California's `grapes of wrath' -- 1985. Labor leader Chavez, angered by lack of progress, jousts with governor

The grapes of wrath are again growing on some American farms, labor leader Cesar Chavez charges. Fifteen years ago, the California labor organizer led a nationwide boycott of table grapes in an effort to win better treatment for farm workers. Several million Americans took part in the boycott. California lawmakers and growers eventually caved in, and the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 became law.

Now Mr. Chavez says he needs to do it again.

Chavez and his union, the United Farm Workers, are battling California Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican, who they charge is failing to enforce the 1975 law. The backlog of cases has soared, Chavez says. Power on the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) has moved away from members sympathetic to labor.

It's time to put the squeeze back on grape growers, Chavez told a group of reporters at breakfast here.

Not so, counters David Stirling, general counsel of the ALRB. The backlog of cases, caused by a change in personnel at the board, has been worked down to normal levels. Furthermore, says Mr. Stirling, the board is ``absolutely not being administered in a one-sided fashion.'' The board under former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. had been one-sided in favor of the union, Stirling asserts; Governor Deukmejian has merely tried to move the board to the middle.

Stirling concedes that the grape boycott is worrisome, even though it hasn't been effective so far. Chavez, meanwhile, observes that this time it won't be possible to piggyback his grape boycott on a wave of emotion like the one that prevailed during the Vietnam demonstrations in the 1960s and '70s. At that time, activist students quickly, and almost reflexively, rallied around the Latino-led boycott. Students carried signs outside supermarkets in cities like Boston and New York. The press and TV took u p the cause.

Today, Chavez says, it will have to be done differently -- through technology. His union is waging a direct-mail blitz, with some 400,000 letters going out every month. Computers and scientific sampling have replaced protests and picketing.

His eventual goal: to rally the estimated 17 million Americans, now mostly middle-aged adults, who once helped him pass the 1975 law.

Enough money has come in from his initial appeals to keep the effort going. About $200,000 has been spent so far.

Chavez claims that if only 5 or 6 percent of the United States population responds to his campaign, that will be enough to force down prices and get action in Sacramento.

The renewed boycott effort comes at a tough time for the labor movement. Chavez says that heavily immigration, especially from Mexico, has held down wages and given growers leverage over farm workers. He argues that immigration should be slowed by aiding the Mexican economy.

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