Many, probably most, farmers have been farm workers, and many still are. It gives them a very human perspective that employers in other industries don’t always have.
This conclusion came to light recently when a 40-year-old interview with one of California agriculture’s former statesman-leaders appeared on my computer screen. It didn’t say who asked the questions, but it identified the respondent as Delano table grape grower Martin Zaninovich.
Zaninovich passed away a couple of years ago, but the memory of his clear-headed and in-depth understanding of agricultural issues in California came through in his answers to the interviewer’s questions.
Most of them dealt with the farm labor issue, and the answers reflected Zaninovich’s own experience, along with that of other members of his family.
As immigrants, they began their farming experiences at ground zero, doing all the basic work of establishing vineyards. They performed all the jobs themselves long before they hired help.
At the time of the interview around 1975, Zaninovich and others in the table grape industry had undergone the indecency of their products being boycotted illegally by union activists.
They had experienced vulgar and unprincipled behavior near their vineyards by those who derided and disrespected their employees, supposedly to convince them to join a union’s cause as represented by the United Farmworkers union (UFW).
By that time employers had seen another union, the Teamsters, enter the union controversy, particularly in the Delano area. The law establishing secret ballot voting by farmworkers on the unionization question resulted in about three dozen rapid fire elections in Kern County alone.
To many people’s surprise, and perhaps shock, about 30 of the legally held, state-authorized elections were won by the Teamsters, with only a half dozen going to the UFW. But that surprise was only a preliminary to much greater disappointment for the fledgling union.
The UFW leadership judged that the newly established election law for farm workers was not firm enough. It proposed and qualified for the November, 1976, ballot a proposition that would have frozen the law and its administration into the state constitution. It was identified as Proposition 14, and apparently was easily qualified with an abundance of signatures.
The state’s entire agricultural industry was suddenly awakened to the labor issue, to the potential strength and the overwhelming indecency of unions and their potential misuse of power. The industry united in opposition to the proposition.
Leadership against Prop. 14 was led by Japanese-American growers in Fresno County. They were allied through the Nisei Farmers League, led then by Harry Kubo. The table grape growers in Delano were in lock step with them, and the determination to defeat the proposition radiated to farmers throughout the state.
Professional campaign management was retained, and strategy was developed based on the results of a statewide opinion survey. It centered on the right to defend private property. The union had advocated unlimited access to grower holdings as a means of reaching workers with its message.
Enthusiastic rallies were held by agriculture in northern and southern California featuring professional entertainment and precinct walking by dedicated volunteers. Voters were listening and beginning to understand the issues.
One powerful newspaper ad featured the photograph of a “ no trespassing” sign at the edge of the UFW’s foothill compound in the Tehachapis. “Even the union proposing unlimited access to grower property insisted on the right to protect its own,” was the sign’s contradictory message.
Election Day brought unrestrained celebration throughout agriculture, extending nationwide, especially to the buyers and handlers of the state’s food products, seemingly so vulnerable to illegal boycotting. The union-proposed initiative was defeated by a nearly two-to-one vote.
It was a day still fondly remembered by agriculture’s leaders, the likes of Martin Zaninovich. It seemed to confirm that farmers are closer to the farm worker experience than many people believe. They can and do identify.