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Farmworkers Reap Little as Union Strays From Its Roots

The movement built by Cesar Chavez has failed to expand on its early successes organizing rural laborers. As their plight is used to attract donations that benefit others, services for those in the fields are left to languish.

January 08, 2006|Miriam Pawel | Times Staff Writer

Red letters flash inside the famous black eagle, symbol of the United Farm Workers: "Donate," the blinking message urges, to carry on the dreams of Cesar Chavez.

Bannered on websites and spread by e-mail, the insistent appeals resonate with a generation that grew up boycotting grapes, swept up in Chavez's populist crusade to bring dignity and higher wages to farmworkers.

Thirty-five years after Chavez riveted the nation, the strikes and fasts are just history, the organizers who packed jails and prayed over produce in supermarket aisles are gone, their righteous pleas reduced to plaintive laments.

What remains is the name, the eagle and the trademark chant of "Si se puede" ("Yes, it can be done") -- a slogan that rings hollow as UFW leaders make excuses for their failure to organize California farmworkers.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 12, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 193 words Type of Material: Correction
UFW -- A series last month on the United Farm Workers contained three factual errors about the history of the labor union and its related organizations. Health clinics operated during the 1970s were run by the UFW-affiliated nonprofit National Farm Workers Health Group, not the union directly, as reported Jan. 8. UFW officials said that a Fresno developer who partnered with Cesar Chavez to build for-profit housing donated his services and did not split the profits from the developments, as reported Jan. 9. And UFW officials said a school bus abandoned in a back field at union headquarters was not one of the buses used to transport boycott volunteers across the country in the 1970s, as stated in the Jan. 9 article, but was left by a peace activist who never returned to claim it. In addition, the Jan. 8 article reported that the UFW "board deleted all specific references in the UFW constitution to agricultural workers, including the preamble." To clarify: The board deleted the entire preamble and amended the constitution to include all categories of workers, so that the UFW constitution no longer applied only to agricultural workers and related laborers.

Today, a Times investigation has found, Chavez's heirs run a web of tax-exempt organizations that exploit his legacy and invoke the harsh lives of farmworkers to raise millions of dollars in public and private money.

The money does little to improve the lives of California farmworkers, who still struggle with the most basic health and housing needs and try to get by on seasonal, minimum-wage jobs.

Most of the funds go to burnish the Chavez image and expand the family business, a multimillion-dollar enterprise with an annual payroll of $12 million that includes a dozen Chavez relatives.

The UFW is the linchpin of the Farm Worker Movement, a network of a dozen tax-exempt organizations that do business with one another, enrich friends and family, and focus on projects far from the fields: They build affordable housing in San Francisco and Albuquerque, own a top-ranked radio station in Phoenix, run a political campaign in support of an Indian casino and lobby for gay marriage.

The current UFW leaders have jettisoned other Chavez principles:

The UFW undercut another union to sign up construction workers, poaching on the turf of building trade unions that once were allies.

The UFW forfeited the right to boycott supermarkets and stores, a tactic Chavez pioneered, in order to sign up members in unrelated professions.

And Chavez's heirs broke with labor solidarity and hired nonunion workers to build the $3.2-million National Chavez Center around their founder's grave in the Tehachapi Mountains, a site they now market as a tourist attraction and rent out for weddings.

A few hundred miles away, in the canyons of Carlsbad north of San Diego, hundreds of farmworkers burrow into the hills each year, covering their shacks with leaves and branches to stay out of view of multimilliondollar homes. They live without drinking water, toilets, refrigeration. Fireworks and music from nearby Legoland pierce the nighttime skies.

In a larger camp a dozen miles to the south in Del Mar, farmworkers wash their clothes in a stream, bathe in the soapy water, then catch crayfish that they boil for dinner.

Scott Washburn was the last UFW organizer to work in the San Diego County camps; when he left in 1981, so did the food cooperative, armored trucks that cashed checks without charge, and doctors and English teachers who made regular visits.

"Man, it's sad down there," lamented UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, who has run the union since his father-in-law, Chavez, died in 1993.

Yet his union has done nothing to help.

In the fields, the only Cesar Chavez many farmworkers have heard of is the famous Mexican boxer. "I think right now it's one of those nice memories for the older people," Eliseo Medina, one of the most successful labor organizers in the country, said about the farmworker union he once helped lead. "It's just not the factor it should be, which is unfortunate. Because farmworkers desperately need a strong union."

Isai Rios has never heard of the UFW. At 17, Rios came to San Diego with his father from Oaxaca. They moved into the Carlsbad camp last spring to work in the strawberry fields across Cannon Road. Home is a shack made of plastic sheets tied to tomato stakes. The housing alternatives are overcrowded, costly and inconvenient -- rented rooms in houses shared by as many as 30 people.

Each Sunday, church volunteers bring jugs of water, garbage bags, ramen noodles and toilet paper to the Carlsbad camp. A clearing just above the road serves as the meeting room, where Rios took Communion at the Wednesday evening Masses, listened to advocates explain basic rights such as overtime and breaks, and tried to learn simple English phrases from college students: "How are you?" and "I feel sick."

Fernando Bernadino is 33 and has a ninth-grade education, more than most of his co-workers in the Carlsbad camp. His Sunday routine is to pick up free Spanish-language papers while he does laundry in Oceanside, scrubbing hard at strawberry stains that won't wash out.

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