The women in my life will forgive me, I hope, but in this critical election year I have decided to send my Valentine’s Day card to the late Ronald Reagan. We miss him now more than ever.
Instead of my own words, I thought his own would hit closer to home. Forty years ago, in 1972, it became a fad to boycott lettuce from California in support of an effort by Cesar Chavez to unionize migrant workers. The Democrat convention which nominated George McGovern as its candidate for President endorsed the effort.
When the State of Pennsylvania joined the boycott, Reagan sent a letter to Governor Milton Shapp making the case that Chavez was not really helping workers who were making far above the national average, and that he would not agree to allowing the laborers to vote their own preference.
Shapp wrote Reagan:
As an individual, I am greatly disturbed by the plight of the poor people in this nation, and the oppressive forces that keep them down
As a governor, I am trying to do something to help solve the social and economic ills that beset my state and the nation so the American dream can be fulfilled not just by a comparative handful of wealthy people, but by all our citizens.
Lettuce today has replaced grapes as a symbol, just as grapes at one time had quietly replaced the “union label” as a symbol for obtaining fair treatment for labor.
Cesar Chavez is attempting to accomplish for his people what Eugene Debs did for the railroad workers, what John L. Lewis did for the miners, what Philip Murray did for the steelworkers, what Dubinsky did for the needle trade workers, what Samuel Gompers did for the cigar workers, what Walter Reuther did for the auto workers, and yes, what James Hoffa did for the truck drivers. All of these great labor leaders gave the working men and women of America a chance to work under safe conditions, at fair wages, and to be treated with dignity.
Throughout its turbulent history, the labor movement in America has always been opposed by those who have considered material values more important than human values.
At one time in your career you were part of the movement to help those at the bottom reach out for daylight. But since you have achieved personal success, you seemed to have changed. That was your privilege.
But it is still my privilege to do my job as I see it… I’ll mind my business in Pennsylvania. Good luck to you in California.
Note that the canards, the ad hominem slights and the self-righteous preening, have not changed much in the intervening four decades.
I was touched by your eloquent and moving letter; so much so that I would like to offer a constructive suggestion.
First, however, so that you’ll have no question as to my sincere interest, may I correct a misapprehension on your part? You indicated a belief that while I had served the cause of organized labor for a time, my view changed to the point of losing my capacity for compassion as I became “better off.”
The Screen Actors Guild (an AFL-CIO union) has a proud tradition of service to its members by working actors who for the most part have a certain individual bargaining power and don’t really need union representation. Among those who have served as president were Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Cagney, Robert Montgomery, George Murphy, Walter Pidgeon, and Charlton Heston, to name a few.
My own six terms as president were during a time when I had achieved stardom and was probably at the height of my career and my earning power.
As I pointed out in my last letter, 85 percent of California lettuce is presently harvested by unionized labor (International Teamsters) and the salary scale is somewhat higher here than in other states. I’m sure you would like to see all the states reach parity with California.
My suggestion therefore is that you persuade the agricultural industry of your state to invite Cesar Chavez to come and organize the farm workers of Pennsylvania. This is a sacrifice California is prepared to make in the interest of human compassion and I assure you, thousands of our own farm workers — particularly those citizens of Mexican heritage — will courageously, and I might even say happily, carry on without him.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Mister President! We hope we will merit to see the likes of you again.
(The above letters are culled from Sincerely, Ronald Reagan, a collection of Reagan’s letters compiled by his secretary, Helene von Damm, and published in 1976.)