About a year and a half ago, Gov. Gray Davis signed into law Senate Bill 984, declaring Mar. 31 “Cesar Chavez Day.” The late Mr. Chavez has also been awarded Mexico’s Aguila Azteca (“Aztec Eagle”), and the USA’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, the two highest honors that can be bestowed upon a civilian by either country. Recognitions such as these don’t just fall into anyone’s lap. Cesar Chavez earned them by spearheading the farm labor movement of the Southwest that is still in effect. It has been one of the most trying uphill battles in this country’s history.
Eight years ago there was a hunger strike in front of Cheadle Hall supporting the movement Mr. Chavez led. Nine UCSB students endured watching the opponents of their protest have lunch in front of them in an effort to break their will, until the UCSB administration finally bowed to their demands 10 days into it. Among other things, one of the eventual results of their victory was a change to the Associated Students’ Financial Policies and Procedures. The added bill mandates that UCSB support the boycott of California Table Grapes initiated in 1984 by the United Farm Workers – co-founded and led by Cesar Chavez until his death in 1993. Included in that bill, thanks to the foresight of its cautious author, is the condition that if the boycott were ever called off and then redeclared, the school would once again support the farm workers.
Well, since then, the boycott has in fact been called off. However, one would think that if any students felt strongly enough about the issue to starve themselves, then the school’s decision makers would simply accept this humongous potential sacrifice of one fruit item and just not touch the issue ever again. But alas, this is not so.
It seems that some members of our wise and powerful Legislative Council feel that the bill has become outdated and unnecessary. Let’s think about this. If I work on the lowest rung of an industry that has treated people like me as semi-human for about the last hundred years, should I let my guard down as soon as they seem like they’re going to play nice from now on? That’s like suggesting we turn our backs on Saddam Hussein because we won the Gulf War.
During the past century or so, the Southwest agriculture industry has been anything but nice to its labor base. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath certainly had something to say about that. And I’m sure Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a good reason to send the following telegram to Chavez to support him in his second 25-day fast: “As brothers in the fight for equality, I extend the hand of fellowship and good will and wish continuing success to you and your members … You and your valiant fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people. We are together with you in spirit and in determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.” Chavez would eventually fast a third time, for 38 days.
But I’m not going to pretend that this country is still in the middle of the civil rights movement. Thank God that men like Cesar Chavez succeeded in getting things like the short-handled hoe and about half a dozen carcinogenic pesticides banned and/or controlled, among many other things. But just last month, the infamous Pictsweet’s mushroom company lost a lawsuit for having illegally fired an employee who just happened to be a member of the UFW. The employees of that company have been fighting unsuccessfully for a contract for the last 14 years! Recently the company was also heavily fined because an employee lost a hand due to safety violations at its Salem plant. UFW supporters succeeded in convincing the Vons, Safeway and Ralph’s supermarket chains, and UCSB, to join the boycott of Pictsweet products.
So, if students went on a hunger strike tomorrow to get UCSB to boycott the products of a company behaving as irresponsibly as Pictsweet, would they succeed? I hope so. But more importantly, if, a few years down the line, all of the students who were around to see that strike had since graduated and left, would the efforts of the hunger strikers be forgotten? Remember; labor contracts seldom happen in a day, or sometimes even eight years.
Ivan Perez is a senior molecular, cellular and developmental biology major.