FRESNO — In time for Thanksgiving, the United Farm Workers union ended its 16-year boycott of Californa table grapes Tuesday, saying the original goals of UFW co-founder Cesar Chavez had been largely met.
“Cesar Chavez’s crusade to eliminate use of five of the most toxic chemicals plaguing farm workers and their families has been largely successful,” said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez.
In recent years the UFW has not focused any energy on the boycott and the table grape industry has continued to grow.
“I think it makes sense for them to call it off,” said Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission. “Of course we’re happy to not have table grapes on any official boycott list.”
Chavez called for the boycott on June 12, 1984, as a way of focusing on the spraying of dangerous pesticides. It was the third boycott of California grapes called by the UFW.
The first boycott ran from 1967 until 1970, when growers signed their first contracts with the UFW. The second grape boycott began in 1973 and received more widespread support than the recent one.
A 1975 Harris poll found 17 million Americans were boycotting grapes, according to the UFW. The boycott ended two years later, after the Agricultural Labor Relations Act was passed, allowing farmworkers to organize and bargain for contracts.
As union membership dwindled and state oversight of agribusiness dropped off, however, Chavez launched the final boycott to bring attention to what he called “The Wrath of Grapes” – the threat from pesticides.
In the final years of his life, Chavez fought passionately for the cause that inspired the 1984 boycott. At age 61 he conducted his longest public fast – the 36-day “Fast for Life” – and continued to press the boycott until his death five years later in 1993.
“The fast was, finally, a declaration of noncooperation with supermarkets that promote, sell and profit from California table grapes,” Chavez said at a 1989 speech in Tacoma, Wash. “They are as culpable as those who manufacture the poisons and those who use them.”
But as the latest boycott dragged out, it failed to gain a large following. Consumer studies for the grape industry have found fewer than 5 percent of consumers were aware of the boycott, Nave said.
Rodriguez said he thinks Chavez, his father-in-law, would have made the same decision to end the boycott. The union is now focused on the more important goal of organizing and negotiating contracts in the fields.
In a letter to the National Farm Worker Ministry in St. Louis, which mobilized support for the boycott among religious groups, Rodriguez said it was no longer fair to ask supporters to honor the boycott.
The end of the boycott represents a significant shift in direction for the union that rose to power and national attention through its earlier grape strikes and grape boycotts.
Today, the UFW, which has dwindled to 27,000 members from a high of 80,000 in 1970, only has one table grape contract.
It has branched into the mushroom and rose industry in recent years and in August it signed its first contract with Gallo – the subject of an earlier boycott – to cover 450 vineyard workers in Sonoma County.
Although it called off the boycott, the union said that should not be seen as an endorsement to buy table grapes.
“Table grape workers continue to suffer poverty pay, poor working conditions and mistreatment on the job,” said UFW spokesman Marc Grossman.
“We look forward to the day where table grape workers, too, can enjoy the blessings of organized labor.”
On the Net:
United Farm Workers of America: http://www.ufw.org