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UFW Shifting Focus in Table Grape Boycott

In a strategic shift in its boycott of California table grapes, Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers is dropping the Deukmejian Administration as its prime focus and shifting to the “real target”: the grape growers.

The UFW has been sending out 20 million to 30 million letters asking consumers to boycott California table grapes until the Deukmejian Administration agrees to “properly enforce” the state’s farm labor laws. Now, the union is shifting the focus from Gov. Deukmejian, asking for public support until the growers “treat their workers fairly.”

The shift is surprising in light of the millions of dollars already spent lobbying against Deukmejian’s “anti-union” stance, and it could cause some initial confusion among the union’s supporters and give some satisfaction to growers, who have been insisting that, so far, the boycott has had no impact on grape sales.

From 1965 to 1970, the UFW waged a successful worldwide boycott of California table grapes that ended only when its goal--getting all of the growers to accept unionization--was reached. The boycott helped Chavez create the nation’s first viable farm labor union.

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But today, the UFW represents less than 2% of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 grape workers, in large part, Chavez charges, because the state’s farm labor law is not being enforced by the Deukmejian Administration, and growers therefore feel free to ignore it.

The union decided more than a year ago to revive the boycott to try to restore the union’s strength and help the overall cause of farm workers, whose earnings average less than the federally determined poverty level of $10,609 for a family of four.

Grapes may not be the most crucial current farm issue, but they were chosen as the focus because they could serve as a reminder of the earlier, successful boycott and thus attract many of the millions of previous supporters.

The theory was that, if the boycott hurt the growers’ wallets enough, they would pressure the governor to more vigorously enforce the state’s farm labor law, which Chavez has called the strongest in the nation. (A few other states have farm labor laws, but California’s is the most comprehensive.)

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Now, after more than a year of the new boycott, Chavez says that “we have to make clear that we are seeking economic justice for farm workers from the growers. We can obviously no longer hope that the governor will try to fairly enforce the law.”

In the long run, the shift should clarify the union’s goal and weaken, if not eliminate, the charge that the recent boycott was designed more to attack a conservative governor than to help farm workers. Chavez himself has conceded that “the boycott was becoming mired in politics.”

Now, he says, the boycott will be called off only under the following conditions:

The growers themselves must agree to stop their “unfair, often violent” attempts to prevent the unionization of farm workers without waiting for Gov. Deukmejian to stop helping the growers.

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The workers, without interference from management, must decide whether they want union representation. If they do, Chavez says, “we expect the growers to immediately sit down and bargain in good faith with us for a union contract.”

The growers must agree to voluntarily stop using pesticides that the union and many health authorities say are dangerous to the health of both workers and consumers.

How can the union accomplish these goals? First of all, it says growers could sign what UFW executive board member Arturo Rodriguez calls a “marketing agreement” that would, in effect, be a written promise not to interfere with workers seeking union representation. Secondly, growers would be obligated to negotiate a contract for those workers who do want the union.

“We don’t care, however, whether the growers sign such a written agreement or not,” Chavez says. “They can come up with any idea of their own that will allow workers the freedom to choose the union without threats or intimidation by their employers.”

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To stimulate interest in the boycott, the UFW this weekend will hold marches and rallies in the San Joaquin Valley town of Delano, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the start of the first boycott, which began there.

Growers say the union’s switch in its target proves that the boycott has failed badly so far, and none of them seem tempted to give up their campaign to keep the union out.

Marion Quesenbery, chief vice president and general counsel of the Western Growers Assn., says growers would be foolish to, in effect, sign an agreement with the union promising that they will voluntarily obey the state farm law when “they already comply with that law.” She denied that growers use the law only to delay union elections and contract negotiations, and she scoffed at Chavez’s suggestion that growers should begin contract negotiations immediately after workers decide “in some unspecified fashion” that they want union representation.

Joe Herman, an attorney who represents many growers, says the new Chavez strategy makes no sense because it “doesn’t seem to provide any means of enforcement and is apparently designed to bypass the law. If a grower signed some kind of agreement with the union dealing with the rights of farm workers, it could only be enforced in the courts, and any judge who got such a case would have a hard time not telling both sides to take the dispute to the agency (the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board) created by the Legislature to handle just such matters,” Herman says.

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In fact, Herman argues, since the UFW represents almost no grape workers now, “it might well be an unfair labor practice for a grower to negotiate some kind of an agreement with the union that affects the rights of those workers.”

Ed Thomas, head of the Delano-based South Central Farmers Committee, and Bruce Obink, head of the California Table Grape Commission, both say that, while table grape growers are losing money these days, it is because of an oversupply of grapes, not the boycott. But Chavez insists that the growers are selling 23-pound boxes of grapes for about $5 a box, even though they cost about $7 to produce, because the boycott is already having an impact.

In any event, he says, “farm workers are not getting any justice now, and, when the growers admit the new boycott is having an effect on them, as they did in 1970 after five years of that earlier boycott, we are convinced they will sit down with us again to help us bring justice to the workers.”

Unemployment Study

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A new study by the National Assn. of Working Women contradicts a widespread belief that the jobless rate, still hovering above the 7% level, will be gradually reduced by a growing number of jobs in service industries, particularly white-collar clerical jobs.

In reality, the study says, the country is in for a prolonged period of relatively high unemployment because those anticipated white-collar jobs will be replaced by automation.

In recent years, the jobless rate has been higher after each recession than it was when the recession began. Yet industry and government leaders seem complacent about the problem because the rate hasn’t gone much higher than 7%, even though that is nearly twice the rate once considered proper in non-recessionary times.

The willingness of so many Americans to accept what once was considered a totally unacceptable jobless rate is probably due in large part to a general acceptance of steady increases in foreign imports that are responsible for layoffs in “smokestack” industries and drastic job losses in other industries.

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Imports are being accepted by President Reagan and many others because they hold down prices by forcing U.S. producers to keep prices down to stay competitive. Ironically, in that context, unemployment is viewed on the positive side and considered anti-inflationary because jobless workers do not have the buying power to push prices up. Those with jobs are often not unduly worried by the unemployment rate and are willing to accept the trade-off: high unemployment for lower prices.

Nevertheless, even those who are complacent about the current jobless rate don’t seem to want it to go any higher, and, as the nation looks about for new areas of employment to achieve at least that minimal goal, many experts see hope in the predictions of continued increases in the number of low-paying, white-collar clerical jobs traditionally filled by women.

Part of the explanation for the continued high jobless rate is that more women than ever are entering the work force: An estimated 40% of U.S. women today are working outside their homes or looking for jobs, compared to about 25% in 1965.

Despite new areas of employment for many women in jobs traditionally dominated by men, most traditionally “female” jobs are still held by women. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that about 97% of all secretaries, stenographers and typists are women, and 79% of all clerical workers are women. Nevertheless, even if discrimination against women continues to decline, more clerical jobs--either for women or men--could help cut the unemployment rate.

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But the new study doesn’t have such an optimistic outlook.

The organization’s own surveys--combined with data from the federal and state governments--show that the predictions of continued increases in the number of clerical jobs are not going to be realized.

In a statement accompanying the report, which was issued Monday, the union’s executive director, Karen Nussbaum, said, “Contrary to popular opinion, clerical employment is beginning to decline, not grow, in the Midwest, and it is beginning to stagnate in the rest of the country.” So far, Nussbaum said, the cuts have been largely unnoticed because they have come about through attrition, without the highly publicized, more massive layoffs in other areas.


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