• U.S.

Labor: From Fruit Bowl to Salad Bowl

3 minute read

For Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, the recently settled grape strike was more than La Huelga, The Strike. It was La Causa—The Cause of economic parity and social dignity for Mexican-Americans. The Spanish-speaking field hands who harvest California’s crops are, Chavez believes, his natural constituency. So Chavez declared war when growers in the Salinas Valley “salad bowl” signed an agreement, announced on July 28, stating that they had given the Western Conference of Teamsters organizing jurisdiction over some 10,000 workers.

“They’re signing contracts for our members,” Chavez fumed. “They can’t get away with this; it’s going to bring the Teamsters the biggest headache they’ve ever had.” Chavez was right; two weeks later, the Teamsters swallowed their medicine and signed over their half of the organizing agreement with salad bowl growers to Chavez’s U.F.W.O.C. The Teamsters retained jurisdictional control over processing-plant workers; Chavez gained recognition of his union domain, the workers in the fields.

A Voice for Hands. The growers had not accepted the prospect of unionization gladly, but the success of the grape strike convinced them of its inevitability. It was then that salad-bowl farmers, who produce nearly 90% of the nation’s lettuce during the summer months, decided to bargain with a union of their choosing. That was, understandably, not the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. One of the valley’s largest growers expressed its antipathy: “The Chavez movement is 90% religion and civil rights and 10% trade union.” When the Teamsters reneged on the agreement, the farmers refused to negotiate with Chavez; and the biggest strike in the salad bowl since 1936 was called. Of 10,000 workers, 6,000 walked off of the fields. Half returned within a few days, but the strike still hurt the growers disastrously; shipments were cut in half and the wholesale price of lettuce doubled.

Over the weekend, Chavez won a contract with the biggest grower in the valley, Inter-Harvest Inc., which is connected with the giant United Fruit. Worried that a boycott of United Fruit bananas might replace the celebrated grape boycott, Inter-Harvest agreed to wages well above the Teamsters demands and gave field hands a voice in the use of pesticides and union jurisdiction over foremen. While U.F.W.O.C. leaders called the contract “a shot in the arm,” the Inter-Harvest contract angered the remaining growers, some of whom were letting acres of vegetables rot. Yet the Salinas Valley vegetable growers lost the goal that the Teamsters agreement had sought: keeping the U.F.W.O.C. a one-crop union.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com