By the 1970s, the farm workers union, fresh from labor victories in the California fields, had become a popular organization nationally among people with sympathies towards liberal causes, including the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. Chavez recognized that if boycotts of California growers who would not sign contracts with the union were to be successful, he needed support in urban areas, where the majority of farmproducts were sold. Conversely, the union's endorsement in political campaigns in cities such as Oakland, where there was a substantial minority population and liberal voting electorate, was coveted by politicians.
At a press conference announcing the endorsement, Chavez said "We try to make things better. What happens (in Oakland) has a bearing on us in the rest of the state."
Much of the farm labor union's strength during the period was based on the public's perception that the UFW was as much a social justice organization as it was a union. Even though California was one of the world's largest agricultural-producing regions, farm workers and their plight had been nearly invisible to the general public. The union raised the consciousness of people both in the state, where social justice issues traditionally were widely debated, and across America that farm workers were not receiving fair treatment. While the union also represented workers in Arizona, Texas, and other states, nationally it was seen as primarily a California phenomenon.
Dolores Huerta, who had served as UFW vice president from 1970 to 1973, played a pivotal role in the successful conclusion of the initial grape boycott. She also was a frequent critic of another social justice issue, the "feminization of poverty" among the state's farm workers. Her criticism that resonated with the public, particularly in California, where the women's movement had gathered momentum. Huerta noted that mechanization of farming increasingly had allowed growers to reduce the number of male workers they employed, replacing them with women who were paid at the bottom of the wage scale.
When the union's agreements with table grape growers came up for renewal, growers signed pacts with the Teamsters Union, contracts that the UFW said were "sweetheart deals." Some 10,000 UFW workers in California coastal valleys left the fields in protest.
Chavez responded with a new global grape boycott. A 1975 Harris Poll indicated that 17 million Americans nationwide honored the boycott, a factor that helped pressure growers into supporting Gov. Jerry Brown's collective bargaining law for California farm workers, known as the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. Passage of the law, which allowed workers to select a union by secret ballot, marked a new era for farm laborers in the state.
Salinas Valley lettuce growers also had signed what the union said were "sweetheart contracts" with the Teamsters to head off UFW organizing efforts in the area. After several years of boycott and negotiations, the UFW and Teamsters signed a five-year jurisdictional pact in which the UFW would represent all field workers in future contracts.
By the end of the decade, thousands of California farm workers enjoyed contracts with higher pay, health coverage, and some pension benefits, gains that seemed unimaginable only 15 years before. The state continued to be seen globally as a land of economic opportunity.
- Students analyze the different explanations for the Great Depression and how the New Deal fundamentally changed the role of the federal government. (11.6.5)
- Students analyze the economic boom and social transformation of post-World War II America. (11.8.2)