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Union Representing Few Farm Workers Has Big Political Voice

The United Farm Workers Union (UFW) was born out of years of strife between migrant farm workers and their agribusiness employers. This year is the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the UFW's struggle to give the mainly immigrant farm workers it represents a political voice, and to help them claim their economic rights. Jan Sluizer reports on where the UFW now stands in terms of power and success.

You can't talk about the United Farm Workers Union without mentioning Cesar Chavez, the man who launched the non-violent struggle for the union and who continued the fight until his death from natural causes in 1993.

"So we have to do what Cesar taught us. Go out there, work on a political campaign, go out there and get people out to vote and help everything to go forward," admonished Dolores Huerta, 71, who said that when she and Cesar Chavez began their struggle to build a labor union, the farm workers then harvesting fruits and vegetables from California's bountiful fields lived and worked in miserable conditions.

"When we started organizing, we were earning 50 cents an hour," she continued. "There was no such thing as food stamps. There was no unemployment insurance. Farm workers could not even get the food that was stored up - the surplus commodities - because there was a law that you had to live in one county for a year. And farm workers had to migrate, because once the crop ended, then you had to migrate to another county or to another state to be able to live, to be able to, you know, pick the crops." Today, things are very different, but despite 40 years of struggles, the UFW only represents about 5,500-6,000 crop pickers out of the estimated 400,000 who work on any given day during harvests.

"That means that the union is representing or has under contract, formally, between 1-1.5 percent of the California agricultural workforce," said Professor Howard Rosenberg, who said the UFW's influence extends beyond their relatively small membership.

Professor Rosenberg is a specialist in labor and agricultural policy issues at the University of California at Berkeley. He says every grower in California respects the political power of the UFW, even though less than two percent have signed a contract with the union.

One grower that has such a contract is Monterey Mushrooms, a year-round agribusiness that employs 1,800 crop pickers. Shah Kazemi has been president of the company for 22 years. He said that Monterey Mushrooms has always supported the union's goal of equality for farm workers.

"In any relationship there has to be a trust, and trust is fundamental to any relationship. We have a trust relationship with our people and we have a trust relationship with the union," said Mr. Kazemi. "That doesn't mean everything is perfect. We do have our differences and we argue and we discuss those differences. But at the end of the day we are trying to find a way to collaborate and find an ultimate solution which might not be what we're looking for, what they're looking for but it's best for the entire organization." But many others in the agricultural industry say both sides can get what's best, without the union. According to Rob Roy, President of the Ventura County Grower's Association, most California growers have not signed contracts with the UFW because they believe it has outlived its usefulness. Mr. Roy said that during the past 25 years, new state laws protecting farm worker rights have changed growers' attitudes and treatment of the men and women who harvest their crops.

"They've become more in tune with labor relations practices and, I think, overall there's better treatment of workers out there in the agricultural industry and as a result workers don't feel the necessity of having a union representative," said Mr. Roy.

"The point I'm trying to make is that the industry has transformed itself to the point where it is become extremely educated with regard to all the laws that affect the farm workers," he continued. "They are more competitive with regard to wages and benefits. There's better treatment of workers through company policy, such as vacation and family leave type policies. Many agricultural employers also provide health care benefits, dental benefits, vision benefits. So you have a better working environment. If you were to believe the UFW, every grower in California is an exploiter of farm workers, which is not the case."

Growers who do exploit their workers and violate state labor laws can face costly battles with the UFW, its associate unions and state officials. There is also public pressure, since the UFW is probably the most prominent Latino-created and led institution in the United States. It voices opinions on many issues beyond the workplace, such as immigrant rights, housing and voting. According to Professor Howard Rosenberg, even without contracts on California farms, the UFW has become a powerful force in state politics.

"Much of the information, if not most of the information, that our urban masses get about what life is like in the fields comes out of the union. That directly and indirectly influences legislation," he said.

The UFW used that public pressure to help pass the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act. Now, the union is supporting legislation to help resolve differences between worker groups and growers. Of the 428 farm worker groups that have organized under the UFW since 1975, more than half still have no signed contract with the growers that employ them. For various reasons, the two sides have not been able to complete negotiations.

Professor Rosenberg says the legislation, known as SB-1736, is the most significant reform to the state's labor laws in nearly three decades. He says the precedent-setting labor law helps get around negotiation impasses.

"If they can't reach an agreement after a certain amount of time, either party can file a motion with the Ag Labor Relations Board to appoint an arbitrator to decide what should be the terms of employment based upon the information presented by both sides," said Mr. Rosenberg. Both houses of the California legislature have passed SB-1736. So the immediate future of the UFW and its ability to protect crop pickers with grower-signed contracts now sits on California Governor Gray Davis' desk, waiting for him to sign it into law. He has not taken a position. But with the November election just weeks away, the governor will soon be forced to choose between growers who have generously supported his re-election campaign with $1.5 million in donations and the farm workers union founded by Cesar Chavez which is supported by an ever-growing and more powerful Latino voting block.