On May 29, 1996, the United Farm Workers came to an agreement with Bruce Church, Inc., one of the nation’s leading lettuce growers, after an 18-year boycott.
The fight was over workers picking Red Coach Lettuce, a brand name for the head lettuce grown by a big farmer near Salinas, California named Ted Taylor. Church was founded by Bruce Church in 1901. He not only created iceberg lettuce as a national product but also personally bought out the ranch of Cesar Chavez’s grandparents in Arizona, forcing his family into migrancy and making the company a long-time enemy of the organizer. Church died in 1958 and his son-in-law, Taylor, took over the company, now based out of Salinas. An anti-union extremist, Taylor refused to allow the UFW to organize his workers, which like most of these battles was about the abjectly horrible conditions the farmworkers found themselves in throughout California and the entire U.S. Like other growers, he signed sweetheart deals with the Teamsters in the 1970s, after the success of the grape boycott, to keep the UFW out. These contracts received widespread criticism and most of the farmers gave in and allowed the UFW to organize by the mid-1970s. Not Church. So Cesar Chavez went to his playbook and called his classic play: the consumer boycott. The boycott began in 1978. Ten grocery store chains agreed to honor the boycott by 1984 and not buy the lettuce. Even McDonald’s participated for awhile.
Church sued in Arizona court, saying that the UFW had engaged in illegal conduct in persuading grocery chains to not buy their lettuce and twice won multimillion dollar lawsuits against the union. Both were however thrown out in federal appeals court, because of the Arizona filings in a California labor suit and because of the first amendment arguments the union could use in those courts. Filing in Yuma was part of Church’s anti-labor strategy. It openly admitted to suing in Arizona because the state was more anti-union than California. In 1988, it won a $5.4 million victory, but that was thrown out. Then the company asked for $9.7 million. When it won again in 1993, it was only awarded $2.9 million, which the UFW actually saw as something of a victory and that Church’s case was weak. The boycott never really hurt Church all that much. In 1995, it still did $125 million in sales.
The years of the boycott saw the UFW fall from its peak. Cesar Chavez was a great man in some ways, but he was a godawful terrible union leader. He wasn’t actually comfortable with the UFW becoming a union, partly because it meant it was subject to labor law after California extended collective bargaining rights to farmworkers and because he had no interest in listening to rank-and-file workers. Chavez was far more comfortable directing white supporters in the national boycott than in dealing with the desires of actual workers; this was not going to be a democratic organization. This went as far as him ignoring workers who were ready to fight in some crops (asparagus for instance) to focus on the crops he wanted to focus on, particularly grapes and lettuce. His embrace of weird New Age cults by the late 1970s created significant internal dissension in the union, as the UFW central office became more of a personality cult with a guru than a functioning labor organization. By the time Chavez died in 1995, the UFW was largely in shambles, having lost most of the contracts it had won in the 1970s and early 1980s as a result of its famed grape boycott. Chavez was still a major figure in the labor movement and in the progressive world, a symbol of personal sacrifice through his hunger strikes, which eventually weakened him and led to his early death. But behind the scenes, the UFW was a complete mess, a family-run operation dedicated to promoting Chavez’s legacy rather than organizing workers. Other farmworker unions, inspired by the UFW, such as the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in the Midwest and North Carolina, became far more effective.
What finally moved the lettuce boycott to conclusion was the deaths of Chavez in 1993 and Taylor in 1994. Chavez in fact died the evening after facing a day of grilling from Church lawyers. Arturo Rodriguez became UFW president after Chavez’s death and remains so today. Steve Taylor, Ted’s son, became CEO of Church. He took a more reasonable stance toward the UFW and wanted to finally end this conflict that had outlasted the lives of both its protagonist and antagonist. The overturning of the second lawsuit victory was the last straw for Church. Realizing it wouldn’t win through the Arizona courts, Taylor decided to settle. The UFW had also had a slight growth in strength in the previous few years, winning a few contracts in mushroom fields and rose farms in California and in Washington wineries. It seemed like it might begin to recover from its doldrums and that worried Church as well. Moreover, the UFW began receiving a lot of help from other unions to pay the legal expenses, particularly from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the United Mine Workers, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. These unions pitched in both to honor Chavez and because they worried about the potential of the Church lawsuits to undermine all unions.
The final agreement provided for a 5-year contract. It gave the 450 workers a 4 percent raise in the first year and setting a minimum of $6.62 an hour that would rise to $7.23 by the final year. Rodriguez called the contract, “a tremendous tribute to Cesar Chavez’s life and work.” And it was, although it in the larger scheme of American unionism, it was a marginal victory that included very few of the original workers involved and was kind of a last gasp for the UFW, which still exists today but has not been a major factor in the California fields for a long time.
This is the 271st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.