Has Chavez Fooled Harvard?

Last week four House masters announced that they were joining a boycott against Harvard Provision Co., a liquor store in the Square. The store has committed the crime of offering Gallo wine to its customers even though Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers Union (UFW) has called for a boycott of the product. Harvard Pro is the major liquor supplier for House masters and Yard proctors, and the four masters made the decision after two weeks of picketing and petition drives against Harvard Pro by student groups.

For many years, Cesar Chavez has asked consumers to boycott grapes and lettuce, and more recently Gallo wine, to help farmworkers unionize. Harvard students and much of the entire Boston community have always given substantial support to the boycott effort. The success of the drive against Harvard Pro is yet another example of this support.

But the truth is that Chavez has won most of this support by mere factual misrepresentation. He and his organizers have misrepresented to the public the working and living conditions of the farmworkers, their wages, the role of the growers and the degree of Chavez support among farmworkers. These misrepresentations have been more successful the farther Chavez's boycott organizers got from the fields.

For example, most people believe America's farmworkers are migrants, following harvests from state to state. Chavez and his supporters have continually repeated this to the public. "Most farmworkers are members of families who scrape together marginal livings by following the crops around the U.S.," reads a pamphlet distributed by Chavez boycott organizers in Phoenix.

But the truth is that very few farmworkers are migrants. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that migrant workers comprise less than 8 per cent of all farm-workers in the country. In California, where Chavez has concentrated his unionizing efforts, less than 9 per cent of the work force is migrant and less than 4 per cent comes from out-of-state.


A California Housing Commission found as early as 1963 that 90 per cent of the state's farmworkers live regularly at the same residence, owning or renting their own homes. The Commission reported that "California's agricultural labor force no longer fits the classic picture of the migrant following the crops from town to town with no fixed place of residence."

The commission's conclusions are valid for the entire United States. The farm labor force is overwhelmingly non-migrant.

Most full time workers who are migrants are single males. They actually make more money than residential farmworkers because their traveling enables them to work peak harvests all year long. A nationwide study by the Wisconsin Employment Service in 1970 found that full time migrant workers averaged $12,000 in annual wages.

Another source of misrepresentations by Chavez and his supporters has been the subject of farmworkers' wages. In 1972, UFW vice president Dolores Huerta reported on public television, "The average earnings of a farmworker in the U.S. are only $1400 a year."

But the truth is that most farmworkers' wages are far from substandard. Agricultural workers usually earn a base-pay hourly wage plus a piece rate for the amount of work they do. Payroll records on file with the California Department of Employment show that farmworkers were averaging from $4.50 to $ 5.50 an hour with piece rates before there was any farmworkers union.

A study in 1972 by the Arizona Ecumenical Council, a group of Protestant churches, found that grape pickers in California and Arizona averaged $8000 in annual wages with some as high as $15,000. Today, most grape pickers in California are under Teamster contract and earn $2.52 an hour plus piece rates.

Payroll records on file with the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Wage and Hour Commission show that lettuce averaged $6.44 an hour in 1972. The Washington Post reported in August 1972 that lettuce workers earn as much as $12,000 a year.

One problem with discussing farmworkers wages is that the term "farmworker" can cover such a wide variety of people. The figures here show that full-time, professional workers earn decent annual incomes and many earn a lot more.

In addition to these, there are many people who find seasonal part-time work in the fields, as a second job to supplement their income. Also, over a million students find part-time and seasonal summer employment as farmworkers and more than a quarter million housewives work in agriculture for short periods for supplemental income. These three groups account for more than two-thirds of all farmworkers and they earn substantial hourly wages, as the above figures show.

But if you average the annual farm income of all these types--of seasonal, part-time and temporary workers--with full-time workers, you will get a distorted, meaningless figure for annual incomes. Averaging the annual farm income of some one who works two weeks in the fields with someone who works all year would hardly give you an accurate picture of their wages. But this is precisely how Dolores Huerta and Chavez's supporters get their figures for annual farm incomes.