Penthouse Retrospective

by Richard Ballad Originally Published: July, 1975

Cesar Chavez | 46-ish Years Ago This Month

They win two ways. Wouldn’t that be just beautiful for them? But, of course, if they try it the AFLCIO is going to fight it very hard because the illegals would be moving into lots of different jobs — not just into farm work. With the unemployment we’ve got now that would mean real trouble.

What about the courts, and the judges. How do they treat you?

Chavez: On the lower levels, in heavily agricultural counties, strange things happen. For example, Superior Court Judge Frederick Jacobus, of Tulane County. He was the former attorney for the Agricultural Workers Right-to-Work Committee. Whenever you hear about somebody demanding the workers’ “right to work” you can bet he’s not a worker. Anyway, he was an attorney for this progrowers’ organization. Then he becomes a judge and he turns around and rules on cases involving agricultural-labor disputes. Clearly, he should have disqualified himself.

There are several like him. Judge E. J. Leach, of Monterey County, is another example. He’s also a superior court judge. He represented the growers as an attorney in 1970 in getting injunctions against us, which the California Supreme Court later threw out. Then, when he became a judge, he, too, began ruling against us when he should have disqualified himself.

What about the people in state government? What about former Governor Ronald Reagan?

Chavez: His attitude was bad. He made an awful lot of public utterances against us. He was one of two very high public officials who posed for the cameras, eating grapes, while we were striking and boycotting grapes. The other man who didn’t like us was President Nixon. He posed eating grapes in 1968.

Reagan, as you know, is extremely reactionary. He viewed our movement as something very detrimental to society. Under his administration no California state agency ever contacted us for anything except to harass us. There was no cooperation. So far as they were concerned we didn’t exist. Both the state and federal administrations have been totally against us — the growers, the Teamsters — all against us. But that’s going to change. Under the new governor, Jerry Brown, I think we’ll have improvements.

Do you think President Nixon personally ordered the army to buy up large quantities of grapes to help break your boycott back in the sixties?

Chavez: I don’t know that he personally ordered it — but it was done. We found out about that because my nephew was in Vietnam at the time. There were a lot of our kids in Vietnam in those days. Well, the first time a big load of grapes arrived at his base the sergeant came out and said, “Boys, we’ve got a lot of grapes here. Eat all you want.” Now that was unusual. ln the service you can never get all you want of fresh fruits and vegetables. So my nephew wrote home and said, “There’s something wrong over here.” We investigated and found that the Pentagon was buying grapes like crazy. Their purchase of grapes had increased 800 percent! They were literally dumping those grapes in Vietnam, at taxpayers’ expense, just to break us.

Let’s get back to your basic quarrel with the growers and Teamsters. Your union did away with the labor-contractor. You substituted the hiring-hall system, where workers check in and are dispatched to jobs according to seniority. I talked with some growers and some workers and they said your hiring halls favored longtime union people — your friends — and discriminated against others. They also said you broke up families who wanted to work as a unit. What about those accusations?

Richard Chavez: I can answer that. I was in charge of the hiring halls during the life of the contracts. I was a field-office administrator. If we were ever guilty of splitting up families, it was only because we made the kids who were twelve or fourteen go to school. Now the Teamsters don’t care how many children they put into the fields. Here’s a leaflet they put out in 1973. It talks about working permits and it says a minor can be employed in farm labor if he is twelve or older. But if he is under sixteen he can’t work more than eight hours a day or more than forty-eight hours a week. Now that’s bullshit because once he’s working they don’t give a damn how long they work him. And listen to this: “ … work must be performed between the hours of 5 AM and 10 PM unless the minor is under fifteen in which case work must be performed between the hours of 7 AM and 7 PM.” [Laughs.] Do you think the Teamsters care, or the growers care, how long these kids work, or how late or how early, once they’ve got them out there? Do you think they walk up and down the rows saying, “It’s 7 PM now, so everybody under fifteen has to stop Working”? The hell they do. They’ll let them work until they drop.

So they now have the Teamsters, and the hiring hall has been abolished. They’re back to using the labor-contractors.

Richard Chavez: Right.

But the fact remains that there are some workers who aren’t illegals, and who speak out against you, and who have joined the Teamsters willingly. How do you account for their opposition?

Cesar Chavez: Look, you see, this group which makes all the charges against us are the same people who scabbed against us in 1967. That’s when we were striking and boycotting the first time around.

You may not be able to name every Medal of Freedom recipient in modern history, but you should know Cesar Chavez certainly. History counts.

Leave a Reply