The new president of the United Farm Workers union on Wednesday called for an escalation of a six-year boycott of California table grapes to press for stronger protections against pesticides and better labor contracts.
In his first formal address since succeeding the late Cesar Chavez as president of the union, Arturo S. Rodriguez, 43, told 800 people attending the National Conference on Migrant and Seasonal Workers: “We’re going to give the boycott everything we have . . . and it has to be won very soon.”
Chavez died in his sleep of natural causes April 23 while visiting Yuma, Ariz. Rodriguez is a veteran UFW organizer and Chavez’s son-in-law.
It remains to be seen whether the revived boycott effort can pull the union out of a long decline or muster the kind of support that brought large-scale unionization to agriculture in the United States for the first time in 1970.
At its height in the 1970s, the UFW had at least 70,000 members, and even non-union workers were earning higher pay because of the union’s influence. Now, the UFW has at most 5,000 members covered by contracts, union officials said.
But Rodriguez said Chavez’s death has got people thinking again about the dangers of farm pesticides, and about the union’s 27-year fight for “free and fair” elections and equal labor protection under the law.
“It’s sad to say it took this to wake people up,” Rodriguez said. “Now people are expecting a lot from us and we’re nothing but encouraged.”
Rodriquez said key activists who had left the UFW in recent years have returned since Chavez’s death. Among them is Dolores Huerta, a longtime Chavez confidante who plans to return to the union’s active leadership as first vice president.
Rodriguez’s optimistic remarks were overshadowed at the conference by concerns over the recently passed Health Care Reform Act in Washington state, which specifically excludes an estimated 100,000 uninsured and low-income migrant workers from the new state health plan.
A new state health commission is expected to conduct a study of the best way to ensure coverage of the mostly Latino laborers who work on farms as tree planters or in canneries and food processing plants.
Meanwhile, Gov. Mike Lowry, who is expected to sign the bill into law May 17, is under intense pressure from migrant service organizations across the country to use his line item veto power to remove the exclusion clause from the proposed law.
“This is a super urgent issue,” said Tina Castanares, a physician and spokeswoman for the Migrant Clinicians Network. “It could set a disastrous precedent that could mean the institutionalization of an underclass when it comes to health care.”
Rodriguez agreed, saying: “Farm work is one of the most hazardous occupations in the country, and for the governor and Legislature to even consider such a proposal is shameful.”
Rodriguez, who had been first vice president of the UFW, will head the labor union until its 1994 convention, when he must stand for election. A San Antonio native with a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan, Rodriguez has worked for the UFW since the early 1970s.