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Union Activism: UFW Summer '77


The United Farm Workers, (UFW) now runs a summer program, a tightly knit experience. The time is spent in a field office working with farmworkers in the central headquarters on administration, and in one of the cities in California on the boycott staff. The boycott staff was established in the late 1960's to bring economic pressure on the growers to pay the workers better and improve working conditions.

First, of course, you have to get to Southern California and, driving across the country, Eileen Hagerty, Kathy Rettig, and I began to experience the union's attitude of self-reliance and success at a task learned quickly--an attitude embodied in the union motto, "Si Se Puede", "Yes, it can be done".

After five days we arrived in "La Paz", the union headquarters in the largest agricultural valley in the world. In the country and in the city, participants in the program learn to organize people around the UFW cause. It is full time work, pays room, board, gas, $10 a week and involves every skill imaginable. However, the only prerequisite for joining is a willingness to commit yourself fully and work hard.

The first week of the program was an intensive learning session. All day classes were held on the history of California agriculture, the earlier attempts to unionize, the history of Cesar Chavez and the UFW.

Since the 1890's California agribusinessmen have owned large tracts of land; they have exploited waves of cheap labor pools using the migrant pattern to keep them uneducated, disenfranchised, and paid wages so low that the children must work, perpetuating the cycle. The first farmworkers were Chinese--even then there were attempts to organize, but the growers counterattacked with violence and anti-oriental laws. After the Chinese came Japanese, then Filipinos, Okies, Mexicans, and now, Arabs from Yemen.

The Okies of the 30's were absorbed back into the cities when the labor market expanded during World War II. The Filipinos were not so lucky. One Filipino man told me that they came with a quota of 2 per cent women, and when they arrived the state of California passed anti-miscegenation laws, so that a Filipino man could only marry a Filipino woman. Only there were very few Filipino women--so today almost all the older Filipino men are bachelors.

In the first week we heard how Fred Ross Sr., himself an organizer since the late 30's found Cesar Chavez and brought him into the Community Service Organization. Cesar Chavez eventually became president of that organization, but he gave it up in 1962 and went back out to the fields, to Delano, to organize farmworkers. When he began he could not even mention the word "union", because farmworkers' experiences had been so bad with unions in the past; the first thing he was able to organize was a "death fund". When someone died, there was usually not enough money in the family to bury the person properly, so they would have to go and beg money from neighbors. Chavez felt their embarrassment at this and suggested that if each person put a small amount of money into a fund regularly, there would always be enough money to bury someone when he died.

Cesar Chavez has never forgotten this lesson, and today UFW policy is set at the Farmworkers Convention which occurs at least every two years. This year, the summer program ended with the 3rd constitutional convention, Aug. 26, 27, 28, where I saw the farmworkers from ranches all over California, from Minute Maid (alias Coca Cola) in Florida, and representatives from all the boycott cities, set union policy for the next two years. These men and women, most of them farmworkers all their lives, were participating in a democratic process, voting on resolutions, making motions from the floor, receiving reports on the budget, the boycott, the field offices, and deciding the direction and policy of the union for the next two years.

When the orientation week was over we each went in groups to one of five "Field Offices". Julie Mondaca "80 and myself were among those who went to the town of Lamont. Eileen Hagerty, a graduate student in English here, was sent to San Ysidro, on the Mexican border across from Tijuana. Others went to Salinas, Delano, and Hemmet. We were sent to do whatever was needed in the particular field office at the time.

In Lamont there was going to be an election at Sam Andrew's Sons Ranch, so Julie and I, who spoke Spanish fairly fluently, were made into organizers. At Sam Andrews we learned from the farmworkers themselves that at the end of the week they are commonly paid for fewer hours than they worked. They get no compensation if they are hurt or sprayed with pesticide. They are still paying the Teamsters local $10 per month but they don't know what for. There was an old Teamster contract at Sam Andrews, but as of last March the Teamsters National, having lost 75 per cent of the elections, withdrew from the fields and agreed that they will not try to win any new elections in the fields, and will not oppose the UFW where they have old contracts.

To pick just one example, the Teamsters medical plan covers the farmworker only while he or she is still working, and the working hours needed to qualify do not transfer from ranch to ranch. The UFW medical plan by contrast, has three different levels of coverage--the lowest beginning after a total of 50 hours work under any union contract. I explain this here as I explained it every day for the two and a half weeks that we organized at Sam Andrews. Each morning I got up at 3:45 a.m., arrived at the office in Lamont at 4:30 a.m. We received our assignments for the day, what crew to cover, what information to gather and by 5 a.m. headed out to Sam Andrews Ranch to be there when the workers began to arrive. At first we needed to have authorization cards signed--when more than 50 per cent of the workers at peak season sign a card, the union can file for an election. In the morning we also hand out flyers with the latest news on them, then we follow our assigned crew to the fields. Normally we only have access an hour before work, during lunch hour, and an hour after work (although the growers always scramble or cancel lunch hour). At Sam Andrews we had access all day to the workers because of labor law violations in an attempted election the year before.

The crew I came to know worked on a melon machine. It looks like a large dinosaur or insect. It has a lower conveyor belt on which the melons are placed. The belt is periodically turned on by the machine operator and brings the melons to one end of the machine where a second conveyor belt with vertical slats brings the melons up and over into a truck parked at one end of the machine. The machine moves sideways through the field and people walk behind it picking up melons and placing them on the belt. I would walk with them, explaining the union, answering questions, and building their morale for the election.

Once, some ex-Teamsters, now working for the company, drove up, and one of them boarded the bus where I was talking with the workers during lunch break. He ignored me, and began to lecture the workers on the evils of the UFW, and promised that if they voted "no union" and signed a petition he had with him, the Teamster dues would end. Actually, this petition was meaningless because the vote was UFW vs. "no union"; the dues to the Teamsters would stop anyway, whether or not the UFW won. It was obviously a list to separate the UFW supporters from the others, so that if the UFW lost the election they could be fired.

The saqueros, melon-sack workers, have the hardest job and are the most militant workers. They move through the fields in a bent-over position, cut and pick melons, and load up a sack on their back. When full, it weighs 70-80 lbs. and they have to run up the planks to the truck and dump the melons. It can happen that, to keep the pace, the truck starts moving while someone is still on a plank, and he falls and injures himself.

The grower wanted to hold the election the full seven days after we filed for an election, the maximum allowed under the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act. By then most of the work would be done, and since Sam Andrews was charging $8 per day for the rice and beans he offered them for dinner and the barracks-like tin sheds they lived in in the camps, the grower knew they wouldn't stay without work. However the saqueros were so strong for the UFW that they wrote and signed a petition to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to hold the elections a few days earlier. Facing about 170 signatures, nearly all of the affected workers, the NLRB divided the election so that the melon sack workers could vote at the end of the last work week, instead of the middle of the next week. Thanks mainly to the saqueros, we won the election 456 to 98.

When time came for me to get a few hours sleep, at around 10 or 11 each night, I would go to the home of the Ortizes, an older couple I was living with who had been farmworkers all their lives, and staunch supporters of the union for many years. During the time we had to talk, I learned of their struggle for the union; in the spring of 1973, when the hard won 3-year UFW contracts expired, the growers signed new contracts with the Teamsters. The UFW went out on strike; the reaction of Kern County was violent repression of the strike in the movie "Fighting for Our Lives". There were many beatings and arrests, and even spraying from a helicopter at one point. It was during the strike that Juan de la Cruz and Nadji Daifallah, who are two official martyrs to the union, were killed. One young woman, Marta Rodriguez who used to drop by the Ortizes' home on some evenings, was beaten and arrested during this strike. Francisco Ortiz told me how he was arrested during that summer and kept in jail in a crowded cell for sixteen days, fed on cold rice and water, and allowed to wear only his underwear. Josefina Ortiz was sprayed with a pesticide while on a picket and she developed a sore that took three years to heal.

When Juan de la Cruz and Nadji Daifallah were killed within three days of each other, Chavez sent the farmworkers to bring the struggle to marketplace.

The Ortizes had never lived in a city, spoke almost no English, and hardly read or wrote, yet they sold everything and went to New York City for eleven months. There, they lived ten blocks from where I grew up. While I was in my junior year in high school, the Oritizes were in my neighborhood in West Side Manhattan asking grocers to take the lettuce and grapes off their shelves.

Those who went to different field offices had different experiences. In Salinas where the union has about half its current contracts, the people on the summer program saw how a contract is administered and enforced, how a ranch committee works--the grievance proceedure, the hiring hall, and the seniority system.

Eileen Hagerty was sent to San Ysidro, and she described one of her experiences to me:

One morning we got up at 4:30 to go and see a ranch in north San Diego County. Genaro Zavalo formerly a farmworker, but then a full time organizer for the union, led us there. We went to see the living conditions. It was really bad. You hear about it but when you see it, it makes an incredible impression. The ranch was called Oceanview Ranch. The workers lived in the forests at the edge of the fields. Most were from Tijuana, but Oceanview was about 80 miles from the border so they can't commute everyday.

Some were living in hollows that they'd dug out of the ground; others had made little "houses" made from tomato stakes, sheets of plastic, and cardboard for the floor. There was a clearing where there were empty cans of soda, eggshells, and other "kitchen items". They bathed, washed their clothes and drank from the one stream nearby. There weren't any bathrooms, and you could come across human feces in the woods. Some people had just stretched sheets of plastic between two rows of tomatoes and slept there. At another ranch, the people we talked to had been promised work, but when they had arrived there was no work. The ones who were not working had to beg food from the ones who had work.

Kathy Rettig, a recent graduate of Penn State, also drove across the country with Eileen and me. She was sent to Hemmet, and had this to say about the experience there:

"Hemmet was a small retirement town in central southern California. It is white upper-middle class; the average age is 64. Also there is Hemmet Wholesale nursery which employs 150-200 agricultural workers. They voted to be represented by the UFW two years ago, and it has been two years of stalling negotiations. Our job was to bring Hemmet Wholesale to the negotiating table, harass the people connected with Hemmet Wholesale, and build up support in the town. We began with a petition of support on which we got some 500 signatures. We presented the list to the city council, the mayor, Robert Lindquist Sr., seniro partner of Hemmet Wholesale, is chairman of the board of the bank. Another leader of the local School Board is on the board of directors. The newspaper is controlled by an uncle. The man in charge of the Water District is also on the Hemmet Wholesale board, and the local Judge is a former distributor of Hemmet Wholesale products. The whole town is controlled by the Lindquists and their friends. Our effort along with efforts of Los Angeles and San Diego supporters picketing retailers such as Nurseryland and others who carried Hemmet products brought Hemmet Wholesale back to the bargaining table.

The other phases of the summer program involved two weeks at the headquarters in La Paz, three weeks on the boycott staff in either the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, or San Diego. The summer program ended at the third bi-annual UFW Constitutional Convention.

The experience in the boycott cities was as diverse and eventful as the field office work had been. To this city person, however, it was all much more familiar. The work there consisted of fundraisers and support organizing of all kinds--some worked on a benefit yard sale, some sold union graphics, buttons, and jewelry on the beach. I worked door to door, and discovered that with occasional exceptions, people give inversely to how much money they make. The other main activity was continuing to put pressure on Hemmet Wholesale's retailer outlets.

Hemmet, by this time, was coming to the bargaining table, but in body only. In particular, we concentrated picket lines in front of Nurseryland, because they had at one time agreed not to carry any more Hemmet products until a contract was signed and has then gone back on the agreement. So we took the case to the customers, and many turned away.

The final phase was the convention. I would add only that it was our job, along with the boycott staffs form the different cities, to serve the food to the thousand or so delegates and staff people, and so I washed pots during much of the convention.

Roger Wallach '78 spent this past summer in California as a member of the UFW summer program. He lives in Mather House and is majoring in History of Science. his job of running the convention that much easier, and prevented late night sessions from becoming early morning sessions. It was a warm and honest response. It was exactly what my doing a good pot washing job could mean to him. And, unlike so many "famous" people, he doesn't look vaguely past you when he speaks to you.

The kind of work I was involved in in Los Angeles is also being carried on here in Boston by the full-time staff people here. There is a Cambridge Neighborhood Support Organization and a Harvard support group will be forming as part of that organization. Last spring here we had a used book and record sale, we showed "Union Maids" and "The Grapes of Wrath" and sponsored a Cinco de Mayo celebration with La Raza. This year the struggle continues; for example we have brought and may again need to bring pressure on Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co. which owns a controlling interest in Coachella Growers, who, like Hemmet Wholesale, are refusing to bargain in good faith. The UFW experience certainly changed my viewpoint on farmwork, and agribusiness.

As Julie Monda '80 put it, "I came back here to Harvard with a decision of returning and being useful to the movement. The summer lets you look critically at Harvard, what so many people are doing here and how it is producing the tools of oppression for tomorrow.

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