By JEFF MACKLER
Retracing the route of the march on Sacramento led by United Farmworkers of America (UFW) President Cesar Chavez in 1966, farmworkers and their supporters marched across California on Aug. 15 in a 10-day, 175-mile march to pressure Gov. Gray Davis to sign a bill mandating binding arbitration on stalled contract talks.
UFW leaders wanted Davis to sign Senate Bill 1736, authored by the California Senate’s president pro tem, Democrat John Burton of San Francisco. The governor, however, refused to sign the bill.
As we go to press, the state assembly and representatives of the governor’s office are instead considering a new bill, touted as a “compromise” between the demands of the farmworkers and those of agribusiness. The new bill would establish a complex and lengthy mediation process to supposedly resolve stalled negotiations.
California agribusiness interests have contributed over $1.5 million to Davis’ re-election campaign but the growers insist that they were not trying to buy the governor’s veto of the original bill.
Indeed, they speak the truth. Agribusiness, along with aerospace-military production, is king in California, a state that would rank sixth in the world in Gross Domestic Product if it were placed in the category of a country. California’s multi-billionaire growers, with offices on Wall Street and the world over, own the state legislature and virtually every politician. They have no need to buy a governor they already own.
But form is still important in the world of propaganda dominated by the rich. “I’m asking the governor to veto the bill based on the facts,” said Manuel Cunha, a Fresno grower who heads the Nisei Farmers League, which gave Davis $1000 in August. Cunha and his ilk argue that stalled contract negotiations are as much the UFW’s fault as the growers’.
UFW President Arturo Rodriguez responded that UFW members on more than 240 California ranches have voted for UFW representation but have no contract years after winning a state-organized election.
Boycott movement gathered mass support
The first farm labor bill in the state’s history, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), was signed in 1975 by Gov. Jerry Brown, the first Democrat to run for office with the label, “fiscal conservative.” Brown, a “liberal” on many social issues, was among the first of the nation’s Democratic Party capitalist politicians, in the context of the Nixon wage freeze then in effect, to launch the drive to make American corporations more competitive on world markets.
At that time, and for the first time since the end of World War II, U.S. capitalism began lagging behind its major European and Japanese competitors, who had rebuilt their war-destroyed industrial infrastructure on a technological base far in advance of the less productive and older factories in the United States. To make U.S. capitalism more competitive, American workers were slated for massive wage cuts, cutbacks in social services, and increased taxation.
Brown took the assignment with gusto while at the same time, in tune with his “liberal” credentials,” courting and funding the central leaders of the Black Panther Party as he helped negotiate the release of imprisoned Panther leader Huey Newton in return for Panther support to the Democratic Party in Oakland.
At the time of Brown’s signing of the 1975 bill the Cesar Chavez-led UFW was at the height of its popularity among the state’s farmworkers, Latino communities, and the youth in general-who were radicalizing under the impact of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.
Chavez’s decade-long head lettuce and grape boycotts, as well as the boycott of the powerful Gallo wine corporation, were taken up by UFW supporters in virtually every state in the nation. Mass support to La Causa, [the UFW cause] as it was popularly known, forced key supermarket chains to refrain from carrying boycotted products.
But the UFW’s resort to the boycott was an indication of weakness, not strength. A powerful array of forces lined up against the union, making progress difficult and often impossible. Not only did the union face the full power of the state’s agricultural barons and their hired thugs backed by state and local police, but the labor bureaucracy was either hostile or indifferent to the farmworkers’ plight.
The Teamsters, in particular, led by a host of corrupt national and state officials, distinguished themselves as treacherous enemies of the UFW, going so far as to sign sweetheart (pro-company and fake) contracts with growers that lined the pockets of Teamster tops while blocking UFW organizing efforts.
The AFL-CIO officialdom was not much better, paying lip-service to UFW efforts while withholding real support from the beleaguered farmworkers. The farmworkers’ virtually token picket lines in rural areas were largely incapable of preventing the growers, aided by goons and police, from herding non-union workers, often immigrants, through UFW picket lines.
The early UFW policy of rejecting membership to “illegal” immigrants added to the union’s difficulties. Under pressure from the ranks, the UFW eventually reversed this reactionary policy.
Chavez himself, albeit with far fewer forces at his disposal, was far from the kind of union militant that in previous generations had brought powerful corporations to their knees. He favored Gandhi-style non-violent civil disobedience tactics, personal fasts that sometimes brought him close to death, boycotts-and especially, alliances with state and national Democratic Party officials-rather than the organization of mass forces in struck fields to prevent the breaking of UFW strikes.
Chavez, whose personal courage and moral authority were a product of pacifist and religious conviction rather than class-struggle politics, was a frequent guest at Democratic Party gatherings. Democrats seeking office often found it “political” to visit UFW offices in Delano for Chavez photo opportunities.
In spite of all the UFW weaknesses, the union organized more than 100,000 farmworkers into its ranks and established itself as a moral force in the growing Latino communities and in society more generally. Chavez’s UFW struggle to a significant degree paralleled the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Farm legislation contained loopholes
In 1975, the decades-long boycotts that had forced a few of the big growers and a number of smaller operations to reluctantly sign UFW contracts compelled the Democratic Party to seek other means to stifle the organization of farmworkers.
The 1975 legislation, for the first time in the state’s history, legalized farm labor collective bargaining. But it contained fundamental flaws that favored the bosses, especially those allowing state officials to utilize one pretext or another to postpone an election once the UFW had signed up a majority of the workers to require one.
And even after the UFW won an election, the employers, confident they could defeat a UFW strike, stalled negotiations for years while the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) established by the ALRA, looked on with indifference.
The loopholes in the law combined with the UFW’s incapacity to effectively challenge the bosses’ power in the fields. The result was the virtual decimation of the union. Of the 428 elections won by the UFW since 1975 only 185, or 43 percent, resulted in contracts. Most of these have long been lost.
Today, membership has dwindled to some 27,000. The bosses became expert in turning UFW victories into defeats. ALRB delays in holding elections allowed the bosses to fire and otherwise persecute UFW members while hiring non-union workers beholden to the bosses to replace them and vote against the union if and when an election was held.
One ruse after another was employed to the UFW’s disadvantage-from the state legislature’s failure to fund the ALRB, to providing insufficient staff to hold elections, to the ALRB recognizing employer-funded and organized company unions to challenge the UFW for bargaining rights.
Since 1975 the ALRB has assessed 58 growers a total of $34 million for bad-faith bargaining. But only $4.4 million has been paid to workers. Years of employer stalling made it impossible to find most of the long gone aggrieved workers while the growers took advantage of the delays to go out of business and/or reopen under new names. The net effect was to save the growers billions of dollars in wages and benefits they would have had to pay out had the law been implemented.
The August 2002 UFW march to the state capitol to ask Gov. Davis to sign a bill to compel growers to accept binding arbitration of contract disputes (in the event that mediation fails) is a sure sign that the union today sees no other way to force growers to agree to the most basic of farmworker demands. Citing concerns about potential harm to “business interests,” Davis’s aides have all but affirmed that the governor is likely to exercise his veto.
It is an old trade-union maxim that you can’t win in arbitration what you can’t win on the picket line. For the severely weakened UFW, and in the context of a general labor misleadership with no social vision other than to make capitalism more profitable for the boss class, the UFW is compelled to seek solace in the decisions of state-appointed arbitrators whose employment is contingent on their adherence to ruling-class politicians.
The UFW leadership believes it has no alternative but to accept contracts imposed by the bosses’ agents as opposed to no contract at all. California’s farmworkers earn on average less than $10,000 per year. This is the figure for full-time workers only.
The tens of thousands of part-time workers are even more subject to the whims of the corporate rich who dominate agribusiness today and who view farm labor as akin to slave labor as they maintain inhuman working conditions, expose farmworkers to deadly pesticides, and utilize the INS to deport workers before they are paid.
We are witness to a tragedy of massive proportions as the dignity and struggle of California’s poorest of the poor is degraded while the potentially powerful California Labor Federation, with its 1.8 million members, stands by in pitiful helplessness.
On Labor Day, union officials greeted Gray Davis with orchestrated chants of “four more years!” Simultaneously, they begged the governor to sign a bill that few unions would even consider-and then pressed for another bill that is equally repugnant.