New year brings new tests for farmworker leader Chavez; can lost vigor be regained?
Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers - frustrated by years of stagnation and waning influence - are trying to recover the lost vigor of their salad days of more than a decade ago.Skip to next paragraph
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The union is a more sophisticated operation now.
Mr. Chavez has virtually given up trying to organize workers under California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 - still his union's greatest victory, creating the nation's only body of farm labor laws.
Instead, he and the Uunited Farm Workers are seeking out the same 17 million Americans that Chavez says supported the UFW's grape boycotts 15 years ago, asking them to boycott grapes again.
Chavez has recently traveled to Detroit, St. Louis, and Cleveland for meetings with ''hard core'' supporters and opinion leaders to stir up once again the coalition that rallied to the farmworker cause in another era. Soon, he plans to use television commercials that will include a toll-free UFW phone number where sympathizers can leave their names and addresses.
He is optimistic: ''It looks like a repeat of the '60s,'' he says, summing up his recent meetings in the Midwest.
At the same time, the UFW has launched a new series of high-tech, direct-mail , demographically targeted boycotts aimed at its longstanding rival, Bruce Church Inc., the nation's second-largest lettuce grower.
The union has been trying to get food chains to quit buying lettuce from Bruce Church in Salinas, Calif., since 1979. It had little success for several years, and neither side has yet budged in contract negotiations. But in 1983, the UFW launched a ''high-tech'' boycott against large Bruce Church customers and succeeded in driving chains such as Lucky supermarkets, A&P supermarkets, and McDonald's elsewhere for their lettuce.
This month the union has taken the boycott a step further, targeting Alpha Beta supermarkets in California. Alpha Beta has not purchased Bruce Church lettuce for at least a year, but the parent company, American Stores, has. So this boycott campaign is actually three steps removed from its ultimate target.
The UFW boycott methods have all the sophistication of modern political and mass-marketing campaigns. The union identifies stores in neighborhoods where shoppers are likely to be Latino, liberal, or both. Boycott organizers profile the typical store customer and observe shopping patterns. They study the local census tract data for demographic information, and precinct records for voting patterns.
The union then sends out mailings to local residents, aiming especially at women who, Chavez says, respond more readily than men to appeals for social justice. Mailers may stress the sexual harassment of women working in the fields , or they may describe the dangers of the pesticides used on the vegetables. Whatever the argument, the message is not to shop at Alpha Beta. Pickets at the store back up the mailings.
The Alpha Beta campaign will then be used as a model for a boycott of the Acme chain in Philadelphia and the Jewel chain in Chicago.
All of this, says Bruce Church executive Michael Payne, ''has nothing to do with economic issues whatsoever.'' The company's field workers' wages averaged $ 9.98 an hour in 1983, higher than the UFW average. A major sticking point for Bruce Church in contract talks is that the UFW wants the right to take a worker ''not in good standing'' with the union out of his job.