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.

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.

''Chavez is demanding absolute control of our work force, and we're not willing to grant that to any union, Chavez or otherwise,'' Mr. Payne says.

The nationwide grape boycott is a larger attempt to recapture wide popular support around the country. Once again, as in the late 1960s, California's grape industry is almost entirely nonunion.

Citing a poll by Louis Harris, Chavez says, ''There's a coalition out there in the country, 17 million adult Americans who participated in grape boycotts'' of a decade ago. ''We're going back to those people.''

To find this long lost constituency, the UFW will use mailing lists from peace groups, religious organizations, and labor unions; meetings and press conferences; and soon television commercials.

Is he worried that public values have shifted, that labor unions no longer have a hold on popular sentiment?

No, he says. In ''large market areas,'' in the parlance of mass marketing, some 38 percent of the US population ''supports us pretty strongly,'' Chavez says.

And unlike labor's presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, the UFW does not need a majority, he adds: ''If we can get 5 percent of Americans to stop buying grapes, we can win.''

The UFW's biggest problem these days, according to Chavez, is California Gov. George Deukmejian. A Republican elected with strong support from growers, Mr. Deukmejian changed the balance of power at the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

Before Deukmejian, about 42 percent of the charges filed with the board (almost all of them by workers against employers) used to be heard as formal complaints.

Now fewer than 13 percent become complaints.

The system has bogged down, as well, as the backlog of pending charges has more than doubled.

''We've got to act now as if we don't have any law protecting us,'' says Chavez. ''Every time we go to organize, all we do is jeopardize workers' safety and workers' (job) security. The law has been shut down and doesn't work any more.''

Mr. Payne of Bruce Church has a different point of view.

''Chavez complains that the board no longer uses the law to harass growers with every paper they file.'' The UFW has filed 160 charges against Bruce Church since 1975, he says. ''They all cost us time and money.'' But only three were decided against the grower, and one of those is under appeal.

Chavez has a lot of ground to make up to recover the glory his movement once had. In the late 1960s, the farm workers' cause was symbolic of whole Chicano movement, and Chavez was a sort of Martin Luther King figure to urban Mexican-Americans.

Now, says Richard Santillan, a professor of political science at Cal Poly, Pomona, liberals and Latinos both have a full slate of other issues that concern them.

Then, he says, urban Chicanos - and 90 percent of US Hispanics are urban - could still recall the hardships of the fields.

Now there is a growing Latino middle class, and most Latino college students have never picked fruit and vegetables.

There is also a schism left from Chavez's attempts to wield political influence by working against popular Latino Democrats in East Los Angeles. ''He's still admired,'' says Dr. Santillan, ''but there's a lot of disappointment over Chavez.''

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