Cesar Chavez Suffers for and Revives the Cause of Farm Workers’ Contracts

Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer

About 25 years ago two very different Californians, Ronald Reagan and Cesar Chavez, burst onto the national scene. Reagan was successful in making the transition from former actorto governor and then to President. Chavez had more ups and downs in building the United Farm Workers of America into a viable labor union, but he remains a potent symbol in the consciousness of the nation--much to the chagrin of his critics.

These days Chavez is waging another battle against agribusiness--a boycott of table grapes to press for stronger protection against pesticides. As he has done before, Chavez presented his case with a dramatic act: a 36-day, water-only fast, which seriously endangered his health.

When that fast ended here on Sunday, with dozens of journalists to report it, the moment was heavy with symbolism. The family of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was with Chavez, just as Kennedy had been when Chavez ended another long fast in 1968. Also present was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who began a three-day fast once Chavez’s had ended. The former presidential candidate said that other prominent UFW supporters would take up the fast in a “chain of suffering” aimed at persuading people to stop buying grapes.


It was a brilliantly staged media event. And the media have always helped Chavez keep his union visible, even during its periodic downturns. In the last 10 years the UFW has lost 100 contracts that it had with grape growers, the biggest employers in California agriculture.

But even if Chavez’s fast and its dramatic ending were irresistible to the media, one cannot dismiss him as just a media manipulator. No one who saw the 61-year-old union leader being carried into the rally where 7,000 silent union members and supporters waited, then watched him sit weakly through a Mass, grimacing in pain, can doubt that Chavez suffered during his self-imposed ordeal. Argue with his tactics, but the deep sincerity of his beliefs is obvious.

That is why Chavez has been so successful over the years in winning sympathy for his cause. He believes in what he is doing so fervently that he is willing to do anything to keep his movement alive--even nearly kill himself. Such conviction sways people, even when the facts of an issue are gray rather than black and white.

In this respect Chavez and Reagan, who have agreed on few issues over the years, are very much alike. They’re both “Great Communicators,” to use the cliche often applied to Reagan. Reagan does it with a well-delivered phrase. Chavez, a former field hand who dropped out of school in the seventh grade, uses his body to make the point.

But Chavez is just as effective. He has got people thinking again about farm workers, even if he may be overstating his case. This time he is urging consumers to boycott grapes by raising the possibility that they are tainted with the same pesticides that cause health problems for farm workers.

Growers and supermarket executives say that there is no threat to consumers from pesticides, which are used on many kinds of produce. Perhaps not. But some of the pesticides that Chavez is worried about are under investigation for toxic side effects. And all of them are dangerous if improperly used. In the last five years, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, almost 350 field hands have been poisoned after entering fields or storage areas where the toxicity of pesticides was thought to be at safe levels.


Then there’s the frightening pall that hangs over the San Joaquin Valley, the heart of this state’s large agricultural industry. A few years ago children in McFarland, about 10 miles south of Delano, began suffering higher-than-normal rates of cancer. What causes the “cancer cluster” is still unknown, but one possibility being studied is that the illnesses are caused by water supplies contaminated by pesticides. Some of the affected McFarland families resent being used by the UFW for its anti-grape propaganda. But there is no denying the reality of their plight.

And there is no denying that farm laborers were among the lowest-paid and most easily exploited workers in this country until 1970, when, through strikes and boycotts, Chavez brought large-scale unionization to agriculture for the first time in history. Among other things, those first UFW contracts forced grape growers to eliminate or curtail their use of pesticides like DDT long before the federal government banned them as dangerous.

That little-noted fact is at the root of Chavez’s current boycott. For, while government tries to protect workers from the potential dangers of pesticides, Chavez is convinced that the best protection is provided by unions and labor contracts that give workers an equal say with growers regarding how pesticides are used.

As Ronald Reagan has been telling us lately, facts are stubborn things. The fact of this matter is that Chavez has a stronger case against grapes than growers like to admit. And he is conveying it so effectively that the growers will have to respond.

It’s hard to argue with someone who is willing to risk death to make a point. So the growers’ best bet is to sit down with Chavez and talk about new labor contracts.