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Chavez's death brings UFW movement to life.

COACHELLA, Calif. -- The United Farm Workers movement is back. Among the key issues -- in a resurgence of interest following UFW president Cesar Chavez's April 23 death -- are the effects of pesticides on both consumer and farm worker.

One effect of an enhanced farm worker support movement is the likelihood of an escalated grape boycott.

UFW officials report that since Chavez's death, and because of it, many people from all walks of life, at rallies, services and memorial gatherings, have begun recommitting themselves to the movement from which, over time, they had drifted away.

"Probably the biggest mistake we ever made," said the constantly on-the-road new UFW president, Arturo Rodriguez, Chavez's son-in-law, "was that in 1975, when we won the second grape boycott and were able to get the (California) Agriculture Labor Relations Act passed, we dismantled our boycott operations, everything that we had put together in urban areas throughout the world.

"We made a strategic decision. We thought that because we now had legislation, a way to conduct elections and get contracts for the farm workers, that we could dismantle everything and work within the framework of the law."

The disillusionment came quickly, Rodriguez said. Within four months, the powerful growers' lobby in Sacramento, the state capital, had defunded the legislation. By 1977, the UFW was able to have the Agricultural Labor Relations Board refunded. But much movement momentum had been lost. "It was never the same after that," said Rodriguez.

In the Coachella Valley here, however, it did not take Chavez's death to reignite ordinary farm workers -- they were already coming back.

Last June, in this valley where California's table grapes ripen earliest, pickers walked off the job. They marched, Cesar Chavez and Arturo Rodriguez with them, and they won. The pickers forced growers to fork out the first hourly rate increases in more than six years.

The mainstream media missed the story, but as the California AFL-CIO News reported it, Chavez's power was as significant as ever. It quoted grower Robert Carian telling those who had walked off the job: "You're nothing but a pack of dogs who come running every time Chavez snaps his fingers."

After their victory, the Coachella pickers moved on up to the San Joaquin Valley and helped ignite workers there to the point that, last year, all grape pickers received from between a 10 cent to 45 cent per hour increase on their basic $4.60-$5 rate.

The irony, of course, is that the UFW does not have a single grape contract in California. In Coachella it has citrus and vegetable contracts, but again, no grapes.

That can change, though it will be a long campaign, Rodriguez and UFW first vice president and cofounder Dolores Huerta told more than 800 cheering and flag-waving Coachella Valley residents in the local high school.

The word was that the battle is on, nonviolent as always, but that a sustained grape boycott (see accompanying interview) can alter the pickers' bargaining power.

This was Rodriguez's second public appearance that day, in addition to meetings with UFW members. He had earlier given a talk at Antelope Valley College; the next day he would be in Calexico. In five days the previous week, he had been in Salinas, San Diego, Denver, San Antonio and Delano. At each place people had come forward wanting him to know they were back and ready to help, he said.

In the farmland towns where Rodriguez meets farm workers, the settings would be much like the one in Coachella's high school gymnasium: lots of young faces, young parents who had been children themselves when the great red UFW banner that leaned against the gym wall had been carried during the 1975 "great Coachella Valley march."

Present this night was early UFW organizer Alfredo Figueroa, one of the "Coachella Four" who, in 1969, spent two months in jail -- for raising the UFW flag and disrupting local Congressman John Tunney's July 4 speech -- before the state Supreme Court finally released them.

Figueroa had with him his guitar, the varnish worn thin, and photographs of him playing at UFW rallies two decades earlier.

The UFW on the road matches music with organizing. There was a young flamenco dancing couple, a red-and-black caped musical group, and Polaroid cameras for photo identification pictures for families signing up in the UFW's associate program, La Union del Pueblo Entero. At $20 per family per year, LUPE can bring them some of the benefits UFW members receive -- from tax preparation to cut-rate Mastercards, from immigration assistance to life insurance, from credit union membership to cut-rate medicines.

The banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe was against one wall. Holy Cross Father Joseph Pawlicki of La Soledad Church welcomed everyone and led a prayer in Spanish.

Spanish is Coachella's first language, the language advertising the specials in the supermarket and furniture store windows. KUFW, "Campesino Radio," which broadcasts to an audience within a 100-mile radius of its Delano, Calif., base was on hand, plus the local television and print media.

This is UFW territory. Although the growers who send their kids there may not like it, one local elementary school is named for Cesar Chavez. And now his supporters had the high school, too.

Coachella was having unseasonably cool weather for late May. It was only 101 degrees, which residents claimed was well below the 119 degree norm. But, they forecast, the weather was about to warm up. From the scene in the high school gym, the same could be said of the farm worker movement.
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Title Annotation:Cesar Chavez; United Farm Workers; includes interview with Arturo Rodriguez
Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jun 4, 1993
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