Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Students honor end of boycott

February 16, 2001
Social relations senior Monica Matteo picks a bunch of grapes to eat at a reception celebrating the end of a 16-year grape boycott by the United Farm Workers of America, which was supported by the Movimiento Estudiantil Xicano de Aztlan (MEXA). The reception was held at La Centro de la Raza in Wilson Hall. —

Nearly 20 students gathered in the Culturas de las Razas Unidas room Thursday night to listen to music, talk and eat grapes by the handful.

Ironically, it’s a scene that would have flared tempers exactly five years ago.

“Anyone eating grapes in this room would have had their butts kicked,” journalism senior Ernesto Mireles said.

Past and present members of Movimiento Estudiantil Xicano de Aztlan, MSU’s Chicano student group, held a reception celebrating last November’s end of a 16-year California table grape boycott called by United Farm Workers, a major farm union co-founded by worker rights advocate Cesar Chavez.

The protest focused on higher wages for farm workers and better working conditions, especially concerning the use of potentially dangerous pesticides.

MEXA members supported the boycott through several protests that occurred throughout the 1990s in hopes the university would stop allowing non-union grapes into its cafeterias.

In February 1996, six of the group’s members camped in the CRU room during a six-day hunger strike in an attempt to force the university into a campuswide boycott.

Mireles took part in the fast.

“One guy even went to the hospital because he had a diabetic attack,” he said. “And when he returned from the hospital, he still refused to go off the fast.”

A university decision allowed individual residence halls to decide whether to serve non-union grapes and designated March 31 every year as “No Grapes Day” at MSU, ending the hunger strike.

In another protest in February 1994, nearly 100 students held a two-hour protest in which bags of grapes - some labeled “pesticides kill people” - were delivered to MSU President M. Peter McPherson’s Administration Building office.

Some students threw grapes at McPherson and smashed the fruit on his desk.

The UFW’s boycott came to an end in November, with union officials citing a recent string of new contracts for farm workers and new developments in pesticide use.

While Mireles said MEXA received criticism for some of its protests, he said the protests were a critical point in time for Chicano students, who were also fighting for a Chicano studies program at MSU.

“There were a lot of things that happened that people said were not the right way of going about things, and that may be true,” Mireles said. “But I will maintain to this day that that was a pivotal moment in student activism at Michigan State.

“A lot of the things that happened for Chicano and Latino students happened around the protests.”

Invitations to Thursday’s reception were sent to Chicano and Latino students and MSU administrators such as McPherson, MSU Trustee Dorothy Gonzales and Vice President for Student Affairs and Services Lee June. However, the only university official to show at the event was Rodney Patterson, director for the Office of Minority Student Affairs.

Patterson, who came to MSU in November 1993, said he remembers MEXA’s protests “like they were yesterday” and wanted to commemorate the event.

“I think this is pretty significant to see students celebrating what they consider to be a victory,” he said.

MEXA members at the reception also made a statement saying they formally support the efforts of Students for Economic Justice, an MSU student group that has protested against sweatshop labor in Central America and Southeast Asia and at factories where MSU apparel is being produced.

SEJ member Adam Szlachetka said he can remember some of MEXA’s protests and he looks forward to working with the group.

“I’m excited that we’re realizing that a lot of our struggles are interconnected and that we’re in this together,” the political economy senior said.

Currently, SEJ is trying to convince MSU officials to part ways with the Fair Labor Association. It’s a labor-monitoring organization SEJ considers too weak, but McPherson said he’s committed to it, despite some weaknesses he concedes it may have - such as a lack of university input on its board.

Instead, SEJhas asked that McPherson consider joining the Worker Rights Consortium - an organization initiated by students and human rights activists that appoints independent monitors to oversee labor conditions at overseas factories.

McPherson, who has worked overseas, has met with members of SEJ and has said he’s interested in listening to student concerns.

Sheena Harrison can be reached at harri188@msu.edu.

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