Can strawberries nourish the American labor movement?
Granted, the little red fruit isn't your ordinary weapon of class warfare.
But organized labor is hoping that it will be to the 1990s what grapes were to the 1960s, when Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers rallied the conscience - and pocketbooks - of many in support of the Mexican farmworkers of California. Actually, labor hopes for more, because this time the AFL-CIO has put its weight full-square behind the strawberry workers and their UFW. Three decades ago, a more cautious AFL-CIO distanced itself initially from the scruffy agricultural workers of the West Coast. New AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's previous job involved representing janitors and other service-sector employees, many of them minorities or immigrants. He pledged to emphasize the AFL-CIO's unionizing efforts, and now, with the electoral focus past, labor's biggest organizing campaign is a fledgling effort aimed at California's 20,000 strawberry pickers. The strawberry campaign is a model for how future organizing will be done - aimed at entire industries, said AFL-CIO spokeswoman Deborah Dion. It is a struggle replete with economic, political, social and cultural aspects. A drive to garner national support for the workers began just last week. Before this battle is over - whatever the outcome - it will be a wrenching fight that may well capture public attention. It focuses on the half-billion-dollar California strawberry business and the workers who pick the fruit, almost all of Mexican descent, including 15,000 in the central coastal region. Some are immigrants, some migrants, some U.S.-born. UFW President Arturo Rodriguez - the son-in-law of Chavez who became the union's leader when its founder died three years ago - contends that the workers face inhuman conditions. They have to bend over throughout 10- or 12-hour shifts to pick enough ripe berries to make their workday worthwhile, often suffering back injuries but lacking health coverage, he said. Other problems, he maintains, sometimes include inadequate drinking water and bathroom facilities, substandard housing, wage and child labor violations, sexual harassment and exposure to pesticides - for about $8,500 a March-October season. …