Teamsters and UFW Talks Could Yield Historic Alliance


In the early 1970s, the United Farm Workers and Teamsters were locked in a bloody battle for the right to represent workers toiling in California’s rich agriculture industry.

Eventually, the violence ended--but not until several people were killed and many more were roughed up, often by burly thugs dispatched into the fields by the Teamsters to break up UFW picket lines.

In what could be a historic break from that ugly past, the two unions now are talking about launching their first-ever joint organizing effort, a campaign to recruit tens of thousands of apple pickers and packers in Washington state. Later, the joint campaign could be extended to the huge strawberry industry in California.

The talks came to light here Tuesday at the AFL-CIO winter executive council meeting. Top officials for both unions, particularly the UFW, cautioned that the proposed pact has a long way to go before becoming a reality.

Just the fact that the longtime enemies are in negotiations, however, was regarded by labor leaders as a big, symbolic step in the AFL-CIO’s efforts to overcome past union jurisdictional disputes and foster multi-union organizing drives.


“If that’s the direction these two unions go in, it would be labor history,” said Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, who as a girl growing up in West Texas worked as a cotton picker.

“It’s an important measure of what we want to do with our new approach in the American labor movement.”


Bob Muehlenkamp, the Teamsters’ organizing director, said his union recently began its drive to recruit packers and other warehouse workers in Washington’s apple industry. He estimates that as many as 13,000 workers are employed in such jobs.

The task of organizing the 40,000 or more apple pickers working in the fields would go to the UFW. Among families living in Washington’s Yakima Valley, Muehlenkamp said, there is often one person employed in the fields and another working in a packing warehouse--making a joint organizing drive by the two unions a logical strategy.

In California, he said, a similar division of roles would be worked out, with the UFW taking the lead role in organizing.

“This is a historic process, and we’re proud of it,” Muehlenkamp said. “There is a total commitment by the two international unions to have no conflicts over this and to be totally supportive of each other.”

Arturo Rodriguez, UFW president, was more guarded in his comments about the possible joint organizing campaign. Citing “the history” between his union and the UFW, Rodriguez said UFW members would have to be consulted about the possibility of working with their former rivals before an agreement could be crafted.

Rodriguez cited the UFW’s tragic 1973 grape strike in the Coachella Valley. It was called off after four months by the union’s legendary former leader, Cesar Chavez, when two UFW picketers were killed.

“Lives were lost. People were beaten up. We can’t snap our fingers and forget about it,” Rodriguez said.

While expressing admiration for current Teamster President Ron Carey and his efforts to clean up his traditionally corruption-plagued union, Rodriguez also said that UFW members still “have to take into account what his predecessors did.”

Still, Rodriguez acknowledged that Washington is fertile ground for organizing by both unions.


Separately at the labor federation meeting, AFL-CIO leaders unveiled plans to hold a series of town hall-style meetings across the country to dramatize the issue of stagnant wages.

The campaign, “America Needs a Raise,” will include hearings in nearly 30 cities, including Los Angeles, between March 15 and May 31.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, elaborating on the campaign, said the nation has developed “an alarming maldistribution of wealth.”

“Working families have little money to spend, they are loaded with debt and they have no time to spend with their children,” he added.

“Threatened by restructuring, downsizing, pension raids, privatization schemes and runaway plants, their anger is exceeded only by anxiety over keeping their jobs. They are disgusted with business and government, and their disillusionment is straining the fabric of our society.”