Farm Workers Try to Revive Chavez's Cause

A UFW march this month commemorates the past in face of lower union membership

MANUEL DELGADO was among the farm workers who joined Cesar Chavez 28 years ago on a 330-mile march up California's Central Valley to champion the cause of the agrarian worker.

Now, nearing 70, Mr. Delgado is donning a pair of scuffed boots and making the trek again - past fields of plums and oranges and grapes that he helped harvest for 53 years - in hopes of improving conditions for a new generation.

``Wages have gone up 50 cents in 10 years,'' he says, the staff of a red-and-black union flag wedged in his back pocket. ``There is no way people can live like that.''

Mr. Delgado is part of an attempt by the United Farm Workers (UFW), once one of the most dynamic and controversial union movements in America, to commemorate its past and become a force again in the future.

One year after the death of its founder, the UFW is retracing the path of its seminal 1966 march to honor Mr. Chavez and to rededicate itself to improving life in the fields.

It won't be easy.

Unions in general are struggling to attract members, and as the UFW goes back to emphasizing organizing, it faces competition from other labor groups moving in amid the cabbage and cucumbers.

``The UFW has certainly been the single most important influence on farm labor rights in my lifetime,'' says Don Villarejo, executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies in Davis, a private nonprofit group. ``But there are very large factors at work that make it difficult to organize now.''

The march that began at the tiny UFW compound in Delano, Calif., will move up the spine of the Central Valley, the world's most productive vegetable garden, to Sacramento, where it is scheduled to end April 23.

On the eight day of the march, some 300 marchers enter this small community 200 miles north of Los Angeles at the end of another 18-mile trek. With the sun hot overhead and feet complaining underneath, the group moves down the blacktop in a thin line, waving UFW banners, clutching pictures of Chavez, and shouting ``It can be done!''

Marchers welcomed

In a town overwhelmingly Hispanic and predominantly made up of farm laborers, the welcome is enthusiastic. Kids wave from the windows of clapboard houses. Townsfolk prepare tortillas, beans, and rice for a community dinner. The mayor and other local officials greet the marchers under a mulberry tree in Earl Ruth Park.

``To residents, this is just as important as a presidential visit,'' says Armando Lopez, Parlier's vice mayor. ``Cesar Chavez was our hero - and continues to be.''

That may be part of the point. The UFW would like to revive some of the magic of an earlier era. But memorials alone are not enough, and even Chavez, the field hand with the seventh-grade education who went on to become a national symbol, was not considered much of a force in California agriculture in later years.

The march represents a shift in strategy by the UFW. In the 1980s the union, feeling stymied by the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB), decided to emphasize a national grape boycott over organizing workers. It believed the board, which oversees the state's collective-bargaining law, had become pro-grower under two successive Republican administrations in Sacramento.

Now the union is going back to the fields, fighting to see that existing contracts are enforced and pushing for new ones. The boycott will continue. It just won't be the centerpiece of the union's efforts. UFW leaders insist this ``second wave'' was what Chavez wanted.

Further Chavez's work

``This is a recommitment on all of our parts to carry on Cesar's work,'' says Arturo Rodriguez, Chavez's son-in-law and successor, strolling along in a T-shirt (``Pilgrimage 94''). ``We want to go directly to communities and workers and invite them to become part of the organization.''

In its heyday in the 1970s, the UFW counted more than 100,000 members. Now it has about 22,000. It once had contracts with 80 percent of the grape growers in the San Joaquin Valley. Now it has a handful among all growers.

Since 1990, according to the ALRB, the UFW has won two certification elections - and twice had its representation repealed. Even growers view the union with little more than bemusement.

``We view the march as an attempt at publicity more than anything else,'' says Bob Krauter, who is with the 75,000-member California Farm Bureau.

Growers call the grape boycott a ``colossal failure'' and doubt the union will have success in the fields. ``It is a big dice roll,'' says Bruce Obbink, president of the California Table Grape Commission, a marketing group. ``What they are trying to do is get back into the field after abandoning it for 15 years.''

UFW leaders, who have heard all the naysaying before, believe the time is ripe for an organizing revival. They cite deteriorating conditions on the farm: low wages, humiliating treatment, sexual harassment of women workers, no toilets or water in many fields - accusations farmers refute.

The UFW has signed up 8,000 ``associate members'' in the past year and has garnered pledges of support from 3,000 others during the march.

Countervailing forces exist, though. The UFW faces competition from local Teamsters and other agricultural unions. An anti-immigrant mood is pervasive in the land, and some young workers coming up from Mexico aren't familiar with the UFW's legacy.

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