WATSONVILLE, Calif. — When the stranger showed up at his tiny house six months ago, the 86-year-old retired farm worker didn't trust what he was hearing.
Modesto Montero, a slight man with wrinkled brown hands and a back hunched over after years of working in the lettuce fields of California's Salinas Valley, didn't remember any pension.
But when Doug Blaylock handed him a check for $73,748, Montero became a believer.
"Praise God, I'm the luckiest man alive," said Montero, who immigrated to this country from the Philippines during the Depression.
Three decades after the United Farm Workers staged its toughest battles to organize field hands, workers such as Montero are discovering the fruits of their labor.
The UFW is trying to reach thousands of aging migrant farm workers who are owed millions in pension funds thanks to a program established in the mid-1970s by the union's founder, Cesar Chavez.
It is no easy task. Many of those who devoted years of backbreaking labor to the fields and sacrificed for la causa during numerous strikes don't know they are entitled to thousands of dollars.
Also, many of the workers used multiple Social Security numbers to dodge immigration laws, so many of the numbers proved to be invalid.
"We have thousands of just skeletal records out there," Blaylock said. "There's no way we can find these people with just names and Social Security numbers."
Growers pay 5 to 25 cents per hour worked into the pension plan. The fund has grown to $100 million, with 10,000 members. More than 2,200 retirees are receiving benefits.
Few farmers offer retirement benefits to people who work the fields. The UFW boasts that its Juan de la Cruz pension plan, named for a UFW activist fatally shot on a picket line in 1973, is the only union pension fund specifically for farm workers.
"The UFW pension plan belies the notion that farm labor has to be this low-wage, dead-end occupation," said UFW spokesman Marc Grossman. "Cesar took exception with that."
Anyone who has worked under UFW contract for five years may be eligible. The pension once required 10 years of service for eligibility, but that requirement has been reduced.
Under federal law, the UFW is obligated to make a reasonable effort to find pensioners. It has sent letters to any known address, broadcast notices about the pension on its La Campesina, or Farm Worker, radio network and has spread the word through mainstream media.
For those who have collected, it's like hitting the jackpot.
Montero recalled that when he left the Philippines many years ago, he was told he would live a long life and grow wealthy. In September, when Blaylock arrived with the check, Montero told his daughters, "See, it's coming true."