The Grape Travesty

GUEST COMMENTARY

TODAY IT IS IMPORTANT that we join the struggle of farm workers for justice and dignity in the agricultural fields of California and boycott grapes, just as thousands of students did in the late 1960s and mid 1970s.

Since 1962, the United Farm Workers (UFW) of America and Cesar Chavez, its founders and president, have relied on the support and compassion of the American people. In the first grape boycott, from 1965 to 1970, farm workers and UFW volunteers, including many students, successfully convinced millions of Americans to stop buying California table grapes.

The Farm Workers won the boycott in 1970, and for the first time in this country's history, grape growers in California (over 95 percent of them) signed contracts with their workers. These first contracts guaranteed safe and decent working conditions for farm workers, secured jobs, ended child labor and banned the use of toxic pesticides like DDT, Dieldren and Aldrin, which threatened the lives of farm workers and consumers.

In 1973, when these contracts expired and the growers illegally signed contracts with the Teamsters Union, the UFW again called on the American public to boycott grapes. Farm workers and volunteers left California and travelled across the country visiting churches, universities, community organizations, politicians and others who would listen.

Due to the support of consumers during this second boycott, the first labor law in this country protecting farm workers was passed in California. The Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 gave farm workers the legal right to organize and bargain collectively. (Agricultural workers are not covered by the 1935 Wagner Act, which gives every other type of worker the right to organize and bargain collectively.)

Unfortunately, since 1980 Republican administrations in California, who get a large portion of their financial backing from agribusiness, have shamefully denied farm workers their legal rights. As a result, the working conditions of farm workers rapidly declined in the 1980s. The state of grape workers and their children today, in 1991, is worse than it was 30 years ago, when Chavez first set out to eliminate the injustices of agricultural work.

The uncontrolled and reckless use of toxic pesticides by grape growers demonstrates how helpless farm workers and their children are without protection. In 1988, 12 million pounds of pesticides were used on grapes alone in California; one-third of these pesticides are known to cause cancer. This inordinate use of toxic pesticides poisons and kills farm workers and their children. In McFarland, the rate of cancer diagnosed among children is 800 percent the normal rate. Fourteen children in this grape-growing community of 6000 have been stricken with cancer since 1985; six have already died.

In Earlimart, 15 miles from McFarland, six children have been diagnosed with cancer since 1988; the rate in Earlimart is 1200 percent the expected rate. One of these children, Monica Tovar, died earlier this year. Seven children in Fowler, another grape-growing community, have been diagnosed with cancer since 1984. The World Institute estimates that toxic pesticides poison over 300,000 farm workers in the United States every year.

Because they are denied their legal right to organize and bargain collectively with growers, farm workers, especially grape workers, earn meager wages while working under miserable conditions. Many grape growers use the piece rate method to underpay their workers. As a result, grape growers often earn as little as $2 an hour.

In addition, the California Occupational Health and Safety Agency concluded in 1990 that over 75 percent of agricultural growers fail to provide farm workers with adequate toilets and drinking water. These indispensable human beings are not only grossly underpaid, but inhumane growers force them to relieve themselves in bushes and work in the scorching sun for hours without drinking water.

Unable to earn a substantial wage, farm workers and their children suffer from hunger and malnutrition. A 1990 survey by the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation concluded that one out of every three, or more than 65,000, farm worker children in the Central Valley suffers from severe hunger. Two out of every three farm worker families in this region face monthly food shortages. Farm worker children as young as five or six years old, are forced to forgo education and work in the fields to help their family survive.

AGAINST ALL THESE injustices and many more, the UFW and Cesar Chavez in 1984 called their third boycott of California table grapes. In 1987, the boycott received the resources it desperately needed to get off the ground and become effective. One year later, in 1988, Chavez embarked on his third water fast since 1968, "The Fast for Life."

This fast of 36 days was Chavez's way of asking Americans to not forget the suffering of farm workers and their children, the important human beings who feed this nation daily. Thousands of Americans have responded positively to Chavez's appeal for support, and today the boycott is quickly gaining monentum and making a large impact on grape sales. But there is still much more to be done.

Here at Harvard, California table grapes are frequently served at dinners, receptions, banquets, reunions and other gatherings. Contrary to common belief, grapes from California constitute more than 90 percent of the available grapes during the months of April through December. When you see them being served, please approach the caterers and ask them to honor the boycott by not buying grapes.

And when you go home to your respective communities, talk to people about the boycott. By doing these little things to raise awareness, you make a big difference in the lives of thousands of farm workers.

Speaking out against injustice takes courage and determination, but we can always look to the life of Cesar Chavez for strength and guidance. As Chavez himself said on the last day of his 25-day fast in 1968, "The greatest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us be men!"

Erica Hashimoto '92 and Andres Irlando '93 are members of the United Farm Workers of Harvard.