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  • By Charters Wynn
    One of the main reasons I went to Antioch College in Ohio was that all students were required to alternate quarters studying on campus with quarters off-campus working. Students worked in a variety of short-term jobs, from an internship at the New York Times to a Montessori School in Seattle. When it came time to choose where I wanted to go for the winter quarter, I jumped at the opportunity to work for the United Farm Workers in Los Angeles, where a dozen or so boycott organizers lived together in a big, old house and were given $5 a week plus room and board. I had just taken a course on American Utopianism, so the living arrangement made it sound even better to me, though $5 a week did not buy much beer or many cigarettes, even in 1971.

    Unlike any of my fellow UFW boycott organizers in Los Angeles I had actually worked as a farmworker. Between my junior and senior years in high school I spent the summer working in the Dole Corporation’s pineapple fields on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai. We worked six days a week, eight hours a day. Not backbreaking labor like that performed in California’s strawberry fields and grape vineyards but grueling work nonetheless. It was also, like most such work, extraordinarily monotonous. I worked as a member of a harvesting gang, which walked through the fields at the pace of a truck-mounted conveyor belt, onto which we tossed the pineapples we picked. A foreman walked behind us, and if we failed to pick what he considered an appropriately ripe pineapple, he often threw it at us. Despite the tropical heat, we needed to wear heavy clothing to protect ourselves from the sharp leaves and the insects that infested the fields despite all the pesticides dumped on the soil.

    I was involved in the UFW at the high point in its history. After a five-year strike by farmworkers, most of California’s table grape growers finally signed contracts with the UFW on July 29, 1970. Our target in 1971 was a dozen Napa Valley wineries. I spent my days picketing Safeway stores, the largest grocery chain on the west coast. This was a so-called secondary consumer boycott, a tactic the UFW developed. The goal of the picketing was to drive enough customers away so that Safeway would stop carrying the wines, which would give the UFW leverage against the wineries in their efforts to unionize their workers. We handed out leaflets and talked to the curious and the sympathetic about California’s mostly Chicanos and Chicanas and Filipino vineyard workers and their conditions in Napa Valley. We sometimes engaged in what might be considered more militant actions. We went to a Safeway, filled shopping carts with food from all over the store as well as UFW leaflets, pushed them to the checkout counter, where we then left them after telling the checker we didn’t have any money. That boycott was abandoned a short time later for a consumer boycott of a single winery, Gallo, the nation’s largest producer of wines. It took another five years, but then Gallo finally signed a UFW contract.
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