide.
La Marcha no ha terminado. The march is not over.
The exhibition “One Life: Dolores Huerta” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. is now closed. The documentary Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers is available on DVD and BluRay. The music of Agustín Lira is available through Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
Chicana artist Barbara Carrasco made this portrait in homage to Huerta. Carrasco became a supporter of the farm workers’ movement in the 1970s and served for decades as a volunteer staff artist for the UFW. Carrasco, who considers Huerta her mentor and a close friend, explained her motivations for this portrait: “There are so many icons of men, and icons of women painted by men, that I wanted (as a woman) to create an iconic image of Huerta to recognize her as an equal of César Chávez and, historically, the most important negotiator for the United Farm Workers.”
Con su ejemplo como líder laboral y defensora de los derechos civiles, a la vez que desafió las reglas que restringían el papel de la mujer en sociedad, Huerta se convirtió en uno de los primeros símbolos del poder femenino para los movimientos chicano y feminista.
La artista chicana Barbara Carrasco realizó este retrato en homenaje a Huerta. Carrasco fue simpatizante del movimiento de los trabajadores agrícolas durante los años setenta y trabajó por varias décadas como artista voluntaria para la UFW. Considera a Huerta su mentora y amiga, y explicó así lo que la motivó a hacer este retrato: “Existen tantos iconos de hombres, e iconos de mujeres pintados por hombres, que quise [como mujer] crear una imagen icónica de Huerta para honrarla como figura a la altura de César Chávez y como la negociadora más importante en la historia de la Unión de Trabajadores Campesinos”.
Barbara Carrasco (nacida en 1955)
Galería Nacional de Retratos, Instituto Smithsonian; adquisición posible gracias al apoyo del Latino Initiatives Pool, administrado por el Centro Latino del Smithsonian
Encouraged by the civil rights movement, labor organizer Cesar Chavez began in the early 1960s to protest the unfair treatment of farm workers in California and the Southwest, the majority of whom were Mexican or Mexican American. In 1963 he and Dolores Huerta founded the forerunner of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), which launched a boycott of California table grapes in 1965 as part of a movement to improve working conditions for field laborers. This eventually resulted in a national boycott of grapes by many sympathetic Americans. This painting links modern-era activists Chavez and Huerta to historic figures Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos (leaders in Mexico’s War of Independence) and Emiliano Zapata (Mexican revolutionary and champion of agrarian reform), who shared their Mexican heritage and a commitment to justice. The painting’s title refers both to the mythical homeland of the Aztec people and to the cultural realm of greater Mexico.
Nacido en North Gila Valley, cerca de Yuma, Arizona
Incentivado por el movimiento en pro de los derechos civiles, el sindicalista Cesar Chavez comenzó en los años sesenta a organizar protestas por el tratamiento injusto que recibían los trabajadores agrícolas de California y el suroeste de Estados Unidos, que eran en su mayoría mexicanos o mexicano-americanos. En 1963, Chavez y Dolores Huerta fundaron la organización predecesora de la United Farm Workers of America (Unión de Trabajadores Campesinos de América) y en 1965 iniciaron un boicot de las uvas de California como parte del movimiento para mejorar las condiciones de los trabajadores rurales. Este acto terminó por generar un boicot nacional por parte de muchos estadounidenses solidarios. Esta pintura vincula a los activistas modernos Chavez y Huerta con las figuras históricas de Miguel Hidalgo y José María Morelos (líderes de la Guerra de Independencia de México) y Emiliano Zapata (revolucionario mexicano y defensor de la reforma agraria), quienes compartían la herencia mexicana y el compromiso con la causa de la justicia. El título de la obra alude a la mítica tierra ancestral de los aztecas y a la cultura mexicana en general.
The short-handled hoe brings back memories of back-breaking labor for generations of Mexican and Mexican American migrant workers who sustained California's booming agricultural economy. Since the late 1800s, its expansive fields of produce have relied on a cheap, mobile, and temporary workforce. The short-handled hoe required workers to bend painfully close to the ground to weed and thin crops. The state abolished the short-handled hoe in 1975, ruling it an occupational hazard after a seven-year legal battle. During this period of political mobilization, the predicament of the migrant farm worker became emblematic of the limited opportunities and the cycle of poverty that trapped many Mexican Americans. In 1966, when Mexican and Filipino American farm workers were brought together under the banner of the United Farm Workers of America, the struggle for labor rights was understood by its supporters as part of the much larger civil rights movement. It was not just important for Mexican Americans but also other low-paid workers. The hoe pictured here belonged to Librado Hernandez Chavez, father of civil rights leader and farm worker organizer, Cesar Estrada Chavez.
Most great men have one. Malcolm X has one. Gandhi has one. Mandela got one last year. And now, Cesar Chavez has his.
The biographical film or “biopic”—like Cesar Chavez, which came out this past weekend—lends itself to the creation of legends. In the case of Chavez, the legend is complicated by the fact that his story did not exactly lead to the liberation of the people he represented. Great strides were made during the heyday of the farm workers movement—namely the first contracts for farm workers and a California law that recognized their right to unionize. But field workers today suffer indignities familiar to those who worked in rural California prior to Chavez starting a union in 1962.
These facts are not the concern of Diego Luna, the Mexican niño prodigio turned director of the new film. In a recent appearance at UCLA, Luna told his audience, "We have to send a message to the [film] industry that our stories have to be represented. And with the depth and the complexity they deserve."
Fair enough. As a Mexican American and a historian, I too long for dignified cinematic portrayals of Latinos—if for no other reason than to impart histories to my students that convey the struggles for equality our people have initiated. College professors can only show John Sayles’ terrific 1996 film Lone Star, about a Texas border town, so many times. 2011’s A Better Life, about an undocumented gardener in Los Angeles, is a welcome but all too rare addition to the genre.
Farm workers cheering in the new film about the life of Cesar Chavez. (Photo: © Copyright Pantelion Films 2013)
My yearnings, however, should not come at the expense of historical accuracy, as they do in Cesar Chavez. Having recently published a book on the United Farm Workers and Chavez, I could easily get very particular about the details. (Pointing out, for example, that Luna situates the 1973 picket-line murder of farm worker Juan de la Cruz prior to 1970.)
But in the new film, Luna’s omissions and alterations are really historical subversions and go well beyond the poetic license we should permit filmmakers. His interpretation, I suspect, is a product of his unsophisticated handling of U.S. identity politics. He rejects the multiethnic community that made up the farm workers movement in favor of a simplistic notion that Mexicans did all the work. Creating a hero comes at the expense of depicting an entire social movement.
The Filipino American National Historical Society has rightly come out against the film’s misrepresentation of labor leader Larry Itliong, and the erasure of others such as Philip Vera Cruz and Pete Velasco. They’ve also questioned Luna’s failure to acknowledge the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee--an organization made up largely of Filipinos--which initiated the 1965 grape strike. The strike functions as a turning point for the union’s formation in the film.
Similarly, any mention of white volunteers and organizers beyond Fred Ross, Cesar’s mentor, and Jerry Cohen, the talented leader of the UFW legal team, is absent. Several white ministers and students played a critical role in launching and sustaining the movement, including Reverend Jim Drake, who came up with the winning strategy of the boycott, not Chavez. As the film lumbers toward the epic signing of the first contracts in 1970, Luna’s most egregious distortion of history comes when he shows Chavez boarding a ship to London. In the film, the labor leader walks the wharf on the Thames River, lobbies dockworkers not to unload grapes, and appeals to consumers not to buy the fruit. Although this work actually happened, it was a young Jewish American volunteer, Elaine Elinson, who almost singlehandedly convinced the British and Scandinavian unions to keep the grapes out of Europe.
The film even fails to represent accurately the supporting cast of Mexican American activists in Cesar’s orbit. Gilbert Padilla, played by Yancey Arias, and Dolores Huerta, played by Rosario Dawson, come off as nothing more than a yes-man and yes-woman to Chavez when, in fact, they were distinguished organizers in their own right and effective innovators of new strategies, including the boycott. Only Helen Chavez, Cesar’s wife, is presented as a character with her own mind and story, a tribute to America Ferrera’s standout performance.
Leader of the Migrant Workers Union, Cesar Chavez speaking in 1970. (Photo: National Archives/Cornelius Keyes)
But the film probably does the greatest disservice to Cesar Chavez himself. The director opts out of the 1970s altogether, a period in which Chavez struggled with personal and professional demons, lost interest in organizing farm workers, and became invested in creating a community rather than solidifying gains made in the previous decade. Such a storyline would have done little to burnish his credentials as a civil and labor rights leader, but it would have made for a more dramatic and compelling film. More importantly, it would have made for a much more accurate portrait of the depth and complexity of the real man.These omissions reflect the limitations of the genre and the hero-making project of this film in particular. With rare exception, biopics elide complexity and avoid overt criticism of their subjects. This is why the most extraordinary and entertaining renditions of historical figures have often come via fictionalized characters, whether it be Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane based on William Randolph Hearst (Citizen Kane), Roman Polanski’s Noah Cross based on William Mulholland (Chinatown), or P. T. Anderson’s Daniel Plainview based on Edward Doheny (There Will Be Blood).
In fairness to Luna, Chavez was delivered to him with decades of historical baggage, thanks to hagiography and political stamps of approval from Robert Kennedy, Jerry Brown, and most recently, Barack Obama. Although new histories are now being written, including Miriam Pawel’s impressive biography, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, it will take time for the public’s perception of the hero to catch up with the all-too-human Chavez. Sadly, Luna’s film does almost nothing to assist this move toward a new understanding of Cesar Chavez’s life and the successes and failures of the movement he led.
Matt Garcia is the director of the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. His most recent book, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (University of California Press), won the Philip Taft Award for the Best Book in Labor History, 2013. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.
The mornings after snowfall, your shoes scraped over it as you walked through ice and gravel on the sidewalk on your way to school. If you were up late at night, you might see massive trucks sprinkling it behind them as they shoveled freshly fallen snow. Cities like Chicago and Minneapolis spread the stuff liberally because it helps lower the freezing point of water, and cuts relatively quickly into ice on contact.
It’s road salt, and it’s ubiquitous to anyone who grew up in a northern climate. But what happens in springtime and summer?
An increasing amount of research is showing that road salt doesn’t just dissolve into thin air. Instead, as it splits into sodium and chloride ions, it gets absorbed into roadside plants, licked up by wildlife or accumulates in aquatic ecosystems—sometimes with devastating consequences. All that saltiness can help invasive or even toxic species spread, not to mention increase traffic danger due to deer and moose drawn to salt-covered roads.
“It has a really widespread number of effects on the whole food web or ecosystem,” says Rick Relyea, a professor of biological sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Relyea has studied how road salt runoff impacts lakes as part of the Jefferson Project at Lake George in New York state. Recently, he found that road salt can reduce the size of rainbow trout hatchlings by about 30 percent, influencing their ability to elude predators and decreasing the number of eggs they lay. One experiment he worked on found that higher levels of salt could change the male-female sex ration of wood frogs.
Relyea and others dissected hundreds of frogs raised in different tanks from eggs to determine that the number of male tadpoles that survived hatching increased by 10 percent, from 40 percent to 50 percent. While he hasn’t yet studied the long-term impacts this could have on the frog population, fewer females could mean fewer eggs are laid, thereby causing population level changes over time.
Other research they’ve conducted has shown that higher levels of salt can kill tiny, shrimp-like amphipods which provide important food sources for fish and insects as well as snails and clams. It can also kill off zooplankton—the minute, abundant organisms that form the baseline resource for entire ecosystems—which can inversely cause the amount of phytoplankton they feed on to go up.
Ultimately, “you end up with a loss in biodiversity,” says Hilary Dugan, a fresh water scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dugan recently found out just how much salt is accumulating in freshwater lakes in the northern U.S. Her analysis, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that road salt is the major driver of increasing levels of chloride in lakes near urban populations.(Courtesy Rick Relyea lab / the Jefferson Project)
Rising salt levels can make some environments more vulnerable to exploitation by invasive species. “By loading these lakes with salt, we might actually be giving a leg up to invasive species which are more adapted to brackish environments,” Dugan says. Relyea points out that cyanobacteria, sometimes wrongly referred to as blue-green, can have a toxic effect on fish and other aquatic species, as well as affecting drinking water for humans.
A study released in 2014 found that roadside plants contain much higher levels of salt than other plants of the same species, which can alter the development of the butterflies that feed on them. Emilie Snell-Rood, an associate professor in ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota, says that some milkweed in particular had up to 30 times more sodium either absorbed inside or stuck to the outside of the plants.
While the effect on the plants is uncertain, she and her team wanted to see what happened to the butterflies that depended on those plants. So they reared different groups of monarch and cabbage white caterpillars on plants with lots of sodium and those with normal levels of sodium. They found that the salt seemed to make the monarch and cabbage white female butterflies brainier and the males brawnier.
What this actually meant was the males had higher levels of a certain protein which translates to flight muscles, while the females had larger eyes; Snell-Rood says that 75 percent of microscopic butterfly brains are dedicated to vision. “Moderate levels of salt input were somewhat beneficial,” she says. Since salt is often limited in the natural world for creatures like butterflies, she says, it can act as a super stimulus when they do encounter it.
“Road salt is kind of like potato chips for animals,” she says, adding that she is currently looking to receive a state grant to restore roadside plants as potential pollinator habitat for monarchs and other pollinators. But similar to the effects of enhanced CO2 on a forest ecosystem, that benefit only extends up until a point. There was a high death rate of butterflies that Snell-Rood exposed to the highest levels of sodium in their experiments.
Snell-Rood's work shows just how profound an effect salt can have on an ecosystem. Those effects can also be less direct than accumulation in plant life: By attracting some species to roadsides, salt can put animals in danger from getting hit from passing cars. They could also then be exposed to chemicals from car exhaust, spilled gas or heavy metals from break pad run off and other things.
In this way, road salt can—indirectly—end up endangering humans. Roy Rea, a biology and forestry instructor at University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, is six years into research studying the relationship between the salt that accumulates around roads and vehicle collisions with wildlife. It’s a big problem—in some cases, a nearly seven-foot tall, 1,500-pound problem.Road salt can attract large animals like moose, which in turn can increase traffic danger. (Roy V. Rea)
Rea first heard about moose being attracted to road salt anecdotally, from salt truck drivers who encountered a massive moose licking at salt they dropped in the yard. Other people told him how they’d see moose licking salt accumulated on their cars while sitting in the driveway—something like a free carwash in northern British Columbia.
In 2011, he began using camera traps in northern British Columbia around roadside salt accumulations to find that the areas are particularly popular with moose, which lick the salt off the ground. “The females need increased mineral intake to produce good milk for the calves and the males need it to produce antlers,” Rea says.
“It accumulates in these pools and the moose are in there using this all summer long. Because they’re so close to this high speed traffic, and going back and forth across the road to get to the salt pools, some of them get clocked,” Rea says.
He adds that the moose are often active at night, which makes them hard to see on roads where cars sometimes only pass every 10 minutes or so. “If you’re driving down a highway that’s black asphalt, and you’ve got a black background of the night sky and you’ve got these dark brown to black animals in the middle of the highway and you don’t see them until you’re right on top of them, then it’s already too late.”
A study he published a couple of years ago actually matched collision hotspots with moose to areas where these roadside salt licks occurred. Out of 30 moose vehicle collision hot spots, nine of them were next to a salt lick. These crashes can be lethal to humans and are almost always lethal to the moose, which Rea says are already in decline across parts of North America.Salt can have mixed effects in different ecosystems. In this case, the fish shown above has been affected by high salt concentrations, while the fish on the bottom is from water with low salt levels. (Courtesy Mary Martialay)
Beyond wildlife collisions, increasing saltiness can have other consequences on humans. Dugan says that some lakes with increasing levels of salt are the source of drinking water for towns and cities, and removing it can be very expensive. High levels of chloride can produce an unpleasant taste, but it can also produce health issues with people on low-sodium diets due to diabetes or other health issues. The increase in cyanobacteria can also put toxins into lakes people swim in.
It can also affect the economy via tourism and property values, Relyea says. Even non-toxic algae can make water cloudy or murky, which is bad aesthetically for cottagers and others. “Having more algae and less clarity in the water makes the value of those lakes go down to people,” he says. “It’s not just a biological problem. It’s an aesthetic problem, a tourism problem, an economic problem; it’s all of these things.”
One possible solution is salt alternatives, including ones that use things like beet juice or distillation byproducts to melt away snow and ice. A study published in February that Relyea coauthored examined some of these, and found that the alternatives can be even harder on aquatic ecosystems than salt, particularly when it comes to fertilizing algae. “It’s like adding compost to the lake,” he says.
Another solution is simpler, and involves using curved shovel blades on the trucks that clear highways more effectively. This eliminates the need for using so much salt and keeps roads safer.
“We’ve been dramatically increasing the amount of salt per mile since the 1970s, even in places where we don’t have any substantial increases in the amount of road miles,” he says. “The answer isn’t really in alternative salts but in less salt,” Relyea says. While precious little work has been done on the effects of high salt levels in waterways, he says that all the guidelines say this could be lethal for many species.
Dugan stresses that using less salt is the answer in many cases, and that educating people to pour less of it on their driveways and sidewalks could help a lot.
“You can maintain safety by using a lot less road salt,” she says.
Correction, May 30, 2017: The third photo in this article was initially attributed incorrectly to Hugues B. Massicotte.