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Profiles: “Lionel Steinberg” & “Albert Tieburg” by Dick Meister

Albert Tieburg & Lionel Steinberg

by Dick Meister

By Dick Meister

Among the many unsung heroes of the long struggle to win union rights for farm workers, few were more important than Al Tieburg, former director of California’s State Employment Department. Without him, the United Farm Workers union might not have been able to even begin its organizing drives.

For more than two decades before Tieburg took office, employment officials in California and other states had blocked unionization by allowing growers to import workers from Mexico to replace local workers who might demand better pay and conditions.

The Mexican workers, imported through the federal bracero program that operated between 1942 and 1964, dared not make any demands. That would have guaranteed them a quick return trip home, where thousands of other desperately poor men waited anxiously to take their place.

Theoretically, U.S. workers had first call on available farm jobs. Braceros were to be imported only if there was a legitimate shortage of resident workers. But the state officials who administered the program – and who invariably were political allies of growers – openly ignored that rule in order to supply their grower friends with cheap and compliant labor from Mexico.

That raised an insurmountable barrier to farm unionization. Workers knew that engaging in union activity would subject them to replacement by braceros. They were forced to take whatever growers offered or else.

Organizers continued trying nevertheless, some from the American Federation of Labor, some from its rival Congress of Industrial Organizations. All of them failed.

They tried again after the two labor federations merged into the AFL-CIO, by forming the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, which called a series of strikes in California in 1959. Predictably, growers responded by asking the State Employment Department to provide them with braceros to replace strikers.

By then, however, liberal Democrat Pat Brown was governor – and liberal Democrat Al Tieburg his employment director.

“No!” Tieburg told the growers seeking strikebreakers from Mexico.

Backed by decisions of a Brown majority on the State Supreme Court, Tieburg ruled that farms being picketed were involved in legitimate labor disputes. Unlike his anti-union Republican predecessors, Tieburg said that meant he could not certify to the Federal Government that braceros should be dispatched to the farms. Tieburg also refused to allow the Employment Department’s previously unquestioning Farm Placement Service to dispatch domestic job seekers to act as strikebreakers.

His rulings helped pave the way for the end of the bracero program that had made the unionization of farm workers impossible and helped the AFL-CIO’s organizing committee wage its first successful strikes.

Soon afterward, the committee merged with the independent National Farm Workers Association headed by Cesar Chavez to form the United Farm Workers of America and launch the campaign that won worldwide support and union rights and decent working conditions for thousands of the men and women who harvest our food.

Before and after leaving state service in 1969, and up until his death 30 years later at age 86, Tieburg worked with the UFW to improve the living as well as working conditions of farm workers. That was typical of the man, who devoted much of his life to improving the lot of minorities and the poor.

Tieburg, for instance, developed the first programs in the country that were designed specifically to improve the employment opportunities of minority workers by providing them training and job placement assistance. He was the first employment official to establish statistical reporting by race so that the services to minorities – and the results – could be measured.

But most of all, we should honor Al Tieburg for his essential role in helping farm workers in their search for a decent life.

By Dick Meister

Lionel Steinberg was a rare individual – a grower who became a key farm worker ally in the struggle for decent farm labor conditions that’s raged for so many years with growers almost invariably on one side, their workers on the other.

It’s well past time that Steinberg, who died in 1999, got the public attention his contribution to the farm workers’ struggle very much deserves. Steinberg, who ran three large vineyards in California’s Coachella Valley, was the first table grape grower to agree to a contract with the fledgling United Farm Workers union headed by Cesar Chavez.

That 1970 agreement led quickly to UFW contracts with virtually all of Steinberg’s fellow growers and the end to five years of strikes and boycotts that had drawn worldwide public support. Although the UFW’s grape boycott was costing the growers millions of dollars, they had adamantly refused to negotiate with the union – or even acknowledge their losses.

Steinberg, a Democratic appointee to the State Board of Agriculture, was one of the few political liberals among the growers. But it wasn’t liberalism that moved him.

“It is costing us more to produce and sell our grapes than we are getting paid for them,” he told the growers. “We are losing maybe 20 percent of our market …. The boycott is illegal and immoral, but it also is a fact and we must recognize it and try to deal with it in a manner fair to both sides …. We cannot continue to sweep this problem under the rug.”

Nine growers joined Steinberg to seek contract negotiations with the UFW in 1969, but most growers initially rejected his pleas. Their trade association, the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, actually issued a report claiming the boycott had been a “total failure.”

The UFW readily agreed to negotiations with the 10 growers led by Steinberg. But those talks, held under the auspices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, got nowhere. Steinberg then tried but failed to reach an agreement covering just his vineyards.

Steinberg estimated that growers lost $3 million during the 1969 harvest. But the standoff continued until just before the start of the next year’s harvest, when the unrelenting force of the boycott and the mediation efforts of a committee from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops brought Steinberg and the UFW back to the negotiating table.

The union was now especially eager to settle, since other growers had told the bishops’ committee privately that if Steinberg could reach an agreement they would follow him rather than face another losing year.

Steinberg soon agreed to a contract with the UFW, as did almost all of the Coachella Valley’s other growers and three of the most prominent growers in Kern County to the north, the state’s major vineyard area.

Within a few months, the rest of California’s grape growers were calling for peace. Finally, all the state’s vineyard workers got the union contract protections they and their millions of supporters had so long fought for.

The UFW would face many other arduous battles in the years that followed, some of the roughest against those very grape growers, and some which continue to this day.

But the initial contracts signaled that the farm workers’ movement was here to stay. They provided the foundation the UFW and its allies had to have if they were to effectively carry on their struggle for economic justice.

(Dick Meister, a San Francisco writer, is co-author of ”A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America’s Farm Workers” (Macmillan).

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