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Farm Workers End Grape Embargo

Boycott Inspired 'Great Grape Referendum' of 1997

By Charitha Gowda, Contributing Writer

Three years after Harvard brought grapes back to its dining halls, the United Farm Workers union (UFW) called off its 16-year embargo of California table grapes last Tuesday, saying it felt the boycott had served its purpose.

The UFW began its sanctions on grapes in 1984 to protest the unfair and hazardous working conditions its members felt were being imposed on grape farmers.

"Cesar Chavez's crusade to eliminate use of five of the most toxic chemicals plaguing farm workers and their families has been largely successful," Union President Arturo S. Rodriguez wrote in a letter to the St. Louis-based National Farm Worker Ministry, a farm worker advocacy group.

Rodriguez said another reason for the UFW's shift in position has been their success in negotiating contracts for improved conditions in other industries.

"It is not fair to ask our supporters to honor a boycott when the union must devote all of its present resources toward organizing and negotiating contracts," Rodriguez said in a letter issued from the union's Keene, Calif. Headquarters.

After five years of following the UFW's boycott, Harvard began to serve grapes in 1997 following a series of student protests and a campus-wide vote.

Feasting on grapes at brunch on Sundays is a privilege that current undergraduates owe to their counterparts who in 1997 voted 1,694 to 1,472 to bring back grapes.

When Harvard Dining Services (HDS) made an announcement in the fall of 1997 that they planned to reintroduce grapes in the dining halls, they received a surprising amount of student feedback, both supporting and opposing the decision.

The apparent split in campus opinion led HDS to postpone its decision to bring back grapes and allow the campus to decide the fate of grapes in the dining halls.

Known as the "Great Grape Referendum," the vote was finally held on Dec. 3, 1997.

The controversy spurred a great deal of campus activity during the fall as students rallied into pro and anti-grape factions.

The Grape Coalition, chaired by Adam R. Kovacevich '99, was created to support the repeal of the boycott. Existing organizations such as the Progressive Student Labor Movement and Harvard-Radcliffe RAZA led concerted efforts against the repeal.

Kovacevich, whose family owns a grape farm in Calif., told The Crimson in 1997 that he was pleased with the campus vote to uphold HDS's decision.

"I don't think a yes vote was a sign of Harvard students turning their back on farm workers," Kovacevich said in 1997. "[Students] are tired of being force-fed ideologies."

Sergio J. Campos '00, president of RAZA during the grape dispute said he took comfort in knowing students were concerned with worker conditions in California, though the campus decision showed otherwise.

The Great Grape Referendum had a voter turnout of about 50 percent, or 3,166 students, while the Undergraduate Council elections held in 1996 brought only 43 percent.

The UFW has not given up its crusade against poor working conditions and is currently boycotting Picksweet mushrooms from Ventura County, Calif.

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