Behind the Tempting Grape
CHRIST & NEIGHBOR
Few items at the supermarket are more tempting than the grape. But there are good reasons why temptation should be resisted.
From late May to January almost all the grapes we see come from California. The rest of the year they are imported, mostly from Chile. Since 1986 Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, AFL-CIO, have been conducting a boycott of California table grapes. Most of us are old enough to remember the first grape boycott back in the late 1960s. This was so successful that anti-union grape growers were forced to sit down and negotiate contracts with Chavez and the UFW. One of these early contracts, in 1967, had a provision banning the deadly pesticide DDT for the first time, five years before the federal government banned it. But these contracts have been repudiated by the growers, who find it easy to hire poor Mexican immigrants as strikebreakers. For example, some 18,000 grape workers have voted for union representation and still have not been able to win or hold onto contracts.
So the boycott is the most effective, almost the only effective, weapon that farm workers have, particularly since they are not covered by federal labor laws that prevent employers from firing pro-union workers and require them to negotiate contracts with the winner of federally run elections. True, in 1975, during the administration of Governor Jerry Brown, the state of California passed its own agricultural labor law that extended these basic human rights to the farm workers. In California agriculture is big business, as you will quickly realize if you have ever traveled through or over those vast fields and vineyards where so much of our fruit and vegetables are grown. There are 50,000 grape workers alone in the state. And so, for a few years farm union organization in California had the protection of law.
In 1983 Governor Brown was succeeded by Governor George Deukmejian, who won with the help of large contributions from agribusinessmen. The Governor was not slow in delivering the quid pro quo. I quote from a statement of Congressman Jerome Waldie of California:
Enforcement of the [state’s agricultural labor law] has become a mockery of justice…. As a former member of the ALRB [agricultural labor board] under Governors Brown and Deukmejian I can say that the board has been gutted — turned over to agribusiness…. Politicians catering to the wealthy and powerful have abandoned farm workers — not an uncommon experience in the long struggle of poor people.
The accuracy of Waldie’s charge is supported by the fact that 18,000 grape workers have voted for the union and still have no contracts, but it is also attested by the clearly antiunion bias of Deukmejian’s appointee, David Stirling, general counsel for the board, which is supposed to be neutral and if anything more inclined to the union side, since the board exists primarily to protect the rights of farm workers.
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