Ed. note: On August 28, the State of California will conduct secret ballot elections to determine which union the state's half million farmworkers wish to represent them, either the Teamsters or the United Farm Workers led by Caesar Chavez. This is the first such election in history and will mark a critical turning point in the 90-year unionization struggle of field laborers. To provide perspective on the upcoming election. West Coast Correspondent Michael Castlemen examines the politics of farm labor.
In 1885, Chinese workers refused to harvest the Kern County, California hop crop, one of the first farmworker strikes ever reported. They were replaced by Japanese men who, the growers declared, were "better suited" to the work. In 1913, the IWW organized a field worker strike against a grower who provided only 9 toilets for 2700 workers, paid them $1 per day while charging them 5¢ per glass for lemonade and 75¢ per week to camp on his land. Armed police confronted the workers at a rally. A deputy fired a shot to disperse the crowd, but enraged it instead. When the fighting stopped, 4 people were dead, and subsequently two IWW organizers got life imprisonment for murder.
After World War I, the Japanese workers became "overly ambitious" to own their own farms, so growers fired them, and turned to the docile, low-bending Mexicans who, they proclaimed, were "better suited" to the work. During the 1920's and 30's several U.S. Commissions concluded that migrant farm laborers lived and worked under abominable conditions. But the strikes that did occur were routinely broken by grower-supported police, and by strikebreakers desperate to feed their own families at any wage. In 1970 the average income of a farmworker family in the U.S. was $3,350 - with both parents and all children working, without vacations, holidays, sick time, health insurance, or transportation to the everchanging places of work.
Before the UFW began organizing, a grower would pay a labor contractor to provide a field crew. The contractor would hire workers and pay them abysmally, pocketing whatever he could of the grower's money, and often charging the workers for the transportation he provided in scandalously unsafe busses and trucks. Contractors fired workers at the first sign of resistance.
The workers felt powerless. Growers would advertise for 2,000 workers, then hire 500 at starvation wages, with the crowd of sullen unemployed at the gates serving as reminders to those working that they were privileged to be making $10 a day.
Furthermore, if resident migrants organized, the growers and labor contractors simply smuggled illegal aliens in from Mexico as strikebreakers, while charging these people for getting them across the border. In 1973-74, 500,000 illegal aliens were reported working as farm laborers. Commenting on illegal aliens, one grower told Ron Taylor, author of the excellent, recently published Chavez and the Farmworkers, "We couldn't get along without them."
Impoverished farmworkers chased the crops from the Imperial and Coachella Valleys of southern California up the coast and the length of the vast San Juaquin Valley of central California. Building a political base proved impossible for the farmworkers. There were always more workers than jobs. Competition for work was fierce. Families barely eked out a subsistence. Day to day survival was the only goal. A farmworker family could count itself extremely lucky to own an oíd junker car, to send the children to school for a few scant months during the off season, and to be all in good health as the Season approached and the endless cramble began once again. Spat upon, treated with racism and scorn, barely able to survive, farmworker families bowed their heads and followed the harvests.
Caesar Chavez was raised on his family's farm near Yuma, Arizona. When he was 10, the bank foreclosed the property, and the Chavea migrated to California. They followed the crops all over the state. There are years of his life for which Chavez not account to this day. Dates and places faded into the hectic drift of migrancy.
In the early 1950's, several groups became interested in California's rural poor, and farmworkers in particular: the American Friends Service Committee, Saul Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation, and the socially activist wing of the Catholic Church. Organizers arranged housemeetings in the latino barrios to focus collective energy on shared problems. These grew into a network of Community Service Organizations, CSO's. Fred Ross, on a stipend from Alinsky, met Chavez whose initial hostility to the anglo turned to respect when Ross outlined how a CSO in Los Angeles had been instrumental in obtaining convictions and jail terms for police who had beaten up Chicanos. Ross noted in his diary that night: "home of Caesar Chavez. Very responsive. Grassroots leadership qualities."
Ross arranged for a small living allowance for Caesar, who jumped into CSO work full time in 1953. CSO's quickly became the organized voice of the barrios all over California. They registered half a million Mexican-Americans to vote, held citizenship classes attended by 35,000, and dealt with all types of social prob-' lems from white gangs attacking Chícanos to spontaneous farmworker strikes, or huelgas. However, after several years with the CSO's, Chavez's thinking had evolved beyond a strictly community service approach. It became clear to him that farmworker communities could never achieve dignity, respect and social justice until farmworkers had a strong labor union that could guarantee employment to workers, and break the cycle of migrancy by allowing families to settle more permanently. In 1962, Chavez quit the CSO to organize the National Farm Worker Association (NFWA), and he persuaded several other energetic CSO organizers to join him, among them, Dolores Huerta, now chief negotiator for the UFW.
Chavez located the embryonic NFWA in Delano, with ramshackle headquarters and a mimeograph machine in his garage. Living a hand-to-mouth existence, the organizers used a CSO-style house-meeting approach to stimulate worker interest in a union. At the NFWA's first convention in Fresno in 1962, 300 NFWA members gathered to construct a formal union. Chavez was elected President. At the convention, Manuel Chavez (a cousin) unveiled the now-familiar flag he designed to symbolize the farmworkers' struggle: a boxy, black Aztec-style eagle on a red field. No artist, Manuel declared, "When that damn bird flies, the problems of farmworkers will be solved."
The NFWA organized a base of workers quietly from 1962-64. Organizers lived a tenuous existence. Even today, the UFW pays Chavez and the entire UFW executive board $5 per week above expenses. For 1972 Chavez's expenses totaled $5,144, an average of S426 per month for him, his wife, and the three of his eight children he still supports. This is a far cry from the five figure salaries and six figure expense accounts common among the Big Labor leaders today.
The NFWA's strategy focused on a "worker service center" approach, bringing workers together around shared workaday issues, and building contacts, members and a financial base from which to conduct strikes.
The NFWA's first strike occurred in the commercial rose farms south of Delano. The workers had not received a raise in years and working conditions were deteriorating. Chavez felt the fledgling NFWA was not strong enough to mount a winning strike, but the workers were ready to walk out with or without the union. Unskilled as yet in strike organizing, the walk out ended in failure after three days. The workers returned to work as labor contractors imported strikebreakers. "But we learned a tremendous amount from that strike." commented Chavez.
From these inauspicious beginnings the NFWA, also called La Causa, grew and developed. The NFWA struck grape growers in Delano in 1965. Teams of roving pickets, black and red flags in hand, scoured the black farm roads searching for working crews. When they spotted one, they piled out of their cars and shouted: "Huelga! Viva la Causa! Viva Chavez!" Borrowing both tactics and style from the Civil Rights Movement, the huelgistas as they
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La Causa became a struggle to shift the balance of power away from the Agribusiness managers to the farmworkers' union. It was a social revolution due to the UFW's emphasis on land reform, community development and civil rights.
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were called, defied court injunctions against picketing and against the very use of the world "Huelga." They staged mass demonstrations, sit-ins, and happily went to jail. The media became interested, and for the first time in farm labor history, a farmworker movement began to receive national attention. Walter Ruether, then President of the United Auto Workers, visited the Delano strikers, marched on their picket lines, and announced that the powerful AFL-CIO and the UAW would contribute $5000 per month to the strike.
La Causa welded together the traditional goals of a labor union and the social goals of the Civil Rights Movement. Farm workers were not only fighting for a union of their own, but for social justice as well. Under Chavez, a devout Catholic, the farmworker fight has been organized as a nonviolent struggle, whh prominent exponents of non-violence often participating in the picketing, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta King and Joan Baez. The farmworkers use every non-violent tool to achieve their ends: petitioning, picketing, mass demonstrations, marches, strike Masses, hunger strikes, and their most controversial tool, the boycott of grapes and lettuce.
Boycotts are outlawed by the National Labor Relations Act as a weapon of labor against employers, while guaranteeing most workers the right to organize unions and to bargain collectively. Striking GE workers, for instance, cannot publically urge consumers to boycott GE products, nor can they set up picket lines around stores that sell them. However, because of the power of Agribusiness interests in Congress, farmworkers have been traditionally excluded from NLRA guarantees. So, while the Agribusiness corporations have successfully stymied the right of farmworkers to organize, exclusion from the NLRA means that farmworkers can legally organize boycotts. The NFWA's first boycott effort occurred during the Delano grape strike of 1965 when all Schenley Industries' liquor labels and the "S&W" and "Treesweet" labels of DiGiorgio Fruit Corp. were boycotted.
The boycott tactic has enabled the farmworkers to have a national impact. While the grape strike itself was confined to one area of California, the union organized 50 Boycott Cities throughout the U.S. - including Ann Arbor, as you know if you've ever passed Campus Corners on a Saturday. The grape and lettuce boycotts have served two purposes: they generate national publicity about the farmworkers' struggle and they try to raise support funds for strikers; and they put direct economic and public relations pressure on the growers. The boycott of Gallo wines has cut that company's share of the wine significantly, forcing the company to "go underground" with its newest wine, Madria-Madria Sangria, whose festive label carefully avoids all reference to its Gallo vintage. One Coachella Valley grape grower told Ron Taylor he signed with the UFW because "the boycott was so devastating, we could not make the mortgage payments."
Both Schenley and DiGiorgio marketed hundreds of millions of dollars per year of easily identifiable products, excellent boycott targets. The companies began to feel the effects of the boycott financially. The boycott-generated publicity hurt the companies' images, and caused friction with other unions that had contracts with them. Then the NFWA organized a 300 mile, 25 day farmworker march from Delano to Sacramento which arrived on Easter Sunday 1966 to appeal to Governor Brown (the father of the present Governor) on behalf of the strikers. 4,000 people filled the steps around the State Capital as national TV cameras whirred. Finally, on April 6, 1966 Schenley Industries recognized the NFWA, and DiGiorgio announced it would ask the California State Mediation Service to conduct elections to see which union, if any, its field workers preferred. In the election, the NFWA won handily over the Teamsters.
The Schenley contract and the DiGiorgio vote inaugurated a new era in farm labor. The NFWA evolved into the present United Farmworkers of America, UFWA, affiliated with the AFL-C1O. Chavez made it clear that the farmworkers' fight went deeper than simply wages, hours and working conditions. "La Causa became a struggle to radically shift the balance of power from the Agribusiness managers to the union of farmworkers; but more than a power struggle, it was a social revolution as well, because of the UFW's emphasis on land reform, social service projects, community development, and civil rights." (Taylor, Chavez)
On UFW-contracted farms, the hated labor contractors have been done away with. The Union operates a hiring hall (which often doubled as its service center), and growers contact the hiring hall for worker crews. UFW members are then dispatched to work on the basis of union seniority. If an area is completely UFW contracted, all farm work in the area is coordinated through the hiring hall. Workers no longer have to scramble from farm to farm, following rumors in search of elusive work. The UFW provides the jobs. Freed from chasing employment, farmworkers can settle in an area, send their children to school, participate in UFW-run auto and food coops, health clinics and classes, and take an active part in the social and political life of the community. Under the UFW, the union is represented on each farm by a "ranch committee" of workers elected by the work force. If a dispute arises, the grower does not negotiate with Chavez or with a regional union bureaucrat as is the case with most unions, but directly with the ranch committee of workers who work on his farm. The UFW strives for worker participation and direct democracy in both workplace and union affairs.
From the corporate Agribusiness point of view, if you have to deal with a labor union at all, it should be a docile union, a union that might kick up some dust about wages and fringes every now and then, but above all, a union that knows its place in the production relationship, a union that does not fundamentally challenge the perogatives of the corporations. From the Agribusiness point of view, the UFW is untrained, which means unmanageable, unskilled in corporate mores, which means lesseasily manipulated. Since the 1960's Agribusiness has finally gotten the news that sooner or later farmworkers will be unionized. The question before the growers, then, is: which union will shake up the growers' powers the least? Enter the Teamsters into field labor organizing.
The Teamsters have been central to food production and distribution for decades. Teamster truckers drive most foodstuffs to market, and most packinghouses, canneries, freezers and processing plants are Teamster unionized as well. However, until the mid-1960's they showed no interest in field workers. It has been difficult to understand the Teamsters' motivation in organizing in opposition to the UFW - why should one union fight another to represent the same workers?
Teamster motivation is complex: first, they want to "protect their flanks." If field workers strike and crops don't move, it can mean lay-offs for Teamster processing plant workers and truckers. Second, the Teamsters want the income from worker union dues. and the more workers covered under Teamster contracts, the more money for the union. Third and most significant, the Teamsters are politically allied with the Right which counts virtually all the Agribusiness interests among its ranks. The conservative Teamsters are doing everything they can to check the spread of social revolution in the fields.
In 1967, as the UFW signed contracts with DiGiorgio, Schenley, Alamden, Christian Brothers and Gallo, as the UFW picked up members, dues, and momentum, meetings were held with the Teamsters, who had been doing some limited organizing among citrus workers, to define jurisdictional boundaries between the two unions. In July 1967, the Teamsters agreed to withdraw from the fields, and to recognize the UFW's jurisdiction over all field workers.
Only they never withdrew. In 1970, as the 3 year grape contracts began to expire the Teamsters let it be known that they would be happy to represent field
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The UFW is confident that the August 28 elections will expose what they term the "Teamster's charade." Both sides are now gearing up for one of the most crucial elections in the history of organized labor.
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workers under terms much more acceptable to the growers. Agribusiness jumped for the Teamsters, and the UFW lost 133 of its 147 contracts, a nearly crushing blow. The UFW lost contracts in both grapes and lettuce to the Teamsters which precipitated the years-old and still continuing boycotts of non-UFW grapes, lettuce and Gallo wines.
According to the growers and the Teamsters, field workers support the Teamsters, not the UFW, and Teamster contracts represent substantial wage and benefits gains for farmworkers. On closer examination these assertions seem dubious at best. The Teamsters' claims of worker loyalty are refuted by their poor showing at signing up field workers as Teamster members. Furthermore the results of several elections and non-partisan surveys of farmworker allegiance demonstrate preference for the UFW by a wide margin over the Teamsters, which led the California State Supreme Court to declare their belief that farmworkers prefer to be represented by the UFW.
The Teamster Farmworkers Local is an anti-democratic, top-down regime. Officers are installed from above. There has never been a worker vote or even a union membership meeting. One Teamster official commented, "It will be a couple of years before they can start having membership meetings." Why? Because farmworkers are unschooled in the ways of big time labor unions, and, as this official continued, "l'm nut sure how effective a union can be when it's composed of Mexican-Americans."
Teamster contracts are far less than they are cranked up to be. While claiming that all field workers receive health insurance, this coverage actually extends only to full time year-round workers, not to the seasonal workers who pay dues and make up the vast majority of farmworkers. Ramparts reported recently that farmworker dues were not being used for farmworker benefits, but to underwrite fringe benefits for truck drivers. The Teamsters have eliminated hiring halls and ranch committees. Workers rarely glimpse their stewards, and there has been a return to the hated labor contract or system.
Last week 165 major lettuce growers signed contracts with the Teamsters. leaving the WFW with only 1 lettuce contract. However, according to UFW spokesperson Marshall Ganz, "This is going to backfire on them when we got our elections."
The UFW is confident that the August 28 elections will expose what they term the "Teamsters' charade." Both sides are now gearing up for what will undoubtedly be one of the most crucial elections in the history of organized labor.
In a future SUN: a report on UFW organizing around Salinas.)