CESAR CHAVEZ and the United Farm Workers Union are among the most recognizable symbols of organized labor in the United States. Since the mid-'60s, Chavez has led a mostly uphill fight against growers and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters for the rights of migrant agricultural laborers. That movement, which has met varying degrees of success, appears to be over for the time being, following Chavez's announcement two weeks ago of the end of the decade-old boycott of non-union lettuce, grapes and table wines. To millions of UFW sympathizers, the announcement came as a surprise, since there is obviously a great deal more to be done for agricultural workers, migrant and otherwise, throughout America.
Still, amid the disappointment surrounding the end of the long boycott, the UFW's achievements must be taken into account. Starting from literally nothing, the union elicited national recognition and concern for the problems of farm laborers, and managed to enact the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, permitting elections in the fields. It has gotten better conditions and pay for many of its members, and more or less successfully fought off the occasionally bloody encroachment of the Teamsters. The UFW now has 30,000 members working under over 100 contracts.
Chavez said last week that the boycott was ending so that the union could concentrate on its existing contracts and work towards new ones, a prudent apportionment of the UFW's limited strength and funds. Another consideration is that the boycott's effectiveness had appreciably decreased with the passage of time, so Chavez made a realistic decision. The UFW's tangible gains should unquestionably be applauded, but in a largely symbolic sense, the passing of the boycott should be mourned.