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Chavez: still-ardent voice of farm workers

By Scott ArmstrongStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 22, 1987

Santa Fe Springs, Calif.

WE'RE the only union that can keep people out on strike one, two, three, four, five years. You tell me that isn't significant.'' Cesar Chavez, in sunglasses, open-neck shirt, and Saucony running shoes, is explaining what power he thinks the United Farm Workers (UFW), the pioneering union he founded 25 years ago, still wields. It is 9:30 a.m. on a sultry Los Angeles day, and Mr. Chavez, as usual, has already been up six hours. He has meditated, exercised, eaten a vegetarian breakfast, and driven several hours from his rural retreat in California's Central Valley to this muscle-and-smoke Los Angeles suburb to participate in one of his favorite activities: walk a picket line.

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In this case, he and other farm workers have come to support a group of striking chemical plant workers, both as a show of solidarity and because the UFW is concerned about chemical safety, the main issue behind the factory dispute.

A quarter-century after he launched one of the most dynamic and controversial union and social movements in modern American history, Cesar Chavez is still championing the cause of the agrarian worker.

With fire-and-brimestone ardor, he delivers speeches, supports strikes, stumps for a new boycott, and otherwise toils on behalf of the farm laborer. How much effect he is having in the verdant fields of California's heartland and on America's social conscience, however, is uncertain. The union he founded today faces declining membership, political opposition, organizing difficulties, and financial troubles brought on by a lawsuit.

It is trying to revive a grape boycott that brought it international recognition in the 1960s and 1970s at a time when social activism is quiescent and unions in general have been on the defensive.

``I think the UFW is at a serious crossroads,'' says Jorge Carrillo, who served on the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) for 11 years before leaving last year. ``There is no question that the UFW has abandoned organizing.''

Despite the challenges, Chavez himself remains undaunted. He says that when he first tried to do something about the plight of Mexican-American crop pickers in California in the 1960s, everyone said the workers couldn't be organized to take on the great grower barons of the Central Valley. He ended up forming the first farm workers union in the country.

Many, too, doubted the likelihood of success for his first national grape boycott, launched as a way to apply pressure on growers already weakened by the farm workers' strike. It eventually drew in some 17 million American consumers, which helped the UFW prevail in contract talks with grape growers in 1970.

A few years later, when many growers signed contracts with the rival Teamsters Union, membership in the UFW plummeted by two-thirds almost overnight. But the union since has rebuilt its membership rolls to some extent.

Now, as the UFW again faces adversity, Chavez remains inveterately optimistic, almost defiant, about the movement, like a man who has some inside knowledge the rest of the world has overlooked.

``We have lost membership, but we haven't lost worker support,'' says the short, sturdy union leader, without breaking stride on the picket line. ``You have to understand that the union is a movement. It is people gathered together. They know we go through phases.''

Yet, this time around, the challenges seem to loom unusually large. First is the decline in membership, which has slipped from a peak of more than 100,000 in the 1970s to about 30,000 now. Union dues, the UFW's primary source of income, fell by almost a third last year, to $1.9 million.

The dip in revenues comes at a time when the union faces a serious financial challenge. In January a California Superior Court judge ordered the UFW to pay Maggio Inc., a lettuce grower, nearly $1.7 million because of violence that occured during a 1979 strike. The union is appealing the decision - and UFW lawyers believe they can win - but in the meantime the farm workers have to post some $2.5 million in cash for an appeal bond.