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UFW, Growers Reverse Tactics on ALRB

Farm labor leader Cesar Chavez is an enigma whose changes in tactics have confused even his strongest supporters. But the California growers who seem determined to destroy the union are almost as mercurial in their tactics, if less enigmatic.

The union and its enemies are now embroiled in yet another battle in the California Legislature that dramatizes their frequently shifting positions.

Nevertheless, unchanged over the decades are their fundamental goals: Chavez and his United Farm Workers are still determined to unionize farm workers to help them climb up from the ranks of the nation’s lowest paid workers, and most growers are still in unrelenting opposition to unionization by Chavez’s or any other union.

The latest tactical reversals by both the growers and the UFW have now put each side where the other was just a year ago in terms of state financing for the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. This time, it is the union that is trying to persuade the state Legislature to eliminate the entire $8.7-million annual budget of the ALRB because the agency, now dominated by appointees of pro-grower Gov. George Deukmejian, is being used effectively by the growers to fight the union.

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And it is the growers who are fighting to save the agency that, until their latest change, they have abhorred since it was created in 1975 to help encourage farm worker unionization.

As recently as two years ago and again last year, the UFW was demanding that the Legislature increase, not eliminate, the agency’s budget. The Legislature approved the union’s requests, giving the agency an extra $2 million so it could more effectively enforce the farm labor law. But growers fought the additional appropriations, and when they were approved anyway by the Legislature, Deukmejian vetoed them.

The growers’ initial tactical shift--from opposition to any farm labor law to reluctant support of one for California--was slow in coming. In the 1930s, they joined other farm groups across the country in a successful effort to exclude farm workers from the nation’s first labor law. That law, among other things, gave non-farm workers the legal right to join a union without being punished by their bosses.

Things began to change when Chavez’s union, without the protection of any law, won many union contracts for farm workers. They came in 1970 as a result of the successful worldwide boycott of California table grapes. After that, pressured by former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., growers very reluctantly went along with the creation of a pro-union, state farm labor law. A year after its passage in 1975, the Legislature balked at the agency’s request for more money to enforce the law. For more than six months, it got no money at all as the Legislature--pressured by the growers to curb, if not eliminate, the agency’s budget--fought over the funding.

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In 1976, the UFW asked California voters to approve an amendment that would make the farm labor law, and the money needed to finance it, part of the state Constitution. The measure, strongly opposed by growers, was defeated.

Then the growers tried another tactic: They asked the state Legislature to change the law so that it would conform with the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act, the same law that they had so successfully fought for so many years. The NLRA puts more restrictions on unions than the state law.

Even when the pro-union state law was being administered by officials whom growers alleged were blatantly on the union’s side, workers were, in fact, winning only about 40% of the cases in which they charged that they were being illegally mistreated by their bosses. Now that the agency is administered by Deukmejian appointees, workers are winning only 10% to 20% of their cases.

The latest tactical switches by the union and growers aren’t hard to understand. Pro-union workers are being hurt by the law enacted to help them, and growers seem delighted with the administration of it. In fact, while the Legislature is probably going to refinance the agency despite the union’s protests, there is a still a chance that the funds will be eliminated because many growers don’t like the law itself--even though they are pleased with the way it is being used now.

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More enigmatic, though, are the union’s changes in tactics. Two examples:

- Even though Deukmejian made no secret of his sympathy with growers, who provided substantial financial help to him in his first gubernatorial election, the union did not support his opponent, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.

And, as of now, it looks as though Bradley may well be denied the union’s backing in this year’s rematch. It is a puzzle because Bradley is not anti-union and there is no question about the views of the Deukmejian Administration.

For instance, David Stirling, the Deukmejian-appointed general counsel of the farm labor agency, said in opposing the union’s current effort to eliminate the agency’s budget that “it would indeed be a dark day in California agricultural labor relations if the ALRB were defunded merely to satisfy the reckless agenda of one spoiled and disgruntled labor leader (Chavez) whose singular theme seems to have become ‘sour grapes.’ ”

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Chavez is said to be unhappy with Bradley because the mayor has not been one of the union’s enthusiastic supporters. Whatever the reason, however, it is strange that the union does not automatically oppose the anti-union, openly pro-grower Republican, Deukmejian.

- The union is making almost no effort these days to organize farm workers, saying that the farm labor agency is so biased in favor of growers that it makes union representation elections meaningless. But the union’s alternative to organizing--the renewed boycott of California table grapes--is not reaching farm workers themselves. It is being waged almost exclusively with computerized letters instead of using thousands of volunteers to personally press the boycott, as the union did so effectively in the 1965-70 boycott.

But there is nothing enigmatic about the union’s campaign to eliminate funds for the farm labor agency. Despite the problems that it would create, defunding the agency makes sense, not just for the union but for farm workers who work very hard for wages that average substantially below the poverty level. The agency is giving them almost no help, and it is hurting the union that--despite its sometimes confusing tactics--seems to be the only hope the workers have of improving their poverty-stricken lives.


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