UFW Takes Risky Shift in Focus After a Long Decline

Times Staff Writer

Cesar Chavez’s recent fast has put the United Farm Workers back in the nation’s headlines and generated widened support for a new boycott of California table grapes, but experts in organized labor, union officials and some of Chavez’s past supporters say it remains to be seen whether the new campaign can pull the union out of a long decline.

The publicity surrounding the boycott may or may not be affecting grape sales--that depends on which side you listen to--but it has had no discernable impact on the union’s decreasing membership. At the peak of its power, the UFW claimed about 200 contracts covering about 70,000 workers. Today, the union claims 80 contracts representing 35,000 workers. Others, however, suggest that those numbers are exaggerated.

In fact, UFW leaders have abandoned attempts to organize field workers, asserting that the state’s Agriculture Labor Relations Board--dominated by appointees of Gov. George Deukmejian--no longer protects workers from grower intimidation. Those seen talking to union recruiters often are fired, UFW spokesmen say.


“It doesn’t pay to try to organize workers,” said the UFW’s Humberto Gomez. “Instead of protecting (workers) by organizing, we are actually endangering them.”

So the union is trying an end run around the law, urging consumers to boycott grapes, a tactic that helped force growers to the bargaining table in the late 1960s. This time, however, the boycott is centered on the use of five pesticides, not wages and working conditions. Arguing that the chemicals endanger the health of workers and consumers, Chavez is urging consumers not to eat grapes until the pesticides are banned.

The 13-million-member AFL-CIO is backing the boycott, as are religious groups like the National Council of Churches. But organizations like the California Conference of Catholic Bishops that have been friendly to the union in the past are reluctant to support a pesticide-oriented consumer boycott, church officials report.

Celebrity Support

Since Chavez’s fast ended Aug. 21, the boycott has drawn the support of members of Congress, celebrities like actors Martin Sheen and Edward Asner and singer Carly Simon and former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. A number of supporters have agreed to carry on Chavez’s fast for short periods to emphasize their commitment. A small New York grocery store chain stopped carrying California table grapes.

But this approach is controversial, even among some of the UFW’s longtime supporters.

“It is always risky for union leaders to shift their focus away from the rank and file,” said Charles Craypo, chairman of the University of Notre Dame School of Economics and a labor economist sympathetic to worker causes.

Even if the boycott works, the union still must at some point resume organizing workers, said Msgr. George Higgins, a labor expert who teaches at Catholic University in Washington. Higgins helped negotiate the first UFW grape contracts two decades ago.

“Let’s assume the boycott solves the pesticide issue. . . . How would that organize workers?” Higgins asked.

While it is too early to determine the impact of the fast on the boycott--or to count the union out--there is little evidence to indicate that the four-year effort has generated the kind of support that drove the growers to the bargaining table in 1970, then forced the raiding Teamsters Union out of the fields in 1973.

In those earlier struggles Chavez used the fast and boycott, plus strikes, marches and a campaign of civil disobedience that put 3,500 of the union’s members in jail for disobeying court orders. Hundreds of civil rights activists and farm workers staffed boycott houses in 40 cities across the nation, picketing markets and organizing consumers.

“The early boycott was made to work by people profoundly committed to it,” said Marshall Ganz, the union’s former chief organizer. Ganz quit the movement over disagreements with the union’s top leaders a decade ago, but still supports the cause. He is critical of the tactics used in the current boycott and says the union should be organizing workers and bringing them into the fight.

But the union no longer has the hundreds of activists it once could call on, said Oscar Mondragon, head of the Los Angeles-area boycott. Like his counterparts in a dozen other cities, Mondragon makes do with the help of four or five assistants and relies on a so-called “social marketing” approach adopted by the union.

Using computerized mass mailings and a $1-million printing plant at its headquarters near Keene, the union tries to target sympathizers with boycott information. The union also has produced a videotaped appeal called “The Wrath of Grapes.”

“This is do-it-yourself boycotting. . . . When supporters call, we give them orientation and materials . . . tell them how to deal with the police and angry store managers,” Mondragon said.

Eight weeks after Chavez’s fast ended, the union held its biennial convention in the Kern County town of Delano, but without Chavez. He was still too weak to attend, the 400 delegates and followers were told. Union leaders reported the fast had mobilized “millions of people” and the boycott was driving grape prices down. More grapes were being held off the market in cold storage, a sure sign the boycott was working, they said.

Grape Prices Down

Reports from the Federal-State Market News Service--the agency that tracks commodity prices--show October prices were $7 to $8 a 22-pound box for Thompson seedless grapes, down about $1 from the previous year. Volume was reported up and growers were holding more grapes in cold storage, waiting for the price to go up.

Bruce Obbink, president of California Table Grape Commission--a grower marketing and promotion group--said high volume and poor quality were responsible for lower prices, not the boycott. Some Los Angeles supermarkets did stop advertising grapes because of the UFW picket lines, Obbink said, “but grapes are still being sold in those stores.”

In New York, however, the 26-store Red Apple chain became the first grocery group to stop selling California grapes.

However, the table grape commission has launched a $250,000 media campaign, calling the boycott “biological blackmail” and declaring grapes are free of dangerous pesticide residues. The growers contend Chavez is a “frustrated labor leader” who has turned to the boycott because the grape pickers have rejected his union.

The stakes are high in this struggle. The state’s farmers, struggling to pull out of a decade-long economic slump, are fighting to keep labor costs down. For the workers, times are hard, perhaps harder than before the Chavez first led the grape workers out on strike in 1965.

Dramatic Impact on Wages

The UFW’s impact on the farm wages has been dramatic. At its height, the UFW represented about a third of the seasonal farm work force in California, and even non-union workers were earning higher pay because of the union’s influence.

By 1987 the union contracts had pushed the base hourly wage to $5.79, up from $1.25 in 1965. That is a 363% increase, compared to a 260% rise in the cost of living index over the same period. And union workers were covered by a medical plan, pension benefits and paid vacations, according to economist Philip L. Martin, a professor at UC Davis.

Government reports show the average non-union farm wage rose dramatically during the same period, reaching $5.54 an hour, but then slipped back below $5 an hour last year as the union’s influence declined. Seasonal laborers work only 120 days a year and are now earning about $4,000 a year, Martin said.

The union acknowledges that it has lost ground, but says it still has 80 agreements representing 35,000 workers, mostly in nurseries and on vegetable farms. The union refused to document these numbers.

Government reports, university studies and AFL-CIO statistics indicate the union has maybe half that number of contracts, covering 15,000 members or less. The numbers are difficult to pin down because the contracts are not recorded by any agency and the work force numbers fluctuate widely with the seasons.

Union Critical of ALRB

The union blames many of its problems on the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, created by the state’s historic 1975 farm labor law, which protects a union’s right to organize farm workers, guarantees free and fair union elections and governs the collective bargaining process. The five board members are appointed by the governor, as is the general counsel who carries out board policies.

While the board was dominated by appointees of former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., the UFW won hundreds of elections, although the collective bargaining process often proved exceedingly slow. But when Deukmejian was elected with strong support of the state’s big farmers, the board membership changed.

“Deukmejian is unarguably the opponent of farm worker organizing and a reliable friend of the growers,” said Clete Daniel, professor of labor history at Cornell University’s School of Industrial Relations, who has written extensively about farm labor.

David Stirling, appointed ALRB general counsel by Deukmejian in 1983, denies that the agency is biased in favor of growers.

“When I came over here the agency was biased for the UFW. . . . Chavez thought he owned the agency, and he did,” Stirling said. “We changed that by putting the boat back in the middle of the river.”

Election Process Defended

Stirling notes that the UFW lost all but six of the 33 elections held since 1986. “The union’s problem is not that they don’t get fair elections. . . . They don’t like the results of those elections,” he said.

Union leaders say the statistics are meaningless because Stirling and the board are not making growers play by the rules.

“When we send organizers in (to the fields) the growers fire entire crews,,” said Paul Chavez, son of the union’s president. When the union does win an election, Chavez said, the results are held up for months by grower challenges, then, when these issues are resolved and the union is certified, the growers drag out the bargaining process for years.

So the union is trying to change the rules. UFW leaders want the farmers to agree to a series of demands in advance of union organizing. These demands include an agreement by farmers that they will not start anti-union campaigns when UFW organizers go into the fields. The union also wants a written guarantee of “free and fair” elections. And it wants the five pesticides banned.

Coors Precedent Cited

Such a document “would be like a marketing agreement between union and industry,” said the UFW’s Chris Hartmire. “Once the guidelines were established, then the actual election could take place . . . under the law.”

While unusual, such an agreement is not without precedent, labor experts say. The most noted case was the 1987 agreement between Brewery Workers Local 366 in Golden, Colo., with the Adolph Coors, Co. The AFL-CIO agreed to end its boycott of Coors beer when the company agreed not to interfere with the union’s campaign to organize workers.

Chavez has said he is committed to the grape boycott in an attempt to win a similar agreement, even if the process takes years. Meanwhile, some field workers are growing impatient with the union’s absence.

‘You don’t see organizers anymore,” said worker Miguel Mendoza, 47, one of the original grape strikers in 1965 and union supporter. “I would ask Cesar: ‘What are you doing? Is the fast to work on pesticides or is it to get the contracts back?’ What I see is that the whole movement seems to have stopped.”