Chavez: still-ardent voice of farm workers

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.

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.

The union had hoped to have the requirement waived. But its request was recently denied, and the UFW now has until July 6 to put up the money. In court documents union lawyers claimed that, for all practical purposes, the UFW would ``cease operating'' if it had to post the $3.3 million, the original amount of the bond. But Chavez now says the union will have no problem raising the cash and that well over one-third has already been pledged in the form of contributions from supporters.

In the fields, the UFW's presence has diminished. Some critics and farm worker activists contend the union, which fought so fervently to win collective-bargaining rights and the nation's first agricultural labor law, is doing virtually no organizing. At its peak, the UFW could claim more than 50 contracts in the grape-growing sector alone. Today there are virtually none.

Chavez, for his part, admits the union is not holding elections for the right to represent farm workers. But he maintains the UFW is organizing workers, building its base of support, and developing leaders for a time when it will again press bargaining-agent elections.

He blames California Gov. George Deukmejian for forcing the union into a lower profile. The Republican governor, first elected in 1982 with help from the state's agricultural interests, contended that the ALRB, which administers the state's collective-bargaining law, was stacked in favor of workers. He set out to change it from what it was under his pro-Chavez predecessor, Democrat Edmund G. Brown Jr.

Since then the agency has often decided against the union in disputes with growers, and prosecutions of unfair-labor-practice charges have diminished. Nevertheless, Chavez critics contend this is no reason for the union to reduce its role in the fields to the degree it has. ``To hold elections now would jeopardize people's jobs,'' says Chavez. ``We have got to wait for a better day.''

If the UFW isn't pushing balloting among farm workers, it is focusing a lot of resources on the latest grape boycott. Launched in 1984, the campaign is aimed at pressuring farm owners to stop using five dangerous pesticides on their produce and to agree to joint testing of chemicals at the marketplace. It is also intended to push growers into reaffirming the right to free union elections and to bargain in good faith.

Although the UFW is using ``high-tech'' tactics this time around - computer-generated mailings, instead of the marches and other public demonstrations of the first boycott - reviews differ on the success of the campaign so far. Chavez is convinced the boycott will ultimately prevail.

But growers, who have been shipping near record levels of grapes the past three years, say they feel no pinch.

``Cesar has lost his position within the work force and within the consumer mind,'' says Melissa Hansen of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League.

One place where his position apparentlly hasn't slipped is among many UFW supporters and sympathizers. The charismatic union leader with the seventh-grade education, who once shared speaking platforms with the likes of Robert F. Kennedy, can still excite crowds.

On this day, the striking chemical plant workers quickly huddle around him when he arrives. As Chavez strolls the picket line, Lucy Botello - in candy-striped pants and a UFW hat - is sitting in a chair near the strikers. ``There could never be anybody like him,'' she says. ``Chavez is strong. He is the man who fights for the farm workers.''

Whatever the current woes of the UFW, few people doubt the impact the union has had in the past.

Chavez sees heightened public understanding as the union's chief contribution: ``I think we've raised the consciousness level of the American public, the consumer, about the problems the workers are faced with.''

For now, the indefatigable union leader has no plans to retire or slow down his 14-hour-a-day pace. ``Thank God I was put in a place where I can make a contribution,'' he says. ``I work every day of the year. I don't take vacations. I love it.''

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