Reigniting a debate over the clout of the United Farm Workers union, a farm industry attorney is accusing the UFW of overstating its membership in an effort to bolster the union's reputation and help win converts in the fields.
Rob Roy, general counsel for the Ventura County Agricultural Assn., has long accused the union of inflating its numbers, but he now believes he has proof in the form of an amended federal document in which the UFW lowers its membership estimates by nearly 80%.
From 1995 to 1999, the UFW claimed membership of 26,000 on reports filed annually with the U.S. Department of Labor. The union upped that figure to 27,000 in 2000. But last month, in response to an inquiry by the Labor Department, the union revised its membership to 5,945, according to the amended report.
"Here they are portraying themselves as the voice of California farm workers, and yet they represent less than 1%," said Roy, who fired off a letter in February prompting the Labor Department probe.
However, union officials say the lower number represents only those laborers working under UFW contract at the end of the year, and not the total number of members who work under contract on a seasonal basis at least one day during the year.
UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said labor officials directed the union to use the year-end number, although they were told it reflected only a fraction of those on the union's membership rolls. A Labor Department official in Los Angeles confirmed that the UFW, like all labor organizations, was instructed to report only those members working at year's end and acknowledged that seasonal employment could cause that number to fluctuate.
For the UFW, Rodriguez said the year-end number is particularly misleading because it only counts union members working under contract on Dec. 31, a traditionally slow time in agriculture.
Despite Roy's contention that the amended number is close to accurate, Rodriguez maintains that the number of rank-and-file, dues-paying members stands at 27,000, a total boosted in recent years by an organizing drive that has put thousands of laborers--from Washington state to Florida--to work under the UFW's banner.
"The union is anything but dying at this point," said Rodriguez, who became UFW president after the death of founder Cesar Chavez in 1993.
Growers for years have challenged the validity of the UFW's membership claims, a spinoff of the bitter and often brutal battles that have marked the union's struggle for better wages and working conditions for America's poorest working class.
Critics say the union's strength and influence in the fields have waned over the years, yet UFW officials continue to lean on Chavez's legacy, often as a way of drawing donations from independent benefactors.
Union dues totaled $1.8 million in 2000. Citizen contributions totaled nearly twice that.
UFW leaders say the union has made great strides since 1994, when Rodriguez, as new UFW president, pledged to rebuild the struggling organization by returning to field organizing.
Once a formidable national presence, with upward of 80,000 members at its peak in 1973, the union had suffered decades of declining membership and was barely at 20,000 members when Chavez died 20 years later.
Since that time, UFW leaders say the union has won 21 elections, including votes at the Chateau St. Michelle Winery in Washington and at Quincy Farms in Florida, that state's top producer of fresh mushrooms.
The union also has picked up its organizing work across California, producing historic victories at Gallo of Sonoma and at Coastal Berry Co. in Oxnard, where more than 750 pickers are covered by a landmark contract that gives the UFW its first major stake in the state's tough-to-organize strawberry industry.