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Farmworkers, agribusiness, and the state.

Cesar Chavez began to organize California farmworkers in the 1960's, and within a decade, the strikes, boycotts, and marches organized by what became the United Farm Workers union made Americans aware that Mexican-American workers harvested most of the Nation's grapes and lettuce. Unions, churches, and students enthusiastically supported the fledgling farmworker union, first, in its struggle to be represented as the bargaining agent for farmworkers on corporate grape and vegetable farms, and later, to retain its contracts when the Teamsters union began organizing farmworkers in the early 1970's. The tumultuous events of the early 1970's led growers and unions to demand a State law to end the strife. The California Agricultural Labor Relations Act was enacted in 1975 to ". . . ensure peace in the agricultural fields by guaranteeing justice for all agricultural workers and stability in labor relations." It granted farmworkers organizing and collective bargaining rights.

Farmworkers, Agribusiness, and the State is a chronicle of the farmworker events in the 1960's and 1970's by observers who worked for the United Farm Workers union. The authors do more than simply record events; they also theorize as to why the United Farm Workers succeeded in its efforts to achieve lasting bargaining agreements after other farmworker unions had failed. The author's theory has to do with how government both opposed and aided farmworker organizations that have been present in California agriculture for more than 100 years.

California's labor-intensive fruit and vegetable industry was developed in the late 1880's when refrigerated rail transportation opened up east coast markets and the 12,000 Chinese laborers who had built the transcontinental railroad became migratory farmworkers because they were denied mining and urban jobs. The large California farms that emerged when wheat fields were converted to orchards were preserved with the arrival of immigrant workers without options. Although the availability of farmworkers kept wages low, land prices rose to the extent that most of the midwestern farmers who migrated to California could not remain farmers. By 1900, the conventional wisdom asserted that California agriculture needed large numbers of migrant workers for seasonal jobs, and that such a lifestyle was most acceptable to nonwhite immigrants.

Waves of immigrant farmworkers followed--the Japanese, Hindus, Filipinos, Depression-era "Okies" and "Arkies" in the late 1920's and early 1930's; and Mexicans since World War II. In most instances, these immigrants without options were not a majority of the farm work force, but their desperate need for work meant that wages fell as additional laborers arrived in search of work. White farmworkers protested bitterly when farmers reduced wages after "too many" workers had appeared. The Industrial Workers of the World converted these protests into strikes before World War I, and the Communist-dominated Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union similarly assumed the leadership of spontaneous strikes in the 1930's.

This book summarizes the rise of the United Farm Workers union. The authors give considerable weight to the persuasive talents of Cesar Chavez, as well as the importance of religious groups and students in promoting boycott activities by the union. The book emphasizes the often tenuous ties between the United Farm Workers and most AFL-CIO unions, although it highlights the United Auto Workers' enthusiastic support of the United Farm Workers. The book's major shortcoming is its failure to explain how the changing structure of California agriculture expedited organizing. Just as the textile workers union asserted that it had to organize the industry before it could organize the work force, the United Farm Worker's success rested heavily on the emergence of large growers who could afford to pay higher wages. The United Farm Workers union has been most successful in organizing workers on corporate vegetable farms but has had the least success in commodities where production is diffused among thousands of family farmers who often struggle to stay in business.

Although other books have chronicled the rise of the United Farm Workers and analyzed the reasons for its success, Linda and Theo Majka theorize on how government has intervened in omnipresent farmworker protests. I find this theory to be the weak part of the book, because it assumes that farmworkers have always wanted to organize and gain control over their employment, that farmers have implacably opposed these organizing efforts, and that the State acted as an umpire, shifting from the side of the farmers to the workers' cause in the 1970's. This power theory becomes tautological by arguing that the United Farm Workers union gained enough without a law to cause the State legislators to switch sides, downplaying structural shifts in agriculture and the possibility that unionism can bring mutual benefits to workers and employers.

This book is a useful summary of events derived from personal experience and newspaper accounts. PHILIP L. MARTIN Associate Professor Agricultural Economics University of California, Davis
COPYRIGHT 1984 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
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Author:Martin, Philip L.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1984
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