More than a quarter century ago, Cesar Chavez created an identity for a group of people who had always been considered virtually invisible by both employers and fellow laborers. In doing so, he also helped give birth to a powerful sense of identify, not only for those who joined the fledgling United Farmworkers (UFW), but to the entire Chicano movementof people who drew pride and strength from the powerful example set by this single-minded man from Arizona. This week, CW takes local readers back to the year 1970, when Cesar Chavez''s mission in Salinas forever transformed the world of labor and laborers in Monterey County. Our excerpt comes from The Fight in the Fields Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Union. by authors Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval. The book was published in 1997 by Harcourt Brace to accompany the PBS special "The Fight in the Fields," which aired on stations around the nation.
Sabino Lopez and his exhausted crew were picking the last heads of cauliflower in a field in California''s coastal Salinas Valley in July 1970 when the foreman whistled and ordered them to listen up: "Hey, someone who''s very important is coming and wants to talk to you. After you''re done, I''d like you to get on the bus and give him five minutes." The men stomped the river valley soil-dark as coffee grounds-off their boots and sheathed the knives they used to cut each vegetable from its tough nest of roots and leaves.
When the crew boarded the bus, a Chicano in a suit and tie climbed on, greeting them with an unctuous smile. Addressing the workers in Spanish, he explained how he''d been brought up from Los Angeles to tell them about the Western Conference of Teamsters and its plan to represent them in collective bargaining. The longer the Chicano spoke, the more anxious and irritated the men became, remembers Lopez. The 20-year-old Mexican, who''d only been in the country four years, knew his crewmates were ardent Chavistas-and he feared the worst when the Teamster finally asked if there were any questions.
After a few seconds of stony silence, one of the workers exploded: "Who sent you? The company sent you here, right?" Others joined in. "Don''t you think they should let the farmworkers union come talk to us? Isn''t a union something you should choose?"
Caught off guard, the Teamster said he couldn''t really disagree with them. But the confrontation on the bus was just the beginning. The entire Salinas Valley-the "Salad Bowl of the World"-was soon to be engulfed in one of the biggest farm-labor disputes in America since the 1930s. In August and September of 1970, thousands of immigrant workers and UFWOC [United Farmworkers Organizing Committee] sympathizers packed rallies and walked off their jobs. The conservative farm town of Salinas ended up split down the middle-Latinos versus whites-in a struggle that would strengthen the emerging farm-workers movement and embolden Chicanos to start chipping away at the Anglo lock on local politics.
It was a crisis that the Salinas Valley growers had invited upon themselves. In an extraordinary attempt to thwart the spread of Cesar Chavez''s influence, almost every major grower in the Valley that summer had secretly signed contracts that allowed the Teamsters union to represent their farmworkers; overnight, there were contracts that covered thousands of farmworkers. But the Teamsters and the growers never told the farmworkers that new contracts were being drawn up, and they excluded them from the clandestine negotiations. The terms of the contracts, they agreed, would be decided upon only after the contracts were signed. If the workers didn''t like it-and didn''t want to pay Teamsters dues-they would be fired. The Teamsters claimed the new campaign was a sincere effort to bring farmworkers into their union.
The Teamsters and a couple of growers had tried this ploy before in the San Joaquin Valley; this time, however, the collusion was on an enormous scale, affecting as many as 11,000 workers from Santa Maria up to Salinas. And it was clearly designed to block the inevitable moment when Chavez would arrive on the coast, demanding that growers negotiate with the farmworkers union.
By July 1970, almost against his will, Chavez was pulled into a tense, high-stakes chess game with Salinas''s growers. Ironically, it was Chavez, often labeled a radical, who tried hardest to control the workers'' revolt and channel it into a settlement. For farmworkers, the summer of 1970 was pivotal in other ways as well. It marked the start of a years-long, relentless campaign of attempts to destroy the union-attempts orchestrated, in part, by political operatives as high as the Nixon White House.
Chavez never intended to lead another significant confrontation so soon after the Delano grape strike. The farmworkers union had been quietly organizing the vegetable and strawberry pickers who worked the Salinas Valley, a campaign that Cesar felt needed time to mature. He had only informed a few ranchers that their workers wanted to be represented by UFWOC. In the last week of July, Chavez was in the middle of negotiating the Delano grape contracts when he received an urgent call from supporters in Salinas. Rumors were flying that a backroom contract had been struck by the Teamsters and Salinas''s growers.
"The grape boycott scared the heck out of the farmers, all of us," corporate lettuce-grower Daryl Arnold recalls, explaining why the Salinas Valley Grower-Shipper Association tried to use the Teamsters as a shield against Chavez. "[The growers] felt that the Teamsters were the best organization to represent the farmworkers in the area.They had been dealing in their sheds and packing houses with the Teamsters union, and they thought if they could sign a contract with [them] it would forestall Cesar trying to come in and take over the industry."
But the growers underestimated the resolve of their field hands as well as Chavez''s ability to seize on the crisis and turn it to his advantage. Before the fight in Salinas was over, some of the world''s top agribusiness chiefs-including those from the United Fruit Company-would be calling on Chavez personally and appealing to him not to boycott their products.
Chavez was caught off guard by the allegations of the Teamsters'' treachery, but he knew the farmworkers union had to counterattack immediately or risk losing the base of support it had cultivated in the vegetable industry of California''s Central Coast and the Imperial Valley on the Mexican border. The union''s executive board prepared a telegram to send to the Grower-Shipper Association that same night, and Chavez drove to Salinas to speak to supporters at a hastily called rally.
Viva La Causa
When Cesar arrived, cries of >"Viva la causa!" and >"Viva la raza!" thundered through the cavernous hall of a teen center on the Mexican side of town. Sabino Lopez remembers the thrill of seeing Chavez in person for the first time, noticing with surprise how campesino he looked under the brim of a straw Filipino hat. By then, Cesar was hated and admired in equal measure, and to assure his safety, he usually traveled with a security team and a German shepherd he named Boycott. But this time Cesar was in such a rush, he had no time to gather his security guards. Jacques Levy was the only available driver, and the pair raced to get to the rally on time.
A local reporter, Eric Brazil, covered Chavez''s appearance. A native of Salinas and the son of a prominent Monterey County Superior Court judge and former district attorney, Brazil had grown up with many of the town''s young ranchers, and his parents and their parents often got together for cocktails. Brazil''s knowledge of the industry-and his reporter''s instincts-told him this would be one of the biggest stories he''d ever cover for the Salinas Californian.
a rousing speech in Spanish, Chavez addressed reporters in English: The telegram to the Grower-Shipper Association demanded immediate negotiations with the farmworkers union, declaring that it represented the vast majority of field workers in the valley. "A prompt reply will avoid the bitter conflict experienced in the Delano grape strike," Chavez warned.
Cesar then returned to Delano to put the final touches on the grape contracts, still hoping there was time to avoid a clash in Salinas. But on the eve of the contract ceremony on July 29, he found out that the rumors of the Teamster takeover were true. Thirty Salinas growers had already signed the agreements, and more than 175 other vegetable ranchers were waiting in the wings. "They can''t get away with this. It''s preposterous," Chavez responded furiously. "They''re going to have a big fight on their hands.They''re not going to sign up our people." The Valley was risking "an all-out war between the Mexicans and the Filipinos.and the Teamsters and the bosses," Chavez said. Looking back on the origins of the Salinas rebellion, Eric Brazil agrees: "The rage of the workers was just palpable. They weren''t going to take this. They had really been stabbed in the back."
Ground Zero in Salinas
Leaving Richard Chavez behind to administer the grape contracts, Cesar and the rest of the union leaders rushed to set up UFWOC''s temporary headquarters inside the Salinas office of the Mexican-American Political Association. Salinas, the birthplace of John Steinbeck, was the heart of the valley and its industrial center, from which produce trucks and trains rumbled out as the morning fog wafted in from the Monterey Bay.
Local Chavistas had already started a campaign to dramatize their dissent: Hundreds of workers and their children began a four-day pilgrimage toward Salinas, trudging along county roads and main highways. Like the San Joaquin, the Salinas Valley was linked by a chain of small cities, from King City in the south to Watsonville in the north, with expansive fields in between. The pilgrims would march into Salinas that Sunday, determined to show they would not let growers select a union for them.
Chavez feared that the war for Salinas would be even more insidious than the one in Delano. He was afraid the battle could slide into ugly confrontations between the Mexican workers and the formidable bloc of white growers and Teamsters. Some of Salinas''s local ranch families had prospered using cheap bracero labor, and they made it clear that they were not about to give in to the "crazies" from Delano.
Union lawyer Jerry Cohen respected some of the agribusinessmen for their pride and their hard work. But by 1970, he had become convinced that some ranchers thought it beneath them to deal face-to-face with Mexican farmhands. Not only did they refuse to look Chavez in the eye, they considered [Dolores] Huerta and Cesar inscrutable, and tried to funnel bargaining positions through white attorneys. "Some of them didn''t like the notion of dealing equally with people of a different race," Cohen says bluntly. And even if they realized it was becoming socially unacceptable to say such things publicly, Cohen believes many ranchers were dogged by one single question: "Are we going to have Mexicans telling us how to run our damn operations?"
Other companies in the Valley were run by locals, but owned by faceless conglomerates that had turned vegetable and berry farming into global ventures. The biggest was InterHarvest, a lettuce and vegetable firm owned by United Fruit, the infamous "Mama United" that controlled plantations-and dictatorships-in Central America. Another lettuce firm, Fresh Pict, was owned by Purex, which made its fortune on bleach and other cleaning products. A third Salinas Valley company with wealthy corporate connections was Pic N Pac, a strawberry company owned by Boston-based gourmet food producer S.S. Pierce. At peak harvests, Pic N Pac employed up to 2,000 berry pickers at a time, sending entire Mexican families out to harvest enormous yields of fruit.
Court challenges to the Teamster-Grower pact could take months to settle, and by that time the harvest would be played out and the Teamsters entrenched in the fields. The union''s best weapons, Cesar believed, were the threat of a boycott and a general strike. Still, these were weapons of last resort. More cautious than growers realized, Chavez hoped to avoid a strike with an offer: He challenged Governor Ronald Reagan to call for secret-ballot elections for the Salinas Valley farmworkers. Reagan had only recently, and glibly, called the Delano grape contracts "tragic" because they were signed without elections. At a rally in Watsonville, Chavez called Reagan''s bluff. "Of late he seems very concerned about farmworker rights," Chavez announced to farmworkers and the press. "Now he has a swell opportunity to demonstrate his interest." Reagan didn''t respond, and the growers made no move to retreat.
On Sunday, Aug. 2, more than 3,000 farmworkers responded to the Teamsters contracts by "voting with their feet," as [UFW leader and now union vice president] Dolores Huerta called marches. The farmworkers streamed through the tree-lined streets of downtown Salinas and jammed onto Hartnell Community College''s football field. Chanting >"huelga" repeatedly, they carried a sea of red-and-black UFWOC banners, waved American and Mexican flags, and held up pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Martin Luther King Jr.. Chicano students at Hartnell showed their support by hosting the rally over the objections of conservative townsfolk, and young Brown Berets stood on the rooftop of the college''s library to provide security.
Chavez had walked with laborers from different towns at various times during their march into the city. Now he took to the stage, alternating between English and Spanish, accusing the growers and the Teamsters of intimidation as well as an arrogant "Pearl Harbor attack" on the farmworkers. His angry words underscored the racial divide the sweetheart contracts symbolized. "It''s tragic that these men have not yet come to understand that we are in a new age, a new era," he told the restless audience. "No longer can a couple of white men sit together and write the destinies of all the Chicanos and Filipino workers in this valley." Urging cheering farmworkers to refuse to sign Teamsters cards, he instructed them to form ranch committees to report to UFWOC''s headquarters the following week. He again warned corporate growers that the farmworkers union was prepared to launch a boycott on their products, including United Fruit''s high-profile Chiquita bananas and Purex''s Dutch cleanser.
Priests offered mass and passed out Communion wafers, and the crowd eagerly voted to be ready to strike if necessary. "There was so much anger among people, dating back to the history of the braceros," says Sabino Lopez, now director of community outreach for the Center for Community Advocacy, a farmworker housing rights group in Salinas. "The farmworker movement gave us a chance to force people to know we existed, that we had decided it was time for better conditions and respect. Back then, we were regarded as strange people who nobody really wanted to see around."
Lopez, the son of a bracero, abandoned school in Mexico at 16 to join his father on the migrant trail to help support the family. He remembers that he hated living in Salinas at the time-not because the work was so hard, but because he felt the townfolk were racist toward Mexican workers.
Lopez first heard of Cesar Chavez from a Chicano accountant who examined his pay stubs, shook his head, and told the young farmworker he couldn''t believe he worked so much and never was paid overtime. "Someone''s coming to town soon who might put an end to that," the tax man said. "Nobody had to even come talk to us, or to educate us," Lopez says, remembering the volatile summer of 1970. "All we had to do was hear about [the movement] and I think just about everyone in my crew was for it."
Rally and Fast
At the time of UFWOC''s big Sunday rally, the Teamsters still had only a fraction of the Valley''s workers registered as their members. Over the next week, they fanned out to sign up others belatedly and were met with widespread resistance.
Meanwhile, laborers from ranches UFWOC had never heard of were pouring into the little union office on Salinas''s east side. Tomato workers, vegetable harvesters, lettuce cutters, strawberry pickers, all arrived in eager clusters, asking UFWOC to organize them. The most militant were the lettuce cutters-the lechugeros-migrant workers who had a reputation for being some of the toughest and most independent of all the campesinos. The lechugeros usually migrated from the Imperial Valley in the winter to the Salinas Valley in the summer. Their base pay was not much over minimum wage, but they could more than double their earnings with piece-rate bonuses they earned from stooping, cutting, and boxing lettuce as fast as they could-excruciating, backbreaking work. Some of the lechugeros supplemented their income by weeding and thinning crops earlier in the season, using the dreaded cortito, the short-handled hoe.
Those first few weeks in Salinas, Chavez had to harness the workers'' emotions and steer them into a strategy for winning contracts. "There was more work being done on more fronts in that period than at any time in the history of the union," he said, "but I wasn''t feeling the pinch as much as at the beginning of the Delano strike because by this time we had developed a lot of organizers." The union dispatched organizers to other lettuce-growing areas to prepare for additional strikes should the dispute in Salinas escalate. Chavez flew to an AFL-CIO convention in Chicago to appeal to President George Meany for strike-fund assistance, and he negotiated a loan from the Catholic Order of Franciscan Brothers as well.
Chavez also directed the union to fire up its boycott machinery. Lettuce was not a luxury fruit, but a staple vegetable purchased for daily use: It would be far more problematic a boycott target than grapes. The most vulnerable item to start with, would be United Fruit''s Chiquita banana empire, which had a reputation for abusing its workers in Latin America. "I knew that if we ever started a public boycott against them, it would be very hard to turn off-too many disliked the company," Chavez would later say. "But there were other ways of applying pressure."
One of them was Leroy Chatfield''s brainstorm: He worked the phone from the union''s Los Angeles office, asking a friend who was a buyer for a supermarket chain to call United Fruit and announce that he was prepared to stop buying bananas should UFWOC declare a boycott. Another union friend in New York who had connections in business circles contacted two top executives of United Brands, owners of United Fruit, to urge them to investigate what was going on in Salinas.
Chavez had no love for the Teamsters, who had betrayed him once again, but he was always willing to negotiate. Under pressure from the Teamster hierarchy, which was starting to have doubts about the Salinas deal, local Teamsters agreed to hold a series of meetings with UFWOC mediated by the US Catholic Bishops'' Committee on Farm Labor.
By this time, however, growers were forcibly removing Chavistas from Salinas labor camps, and Fresh Pict had fired more than 100 lettuce workers for refusing to sign Teamster cards. The workers voted to strike, and called on hundreds of coworkers to abandon Fresh Pict fields scattered throughout the valley. The next day, hundreds of Pic N Pac strawberry workers also refused to go to work, triggering a second strike.
As expected, Fresh Pict turned to friends in the local courts, immediately obtaining a restraining order forbidding all picketing, yet another injunction that didn''t allow the union a chance to present its side in court. Chavez alerted the press and met reporters at the Fresh Pict office to expose what he considered an unconstitutional injunction.
By the next day, Chavez had begun a fast of thanksgiving and hope, and was preparing union members for mass arrests when good news put a halt to any further action. The Bishops'' Committee had succeeded in persuading the Teamsters to sign a "no raid" pact, an agreement to stop poaching on UFWOC organizing campaigns, and-in a confidential side agreement-promise to use their "best efforts" to break the Salinas contracts they had signed behind closed doors.
In exchange, Chavez declared a moratorium on strikes for 10 days. But, he warned the Salinas farmers, workers were willing to shut down the industry if growers didn''t start negotiating with UFWOC. "They''ve got the money," he said of the companies. "We''ve got the people."
Who''s Afraid of Cesar?
As a young reporter and native son of Salinas, Eric Brazil was in a unique position to understand why growers in his hometown were terrified of Chavez, yet so clumsy in their dealings with him and immigrant workers. "It sounds absurd now," Brazil says, but when he was growing up, residents of Salinas didn''t even regard field hands as employees. "We thought of the shed workers-the Okies-who were the union people who packed the lettuce, the carrots, who packed the celery," he recalls. "The field was something you didn''t even think about, it was so low down."
After Chavez declared a moratorium on strikes, United Fruit''s vice president and chief negotiator Will Lauer flew into Salinas. Chatfield''s strategy had worked; word of the imminent strike and boycott had gone way over local executives'' heads and reached the East Coast executives. All indications were that United Fruit was willing to work behind the scenes to try to prevent a boycott. At internal strategy meetings, organizers discussed how to take full advantage of this key moment. "Come in tougher than hell!" Chavez told Dolores Huerta and other negotiators. The plan was to force United Fruit, which farmed 22,000 acres in California and Arizona, to persuade other growers to break their Teamster contracts as well.
The next high-ranking executive to fly in was William Tincher, chairman of the board of Purex, Fresh Pict''s parent company. "We picketed his office in Los Angeles," Cesar recalled. "He took it very personally. He thought what we were doing was underhanded, illegal, and immoral. But what he had done about recognizing the Teamsters against the will of the Fresh Pict workers never crossed his mind."
In the meantime, Cesar kept fasting. "There was a lot of hatred building up, he said. "It wasn''t clear in my mind what I would do in case violence broke out on our side." He ended the fast after six days, admitting it had only weakened him. He retreated to San Juan Bautista to recuperate with the Franciscan Brothers, his wife, Helen and his children while staying in touch with the union with frequent telephone calls.
The workers retreated to labor camps, where Mexican women in town helped them sew new banners in preparation for a possible strike. Relieved to have more time, Huerta and Cohen rushed back to InterHarvest negotiations, still hoping to reach an agreement that would break the impasse. Now it was Lauer''s turn to talk tough: He threatened to break off the talks if UFWOC couldn''t prove it had a majority of workers on its side. Monsignor George Higgins of the Bishops'' Committee was given the onerous task of verifying the legitimacy of all 856 union cards that UFWOC had collected from the company''s workers. Thumbing through personnel files in a back office, it took 14 tedious hours for him to finish matching the cards. But the priest finally emerged triumphantly, certifying that 95 percent of the company''s field laborers supported Chavez. Lauer agreed to sit down and negotiate in earnest.
Meanwhile, the Grower-Shipper Association and the Teamsters dropped a new bombshell. At a press conference, director Herb Fleming announced that the vast majority of growers insisted on keeping their contracts, and the Teamsters union was obliged by law to honor them. The news shattered Chavez''s attempts to avoid a strike.
On Aug. 23, at another mass rally at Hartnell College, workers thundered their pledge to strike nonviolently. Dolores Huerta read a statement from Cesar, who was still in seclusion. "Everything we have done, we have done in good faith. Our good faith has been received with a slap in the face of the farmworkers."
[UFW attorney] Jerry Cohen remembers that red union banners with their Aztec eagles flew next to fields for more than 100 miles in every direction, from south Monterey County up through Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. "It looked like a revolution," he says. "And some of these right-wing growers thought it was. They had bumper stickers that said, ''Reds, Lettuce Alone.''"
On the second day the growers obtained injunctions that prohibited picketing on more than 30 ranches, arguing that the Teamsters had jurisdiction over the fields. More injunctions were slapped on the union with each new day. On top of that, growers hired guards armed with shotguns to patrol their property, and Teamsters sent in thugs wielding baseball bats to frighten off the Chavistas. One of the most infamous of these goons, Jerry Cohen recalls, was Ted "Speedy" Gonsalves, who wore black-and-white pinstriped suits and drove an armored limousine. (Gonsalves, secretary-treasurer of a Modesto local, was later suspended and indicted for taking bribes, using $25,000 of his local''s money to put up other thugs in hotels, and for running liberal bar tabs.) The imported thugs menaced pickets, pounded on the walls of rooms where UFWOC negotiators were meeting, and knocked over coffee cups and cursed at UFWOC members whom they encountered in restaurants. The Seafarers'' Union in San Francisco sent burly members to Salinas to provide another layer of security for UFWOC.
Cohen still winces when he recalls walking onto a ranch to check on the safety of workers who were staging a sit-in to protest the injunctions. He was stopped by grower Al Hansen, who ordered him off the property. Cohen refused. Turning his back, he heard Hansen shout: "Get ''em boys!" An enormous Teamster named Jimmy Plemmens grabbed the 200-pound Cohen and lifted him up by his jacket. Cohen yelled to Jacques Levy, "Hey, Jacques, take a picture of this!"
"I was thinking, Well, we''ll screw them," Cohen says. "We knew whatever happened locally, we were going to turn around and use it all over the country.I mean, Hollywood could not have provided a better cast of goons than some of these Teamsters."
But in a split second, a fist cracked Cohen in the jaw, and he sank to the ground. Someone grabbed Levy''s camera, smashed it, and drop-kicked it into some bushes, punching Levy as well. Cohen stumbled back to the entrance of the ranch. The last thing he remembers before losing consciousness was a sheriff''s deputy leaning over him, complaining that there were too many pickets outside the ranch. "That shows you what the law enforcement around here was like in 1970," concludes Cohen, who ended up in the hospital for a week with a concussion.
With nowhere else to turn, Chavez fought back by declaring a boycott of all non-UFWOC lettuce, including produce grown by the biggest company in the valley, Bud Antle. Robert Antle had a 9-year-old Teamsters contract covering some farmworkers and still owed the truckers'' union part of a $1 million loan. He was outraged and threatened to sue Chavez for using his ranch as a wedge to pressure the rest of the industry.
Meanwhile, acts of violence were escalating. A ranch foreman drove a bulldozer into strikers'' cars, a picket accused of throwing rocks was shot in the foot, and several others were hospitalized after being attacked by strikebreakers wielding chains. Police, not content just to issue citations, started brandishing guns and shoving pickets roughly to enforce injunctions. A distraught Chavez summoned a group of UFWOC boycotters to Salinas and assigned them to picket lines as captains. "The people don''t understand how dangerous this is," he said. "They''re sitting ducks to any stupid cop who pulls out his gun. I expect you to stop violence, and I hold you responsible."
At the height of the strike, three Chavistas were arrested for shooting a Teamster organizer in Santa Maria, where a simultaneous strike was raging. Chavez immediately accepted blame. Longtime press aide Marc Grossman remembers that reporters were expecting Cesar to defend his union members. Instead, Chavez said the shooting was inexcusable. Later, Cesar admonished members in a meeting, telling them sternly, "If we mean nonviolence, we have to say, ''Damn it, we mean it, and it''s not going to happen.''"
Victory in the Midst of Chaos
In the midst of chaos, however, there was a stunning victory. Dolores Huerta, whom Brazil remembers dashing from rally to rally in a cocoa-and-white poncho, had driven a hard bargain with InterHarvest, finally winning a generous contract. The union''s two-year contract far outstripped that of the Teamsters, giving InterHarvest workers a base-wage raise from $1.75 an hour to $2.10 and later to $2.15. (Minimum wage was $1.60 an hour in 1970.) The piece rates for each carton of lettuce packed by crews would go up by 11 cents, compared to the Teamsters'' two and a half cents. The union also eliminated the use of DDT and other dangerous pesticides-a good two years before the federal government did so.
Two Salinas-based executives quit InterHarvest over the contract, and growers'' wives showed their displeasure by lining up at an InterHarvest cooler for several mornings for huelgas of their own, waving American flags and attempting to block the company''s produce trucks. Racial animosity deepened, with Anglo truckers and Teamsters driving around town waving American flags, attempting to claim them as a counter-point to the Aztec eagle. "The social bones of Salinas stood out," recalls Eric Brazil.
Within weeks, several other growers, including Purex''s Fresh Pict and Pic N Pac, recognized the groundswell of support for Chavez''s union and rescinded their Teamsters contracts: They then signed with UFWOC. Community pressure against those contracts was so strong that Purex chief executive William Tincher later offered a disclaimer in a trade magazine: "Purex had been called communistic because we signed with Mr. Chavez.Purex is not communistic. We pride ourselves on our contribution to the capitalistic life in America."
But after about a month, union members still on strike were hobbled by continuing court injunctions against picketing, and they were fast running out of $5-a-week strike payments. Although they preferred to strike, some workers were forced to return to the fields. By November, the harvest was waning, and many migrants had either left for Mexico or were moving on to other jobs. Tension grew, however, as Chavez''s boycott on all non-UFWOC lettuce companies continued. On Nov. 4, unknown assailants planted dynamite that blew the door and windows out of a UFWOC office in Hollister. A month later, a judge jailed Chavez indefinitely, until he complied with an order to stop boycotting Bud Antle lettuce.
In his Salinas jail cell, Chavez made the most of his solitude. He was placed in a small cell by himself, near the drunk tank, where he spent hours reading mail and books. Respecting his growing affinity for vegetarian meals, the union sent him soybean enchiladas. Mexican and Chicano supporters erected a shrine across the street, where they sang corridos and prayed.
Ethel Kennedy Comes To Town
The serenity was shattered, however, when Ethel Kennedy came calling the evening of Dec. 6. Bobby Kennedy''s widow was greeted by more than 2,000 Chavez supporters, with whom she celebrated mass before visiting Chavez. As Kennedy began walking toward the jail, she was surrounded by a hostile mob that had also converged on the scene. Several hundred John Birch Society members and anti-union demonstrators whipped themselves into a frenzy, shouting "Reds go home!"
Moments after Kennedy entered the jail, a Chicana teenager rushed up the steps of the building to wave a black eagle flag. She was knocked down by anti-union demonstrators, and police, deputies, and Brown Berets had to hold back both sides to prevent a riot. Kennedy left through a back door, telling her husband''s former aide Paul Schrade: "You really throw some weird parties here in California." It was "an incredible travesty," she said years later, that Chavez had been put behind bars.
On Christmas Eve, 1970, Chavez was released pending the outcome of an appeal. Four months later, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Antle injunction against the lettuce boycott was unconstitutional. (More than two years after the strike, the same court ruled that the Salinas growers had used the Teamsters in 1970 "as a shield" against the wishes of a majority of their workers.) The court also overturned injunctions that had forbidden most UFWOC picketing. Those high court decisions failed to stop an even more violent-and fatal-battle that would take place in California''s fields in 1973. cw
Reprinted with permission from The
Fight In the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement by Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval, Harcourt Brace, 1997.