Today's HDS Vote On Grapes Raises Complex Issues


The Great Grape Referendum is finally here.

After the cancellation of a referendum planned for Nov. 21, two revisions of the ballot options, plenty of juicy debate on campus and even a grape vigil on the steps of Memorial Church, students will decide the fate of grapes at Harvard today in an all-day referendum in all undergraduate dining halls.

According to Harvard Dining Services (HDS), students will choose electronically between the following two ballot options as they swipe their Harvard ID cards:

* YES, I believe Dining Services should serve grapes of any kind.

* NO, I believe Dining Services should not serve grapes unless and until grapes become available with a United Farm Workers (UFW) union label.

Although no absentee ballots will be offered, students will be able to vote during either breakfast, lunch or dinner.

The two options represent a compromise between HDS and student leaders, who felt the proposed six option ballot--which include choices such as "I support only the serving of California grapes in the dining halls if they are picked by a UFW member or [grapes that] come from Chile"--would confuse most students.

If a majority of students vote for the "Yes" option, HDS will reverse its 1992 ban on table grapes and resume serving grapes at Sunday brunches. Michael Miller, executive chef at HDS, estimated that HDS would purchase about 750 pounds of grapes each time they are served--between 32 and 38 boxes a week.

On the other hand, if a majority of students vote for the "No" option, Harvard will continue its boycott of non-UFW approved growers, while keeping open the possibility of serving grapes that have been approved.

Until recently, most involved with the debate assumed that a vote for only UFW approved grapes would, from a practical standpoint, result in an effective ban on grapes, since only one grape grower in California--Nash-De Camp--has signed an agreement with the UFW, according to Mark Grossman, director of the UFW's press division and Cesar Chavez's press secretary from 1975 to 1993.

Even if Nash-De Camp were to produce enough grapes for Harvard's consumption, it would be next to impossible, it was thought, to obtain a pure supply of Nash-De Camp grapes through Harvard's produce supplier, Costa Fruit and Produce.

According to Brad Woodgate, Costa's vice president, Costa purchases grapes from about 50 growers and distributors.

However, recent findings by The Crimson indicate the possibility of purchasing UFW approved grapes is quite real.

In an interview last week with The Crimson, Michael Shuklian, a sales manager at Nash-De Camp, said "there wouldn't be a problem with us trying to set up" a contract to sell grapes directly to Harvard.

Although many of Nash-De Camp's customers are supermarkets that provide their own transportation, the company has its a transportation department and could deliver the grapes to Harvard, according to Shuklian.

"We could work it out, I'm sure," he said, adding that Nash-De Camp delivers grapes to Boston "all the time."

Based in Visalia, California, Nash-De Camp owns 1,000 acres of vineyards in Delano, California, as well as vineyards in Chile, and acts as grower, a packer, and a shipper of grapes under the Sunpower brand name. It handles almost 70 million pounds of grapes a year--two-thirds from California, and the remainder from Chile.

According to Stephen C. Biswell, president and CEO of Nash-De Camp, the company has recognized the UFW as the "certified bargaining unit" between management and its workers for the past 15 years.

Although talks with the UFW broke down 12 years ago, the company resumed discussions with the union two years ago and signed an agreement this November, Biswell said.

During the period without union representation, Biswell said, the company decided to give raises to all of its workers without pressure from the UFW. Its workers are now paid about $7 per hour, in contrast to wages of $5.50 per hour common in other vineyards, and usually work no more than nine hours per day, said Biswell.

He added that Nash-De Camp's labor practices haven't changed significantly as a result of the recent agreement with the union.

"Because of the way we have operated, and because of the laws out here in California, there's not too many things that change for us," Biswell said. "We direct the workers, they harvest the grapes, and they're able to put together a good box of grapes."

Biswell said Nash-De Camp workers enjoyed good working conditions, but added that "most of the Delano ranches are all very similar, whether they're union or non-union."

"Restrooms are present, [and] there are clean water facilities to wash hands," Biswell said. "All the workers are provided the tools that they need to perform the task that they have."

Nash-De Camp workers also receive health insurance, a pension plan fully paid by the company, a vacation plan and holiday pay, Biswell said.

Nash-De Camp does use pesticides, Biswell said, including one of the five pesticides targeted by the UFW boycott--methyl bromide--but said workers would not come in contact with the poison.

"Methyl bromide is not applied to grapes in the field," he said. "Methyl bromide is only used to fumigate a bare field before you plant it."

According to Grossman, the UFW still has some concerns about its contract with Nash-De Camp.

Although Nash-De Camp's workers are all UFW members, and hence any grapes they pick are exempt from the boycott, the company also acts as a distributor for grapes picked by other growers, all of whom employ non-UFW workers.

"It's something we need to work out," Grossman said.

Grossman added that he thought the issue would be resolved quickly.

"I think we're going to work it out by next season," he said.

Although HDS is aware of the possibility of purchasing UFW-approved grapes should a majority of students vote for the second ballot option today, representatives from HDS "haven't made any contact" with Nash-De Camp, said Alexandra McNitt, a project manager with HDS, in a recent e-mail to The Crimson.

"We'll see how the vote comes out and take it from there," she said.

Many involved with the debate have raised the issue of the symbolic importance of Harvard's decision on grapes in the context of the larger boycott and UFW movement.

"When you make choices like this, you don't make them in a vacuum," said Marshall Ganz '66-'92, an instructor at the Kennedy School of Government who worked for the UFW from 1965-1981 and directed the union's organizing efforts under Cesar Chavez.

"If students vote to get rid of the boycott, there will be newspaper stories in California about how Harvard students have turned their back on farm workers," Ganz said. "Then the growers will translate them into Spanish, they'll turn them into leaflets and they'll pass them out on all the farms where the union is trying to organize as evidence that the union has no support."

"On the other hand, if there were stories saying Harvard students upheld the boycott, the union will turn that into leaflets and say 'We're not alone, people support us,'" Ganz said.

Adam R. Kovacevich '99, chair of the ad-hoc Grape Coalition, had a different viewpoint.

"We are a potential consumer of food products just like any university or hospital or business," Kovacevich said, "and I think it's arrogant to claim that Harvard students' position on this issue will cause some sort of monumental improvement."

Grossman, the director of the UFW's press division, agreed that the "prominence" of Harvard would carry symbolic weight, but conceded that today's decision would have little economic impact on major grape growers.

"It's not going to make the table grape industry do the right thing," he said.

With the revision of the ballot options, the outcome of today's vote is far from clear.

In a voluntary straw poll of 142 students who visited The Crimson Web site before Nov. 21, 65 percent of students favored grapes, 30 percent voted against them, and five percent were undecided.

In an updated voluntary on-line poll of 209 students taken by The Crimson last night, 60 percent of students said they wanted grapes to return to the dining halls, 36 percent said they were against and four percent had no opinion