Farm workers' march tries to keep alive Chavez legacy

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

April 24, 1994|By Sandra Gonzales | Sandra Gonzales,Knight-Ridder News Service

LODI, Calif. -- Like the legendary leader before him, Arturo Rodriguez stirs his followers with the farm workers' rallying cry "Viva La Causa!" as they walk past a familiar scene: laborers bending over a field in the hot California sun.

His forehead glistening with sweat, Mr. Rodriguez and a group ranging from 100 to 2,000 people have marched past fields and barrios up the long spine of the Central Valley over the past month.

When Cesar Chavez died -- a year ago yesterday -- critics thought the United Farmworkers Union surely would fade away.

Not so, supporters say. Instead, Chavez's death revived interest in the union, which for many Hispanics and farm workers symbolizes hope and dignity.

"It woke everyone up," said Mr. Rodriguez, 44, Chavez's son-in-law and the UFW's second president. "As in, 'Oh my God, Cesar gave his entire life, whether it was in the barrios of San Jose or East Los Angeles. Now he's gone. Are we going to let that go down in vain or reach out and carry his legacy?' "

According to organizers, the 345-mile pilgrimage not only marks the one-year anniversary of Chavez's death but also demonstrates a renewed commitment to continue his work.

But opponents of the UFW see the pilgrimage as an outright publicity stunt for a union that, they contend, is in the twilight of its career.

"They're fighting out of desperation," said Richard Baiz, spokesman of the Los-Angeles based Grapeworkers and Farmers Coalition, formed 10 years ago to fight the grape boycott. "As I see it, this is Custer's Last Stand."

The union's 24-day pilgrimage, which retraces Chavez's historic 1966 march from Delano in Kern County to the state Capitol, is the UFW's bold attempt to return to the roots that once made it strong: organizing farm workers and negotiating contracts.

Members said they feel hopeful about what the march has achieved. "Cesar's spirit has been with us all the way," UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta said.

To survive, the union must rebuild membership from its current 22,000 workers, less than 10 percent of farm workers in the state and far fewer than the 100,000 workers it represented at its peak.

In the past year, the UFW has regrouped, shifting its strategy from the grape boycott to winning contracts.

"That's a courageous step," said Don Villarejo, executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies in Davis. "Cesar was not only the symbol of farm workers' rights, but he made the boycott his principal tactic."

Chavez captured the national spotlight in 1965 when his union called a strike in the San Joaquin Valley against table-grape growers and a national boycott of grapes.

In 1984, Chavez called for another boycott of grapes, and he conducted a 36-day fast in 1988 to protest the risk of pesticides.

Once considered the only game around, the UFW now must compete with labor organizations such as the Teamsters Local 890 in Salinas and the Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Each represents field workers and is recognized by the AFL-CIO.

Politically, others see little chance of the UFW's regaining the clout it once had.

"Life gives you certain opportunities that don't often get repeated," said David Runsten, a Berkeley economist and farm labor consultant.

Along the way, the union also lost its credibility among growers.

"The UFW simply can't forget their sins of the past, the endless lies and propaganda they spread about the grape industry," said Mr. Baiz, who is a spokesman for the farm industry. "Farmers and growers are looking for someone to work with cooperatively; the UFW doesn't know how to do that."

But Mr. Rodriguez and his supporters shrug critics' comments aside, vowing to prove them wrong.

"We're showing them that Cesar Chavez isn't dead; we have his spirit," said Amelia Cadena, 68. She joined the march in Delano and planned to continue to Sacramento for today's rally.

Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will be resumed May 11.

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