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Once-Powerful Union Declines in Influence


SACRAMENTO — Cesar Chavez, the son of migrant farm workers, commanded the respect of presidents and governors and became a hero to a new generation of California leaders.

"He was the spring, the root, where it all started," said Richie Ross, a prominent Sacramento political consultant who began in Chavez's United Farm Workers union. He helped "an entire race of people find its place in America. He's the bell that rang, and it cannot be un-rung."

State flags were ordered lowered to half staff in Chavez's honor Friday by Gov. Pete Wilson, and political and religious leaders from President Clinton to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony to Mayor Tom Bradley expressed their grief.

But years before Chavez's death Friday in a small town near his native Yuma, Ariz., the union he founded had ceased to be a significant force in the California labor movement, and in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley.

Time was, he could strike fear in growers. Through his marches, boycotts and fasts, he dramatized the dangers of pesticides and focused attention to the plight of farm workers like no one before him. In recent years, however, big agriculture had taken to dismissing him. On Friday, industry leaders said his passing will have little effect.

"I don't think there is any significance (in his death) in the agricultural industry, other than there will be a change in leadership at the UFW," said Marion Quesenberry, general counsel to the Western Growers Assn. in Irvine

Chavez cultivated no heir apparent, although political leaders from Ross to newly elected Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna to state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) and scores of others came from within the ranks of the UFW.

While many remained close to Chavez until the end, many more who devoted years, even decades to the cause, found themselves estranged or purged from the organization.

One possible successor is the UFW's co-founder, Dolores Huerta, an English teacher when she met Chavez in Stockton in 1957. She has been on sabbatical from the union since 1991, and it is unknown whether she will return. She bristled Friday at the suggestion that the UFW is a dead union.

"Far from it," Huerta said. "Every day of the week, we're out there handling grievances, doing negotiations. In the last five years, we've won elections that covered tomato workers in Stockton, strawberry workers in Santa Maria, lettuce workers in Salinas."

On paper, the UFW has certificates to represent workers at 769 farms in California, according to the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board. In reality, the UFW has contracts at no more than a handful. At its height in the 1970s, the union had 70,000 members. Now, it has perhaps 5,000 members who are covered by contracts, said Bruce Janigian, the board's chairman.

In the fields outside Fresno, news of Chavez's death broke shortly before lunch. Fernando Cantu, a grape and orange picker whose father belonged to the UFW in its heyday, said it was a "sad day, but we have to keep on."

"We still remember him," Cantu said. "We talked and some of us said this is the person who tried to help and did his best. But our problems are too big for one man. Our hope is that others will step forward and fill his place."

Cantu is 25. He has been picking grapes for 10 years. He knows of no one who is a member of the UFW.

In recent years, Chavez's critics said, he had forsaken union organizing for boycotts of growers that had little impact, fasts that seemed quixotic and protests over the use of pesticides based more on political beliefs than science.

Some of the UFW's recent energy was poured into affiliate businesses that built low-cost housing using non-union workers and operated check-cashing stores. Instead of setting up picket lines outside farms, he took to churning out direct mail appeals for money from his private compound La Paz in Keene, east of Bakersfield.

He also was defending himself from lawsuits stemming from UFW actions taken a decade or more ago.

That was brought him to Yuma. He was testifying in a retrial of a lawsuit brought by Bruce Church Growers, a Salinas farm operation that is the nation's second-largest iceberg lettuce producer. A jury found the UFW liable for a $5.4 million judgment, but an appellate court overturned the verdict.

In 1991, Chavez lost a $2.4 million verdict when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a case stemming from a bitter 1979 Imperial Valley strike in which farm worker Rufino Contreras was shot and killed.

That prompted Chavez to issue a direct mail appeal for money late last year: "They beat us. They shot us. They killed us. And then they made us pay!"

"They're trying to kill us," the letter continues. "Not with guns, the way they took the life of Rufino Contreras. They want to destroy us financially, using the legal system that's supposed to work fairly for all of us."

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