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The United Farm Workers union is on the move, still powerful, still convinced of eventual victory, but a victory which will be hard-won. La Causa continues the good fight, in the fields where a massive organizing effort is underway, on the picket lines, over the conference table with intransigent growers, and in the day-to-day scramble to survive. Yet those of us who assumed the strike had been won are needed again. The great majority of people who pick the food for our tables are still unprotected by a union contract, still subjected to brutal work conditions in order to feed their children who more often than not have to work in the fields as well. While the political strategy of the growers has grown more sophisticated over the years, farmworkers continue to be subjected to feudal work practices.
On September 8, a crew of 120 farm workers picking grapes on a ranch in Madera County began suffering the effects of severe pesticide poisoning. Weakened and nauseous, they staggered from the field in search of medical aid. They had been poisoned by a chemical known as Torak, an insecticide so powerful that health codes forbid workers to re-enter a field within 30 days of its use. A subsequent investigation has shown that Madera workers had been brought in to harvest as early as nine days after the initial spraying. . . . The effects of pesticide poisoning are severe, but treatable. State health physicians candidly admit, however, that they have little information regarding long-term effects or the results of continued exposure. When exposed to the pesticide Torak, for example, it takes the body more than two months to completely recover. (reported by Paul Shinoff in Labor Pulse, January, 1977)
Even when workers know of the regulations which are supposed to protect them, they may be stymied by a system of employment in which the worker hires out through a labor contractor without knowing even the name of the grower. Laborers are often forced to move on, following the harvests, with no ability to follow up on any claims of illness--much less press for safeguards from further pesticide poisoning.
Until farmworkers have the power to look out for their own rights, they can expect to risk more of the same deadly treatment. The UFW is the means to that power.
July of 1970 marked the first major successful effort of agricultural labor organizing in this country. The UFW culminated a five year campaign that year when it convinced the bulk of California's table grape growers to sign contracts giving the union representation over the tiny percentage of farmworkers who toil in the grape vineyards. The international grape boycott was over. The triumph belonged to the hundreds of thousands of boycott supporters and to the farmworkers, who now had a realization that they did have power over their lives and working conditions.
But in 1970, behind the farmworkers' backs, the lettuce growers entered into "sweetheart contracts" with the Teamsters. Farmworkers were outraged; 7000 went out on strike in Salinas. Lettuce boycotts were launched in the cities. In December, 1972, the California Supreme Court concluded there had been Supreme Court concluded there had been collusion between the Teamsters and the lettuce farm owners in the negotiation of the contracts.
In 1973 when a number of the UFW grape contracts expired, growers signed with the Teamsters, denying the workers any participation in the choice of union representation. Contracts with the Teamsters brought back the notorious labor contractor system, thus doing away with job security, and elminated pesticide controls, medical benefits, and union democracy. When Gallo ignored its workers' wishes and signed with the Teamsters, the workers went out on strike. Gallo had them replaced by strikebreakers and illegal aliens, but even the strikebreakers went out on strike, along with thousands of other workers from other ranches. They were met with intimidation, mass arrests, and violent incidents. AFL-CIO President George Meany, outraged at the union-busting tactics of Teamster President Frank Fitzsimmons, authorized $1.6 million from AFL-CIO members to help the affiliated UFW pay its members strike benefits to stay alive.
The hard job of rebuilding a nationwide boycott of grapes, lettuce, and Gallo wine began as 600 farmworker families left California for cities like Chicago, New York, and Montreal, to help the boycott organizers tell the story. Two years later the growers were ready to negotiate. Newly-elected Governor Jerry Brown of California brought the growers, Teamsters, and UFW together and hammered out the California Labor Relations Act of 1975, the first piece of collective bargaining legislation for farmworkers in U.S. history. In the first few months, the UFW won 70 per cent of the 200 or so elections held (by law they can only be held at the peak of the particular harvest).
But elections were stopped for a ten-month period last year as agri-business lobbyists blocked funding for the new law in the state legislature, and the state agency assigned to enforcing the law has been slow to certify elections and decide unfair labor practice complaints such as growers firing union supporters. As of this month, UFW has won the first eight elections under a rejuvenated law. The Teamsters have stopped participating in elections.
But though the number of farms with UFW contracts is growing, the union still represents only a small proportion of the state's agricultural workers. The boycott of non-UFW grapes and head lettuce and Gallo wines continues even though union elections are now protected by California law, because no election law can guarantee contracts. Only 60 of the more than 200 growers at whose ranches UFW won elections last year have signed contracts. In order to achieve decent working conditions, the union must be able to negotiate effective contracts, contracts that ensure a grievance procedure, a living wage, a union hiring hall to protect fair employment on the pesticides, clean drinking water and sanitary facilities, a medical plan, and so forth. The new law requires the owners to bargain "in good faith" with the union chosen by the majority of workers, but that is as far as it goes. UFW President Cesar Chavez expected that 90 per cent of the growers wouldn't sign contracts after elections were won by UFW--until they were faced with strikes and boycotts.
The trend toward monopolization of the nation's grocery markets by a few chains is matched by the domination of cropland by a few large, diversified companies, such as Tenneco, Bank of America, Dow Chemical, and Coca Cola. In California, 77 per cent of the agricultural land is controlled by 7 per cent of the growers, who employ 79 per cent of the state's farmworkers.
With the millions of dollars in subsidies that agri-business has received, industry growers have never bothered to establish one clinic, serve, or educational program for any of the 250,000 farmworkers that harvest California's $1 billion worth of crops each year. But huge sums have been spent on lawyers and advertising to prevent union elections and to stall contract negotiations.
The migrant lives in a capricious world-the work routine is uncertain, there is no protection for periods when work is unavailable, and time off is unpredictable. Migrants are isolated from the outside residential community, and from other migrants with whom they must compete for work. Paradoxically, their daily physical setting offers no real privacy. The "average" migrant family has 6.2 members, lives in 1.9 rooms, and earns $2179 a year, under conditions like the following:
A family of nine started at 5:30 a.m. and worked until 6 p.m. laying out raisins and was paid $1 an hour per worker.
The migrant system has been perpetuated by mutually reinforcing factors: corporate agri-business interest in keeping an inflated migrant labor pool, in order to keep wages down and therefore labor costs relatively low (e.g., the total cost of field labor for lettuce comes to $.24 per head); oligopolistic practices of big business; government land granting history; and pricing and taxing policies. As important as any of these factors has been society's way of society instead of acknowledging migrants as members of the same society.
Although elections still command much of the spotlight, the UFW has to focus its very limited resources on getting negotiations underway. For example, at Coachella Growers (citrus), the UFW won the union election, but the company has harassed workers by stopping bus service and cutting back the work week. Workers must now get up at 4 a.m. if they wish to commute; otherwise they must live in the labor camp which is expensive and only accomodates men. Growers have said no to a UFW hiring hall, no to a grievance procedure, and no to UFW medical and pension plans.
Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company, in partnership with the Desert Valley Citrus Corporation, controls Coachella Growers, and thus directly contributes to the exploitation of the 450 citrus workers on the ranch. Irv Hirshenbaum, director of the New England UFW office, has asked supporters to apply pressure on Connecticut Mutual by demanding to know why the company is stalling negotiations at the workers' expense. "Job security, pension and medical benefits are not unreasonable proposals," Hirshenbaum says.
George Schwab, Connecticut Mutual's head of real estate and agricultural investment division admits that Connecticut Mutual never would have made the investment, given the reaction from UFW supporters across the nation. A delegation from Harvard, headed by Bernard Bell '78, will be visiting the Boston offices of Connecticut Mutual, Thursday, March 3, leaving from Quincy cafeteria at 1 p.m. The students will ask why the company refuses to give farmworkers the same rights guaranteed to other working people.
With no large strike fund to rely on, the UFW depends on a coalition of consumers and farmworkers to engage in delegations, boycotts, and strikes to contracts signed. Knowledge of the farmworkers' plight has compelled many people to support the UFW union efforts to bring about change. Close to 500 volunteer organizers are working for the union. Organizers receive the same benefits as Cesar Chavez and all members of the UFW staff--room, board, $5 a week, and transportation money in the area of work. They take with them a rare learning experience in practical skills which can be applied to many aspects of daily living and working. They also know the sense of making a difference in the lives of thousands of farmworkers families.
The farmworkers' struggle is not confined to grapes or to California. After California there are Yuma lemons, Texas melons, Florida sugar, and Michigan and New Jersey truck farms. "In our struggle, we never really lose," says Cesar Chavez. "We have our unity, our solidarity, our spirit."
Susan Redlich graduated last year from the School of Public Health. She spent the summer of '75 working as a volunteer for the UFW in New York.
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