UFW Ends Table Grape Boycott - But The Struggle Continues

by Christina Kelly

Last November, the United Farm Workers union ended its 16-year boycott of California table grapes. UFW President Arturo Rodriguez explained, "Some goals of the boycott have already been met. Cesar Chavez's crusade to eliminate use of five of the most toxic chemicals plaguing farm workers and their families has been largely successful. Three of them—Dinoseb, parathion and Phosdrin—are gone. A fourth, methyl bromide, was set to be banned in 2000; that deadline was extended to 2005. Severe restrictions have been placed on use of the fifth chemical, Captan."

Rodriguez cited a number of victories since 1994, when the UFW began a new field organizing and contract negotiation campaign—including 20 elections won and 24 new contracts with growers. In particular, Rodriguez pointed to the signing last August of the UFW's first contract with Gallo in 27 years, covering 450 vineyard workers in Sonoma County. "It is not fair to ask our supporters to honor a boycott when the union must devote all of its present resources toward organizing and negotiating contracts," he said.

In recent years, the UFW and its supporters had mostly lost interest in the boycott. Grape growers claimed the sanctions had failed to deter sales. Union membership had dwindled—from a high of 80,000 in 1970 to a low of 20,000 in 1994, with a bounce back up to 27,000 today. Union leaders shifted their focus to organizing in the fields.

The boycott, which began in 1984, was the third and the longest of the table grape boycotts called by the UFW. The first, started in 1965 in conjunction with a fiery vineyard strike in Delano, catapaulted Cesar Chavez and the fledgling union into the national spotlight. It ended in 1970 when the state's largest grape growers signed contracts with the UFW. A second boycott was called in 1973, when the UFW lost most of its labor agreements to the Teamsters Union. That boycott overlapped with UFW boycotts of two other nonunion products, lettuce and Gallo wine. It received substantial support, and was called off in 1977, after the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act was passed—legislation considered the strongest farm labor law in the nation.

The third boycott targeted what Cesar Chavez called "The Wrath of Grapes"—the use of pesticides. At age 61, Chavez conducted his longest public fast, the 36-day "Fast for Life," to bring attention to the issue. In a 1989 speech, he explained, "The fast was, finally, a declaration of noncooperation with supermarkets that promote, sell and profit from California table grapes. They are as culpable as those who manufacture the poisons and those who use them." Chavez continued to advocate for the boycott until his death in 1993.

With the end of the table grape boycott, only one UFW boycott remains—on mushrooms from Pictsweet Mushroom Farm in Ventura. The UFW is requesting that supporters help Pictsweet workers obtain a UFW contract by asking Pizza Hut not to purchase from Pictsweet. (For more information, visit www.ufw.org).

Although it called off the table grape boycott, the UFW emphasized the move should not be seen as an endorsement to buy 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."

While there has been progress since Cesar Chavez first took up the cause 40 years ago, each farm worker victory is hard-fought, and rights and protections won are never secure. Despite regulations and bans on some chemicals, workers are still commonly exposed to and sickened by the multitude of pesticides routinely used by agribusiness. Violations of the farm labor law persist. Children still work in the fields. Housing for farm workers is scarce to nonexistent; what is available is often in deplorable condition. Farm workers continue to suffer from lack of respect. They are taken advantage of and treated as inferior in a state that boasts about its protections for employees.

Here in Mendocino County, there was a brief UFW victory in September 1998. In Anderson Valley, workers at Anderson Vineyards, which is owned by Roederer Estate winery in Philo, called a strike for better pay, and health and other benefits. They then called in the UFW. The workers subsequently voted to become the first agricultural employees in Mendocino County to be represented by the UFW. The prospect of organized labor in their fields made many local winery and vineyard owners very unhappy. Roederer put up a prolonged fight, challenging the way the election was conducted and the methods used by the UFW. Represented by the San Francisco law firm of Littler Mendelson, the company filed objections with the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board. Despite this, in December 1999, Roederer workers and the UFW signed a one-year contract, which included a minimal pay increase, and health and other benefits. However, the company persisted in its efforts to thwart the union, offering workers additional housing benefits. In August 2000, Roederer workers voted to end UFW representation—and the union's toehold in the county slipped away.

For the people who are responsible for bringing the food (and wine) to our tables, the struggle to secure a decent life continues.

Copyright Mendocino Environmental Center 2001
Permission granted to excerpt or use this article if source is cited

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