For generations farm workers struggled to improve their inhuman working conditions. Finally in the 1960s the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO (UFW) succeeded in doing what had never been done—organizing a viable union for farm workers. We had strikes and boycotts, people suffered, families went hungry and finally in 1970 we signed three-year contracts with the table grape growers of California. Hope was born among farm workers and their families. Black, brown, and white united and a spirit of self-respect and independence grew, taking the place of fear and helplessness.
In April of 1973, our three-year contracts expired. The growers, disregarding the rights of the workers, chose to sign sweetheart contracts with the Teamsters Union. We asked the growers for an election so the workers could vote on which union they wanted to represent them. We promised to post a bond assuring that if we lost the election we would call off the strike and the boycott. We got no response. The growers prefer the Teamsters Union whose contracts permit the return of the feudal labor contractor (crew boss) system. Their contracts have no provisions for job security or seniority and no regulations controlling the use of pesticides. We are already seeing the effects of this neglect as more and more farm workers are coming into our clinics suffering from pesticide poisoning. The UFW is a worker-controlled union and the growers don’t like that.
Throughout the summer of 1973 local judges (many beholden to the growers) issued injunctions limiting the legitimate strike activity. Thousands of farm workers, among them women, children and older men, were maced, beaten, jailed and hospitalized by growers, Teamster goons and sheriffs.
And then, on August 16, while picketing at the Giumarra Vineyards, Juan de la Cruz was shot and killed by a sniper. His murder was witnessed by his wife Maximina who was picketing by her husband’s side. Two days earlier, striker Nagi Daifullah was beaten; he died from a massive brain hemorrhage shortly thereafter.
The alliance of the Teamsters Union, the Nixon Administration, and their corporate grower friends, continues in its attempts to destroy our union. New evidence has come to light that reconfirms this. It is reported in May of 1971, Charles Colson, former Nixon Aide and Teamster counsel, sent a memo to the Justice Department, Labor Department and National Labor Relations Board instructing these agencies to stay out of the Teamster-farm worker dispute. “Only if you can find some way to work against the Chavez union should you take any action.” In a second memo in 1972 he said, “…But we must stick to our position. The Teamsters Union is now organizing the area and will probably sign up most of the grape growers this coming spring and they will need our support against the UFW.”
The 1974 harvest has begun and harassment of the strikers has started. Local judges are again issuing injunctions severely limiting our picketing. Several hundred farm workers have been jailed. The sheriff department’s helicopter hovers low over our picket lines covering the farm workers with thick clouds of dust. The Department of Justice is closing its eyes to the importation of thousands of illegal aliens from Mexico, the Philippines and Arab countries to break our strike. And now the Reagan Administration has decided to mobilize the National Guard to be ready to move into our strike areas on call. Though we are worried about losing another life, we are going to continue to strike and we are determined to continue non-violently.
While George Meany and the AFL-CIO are giving us great support by their endorsement of our grape and lettuce boycotts, they cannot help us financially as they did last year. As a result, we have to borrow in order to survive. We have striking farm workers and their families here in California and in Arizona who need food, clothing, legal and medical care. Many families spent the past year in cities across the country working on the boycott. Funds are needed for them to carry on their work.
Our small union, poor and struggling to get started, will not be destroyed. Neither the growers, nor the Teamsters, nor the White House has the power to crush our spirit or to overcome the thousands of people who help us because of their faith. You are the crucial element they cannot control. The harvest of grapes by workers under UFW contract ended July 13 and there will be no union grapes in the market until next year’s harvest begins in April. Therefore please boycott all grapes and Gallo wines and don’t buy or eat iceberg (head) lettuce unless you are sure it bears our label.
…Please join with us in our struggle for self-determination and dignity by sending your check today [payable to United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO]. Your gift—large or small—will be greatly appreciated.
Cesar E. Chavez
La Paz, Keene, California 93531