News Column

On Cesar Chavez's Birthday, UFW Struggle Continues

March 31, 2013

John Holland, The Modesto Bee

MODESTO -- Decades after Cesar Chavez organized workers in the dusty fields of California, his grandson walked into a posh reception room in the Napa Valley.

Anthony Chavez took part last month in the induction of his late grandfather into the Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America.

It was a nice gesture from the wine industry, which has clashed at times with the United Farm Workers on pay and work- ing conditions in the vineyards.

The younger Chavez wore a UFW pin on his blazer as he mingled with the crowd in St. Helena. He said, according to the Napa Valley Register, that his grandfather "only wanted everyone to appreciate the plight of the farmworkers, and that they could also enjoy the pleasures and fellowship that are created around food and wine."

So, is the work of Cesar Chavez, who would have turned 86 this Sunday, complete? No, it isn't.

Farmworkers remain among the lowest-paid people in the work force. Statewide last year, the median hourly wage was $8.98 for those who handle crops and $10.91 for those who work with livestock, the California Employment Development Department reported.

Some critics say farm owners simply should increase the pay, especially in this time of strong prices for many of their products.

A report in November from the California Farm Bureau Federation said some growers did indeed boost wages to deal with a labor shortage.

"However, wage increases are only possible where the grower's profit margin can tolerate the erosion caused by an increase in costs for labor, which represents a critical input for many crops," the report said. "At some point, labor costs become high enough that the farmer will make longer-term investments in mechanization if it's available, change crops or reduce acreage."

This helps explain why high-labor crops, notably peaches and apricots, have lost ground in the Northern San Joaquin Valley to crops that do not need so many hands.

Machines shake almonds and walnuts off the trees. They harvest most of the grapes and tomatoes. This means fewer jobs for farmworkers -- but higher pay for those qualified to run the equipment.

The UFW has seen its own numbers drop from its heyday in the 1970s. Back then, it succeeded in creating the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board and getting many consumers behind its cause.

These days, the UFW continues to disagree with farmers on overtime rules, heat protections and other issues. But the union also is working with farm leaders and conservative lawmakers in a fresh effort at immigration reform, including a path to legal status for many of the undocumented workers.

Someday soon, farmer and farmworker advocates could exchange friendly greetings in a congressional hearing room. Just like they did at the Vintners Hall of Fame, where Chavez's careworn face is now cast in bronze.

(By the way, the 2008 inductees included Ernest and Julio Gallo of Modesto, founders of the world's largest winery. Chavez led a boycott of Gallo wines in the 1970s after losing a representation battle to the rival Teamsters.)

The reduced size of the UFW did not matter to the organizers of Wednesday's celebration of Chavez's birthday at California State University, Stanislaus.

"It might be smaller," student Hugo Que of San Rafael said, "but the cause is still strong."


(c)2013 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.)

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