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We Warned About Pesticides, Chavez Says in L.A.

Times Staff Writer

“The United Farm Workers started talking about pesticides back in 1958, and people just stared at us,” Cesar Chavez, the union’s president, said here Thursday night before attending a dinner in his honor.

“We became accustomed to all the ridicule we used to take. Now, when you say pesticides, people know what you’re talking about.”

Mariachis played in the background as a celebrity-studded crowd of more than 450 paid tribute to Chavez and UFW First Vice President Dolores Huerta at a fete marking the UFW’s 27th anniversary and Chavez’s 62nd birthday.

Chavez, still thin and recovering from a 36-day fast last year, was animated and in good spirits as he received well-wishers at the Los Angeles Hilton. Aides said he is still under a doctor’s care.

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‘No. 1 Issue’

Chavez said pesticides now are “the No. 1 issue with consumers and workers.”

State Department of Health statistics, he said, show that 52% of pesticide poisoning cases involving agricultural workers occur in grape vineyards. The UFW is boycotting California table grapes.

Chavez said growers have tried to discount the boycott’s effectiveness, until recently. He maintained Thursday that the growers are now saying in newspaper articles that the action is hurting them.

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The union, itself, is suffering from declining membership, and Chavez blamed “a lot of bad press” from newspapers sympathetic to growers. “If there are 5,000 workers in an area, we can get 500 to join the union,” Chavez said. “This doesn’t mean we have no support from the others. We still represent them. The UFW sets the standard for all of the workers in the area.”

He said the union’s plight is also exacerbated by lack of cooperation from the state Agriculture Labor Relations Board, which he contends is biased toward growers.

Growers’ Tactics

When the union wins a representation election, Chavez said, the grower will simply dissolve the company and reorganize under a new name to invalidate the election. He accused the ALRB of not enforcing laws aimed at preventing the “illegal shuffling of companies.”

In some cases where the union represents workers, Chavez said, “we have been bargaining from four to five years” without getting a contract.

David Arizmendi, a Chavez friend and former ALRB district director, said “growers have no incentive to bargain in good faith. It doesn’t cost them.”

When Chavez ended his fast last year, supporters took up a sympathetic “relay fast.” Huerta ended a three-day fast Thursday night and passed a symbolic wooden cross to her successor in the relay, actress Jane Fonda.

Money from the $125-a-plate fund-raiser will be used for television commercials to air farm workers’ issues, officials said.

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