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Farm Workers Press Lettuce Boycott


Picketing of several Harvard dining halls to protest the University's continued purchasing of non-union lettuce has generally been successful, but most students seem to be unaware of the issues behind the phrase "scab lettuce,"

The United Farm Workers (UFW), led by Cesar Chavez, has called for a nationwide boycott of all non-union lettuce. The UFW is the same group that organized the recent grape boycott.

The main issue in the lettuce boycott is the right of the lettuce pickers to form their own union. The UFW has been trying to organize farm workers in California's Salinas Valley, but lettuce growers have resisted, and have refused to recognize the UFW as the legitimate bargaining representative of the workers.

Present Conditions

The conditions the UFW are trying to change are the $1.25 per hour average wage pickers earn, and the lack of any health, education, or housing facilities. Growers have been able to fire workers who objected to the conditions, and draw upon the large pool of unskilled migrant workers, largely Mexican-Americans, to make up their work force.

The controversy began last summer. The grape boycott had just ended with most grape growers signing contracts with Chavez's group, and lettuce growers in Salinas foresaw that their workers, suffering conditions similar to those the grape workers had fought, would soon begin a similar attempt at organizing.

A group of Salinas growers met Ju? 23, and decided to approach the Teamsters Union about organizing the workers.

Five days later, the growers announced that the Western Conference of Teamsters would represent lettuce pickers. The farmworkers, who had not been consulted by either the growers or the Teamsters, heard of the decision only through the press.

The terms of the contract between the Teamsters and the lettuce growers called for an annual increase of twocents per hour over the $1.25 which workers now earn. No provisions were made for health care, housing, or educational facilities. Nothing in the contract mentioned the growers' practice of spraying fields with DDT while pickers were working, which had caused much blindness and skin disease.

The farmworkers were not eager to accept this pact. Although the Teamsters threatened to fire workers who refused to join the union, only about ten per cent of the approximately 700 farmworkers in the Salinas Valley had signed the pact by Aug, 8.

At this point, Chavez decided to move into Salinas. The UFW began to organize the workers around three points: the recognition of the right of workers to form their own union, the institution of a health care plan, and the increase of the hourly wage to $2.

On Aug. 11, officials of the Western Conference of Teamsters met with UFW leaders to discuss the organization of the workers. This meeting produced a jurisdictional pact between the two unions, giving the UFW the exclusive right to organize Salinas field workers and letting the Teamsters represent all warehouses and transportation employees.

By Aug. 24, none of the growers had rescinded their contracts with the Teamsters and all had refused to negotiate with Chavez.

Chavez then called for a general strike against lettuce growers in the Salinas Valley, and picket lines were organized.

More than 5000 of the 7000 farm workers walked off the job, and production of lettuce dropped nearly 70 per cent in the next three weeks. The price of lettuce on the market doubled. This economic pressure caused two large growers. Inter Harvest and Purex to sign contracts with the UFW.

On Sept. 17, Monterey County Judge Anthony Brazil issued a permanent injunction barring all UFW strike activity, arguing that the matter was a jurisdictional dispute between two unions. Chavez promptly called off the strike and called for the boycott of non-union lettuce, approximately 80 per cent of all available lettuce. Chavez hopes to exert enough pressure on the growers to force them to recognize the UFW.

Many alleged incidents of violence have marred this dispute. Jerry T. Berman, an investigator for the Center for Community Change, said in a report, "Organizers and striking workers have been subjected to wide-spread violence. Beatings have been commonplace . . . and many strikers have been shot at and wounded. Law enforcement officials appear to be looking the other way."

At Harvard, officials at first denied that Harvard was buying any non-union lettuce, but then admitted that approximately 20 per cent of the lettuce served in dining halls is non-union. Representatives of the administration are meeting this afternoon with a committee of students to discuss Harvard's position in the boycott.

Yesterday. a group of students planned to picket the Faculty Club at lunch to protest the serving of non-union lettuce, but decided instead to pass out information sheets describing the boycott.

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