In 2002, assessing the bleak circumstances, the UFW board made a dramatic shift. It changed focus and chose to capitalize on the growing Latino population across the country. The board deleted all specific references in the UFW constitution to agricultural workers, including the preamble.
"We'll never leave our roots. We'll never abandon farmworkers by any means, or rural communities. But we certainly don't want to position the organization or the future of the organization to only be dependent on that. There are lots of needs out there that have to be met, and if we have the capacity to be able to do that, then shame on us if we don't."
More recently, as he attempts to leverage his union's position amid a split in the national labor movement, Rodriguez said he saw the UFW's role as organizing all "food-related" workers.
As part of the Latino strategy, the UFW signed up workers at a Bakersfield furniture store that subsequently went out of business and ran unsuccessful campaigns to represent hotel workers in Texas. UFW members today include Catholic parish workers in Brownsville, Texas, and workers who assemble prefabricated classrooms for a San Jose-based company.
After signing a contract to represent the assemblers, the UFW helped the company petition the state for a job-classification change that would have allowed the firm to pay lower wages on public jobs.
"I support the farmworkers trying to organize and make peoples' lives better, but when you cross the line and you start undermining other workers' wages, it's not acceptable," said Neil Struthers, head of the Santa Clara County building trades council, which successfully fought off the move. "They have more rights than we do to organize [farmworkers]. They're not organizing there. They're organizing whatever falls in their lap."
Other union leaders question the effectiveness of a pan-Latino approach.
"You're not going to build a union or a movement that way," said Medina, a farmworker who became a UFW leader in the 1970s and is now a national executive vice president with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). "You don't do it around ethnic lines. You do it around industries. I think what they're trying to do now is figure out where it's easier to maintain the institution."
Focus Is on Raising Money, Not Organizing in the Fields
On the wall of the cramped Santa Maria living room that doubles as his office, Pedro Lopez tacked a larger-than-life poster of Cesar Chavez.
"Every time I do things, I think of him," Lopez said.
But the young Oaxacan farmworker has no faith in the UFW.
In the summer of 1999, Lopez helped organize walkouts among Mixtec Indians in the strawberry fields of Santa Maria. He would drive his truck into the fields, climb on top and call workers out in roving strikes. With ripe berries rotting on the vines, startled strawberry growers quickly agreed to increase wages.
Lopez was fired from his job and blacklisted, but the strike only deepened his commitment to organizing. An elementary school graduate who left Mexico at 12, Lopez had only recently learned about Chavez. He called the UFW for help.
The union filed a complaint that successfully recovered back wages for Lopez and others. Then, at a meeting in Santa Maria, Lopez and others recall, UFW Secretary-Treasurer Tanis Ybarra pledged whatever support the workers needed to continue organizing — an office, telephones, a computer.
When Lopez and several leaders of the United Mixtec Farmworkers arrived a few weeks later at the UFW headquarters to work out the details, the story was different.
Anastacio Bautista, then vice president of the Mixtec group, was among those asked to wait outside while the UFW leaders talked to Lopez alone; they offered Lopez a job but said the union had no money to help his group organize in Santa Maria. And they asked for a decision on the spot. Ybarra recalls Lopez wanted a job; Lopez said he wanted organizing support but felt he needed at least a paycheck.
"Pedro abandoned us, but he had no other choice," Bautista said. "We lost faith. We didn't want to organize anymore."