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UFW of Today Sows Little Hope

March 30, 1993|HARRY BERNSTEIN

Most of the workers who plant and harvest America's bountiful crops are still exploited and mired in poverty nearly 30 years after Cesar Chavez began his once promising crusade to help them.

You shouldn't get rich leading a charity organization or a crusade to help the poor. Some people do, but not Chavez, president of the United Farm Workers of America. He makes $5,000 a year, which is about the income of the average farm worker.

The union pays his travel expenses and provides him and his family with a modest house at the union's headquarters in Keene, near Bakersfield.

Yet despite the sacrifices and hard work of Chavez, his small staff and a couple of hundred volunteers, the few gains that have been made by farm workers are largely due more to the threat of unionization than to the union's actual strength.

Chavez doesn't wage the kind of effective media campaign that once made him internationally famous. There used to be tremendous public interest in him and the UFW, mostly because of his first remarkable and successful worldwide grape boycott in the late 1960s and early '70s.

But now many people these days are asking me if Chavez's union is even still operating. It is, and has been waging a renewed boycott of California grapes. However, the union is pathetically small and seldom makes national news. Even sadder is that Chavez's stalled crusade hasn't improved the basic lives of farm workers.

Chavez was once an icon of all liberals and admired by many moderates, and even some conservatives, who sympathized with the farm workers' plight, which he dramatized through eloquent speeches, fasting and organized marches and mass picketing. Chavez attracted big-name supporters and church groups, especially Catholics, to join what he still calls La Causa --the cause.

At one point in the 1970s, after Chavez's first grape boycott, the UFW had nearly 100,000 members, most of them covered by union contracts with more than 80% of California grape growers.

Today, Chavez has no contracts left in the vineyards and acknowledges that the UFW has just 22,000 members in other crops. The number includes workers who are members briefly during peak harvest seasons. In California, fewer than 1% of farm workers belong to the UFW or another union, none in grapes.

The California law Chavez and his former lawyer, Jerry Cohen, helped draft under then-Gov. Jerry Brown was written to assist farm workers and encourage unionization. It has seldom been enforced during the 12 years of rule by conservative Republican Govs. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson.

Unemployment among farm workers is astronomical and unemployment benefits in the few states that provide them are puny--about $30 a week in California.

More than half the state's farm workers are jobless at least 20 weeks a year, averaging $5,000 to $6,000 annually--far below the poverty line.

A key reason why unemployment is so high among farm workers is the continuing huge influx of illegal immigrants. Many of them were given legal status under the generous terms of the 1986 Immigration Reform Act. But other illegals continue to pour in daily, keeping unemployment high.

Chavez still has many admirers, but he now seems to have almost as many enemies and certainly as many critics.

Almost all of those who helped form the union have quit, including Cohen and, most recently, Dolores Huerta, who was a dynamic mainstay of it.

Several left in disgust with what one former officer said is Chavez's "foolish reliance on computerized fund raising, far more than organizing farm workers to help them get union contracts."

Chavez told me that he plans to resume a major organizing campaign when a new, less anti-union governor is elected who will appoint fair-minded members to the state farm labor board and enforce the state labor law.

Yet even though farm workers are still poverty stricken, their predicament would be worse without Chavez and his union.

Many growers now provide limited health care and other benefits for their workers, at least in part to avoid the union. Wages too have been affected by the threat of unionization.

Last spring and summer, the UFW called a series of brief, sporadic walkouts against grape growers who then boosted wages by 15 to 45 cents an hour, to about $5.50. But since the workers are often jobless, that rate doesn't reflect their annual meager earnings.

The growers vehemently but disingenuously deny that the union-backed walkouts prompted them to raise wages, saying they did it because the workers had gotten no pay increase during the previous six to eight years. But none of the grape growers signed a union contract.

Most of the UFW's time and money goes into the renewed grape boycott that Chavez says is aimed primarily at forcing growers to provide more protection for workers and consumers from the dangers of pesticides.

He sends out millions of letters to potential contributors to help press that boycott. His critics contend that most of the money he raises just goes for more mailings, although the letters do spread the word about the boycott.

With the recession still battering almost all workers, and especially those in California, farm workers have little reason for optimism.

Perhaps Chavez's union can somehow be revitalized to help them, but after nearly three decades of trying, that looks unlikely in the near future. There may be hope for them if more sympathetic federal and state governments start enforcing the laws we already have and adopt meaningful new ones, and if the union can be rejuvenated to help Chavez keep his promise to move farm workers up from the bottom of the nation's economic ladder.

This is Harry Bernstein's last Labor Column for the Business section. He will write from time to time for the Op-Ed page.

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