Ten years have passed since this country experienced the progressive shot in the arm which has come to be termed the "Late Sixties." Many movements arose (and subsequently declined) during that era, but one movement which rose up on the crest of the Civil Rights Movement continues to push forward, and remarkably has kept all of its original principles intact. The United Farm Workers' (UFW) Union, led by Cesar Chavez, has weathered 17 years of struggle with California agribusiness and since 1962, has become a viable instrument in representing and protecting farm labor.
Throughout the history of the UFW, many tactics have been employed in order to bring its message across not only to U.S. agri-business, but also to the American consumer, the UFW's most consistent ally. Strikes, picket lines, legislative campaigns, and voter registration drives have been among the tactics used, but these have been secondary only to the UFW's most powerful weapon: the consumer boycott.
Thus, once again, the UFW' is back in town, and is asking consumers to boycott yet another brand name: Red Coach Lettuce. Why are the farm workers asking their friends to answer yet another call for support? "Because what began as a traditional economic dispute between labor and management has turned into another attempt by growers to crush the union." UFW President Cesar Chavez says. "Because agribusiness has not really accepted the idea of free collective bargaining. Because many growers still hope to destroy the UFW."
How do they do it? "With the most sweeping strikebreaking operation in California farm labor history," Chavez answers. Chavez says agricultural strikes are different than strikes in industry. Even though the UFW has signed many contract with growers and despite the passage of California's landmark 1975 collective bargaining law for farm workers, organizing farm labor is still almost as difficult as it was in the 1930's.
"It does not matter how well organized the workers are or how effective the strike is," Chavez says. "In agriculture that is not enough because the growers use thousands of illegal alien strikebreakers to respond to their workers' just economic demands."
Before 1979, the UFW struggled to survive as an organization and seek recognition from growers. "We didn't have a chance to force growers to deal with the serious economic problems farm workers face--problems caused by a long history of extremely low wages compounded by inflation," Chavez says.
When contracts expired in January, hourly paid workers earned $3.70 per hour, up from $2.00 in 1970-- an 85 per cent increase. But consumer prices shot up 71 per cent in the same period so farm workers earned only 13 cents more per hour in 1979, adjusted for inflation, than they earned nine years earlier. Workers who labor on the piece rate this year--like lettuce harvesters--took in 6 cents less per box, adjusted for inflation, than they earned nine years ago. Growers paid only 6 1/2 cents per hour into the union's family health plan--about $18 per month--one-fifth the size of the average contribution to a California worker's medical program.
When the strike began, growers insisted farm workers observe President Carter's 7 per cent wage-price guidelines even though they exempt both growers and workers. In 1978, lettuce growers made$71 million in profits and raised the price of lettuce by over 100 per cent. When growers realized workers would not accept their 7 per cent offer, the union-busting began.
Growers unilaterally declared an impasse in the talks and negotiations broke down (The State Agricultural Labor Relations Board charged 28 growers with refusing to bargain in good faith). The employers hired slick public relations men (who ran the Reagan and Ford campaigns) to improve their public image. A favorite public relations tactic is placing deceptive full page ads in major newspapers portraying growers as advocates for farm worker human rights and the union as a threat to worker liberty. These are the same human rights advocates who opposed toilets in the fields and abolition of the short-handled hoe, and fired thousands of workers for wearing union buttons and backing the UFW. Growers then mobilized well-heeled, professional strikebreaking outfits that surface whenever farm worker walkouts occur. Their services range from supplying hired guns to recruiting undocumented workers to be used as strikebreakers.
On February 10, UFW striker Rufino Contreras, 27, was shot in the face with a .38 caliber bullet by three grower foremen when he tried to talk with strikebreakers in a lettuce field near El Centro, California. His killers escaped justice when a local judge dismissed murder charges without taking testimony from farm worker eyewitnesses to the slaying.
Strikebreaking is big business in California. Fwrm labor contractors, smugglers and ranch foremen, many with ties to the criminal element, make rich profits by breaking strikes.
And what happens to the strikes? A unanimous walkout by farm workers at the struck lettuce ranches--the most successful farm strike in U.S. history--was broken through the grower's mass strike breaking tactics.
The UFW succeeded where others failed because, Chavez says, "We told the growers, 'OK, if you bring in strikebreakers, we'll boycott you.' So the farm workers have turned to what Chavez calls "our court of last resort, the American people," with an international boycott of Red Coach iceberg lettuce.
In August, Sun Harvest, Inc., the nation's largest lettuce producer, and several smaller Salinas vegetable firms reached agreement with the UFW on new contracts featuring a $5 hourly wage. These settlements, Chavez says, "make a lie of industry claims growers cannot afford workers' economic proposals." The other lettuce growers, however, vowed to continue the fight.
"Free collective bargaining," Chavez says, "is the accepted way American workers have improved their standard of living. We are convinced collective bargaining is the only way farm workers can escape poverty and exploitation. But there can't be free collective bargaining so long as growers are permitted to respond to their workers' legitimate needs with the massive use of illegal strikebreakers."
"Stop the Red Coach" is now the UFW slogan being publicized in 11 boycott cities across the nation. Critics of the union claim that Chavez is going to have quite a struggle this time around convincing the American public to make any type of sacrifice (however minimal). After all, this is the "Age of Apathy," and the "Me Generation." These critics however, are silenced by proof that a consumer boycott can be successful in 1979. In the Boston area alone, five out of six super-markets agreed to honor the boycott of Red Coach lettuce. Purity Supreme, Demulas, Fernandez, Capital and Angelo's no longer stock this brand of iceberg lettuce. Each weekend in the Boston area (including Harvard Square), 40-50 volunteers are out on the streets picketing and advertising the boycott, and the Red Coach Company is spending thousands of dollars on a campaign to defame the UFW.
If one is committed to social and political change to any degree, a broader, long-term political understanding is necessary. Change, at least in the U.S., comes painstakingly slowly, and thus, the long term perspective is critical. The members and staff of the UFW exemplify this understanding as they have never ceased to gage their efforts in not only the short, but also in the long term.
Nevertheless, organizing students seems to be a more difficult process these days. The labels on jeans have changed from Levi to Klein and t-shirts have been replaced by Gloria Vanderbuilt blouses. It seems that activism is not as "chic" as it was ten years ago and perhaps we should be thankful that the regressive 1970's will be over in a few months. Historically, every even numbered decade has been a progressive one.....let us see what the '80s will bring.