Penthouse Retrospective

by Richard Ballad Originally Published: July, 1975

Cesar Chavez | 46-ish Years Ago This Month

They were hard-core scabs. But when we won the contracts, we didn’t punish them. We said, “Look. Everybody is forgiven. Let bygones be bygones. We’re all brothers.” We thought we could convert them into good union members, but they just kept on fighting us. These are the ones who are out there now screaming about the hiring hall.

What about the seniority system. Is it fair?

Chavez: Sure it is. If you worked on a ranch for years you deserve priority over people who haven’t worked as long. Yet these former scabs would come out and demand jobs ahead of people with greater seniority. They tried to disrupt the whole thing. They say we blackball and show favoritism. It’s just not true. Ninety-eight percent of the people want the hiring hall. At the hiring hall it doesn’t matter if you’re young, old, black, white, male, female — you are hired according to ranch seniority. Not union seniority. It’s how long you’ve worked, not how long you’ve been in the union.

Father Richard Humphrys is a Catholic priest who was used by the Larson ranch to oversee the election which you have previously said was unfair. In defending the growers he says “heavy penalties” are imposed if the growers don’t provide such amenities as drinking water and toilet facilities.

Chavez: Father Humphrys doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Let’s take just one example. The contractor makes money off the workers by taking soda and beer into the fields and selling it to them. When the workers ask, “Where’s the water?” they’re told, “Oh, it’s coming. It’ll be here later. It’s coming.” And then it never comes. Or it comes very late and everybody is thirsty from bending and straightening and bending and straightening in the valley sun. Pretty soon, your tongue’s hanging out. So you buy his beer or soda even if you can’t afford it. There are a lot of rackets like that. These state laws providing “heavy penalties” have been on the books since 1946. They are there only to make the legislators feel good and to ease their conscience. Actually they are worthless because they are simply not enforced. County and local authorities aren’t going to penalize the growers. They are growers themselves, or related to growers, or business associates, or dependent on them in some way.

In a position paper defending the growers Father Humphrys claims there were no farm-worker deaths from pesticides in California in 1973 and “only ten deaths” in the past eleven years.

Chavez: Only ten deaths! Well, the Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor reported that, in 1972, more than 75,000 farm workers suffered acute poisonings as the direct result of the use of pesticides. In addition, up to twelve hundred fatalities are believed to have resulted from agricultural pesticides. What more can I say?

But Father Humphrys also wrote that less than 3 percent of California’s commercial farms are corporation-owned.

Chavez: That’s a tricky statistic. That’s the percentage of farms. But what counts is the total acreage and who controls it. Actually, one half of 1 percent of all U.S. farms control 25 percent of our farmlands. In California, 1 percent of the farms owns 40 percent of the cropland. And those are 1970 figures. It’s probably worse by now.

You see, they’re not just hurting the farm workers or the migratory laborers. They are destroying the small farmers and even the small towns. Eating them up alive. Small farms have shut down at the rate of more than two thousand a week during the twenty years between 1950 and 1970! Look it up. We had 5,400,000 farms in 1950. By 1970 that had dwindled to 2,900,000. Just think of that.

Time and again I have read, in small California newspapers, that your people have blocked legislation that would have helped farm workers. Here’s a story from the Redwood City Tribune, raking you over for stopping the Corry-Wood bill.

Chavez: Of course we fought it. It was a bad bill. Look at some of the provisions. In order to vote you had to work 120 out of the previous 180 days or fourteen out of the last thirty days. Well, that would have eliminated the migrants. And it also would have prohibited the possibility of strikes at harvesttime.

Jerry Cohen, our general counsel, spent all last summer in Sacramento fighting for another bill, a good bill. We wanted the elections held at a time when the majority of workers wouId be present to vote. The Teamsters and growers have always wanted the vote in the dead season, when a few Anglos on tractors could control the destinies of thousands of workers who wouldn’t be there to cast their ballots.

Our bill provided for peak-season elections to be held within a seven-day period. The migrants could then vote and move on. Also, the bill provided penalties for discrimination. And it remained silent on the issue of the boycott.

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

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