SAN FRANCISCO — WEARING faded cotton pants and scuffed sneakers, Cesar Chavez walks quietly along a picket line in front of a Safeway supermarket greeting old friends and meeting new ones. Now fully recovered from his hunger strike last year, the farm-worker leader has lost none of his energy or optimism. He is buoyant even though the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) faces one of its toughest battles as conservative politicians and growers battle to keep California's fields nonunion.
For more than 30 years Chavez has organized farm workers and fought for social issues. Yet UFW membership has declined 77 percent since 1982, says Chavez. He blames conservative administration of California's Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which has made it nearly impossible to negotiate new contracts.
Last week the UFW announced a boycott of Safeway Supermarkets in the US and Canada because they continue to sell nonunion grapes. The union also says the grapes are tainted with pesticides.
The UFW claims about pesticide use took on new significance recently when the National Academy of Science proposed that US agriculture gradually eliminate pesticides in favor of natural cultivation. And on Sept. 11, five supermarket chains in the US and Canada said they would ask food suppliers to disclose pesticides used on their crops and ask them to phase out use of 64 carcinogenic pesticides.
Grape growers are incensed. They charge that Chavez is trying to bolster the union by scaring consumers with tales of dangerous pesticides and is trying to ruin the table-grape industry. UFW membership, the growers say, has fallen because Chavez lost touch with the rank-and-file.
Scoffing at those charges, Chavez claims some 15 million to 17 million Americans now boycott table grapes. He admits, however, that the boycott's immediate effects have not been to get growers to sign new union contracts. Now Chavez and the UFW are girding for a protracted battle.
Drawing strength and patience from his early years, Chavez is the son of migrant farm workers who first moved to San Jose, Calif., during the Depression. The family cut apricots, earning 80 cents a day ``all of us working,'' Chavez says. ``It was just unbelievable.''
Chavez has been organizing farm workers since the late 1950s. He and others formed the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee in 1962.
The UFW launched the first of its many boycotts in 1964. The union built alliances with the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements to build boycott support. It was combined with a massive strike by agricultural workers in Salinas, Calif., in the early 1970s. Growers finally began to sign contracts with the UFW.
William Flores, a professor at California State University at Fresno, says Chavez and the UFW have reinvigorated the labor movement.
``The UFW has come to embody the struggle for social justice,'' Mr. Flores says. It is not just a union, he adds, ``it's a movement to end suffering and misery.''
In the 1980s, Chavez updated his message. The boycott against table grapes demands not only good-faith bargaining by grape growers but banning five pesticides as well. The UFW claims pesticides harm field workers and consumers.
Bruce Obbink, president of the California Table Grape Commission, says the UFW actually launched the boycott because it cannot otherwise rally worker support for the union.
Government tests show grapes are safe to eat, Mr. Obbink says. The 1988 California Department of Food and Agriculture annual pesticide monitor report shows 75 percent of table grapes had no pesticide residues and the other 25 percent had residues ``significantly below tolerances,'' he says.
Chavez and some environmental groups respond that government testing is inadequate and that some residues cannot be detected with the current monitoring equipment. Chavez also says some of the government tolerance levels were set 20 to 40 years ago, without scientific study. ``They have no scientific evidence to back up their tolerance levels,'' he says.
In the 1960s the UFW succeeded in getting growers to stop using DDT even before it was banned, Chavez says. Now the UFW is trying to face down a new generation of pesticides.
``To get them to take it off,'' Chavez says, ``you do it through pressure.''