The farm workers' tarnished victory

IT'S going, going, and all but gone - one of the most glittering of the prizes won by social and political activists over the past quarter-century. That's the law, enacted in 1975, which granted union rights to California's farm workers. It was an extremely hard-won victory, coming only after a decade of intense effort by the United Farm Workers Union, its charismatic leader, Cesar Chavez, and millions of UFW supporters worldwide. Yet it had seemed well worth it, all that picketing of vineyards and lettuce fields and supermarkets, the strikes and boycotts, the demonstrations, marches, and rallies.

Enactment of a collective bargaining law for farm workers in California, the US's leading agricultural state, would lead to enactment of laws in other states. Eventually, there would be a federal law for farm workers like that which granted union rights to most of the country's nonagricultural workers in 1935. Farm workers everywhere would be organized into effective unions. They would at last win economic justice - those most oppressed yet perhaps most important of workers, they who harvest our food.

But today, a dozen years later, the law in California is scarcely functioning, and there are no real prospects that union rights will be extended to farm workers anywhere else. The UFW has had to return to use of the boycott and other weapons of its past and, in doing so, has merely maintained its position. The union has organized relatively few workers in recent years. It still represents no more than a small proportion of the farm workers in California or any other state.

The major blame goes to Republican Gov. George Deukmejian of California, one of the staunchest foes the UFW has faced since it did battle in its early years with former Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan. As long as Deukmejian remains in office - and he will until at least 1990 - the chances for improvement are slight.

Deukmejian has handsomely rewarded the antiunion growers who helped elect him in 1982 to succeed Democrat Jerry Brown, and who were key supporters as well in his reelection last year. So far, he has slashed by more than half the budget and staff of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board that administers the law.

Deukmejian also replaced the board's majority of Brown appointees with appointees of his own and installed a major grower ally, former GOP Assemblyman David Sterling, as its general counsel and thus chief enforcement officer.

Sterling has dismissed or arbitrarily settled in favor of growers most of the thousands of unfair labor practice charges lodged against growers for refusing to bargain or reach contract agreements with the UFW despite their employees' votes for UFW representation, for firing union sympathizers, denying organizers access to their workers, or otherwise violating the law.

``It's like having cops in every city, but no enforcement of the law,'' notes Humberto Gomez, who runs a UFW hiring hall. ``If you file a charge, it will be dismissed with no investigation within a week or two weeks.''

Even those relatively few charges that Sterling allows to reach the board - two dozen in the past year as compared with nearly six times that many in the last year of the Brown administration - typically remain unsettled for months at a time, some of them for years.

``The law that guarantees our right to organize has been shut down,'' Chavez declared. ``It doesn't work anymore.''

The UFW tried to get the law working again by calling a nationwide boycott in 1985. It was directed at grape growers, the subject of more than 500 unsettled unfair labor practice charges.

The union reasoned that a successful boycott would force the growers to pressure their ally in the governor's office to administer the law properly. Officially, the boycott is still on. But it has not been successful. It has not been waged, as were the boycotts that led to the law, at a time of widespread liberal activism. It has been waged by an established union during a period of widespread antiunionism and greatly diminished activism.

So now the UFW is virtually ignoring the law. It is filing very few unfair labor practice charges and calling for very few union representation elections. It is concentrating on retaining the representation rights and contracts it previously won.

The United Farm Workers Union undoubtedly will survive. But most farm workers will continue to be denied the basic rights long ago granted most others who work for a living.

Dick Meister, a San Francisco writer, is co-author of ``A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America's Farm Workers.''

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