Since 1975, United Farm Workers had won the majority of the union elections in which it had been involved. Boycotts were a strong UFW tactic in persuading recalcitrant growers to come to the bargaining table. The establishment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board in 1975 had generated optimism that conditions for farm workers in California would be permanently improved.
During the 1970s, when Gov. Jerry Brown appointed a pro-worker majority to the board, farm laborers made significant gains. Many of those advances were eradicated when Brown, in 1982, was succeeded by George Deukmejian, a Fresno-area native whose campaign was aided by more than $1 million in contributions from growers. Deukmejian appointed representatives of growers to the ALRB and reduced its funding. Conditions for farm workers began to steadily decline.
But the union was not without some success. In the summer of 1985, more than 500 people suffered nausea and other stomach problems after eating California-grown watermelons. Investigators discovered that several growers in the state had used illegal pesticides on their watermelon acreage. Chavez fasted for 36 days to protest the use of pesticides that he said harmed the health of agricultural workers as well as consumers. The union attributed the high rate of birth defects and cancer deaths among farm worker children to pesticide use. In response, the legislature in 1986 expanded California's food testing program and made more stringent the assessments measuring the health effects of pesticide residues, particularly on young people.
Consumer demand for pesticide-free produce increased dramatically and both the state and federal government passed legislation promoting organic farming.
But overall, the 1980s brought a substantial decline in the influence that the UFW and Chavez had on California agriculture. Union membership fell from more than 70,000 in the 1970s, to less than 20,000 in 1993.
Growers frequently turned to farm labor contractors to provide workers and wages, benefits, and working conditions plummeted. Pay was barely above minimum wage. A federal study found that only 40 percent of the employers in the San Joaquin Valley had toilets or hand-washing facilities at work sites. Conditions in many areas were comparable to the Great Depression.
When Chavez died in 1993 at age 66, the union was at the nadir of its power. Its new president, Arturo Rodriguez, began an initiative to rebuild UFW strength. The union has enjoyed some success, having won 18 consecutive union elections and having signed 24 first-time contracts with growers. Membership has grown slightly to about 27,000, including rose, mushroom, strawberry, wine grape, lettuce, and vegetable workers in California, Florida, and Washington.
On Aug. 8, 1994, Chavez was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the nation. He was the second Mexican American to be so honored.
11.8 Students analyze the economic boom and social transformation of post-World War II America. (11.8.2)