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Weak as It Is, the UFW Is the Farm Workers’ Only Hope

California grape growers have battled Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers of America for more than 25 years, but total victory for them against the remarkably enduring 62-year-old Chavez isn’t on the horizon.

The UFW has been badly weakened by the war but it’s still fighting.

A complete growers’ victory would be a tragedy. Though inadequate and flawed, no other nationally known organization besides the UFW exists to plead the cause of farm workers, most of whom still live in deep poverty.

Farm workers are better off than they were before Chavez came on the scene. A few years after the union began, wages went up for union members and even non-members, whose bosses paid close to union scale as a union repellent.

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The workers also won the right to unemployment insurance benefits. And generally, growers, acutely aware of the union’s presence, began to treat workers more like people than “hands,” as they were usually called before passage in 1975 of a state farm labor law that was carefully crafted to help build the union.

However, after the election of former President Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Gov. George Deukmejian in 1982, the union and farm workers fell on hard times.

Since the Reagan Era opened in 1981, farm wages have remained almost stagnant. Those who try to earn their living from field work in California still make only about $5,000 a year with almost no fringe benefits, according to Prof. Philip Martin, agricultural economist at UC Davis.

Farm work is a hard, dirty job and, if anything, more dangerous than ever. Farm workers suffer more illness caused by their jobs than do workers in any other industry in California. As for on-the-job injuries, only construction workers suffer more.

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Meanwhile, the union has been getting progressively weaker. Its membership is now pitifully small, its array of enemies larger than ever and its internal problems seem to be endless.

For struggling farm workers, though, the UFW is the only game in town, and just the other day came yet another sign that the union is far from dead.

New York City elected officials listened to Chavez’s pleas and proclaimed July 3-9 as “Grape Boycott Week” in the nation’s second-largest market for grapes.

The Spectacolor lights atop Times Square are blazing a computer-animated message this month harshly alleging that there is terrible danger from pesticides on grapes.

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That support for the union’s 5-year-old grape boycott was followed by announcements from several supermarket chains that they were halting sales of grapes in 126 stores in that city.

The New York action added new pressures to those already coming from more than 700 cities, along with counties, religious groups, unions, members of Congress, state legislators and others endorsing the grape boycott.

All New Yorkers haven’t suddenly stopped eating grapes, but the added boycott support didn’t help growers. As Harry Cubo, president of the 1,400-member Nisei Farmers League, says, “even a 2% cut in sales hurts, and those who say it doesn’t are lying.”

Whether because of the boycott, as Chavez claims, or because of what the growers say are natural market fluctuations, prices of some varieties of grapes have dropped significantly as surpluses have piled up.

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But until the New York action, the growers seemed to be winning:

- The UFW once had contracts with almost every California grape grower. Today, it has none. The growers first switched to contracts with their ally, the Teamsters Union, but when the Teamsters reached a peace accord with the UFW, the growers refused to sign new UFW contracts.

- Despite state law requiring bargaining “in good faith,” the UFW has been unable to get contract agreements with more than 150 growers whose workers have voted in secret-ballot elections for union representation.

- There is relatively little organizing going on among farm workers as, perhaps mistakenly, the union concentrates on its costly, computerized mail boycott campaign.

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- Union membership is down from a peak of 100,000 to 20,000, according to the UFW, and others estimate that actual membership is less than 12,000.

- Arguments about the propriety of the union’s financial dealings have taken a toll. (No one, though, is accusing Chavez or other union officials of pocketing union funds. Chavez earned only $5,140 plus minimal expenses last year.)

- Two state government agencies are openly in the battle against the union:

The California Agricultural Labor Relations Board is run by Deukmejian appointees who make no secret of their dislike of Chavez and the UFW. The agency has been emasculated by a two-thirds reduction of its budget and staff since 1963, and the remnant does more to help growers than the union and workers it was established to assist.

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The Department of Food and Agriculture recently sent letters containing pesticide data to the nation’s grocery chains that included furious denunciations of the UFW.

While justified in publicizing its research, the department also alleged that the union used “blatantly false” information about the dangers of pesticides in a “campaign of scare tactics,” hardly a dispassionate position for a government agency.

Despite the agency’s assurances that pesticides used on grapes pose absolutely no danger to consumers, it does not keep full records of pesticide use and is supporting a bill in Sacramento to require growers for the first time to report all the pesticides they use.

The union’s enemies are powerful. That strength, combined with the UFW’s own failures, mean that even though growers cannot confidently await the union’s early death, it may be years before farm workers can get meaningful assistance again from the UFW.

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