Last April 29, while Angelenos were remembering the turmoil of one year before, farm workers from across the West converged on Delano, an agricultural community just north of Bakersfield. Somewhere between 35,000 and 50,000 people came to honor a fallen leader, Cesar Chavez, co- founder and president of the United Farm Workers. For three decades, Chavez organized field hands in a battle with growers over wages, living conditions and use of pesticides. He took his cause into the cities, organizing a series of successful grape boycotts. At its peak in the 1970s, his union boasted more than 100,000 members, and, for many, Chavez was a saint-like figure.
Yet at the time of Chavez's death last spring, the UFW ranks had dwindled to perhaps as few as 5,000 members. Not a single grape grown in California was picked by laborers working under a UFW contract. The United Farm Workers seemed something of an anachronism.
But in coming to memorialize Chavez, the throngs of followers also inspired his successors. Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the union, returned to the leadership after years in exile. And longtime UFW organizer and Chavez son-in-law Arturo Rodriguez was chosen as the new president of the union.
Unlike Chavez, who had only an eighth-grade education, Rodriguez earned a Master's degree at the University of Michigan. A native of San Antonio, he first met Chavez in 1973, and within a year was married to his daughter, Linda. They and their three children continue to live at the union headquarters in Keene.
The 43-year-old Rodriguez is committed to revitalizing the UFW, and has promised to add 10,000 new members by the first anniversary of Chavez's death. Since being named president in May, he's traveled extensively, drumming up support in both the fields and the cities. A slight man with a warm smile, he follows Chavez's habit of living frugally, staying at the homes of farm workers when he's on the road, and eschewing ties for open-necked shirts. His eyes become wet when he speaks of his mentor and father-in-law, and says while Chavez' death was sudden and unexpected, it can now provide a new kind of inspiration for farm workers and those who support their cause.
Question: What would you say is the source of your social activism? Was it the Catholic Church?
Answer: Yes. I was born and raised a Catholic. I consider myself a practicing Catholic. When I was growing up, there was a priest I became close to, named Father Marvin Doerfler. And what really opened my eyes was when Cesar (Chavez) first came down to Texas, in 1966. Father Doerfler marched with the farm workers, and afterward he explained to me what it was all about--how they were protesting the low wages and bad working conditions and everything. I was in high school then, and it was very exciting.
Then Father Doerfler was disciplined by the archbishop for demonstrating with the farm workers. That just sort of blew me away. Because here was Cesar preaching nonviolence, justice--talking about things that seemed very much a part of our religion. At any rate, they sent Father Doerfler to another parish, as punishment, and I got a lesson that things weren't as black and white as I had thought. Father Doerfler was eventually allowed to come back, and we got to be friends again. We're still friends. . . .
Then, when I went to school, a lot of my friends--I guess you'd call them progressive Catholics--were also involved with the farm workers. We'd get up early and picket at produce terminals.
Finally, there was Cesar. The man spent anywhere from 18 to 20 hours a day doing the work. Seven days a week. Just hammering at it, being consistent about what he was saying and doing. So, the day I graduated from college was the day I joined the United Farm Workers, in May of '73.
Q: Someone wrote that all the things you've done--leafletting, organizing workers and boycotts--left you prepared to lead your union, but nothing could prepare you for Chavez's death. Had you thought at all about what would happen to the union without him?
A: We never thought about it. Cesar's mom lived to be 99, his dad lived to maybe 101. We used to joke among ourselves that, boy, the growers are going to have a long time waiting out Cesar. We all thought he would be here for a long time to come. He was where we got the inspiration and the ideas. It just never occurred to us to think about what the union, or what life would be like without Cesar around.
Even right now it's still difficult to wake up some mornings and know when you go to that office, you're not going to see him there. I mean, he was a tremendous friend . . . .
Q: What's life like for the average farm worker?
A: Pay scale is somewhere from below minimum wage to about five bucks an hour. The housing situation is a real tragedy, especially for the migrant farm workers. When they move from town to town, there is no housing for them. During the harvest season, the back roads are lined with cars, where people are living in their automobiles. Their bathtub is often a drainage ditch, filled with irrigation runoff from the fields.
Child labor is still a problem. Families are forced to have their children work to makes ends meet. And a woman is too often forced to choose between her dignity and keeping her job. Or perhaps required to offer sexual favors so she can keep her family together, keep her children with her.
Then there's drinking water and restrooms. Three years ago we went into the fields and did a survey. We found if restrooms existed, they were so filthy workers wouldn't use them. We found bad quality water everywhere.
I know it's hard for a consumer to understand how their grapes got to the marketplace, but it's often the result of a tremendous amount of pain on the part of the farm workers. We talk about Mexico and about underdeveloped countries, and yet people forget how exploited many of our workers are here in this country.
Q: You've made a promise to recruit 10,000 new members before the first anniversary of Chavez's death, and 10,000 each year thereafter. Will these be people working under UFW contracts?
A: Since Gov. Deukmejian came into office in 1983, the growers have systematically destroyed the enforcement of the Agriculture Labor Relations Act. In that 10-year period, we've seen our membership dwindle significantly--because the growers have refused to sign our contracts. Because of that, we've basically allowed the growers to define who among farm workers can declare themselves a member of the UFW. Cesar recognized this as a trap, and had already set the stage for a new type of membership. So now, what we do is go to the farm workers who are sympathetic and who want to be identified with the union, and we are offering them membership. They will be able to get benefits and services from our union even if they don't have a union contract at their ranch.
So we've turned the whole thing around. It's no longer going to be the growers making the determination. Anybody that's a farm worker is now welcome into the organization. We're going to give them the hope things will change.
Q: Many labor unions are exploring alternatives to strikes as ways of achieving their goals. Is the strike no longer an effective weapon for farm workers?
A: You have to understand the reality. When you get into those rural communities, the growers control it lock, stock and barrel. They control the law enforcement, the courts, and if you go on strike, or you demonstrate, they will exercise that control. So what happens if we strike? The growers will resort to violence. And since we are committed to nonviolence, we really don't feel that we can subject workers to a situation where their lives may be threatened. When it gets to that point, you have to step back and look over the whole situation. . . . Our most powerful weapon has always been the boycott. Every major break we have had has been the result of a boycott.
Q: Is the grape boycott still in effect? What do you ask people to do when they go to the market?
A: One simple thing--don't buy anything that looks like grapes, whether they be green or red or whatever. From the month of May to December, almost all the grapes you find in your market are California table grapes. So during that period we ask people not to eat any grapes at all. Period.
Q: I'm sure you are happy to have a Democrat in the White House, but the Clinton Administration has been somewhat less than warm to labor unions. Are you beginning to think that the Democratic Party is no longer an automatic ally?
A: If you ask most farm workers, we're all registered Democrats. But never again will we rely on politicians to do the work we need to do. We are going to go directly to consumers--to voters--to force that politician to make the right decisions. But our real connection needs to be with consumers, with people on a direct basis. If we eliminate pesticides for our health, as workers, it will also certainly benefit consumers.
Q: What's the UFW position on NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement?
A: At the time of Cesar's death we were studying it, and in the four months since, we have yet to take an official position. However, in talking with the workers, we are very concerned about the impact it will have on their jobs, here in California and in the United States as a whole. We're concerned that agribusinesses are going to relocate themselves in Mexico, and further exploit workers with low wages, bad working conditions and abuse of pesticides. We don't know if that will be the case, but we're certainly looking at it.
Q: What's been your reaction to proposals by Gov. Pete Wilson to stem the tide of immigration into the state?
A: It's really an outrageous position, not only for the governor, but for some Democrats as well, because none of them are focusing on what the real issue is. The problem is not the poor worker who comes across the border out of basic need, who is being lured over here to get a job that nobody else wants. The real violators here are the growers--they are the ones who want those workers here.
So it's hypocritical on the part of the governor, because some of his biggest support comes from agribusiness. It's hypocritical of other politicians, because they are simply taking advantage of the situation and trying to impress voters that they are fighting on their behalf, when in fact they are not. The root of the problem is agribusinesses and their desire for a steady and cheap labor force. Until we address that problem directly, nothing will change.
Q: Cesar Chavez left you with some pretty big shoes to fill. How do you go about following in his footsteps?
A: I, or no one else, will every replace Cesar Chavez. He was unique and special, a man of total commitment and dedication. Fortunately, I had over 20 years working with him. He taught me, as he taught all of us. He gave us what we need to continue this movement.
Cesar, in his 66 years of life, worked about 120 years. He just packed every moment into working on behalf of this cause. I will try to do the same. We'll work with farm workers and with consumers, trying to maintain the coalition Cesar put together. Also, we will maintain his three philosophies. One is the use of the boycott, the second is nonviolence, and the third is volunteerism. He believed that it's important for those of us working with the farm workers to share in that suffering. So we don't make a lot of money. We get our basics taken care of and that's it. It's not an 8-hour-a-day job, either. We do a lot of traveling. I think it's important for us to show up, both in the urban areas and out in the fields. In person, letting people see us, touch us and know that we are committed to carrying on Cesar's work . . . .