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August 24, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 34
‘I’ll never eat iceberg lettuce again’
By Jack Newfield
Perhaps America’s greatest citizen was in New York last week. And nobody noticed. Clifford Irving, the Zippies, and Tiny Tim were on the 6 o’clock news, but Cesar Chavez passed among us without acknowledgment.
This is a time when politics and culture have become part of the publicity and advertising business. Shlock saints get invented by press agents, and everything becomes a fad for a little while. In this age of hype, Cesar Chavez is that rarest of mutations — the real thing.
He is the precise opposite of radical chic — a long distance runner.
Cesar Chavez is an organizer. He is not a media huckster, or a politician, or a bureaucrat. He has built a union and a movement with discipline, patience, and love. And he came to New York last week to organize a lettuce boycott. He stayed at a friend’s apartment rather than a hotel to save the union money.
Farmworkers are the poorest, most powerless people in America. The average annual income for a farmworker family is $2400 and this means the husband, wife, and children are all working. The average life expectancy for a migrant worker is 49 years. Ninety-five per cent of the workers live in shacks or buses without plumbing or toilets. During the New Deal, farmworkers were specifically excluded from all the progressive legislation — minimum wage, child labor, workmen’s compensation, social security, the Wagner Act. Until Chavez started to organize a union in the fields of California a decade ago, every effort to unionize migrant farmworkers had failed.
At the same time, the small family farm in California has been absorbed by giant conglomerates that now own the land. The growers exploiting the migrants are not marginal middle-class families. they are the Bank of America, Tenneco, the Southern Pacific Railroad. The biggest lettuce interest in the Salinas Valley is the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company, which controls the Bruce Church Company. Another big grower is C. Arnholt Smith, the San Diego banking friend of Richard Nixon, who Life magazine reported was about to be indicted until Nixon intervened. Smith’s bank gives easy loans to growers fighting the union. Ten growers control 66 percent of California’s $75 million lettuce industry.
In July of 1970, as the five-year grape strike and boycott were ending, the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) petitioned lettuce growers for a secret union representation vote among the field workers. The growers ignored the request, sought out the Teamsters Union, and signed back door “sweetheart contracts.” The farm workers were not consulted and there were no elections. And so on August 24, 1970, Chavez called for a strike to show that the workers wanted the UFW to represent them. Almost 10,000 workers they said could never be organized, marched out of the fields; the Los Angeles Times called it the “largest farm labor strike in U.S. history.”
As a result some lettuce companies (about 15 per cent of the California growers) rescinded their contracts with the Teamsters, and signed contracts with the UFW. But on September 17, 1970, a Republican judge in Salinas issued an injunction outlawing all strike activity by the union.
The only way left to pressure the conglomerates and organize the 60,000 lettuce workers of California and Arizona was the national lettuce boycott. For a few months it was tough going; the boycott didn’t get off the ground. It was difficult getting publicity.
Then came the Democratic National Convention. Delegation after delegation announced its support for the boycott on national television, and on the final night Ted Kennedy began his speech with the line: “Greetings fellow lettuce boycotters.”
A week made up for two months of frustration. Thousands of people signed and mailed pledges not to eat non-union lettuce to the union’s headquarters in La Paz. Volunteers began showing up at boycott offices, including the one in New York at 19 West 34th Street. Bumper stickers and buttons were easily distributed. And the growers finally began to feel the pressure. Harold Bradshaw, the president of Inter Harvest, one of the growers who have signed a contract with the union, told Business Week magazine that lettuce shipments are now down by 100,000 cartons a day across the country, which means a $200,000 a day drop in sales.
Marshall Ganz, a former SNCC organizer in southwest Mississippi, is the national coordinator of the boycott. He talked about the life of a lettuce worker:
“Most of them are paid by piece rate. They start in the fields when they are 11 or 12. For a while they can make maybe $3000 a year. But the work kills you. It is stoop work. You bend and pick. It breaks your back. The fact you are paid by the piece drives you to work harder and harder. Most lettuce pickers are finished by the time they are 30. They can’t bend any more. And they have no skill and no education. Their life is over at 30. By then they usually have a child who is 10, and the child gets taken out of school and put into the fields.”
The lettuce workers unionized so far (about 5000) get a minimum of $2.10 an hour, and are protected by a UFW health plan. “But the biggest difference,” Ganz says, “is pride and dignity. I can walk into a field of workers, and just by the spirit I can tell if they belong to the union.”
Chavez was in town last week for meetings with the presidents of chain supermarkets, asking them not to sell iceberg lettuce, or else face picket lines across the country.
“The meetings went very nicely,” says Chavez. “Seven years ago, when I first came to New York with the grape boycott, I couldn’t even see these executives. This week they were very cooperative…They are businessmen, just like the growers, and I talk to them the same way. I explain they make probably $5 profit a day just on lettuce, not very much. But if we picket, then they will lose about $500 a day on everything else. They understand.”
Chavez says he has commitments from New York City not to buy iceberg lettuce for public schools, municipal hospitals, an the City University. Local boycott organizers will work on hotels, restaurants, and private hospitals. McDonald’s hamburgers also buys a lot of lettuce.
On Saturday morning at 10 a.m. Chavez arrived at the boycott office on 34th Street to meet with about 35 full-time volunteers from New York and New Jersey. All the volunteers get room, board, and $5 a week, which is just what Cesar Chavez gets from the union.
Chavez talked and answered questions with his quiet, unaffected manner that went out of style with the bombast and excess of the late ’60s. The volunteers were mostly young, in their 20s. Soon Chavez was giving a small lecture on the art of organizing.
“There are no short cuts, no easy way to organize,” he said. “To get the first 12 members into our union I took five months, from April till September of 1962. I talked to each one as if he was the only farmworker in the world. That’s how you have to organize, one at a time. You can’t worry about time or speed. Everything good requires time and hard work. The lettuce boycott may take two years…
“There’s got to be discipline and structure and responsibility. I know yo don’t like those words, but that’s the only way to organize people. You have to get up at 7 a.m., and have a meeting to plan the day. Fred Ross, he’s the guy who taught me how to be an organizer. Sometimes it was jut the two of us, and he would make us have a meeting in the morning to talk about our goals and tactics for the day. You have to work like hell. That’s how we beat the Teamsters, and that’s how we will beat these conglomerates.”
At about noon, the whole group moved to Central Park, where the meeting would continue as a working picnic. Chavez suggested that on the way to the park, the staff ask people on the street to sign boycott pledge cards (More than 100 were collected).
Chavez walked very slowly into the park. His back was clearly hurting him again. He has a skeletal malformation, probably aggravated by his many fasts. A few times he stopped to rub his back. Nobody recognized him, and he had no police protection or bodyguard.
At one point he stopped when he saw a couple walking with a large German Shepherd. Chavez has four shepherds, and he walked right over to this one, named Max.
“This dog is crazy,” warned the owner. “He might bite you.”
Cesar Chavez bent down and petted the dog. He was not bitten. He then gave the owners a lesson on how to make Max heel and sit.
“Do you have a card?” asked the wife. “Are you a dog trainer?” Chavez recommended a book on training shepherds. He then took the leash and gave several commands, which Max obeyed.
“Max has never done this his entire life,” exclaimed the husband.
“It’s just discipline,” said Chavez.
Suddenly someone told the couple they were talking to Cesar Chavez.
“I’ll never eat iceberg lettuce again,” the wife promised.
We sat down on a bench and Chavez began to talk about his shyness and the problems of celebrityhood.
“I don’t feel comfortable in public. I don’t like to speak. I’m not a performer. I’m not relaxed having my picture taken. I don’t like fake situations. I like to work and organize. The problem is 10 years ago when I walked up to people to talk about a union for farmworkers they said I was cuckoo, crazy. Now they ask for my autograph.
The volunteers began to assemble near the bandshell and Cesar took out his Leica and started taking pictures of them. “I make my beer money by selling these to the FBI,” he said to one girl. “Smile for me.”
Then everyone sat down on the grass in a circle, with the sun shining in the middle of Central Park, the Rolling Stones prancing out of a nearby transistor radio, and Chavez started again to discuss the lettuce boycott, a voter registration drive, and other work the best union in America is doing.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]