Arturo S. Rodriguez, second president of the United Farm Workers of America, has carried on the work of the union founded by Cesar Chavez in the nine years since the 52-year old San Antonio, Texas native took over the helm of the UFW in May 1993, after its legendary founder's death.
Rodriguez was born on June 23, 1949. His grandfather had a small farm outside San Antonio where he raised cattle. His father is a retired sheet metal worker. His mother is a retired school teacher.
The young Rodriguez attended Catholic schools in San Antonio, graduating in 1967 from La Salle High School and earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology at St. Mary's University in 1971. He received a Masters degree in social work in 1973 from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
He initially learned about Cesar Chavez in 1966 from his parish priest, after Father Marvin Doerfler returned from a march the farm labor leader led in South Texas' Rio Grande Valley. He first became active with the UFW's grape boycott in 1969 as a college student. At the University of Michigan in 1971, Rodriguez organized support for farm worker boycotts.
After graduation, Rodriguez organized boycott campaigns in Detroit. He first met Cesar Chavez personally in 1973. The next year he also met Linda Chavez, the union leader's daughter. They were married in March 1974 at La Paz, the UFW's Keene, Calif. headquarters in the Tehachapi Mountains southeast of Bakersfield.
They worked together on the boycott in Detroit until August 1975, when California's pioneering Agricultural Labor Relations Act, pushed through the Legislature by Chavez and then-Gov. Jerry Brown, was about to take effect. Rodriguez helped organize union representation elections in the Salinas Valley. They included the UFW campaign at Molera Packing Co.--the artichoke ranch where the first election under the state's historic farm labor law took place on Sept. 8, 1975. The Teamsters Union had previously represented the workers, who voted 15-0 for the UFW.
After participating in dozens of other Salinas-area union elections, Rodriguez moved in November with the harvest to the Imperial Valley on the Mexican border where he continued organizing until January 1976. Then the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB), which administers the law, shut down following the refusal of grower-friendly legislators to continue its funding.
He spent much of 1976 working on behalf of Proposition 14, a UFW-sponsored initiative to restore funding for the agency. Although the measure didn't pass, it forced lawmakers to vote money for the ALRB. That spring, Rodriguez was one of a handful of top UFW organizers dispatched by Chavez to aid then-Gov. Brown's presidential campaign in key primary states.
When the ALRB was restored in 1977, Rodriguez kept organizing union elections in Imperial Valley vegetable fields and Ventura County citrus orchards north of Los Angeles. In 1978, he was chief instructor for a unique school at the union's La Paz headquarters that Chavez established to provide formal training for union organizers.
By fall 1979, Rodriguez was directing a UFW lettuce boycott in Michigan. He returned to California in 1980 to set up a novel union-sponsored service center in Ventura County to help farm workers resolve grievances involving issues such as housing, education and government services. That year also saw him coordinating UFW efforts for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's presidential drive in Texas.
In 1981, he was first elected to the UFW National Executive Board. For three years, until 1984, Rodriguez managed union operations covering organizing, negotiations and contract administration for the California table grape, wine grape and tree fruit industries.
He began working with Chavez on preparations for a renewed table grape boycott in 1984, focusing for two years on research about issues affecting grape workers and consumers. He directed boycott activities in the mid-Atlantic region.
When the 61-year old UFW founder conducted his last long public fast of 36 days in summer 1988, Rodriguez coordinated fast events in Delano, Calif. Then he returned to New York, convincing a number of major East Coast supermarket chains to halt grape advertising and promotions, a key boycott demand. He headed up the boycott in California in 1989 and '91.
From May through September 1992, Rodriguez coordinated UFW support for grape workers walking off their jobs as part of the largest vineyard demonstrations since 1973 in the Coachella and San Joaquin valleys. They were protesting eight years without wage increases, poor working conditions and other grievances. The UFW organized thousands of workers at dozens of ranches to participate in the walkouts. Those efforts produced an industry-wide pay raise.
Rodriguez became UFW president in May 1993, after Cesar Chavez' death on April 23 of that year. Acting quickly to build on a program Chavez established, Rodriguez recruited 10,000 new farm workers as associate union members in the year after he assumed the UFW presidency.
On the first anniversary of the Chavez' passing in April 1994, Rodriguez led a 343-mile Delano-to-Sacramento march or pilgrimage retracing the steps of an historic trek by Chavez in 1966. Some 20,000 farm workers and union supporters greeted the marchers--or peregrinos--at the steps of the state Capitol in Sacramento.
That event also kicked off a major new field organizing and contract negotiating drive. Since then, the UFW has won 21 union elections and signed 25 new, or first-time, contracts with growers.
Those UFW victories include the first agreement in 27 years with Gallo winery, covering 450 vineyard workers in Sonoma County. Now, about 70% of mushroom workers on California's Central Coast are protected by UFW contracts--as are more than 50% of Central Valley rose workers. Other victories include contracts with the largest winery in Washington state, the biggest mushroom producer in Florida and the nation's largest rose producer, in California. In 2001, the UFW signed a contract protecting the Ventura County field laborers at Coastal Berry Co., the largest U.S. employer of strawberry workers.
Farm workers under most UFW contracts at mushroom, rose, citrus, strawberry, wine grape and vegetable companies enjoy decent pay, complete family medical care, job security, paid holidays and vacations, pensions and a host of other benefits. Tragically, the majority of farm workers in California and the rest of the nation still have none of these protections.
The UFW has recently made legislative progress at the state and national capitals. In 2001, he California Legislature passed and Gov. Gray Davis signed UFW-sponsored laws authored by the Assembly Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem that seek to end some of the worst abuses farm workers suffer from growers and farm labor contractors. And the UFW continues pushing legislation in both houses of Congress that would allow undocumented farm workers and their family members to earn legal status by working in agriculture.
His permanent home is the UFW headquarters at La Paz, Keene, Calif. His wife, Linda Chavez Rodriguez, died on Oct. 9, 2000 after a long illness. They have three children.
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