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California and the West

Farm Workers Union Ends 16-Year Boycott of Grapes

Agriculture: UFW says use of some pesticides it targeted was curbed. Growers group contends the action didn't deter sales.

November 22, 2000|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"No Grapes!"--a spirited rallying cry of the labor movement and the political left for much of the last four decades--officially receded into history Tuesday as the United Farm Workers of America declared an end to its protracted boycott of California table grapes.

The announcement by UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez makes official what had already become a fait accompli; the union and even its loyal followers had mostly lost interest in the sanction against the state's grape growers.

Rodriguez said he ended the UFW's third grape boycott, which began 16 years ago, because of a recent string of farm worker victories that included the elimination of many of the pesticides the embargo had targeted.

"Some goals of that boycott have already been met," Rodriguez said in a letter to a farm worker support group. "Cesar Chavez's crusade to eliminate use of five of the most toxic chemicals plaguing farm workers and their families has been largely successful.

"It is not fair to ask our supporters to honor a boycott," Rodriguez said, "when the union must devote all of its present resources toward organizing and negotiating contracts."

Farm industry leaders welcomed the announcement, but said they believe that the union's move amounts to a concession that the boycott has failed to hurt the ever-expanding table grape business.

"The bottom line is that it never worked. It wasn't effective," said Bob Krauter, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "The union just had to have something to say when they called it off."

The boycott that ended this week was a pale imitation of two earlier union table grape sanctions, which galvanized farm workers and liberals as Chavez created the nation's first viable agricultural union.

The first boycott began in Delano, Calif., in 1963, as the fledgling union attempted to pressure growers to sign union contracts. UFW activists traveled in caravans to cities across America. They picketed in front of supermarkets, raising consciousness about farm workers and becoming a favorite cause for college activists. Chavez called off that first boycott in 1970, with the union in triumph and contracts in place with the state's largest grape growers.

But three years later, the boycott began again, this time with the UFW on the defensive after losing most of its labor agreements to the Teamsters Union, which signed sweetheart deals with growers.

The second grape boycott overlapped with the union's call for consumers to shun two other nonunion products--lettuce and Gallo wines. Bumper stickers reading "No Grapes" (or, in Spanish, "No Uvas"), or criticizing lettuce growers or the giant winemaker seemed like a standard issue for many progressive activists.

Again, a small army of activists traveled across the country to promote the boycotts. One survey indicated that as many as 17 million Americans weren't buying grapes, union officials said.

In 1977, Chavez removed the sanctions against grapes, lettuce and Gallo wines, again in apparent triumph, after the passage of a California farm labor law that was considered the strongest in the nation.

It was in 1984 that the UFW leadership launched the third and longest grape boycott, one that never had the focus or public support of its predecessors. The union shifted the target of the strike--first urging Gov. George Deukmejian to improve enforcement of the farm labor law, then demanding more contracts with grape growers and, finally, concentrating on the pesticide issue.

At age 61 Chavez conducted his longest public fast--the 36-day "Fast for Life"--and continued to press the boycott until his death five years later in 1993.

The third boycott initially was promoted in UFW mailers to millions of households, but it never evoked the door-to-door spirit of its predecessors. Over the years, the union devoted progressively less attention to the boycott. Even some activists weren't sure if the ban on grapes remained in place.

"One boycott is on and the other is off. It's constantly shifting," said Phil Martin, a professor of agricultural economics at UC Davis. "It becomes too complicated for the average person to figure out."

Nonetheless, union leader Rodriguez said that three pesticides that most concerned Chavez--Dinoseb, parathion and Phosdrin--are no longer used in the fields. A fourth pesticide, methyl bromide, is to be phased out and a fifth, Captan, is under much greater restriction.

Those developments and the signing of a string of union contracts in recent years were reason enough to drop the boycott and focus attention on other issues, said Rodriguez, in what the union called "a message timed for Thanksgiving."

But grape growers said their business appeared to be unaffected by the UFW's long campaign. Production increased 40% to 660,000 tons over the last 16 years and the cash value of the California grape crop more than doubled to $382 million, industry officials said.

"It hasn't hindered or restricted sales at all," Krauter said.

The end of the grape boycott leaves in place just one UFW boycott--on mushrooms from the Pictsweet Mushroom Farm in Ventura. The UFW has called on consumers not to buy the mushrooms since last summer, part of the union's long-running effort to win a contract for 300 Pictsweet workers. Since the boycott, both Vons and the Ralphs Grocery Co. have stopped carrying Pictsweet.

Proving that old habits die hard, some union activists said they would continue to shun table grapes.

"Table grape workers continue to suffer poverty pay, poor working conditions and mistreatment on the job," said UFW spokesman Marc Grossman. "We look forward to the day where table grape workers too can enjoy the blessings of organized labor."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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