Pilgrimage to Mark Strategy Shift for UFW

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Retracing the path of its first march 28 years ago, the United Farm Workers union will begin a 330-mile trek Thursday from the fields of this farm town to the steps of the state Capitol to announce a major shift in strategy--a change that could hasten the union's death or return it to the glory days of the 1970s.

No longer will the grape boycott be the centerpiece of the UFW, as it has been for the past decade. The union's leadership has decided to return to the fields, to the blood-and-guts work of organizing farm laborers, enlisting new members, confronting growers and pushing for new contracts.

It is a gamble for a union that has suffered years of defeat and infighting and the death last April of its leader, Cesar Chavez. These fields can be unforgiving in more than one way. Hoisting its black Aztec eagle flag, the UFW will find out quickly if farm workers will heed the call to action or if the union is a mere token from the past.

But it is just the kind of gamble Arturo Rodriguez, Chavez's son-in-law and successor, believes he can win.

"We're taking a risk. But we're not going to lose," he said recently. "Everywhere we've gone this past year, farm workers are tired and fed up with abuse from growers and labor contractors who have no respect for them or their families. People are ready to fight."

Three decades after Chavez walked this same path--a pilgrimage that turned the tiny campesino and Delano into national symbols--the UFW hopes to work the same magic.

The pilgrimage or peregrinacion will begin Thursday, on the 67th anniversary of Chavez's birth, and end three weeks later in Sacramento on the first anniversary of his death--24 days through the vineyards and fruit orchards of California's agricultural heartland. There will be a Mass each morning and a rally each night.

But for all its religious symbolism and 1960s spirit, the march signals a wrenching departure from the recent strategies of Chavez. After all, it was the grape and lettuce boycott that brought growers to their knees in the 1970s. It was the boycott that compelled the state Legislature in 1975 to pass the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the landmark law that gave farm workers the right to collective bargaining and the right to seek redress for unfair practices.

"The boycott is a way to level the playing field and engage the consumer in the plight of farm workers, and it will always be a tool for us," said Rodriguez, 44, seated in his simple office at the union's compound in the Tehachapis, 100 miles north of Los Angeles. "But the boycott alone is not enough to bring about labor contracts."

In 1973, the union had contracts with 80% of the grape growers in the San Joaquin Valley. Today, not a single contract remains. At its height, the union had 100,000 members; now there are fewer than 15,000. It hopes to enlist 10,000 new members by the end of the march.

The shift in strategy is welcomed by longtime supporters and former top organizers of the UFW. For the past decade, some have decried the union's retreat from the fields and its singular dependence on the grape boycott and the issue of toxic pesticides as the way to pressure growers to improve the farm worker's lot.

"The boycott and organizing the worker in the field go hand in hand," said Jerome Waldie, a former U.S. congressman from Contra Costa County and a longtime UFW supporter. "Cesar should have never abandoned one for the other."

If the union did jettison its organizing efforts, Rodriguez said, it was because the Agricultural Labor Relations Board--the state agency set up to enforce the 1975 law--stopped protecting farm workers who had joined or wanted to join the UFW.

"The very law to protect us has been turned into a tool against us," he said. "This began under Gov. Deukmejian and has continued under Gov. Wilson."

Longtime critics of the UFW said the latest grape boycott, launched in 1984, has proved a resounding failure and the union is desperately seeking some new strategy, which happens to be an old strategy, to breathe life into a dying movement.

"I don't care by what stick you want to measure it--the price to the growers, the volume of grapes moved--this last boycott has been an absolute disaster," said Bruce Obbink, president of the California Table Grape Commission, a grower marketing and promotion group that has fought the UFW long and hard.

"Now we hear they are talking about returning to the field and organizing. I'm not sure they have the juice. They haven't done it for so long."

Although the boycott may not have generated contracts in the field, Rodriguez contends that it was by no means a failure.

"No one should downplay the risks of pesticides and no one should downplay the UFW's role in publicizing those risks. Our pressure played a role in getting some grape growers to change their toxic ways and getting the government to ban certain chemicals."

As for the union not having juice, Rodriguez pointed to the throngs of people, an estimated 35,000, who turned out for his father-in-law's funeral. "It reminded us of our wellspring of support, the flame that is still there. Now we need to go out into the fields with this peregrinacion and fan that flame."

The 24-day pilgrimage is also a look inside the soul of the UFW and an acknowledgment by those who served under Chavez that they could have done more.

"All of us were guilty of looking to my father and saying, 'Cesar will handle it. Cesar will take care of it,' " said Paul Chavez, 37, who worked beside his father for 20 years.

"This march is not only a way to renew the struggle and sign up new members along the route, but it is about penance."

The photos from the first Delano-to-Sacramento pilgrimage in the spring of 1966 show a 38-year-old Cesar Chavez, hair jet-black and cheeks puffy, carrying a huelga (strike) flag and leading a procession of 10,000. Before the march was over, the union had won its first contract.

The decade that followed was a heady one. The union forced growers who had sworn never to deal with Chavez to join the bargaining table. Schenley. Gallo. Steinberg. Giumarra. Pandol. Zaninovich. When those contracts came up for renewal in the mid-1970s, the growers shunned the UFW and made a pact with the rival Teamsters. Chavez felt that the Teamsters, a white-run organization, did not understand the plight of Mexican farm workers.

From Coachella to Fresno, the vineyards were the scene of massive walkouts and bloody confrontations. Two UFW strikers were killed in Kern County. San Joaquin Valley jails filled with UFW protesters. Chavez eventually prevailed.

"In the late 1960s and early '70s, the UFW was like water running downhill," said Jerome Cohen, the union's former attorney. "There was no way you could stop us and it all flowed from Cesar."

For those inside the union, the pilgrimage marks a passing of the torch from the legendary Chavez to Rodriguez. And the official announcement of the union's shift in strategy on the steps of the state Capitol April 24 will be Rodriguez's unveiling. The son of a sheet-metal worker and a high school teacher, he has spent half his life preparing for this moment.

He grew up in San Antonio and, unlike Chavez, he never had to toil in the fields. In 1971, he graduated with a degree in sociology from St. Mary's University, where he began working on UFW grape boycotts as a student volunteer.

Two years later, he met Chavez and a year after that married his daughter, Linda. After receiving his master's degree in sociology from the University of Michigan, Rodriguez joined the union full time, working his way from field organizer to top management.

Recently, he headed to Porterville, a town on the San Joaquin Valley's eastern citrus belt and the third stop on the march. There, he met with 200 farm workers and union organizers to drum up support for the pilgrimage and the summer of organizing that will follow. Before he left, he spent five minutes at the grave of Chavez, a simple grass plot in the middle of the union's La Paz compound.

"I talk to him everyday," he said. "For us, he is still living."

On the drive to Porterville, he described the harsh conditions in the field and how the grower has insulated himself morally and legally by using labor contractors to hire and fire farm workers and handle the payroll and taxes. These middlemen, almost exclusively Latino, often charge the farm workers exorbitant fees for everything from rent to transportation to sodas.

"We have set some basic standards that are met by a majority of the industry. Toilets in the field, fresh water, breaks. But the labor contractor system is a vicious, vicious system. And the grower washes his hands clean. He says: 'It's not me. If there are any abuses, it's the labor contractor who's to blame.' "

Wages have leveled off and in some cases dropped during the past decade, he said. The typical wage ranges from $4.25 to $6 an hour, down from a high of $7.50 an hour in some areas in the late 1970s. Because more than half of the state's farm workers are jobless at least 20 weeks a year, their annual income averages about $6,500, studies show.

As he entered the dance hall in Porterville, the 200 men, women and children rose to their feet and clapped like a train picking up speed, faster and faster.

"Viva Arturo Rodriguez! " the man with the microphone screamed.

"Viva!" chanted the crowd.

Esther Uranday, a UFW member since 1963, watched Rodriguez assume center stage. "We are seeing something in Artie that we saw in Cesar. Some light," she said, her eyes misty. "He is our leader now."

His speech was a call to arms. He said the success of the pilgrimage depended on their willingness to recruit fellow farm workers to join them and to cook food and provide housing for the marchers.

"Every worker is an organizer. We are not the organizers. You are. Every victory we have is because you have done it," he told them in Spanish.

"Se puede? " (Can it be done?)

"Si, se puede!"

Jose Carmona-Ramos, a 45-year-old orange picker who sometimes makes less than $3 an hour, said he supported the union but the attitude in the fields is much different now. "People are just happy to have a job. There are a lot of young workers coming up from Mexico who don't care about a union. They are young and shortsighted."

In private, Rodriguez acknowledged the difficulty in winning contracts at a time when the state labor relations board is headed by a general counsel "averse to the plight of farm workers." But the union has no choice, he said.

"The workers are already angry and frustrated and upset. From there, it takes a life of its own. It's funny. We are reliving this all over again. We have another opportunity to make it work with the growers. It will be interesting to see how they respond. Will they say: 'Let's work it out?' Or will the relationship be an antagonistic one?

"They have every reason to be concerned," he smiled.

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