Two-time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson once described a hypocrite as someone “who would cut down a redwood tree, then mount the stump and make a speech for conservation.”
His words come to mind when critics, especially growers, say that Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers should spend more time organizing field laborers instead of boycotting table grapes.
Before I’m accused of faking objectivity, let me be candid: I don’t have any. I’ve been a UFW partisan since 1969, when, as a college student, I helped organize a grape boycott. Lack of detachment doesn’t necessarily destroy your perspective; it just colors it. I’ve seen a lot of recent California farm labor history up close. Since it is frequently ignored, history is a good place to begin.
It was the law of the jungle for at least 80 years in California fields before Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. pushed through the pioneering farm-labor act in 1975. Dozens of labor groups had tried and failed to organize farm workers. Farm workers were excluded from New Deal reforms conferring organizing rights on industrial employees.
In 1965, Chavez revived the farm workers’ cause when he led a major strike against Delano-area grape producers. That walkout was also headed for failure until Chavez tried something different: He asked North American consumers to boycott California table grapes. It worked. By 1970, grape growers were signing their first-ever union contacts. A second grape boycott, along with pressure from supermarkets, forced growers to accept Brown’s law, which guaranteed the right to organize and to have secret-ballot elections conducted by the new state Agricultural Labor Relations Board.
Since 1975, the UFW has won 646 union elections. It usually prevailed over “no-union” choices and the Teamsters Union, which many growers invited in during the 1970s to oppose the UFW. Despite long delays and the farm board’s bureaucratic inertia, farm workers made progress. By the early ‘80s, tens of thousands enjoyed UFW contracts’ improved wages, family medical coverage and other protections.
Most farm workers still remained unprotected in 1983, when George Deukmejian took over as governor after receiving more than $1 million in campaign contributions from agribusiness. All but the most biased observers now admit that, under Deukmejian, the ALRB stopped enforcing the law.
Charges against growers were dismissed without investigation. Cases where the board and the courts had ordered employers to pay farm workers millions in damages for breaking the law were settled for as little as 10 cents on the dollar.
Rene Lopez, a 19-year-old worker at Sikkema Farms dairy, was shot to death after voting in a union-representation election in the Fresno area in 1983. Before the election, the board had failed to act on complaints that agents of the dairy were brandishing guns. After Lopez was killed, security guards at Sikkema began carrying billy clubs, rifles, pistols and shotguns. Deukmejian’s ALRB refused to go to court for an order barring such weapons. The UFW obtained the injunction.
Most workers who were beaten, threatened, fired and blacklisted for organizing still don’t have what they sacrificed for: a UFW contract. A just-released ALRB report shows that growers owe money to 11,274 farm workers who lost income because of anti-union discrimination. Only 348 of them now work under union contract.
The issue isn’t organizing; it’s negotiating contracts in good faith, which growers have stopped doing. The UFW still represents about 85,000 workers who voted for the union but can’t get contracts. Some employers avoided legal obligations to bargain through corporate reshuffling: Company A would go out of business. The next day it would re-emerge as Companies B, C and D. The same managers farmed the same land with the same equipment. But there was a new non-union work force. The ALRB did nothing.
Those who looked to Gov. Pete Wilson for change have been disappointed. His first appointee to the farm labor board was defeated GOP state Sen. Jim Nielsen, a pesticide industry consultant.
Now, as in the ‘60s, the UFW faces certain defeat when pursuing traditional organizing tactics because of violence, intimidation and unbending opposition from growers and government officials. With farm workers buckling under an industry-dominated ALRB, Chavez once more asked the public to support a new grape boycott.
Now his detractors, in and out of agriculture, knock the UFW for focusing on boycotting instead of field organizing. The UFW may be the only union in America criticized by employers for not doing enough to organize workers.
Chavez won’t launch new organizing drives that call on desperately poor people to risk what little they possess, knowing they will gain nothing in return. Boycotts are what produced much of the UFW’s gains in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The grape boycott is showing strength again, especially in Southern California where efforts are now centered.
Should Chavez be blamed for resorting to a boycott when growers make it impossible for farm workers to organize and win contracts under the law? You decide who’s standing on the tree stump and preaching conservation.