By Cheryl McCall
Updated March 12, 1979 12:00 PM

They came 4,000 strong—men, women and children clustered in a barren depression near the Mexican border—a place migrant workers know as “the Hole.” There on normal harvest days at 4 a.m. they climb into buses and are driven to fields of ripening lettuce in the Imperial Valley nearby. This time, however, they gathered at dusk, and the scene was somberly transformed. Black union flags were held on high, and thousands of candles flickered in the twilight. The only sounds rising above the crackle of bonfires and the yapping of dogs were the low murmurings of grief. The Southern California lettuce workers’ strike had turned into an angry vigil; one of their pickets, Rufino Contreras, 28, had been shot dead, allegedly by employees of one of the growers, and his co-workers’ bitterness boded ill for a settlement. Since then the gloomy prospect has been fulfilled. The strike is in its seventh week—with more violence and no solution in sight.

For union leader Cesar Chavez the killing was a tragic jolt: the end of what he had called his “dream strike”—a battle at last on money issues rather than for the union’s very right to exist. In some ways the walkout had seemed to signal another of those bold-relief exercises in controlled strife that have marked and made his career. Yet times have changed since the United Farm Workers was founded 17 years ago—perhaps more for the union than for Chavez himself. At 52 (and 5’6”, 140 pounds), he still lives by the exemplary asceticism of the UFW’s youth. He works a slave-driver’s schedule of 20-hour days, sleeping where he drops, accepting only $10 a week in pay, plus expenses. He prays and meditates two or three hours every day and often fasts, even though his followers no longer seem to require such an example. “We’ve had no problem keeping people out this time,” he says. “They’re organized, they have job security, they have something to fight for. For the first time, they’re fighting for real wages. That’s the difference.”

Indeed, Chavez’ field-workers are not struggling for pennies. They want a raise from $3.70 to $5.25 an hour—and more than a one-third increase in the piecework scale. Most already make upwards of $7 an hour during the three-month harvest from December to March. The union is seeking improved fringe benefits and working conditions as well—including such improbable to-the-barricades perquisites as air-conditioned tractor cabs. The growers have countered by proposing a 22½ percent increase over three years, pointing out that the offer conforms to the President’s anti-inflation recommendation of a 7 percent ceiling on annual raises. “When they limit their profits to 7 percent,” says Chavez, “we’ll limit our wages to 7 percent.”

Meanwhile, $10 million in lettuce and $1 million in broccoli and carrots lie rotting in the fields, and prices are soaring. Growers who have not been struck are reaping windfall profits, while their less fortunate colleagues struggle to cut their losses with “replacement workers”—scabs. Rufino Contreras was among a group of six pickets entering a field to talk with strikebreakers when the growers’ men apparently opened fire. Since Contreras’ death, the violence continues: 35 injured and as many vehicles damaged, and the mayhem shows no sign of abating.

Chavez’ stake in this walkout is large. A satisfactory settlement, he believes, will serve as a model for other agricultural workers’ contracts in California—and also for those in Texas and Arizona, where rival unionists are offering Chavez the first serious challenge to his leadership in his career. Nevertheless, the price of the battle appalls him. “I thought we were done with killing,” he says. “You can’t underestimate the feeling for vengeance. That’s where the tragedy comes in—it will cost more lives.”

In his tempestuous and unorthodox career as a union leader, Chavez has faced that risk often—never more dramatically than during the historic five-year grape-pickers’ strike that ended in 1970, and the bitter decade-long battle with the Teamsters for the right to bargain for the farm workers. That he emerged unscathed is remarkable (Chavez accepted the bodyguards that now surround him only after the UFW board overrode his veto); that he prevailed is little short of a miracle. Born in Yuma, Ariz., he dropped out of school in the eighth grade and went to work in his teens as a field hand. Once an unlettered street-corner tough, he discovered Gandhi and turned to steel-willed self-discipline. He neither drinks nor smokes; his work is his life and passion. (“I haven’t taken a vacation since 1962,” he admits with a trace of pride.) Home is a four-room cottage at union headquarters in La Paz, Calif., and on the road he lives with his workers. “I eat whatever they have and sleep on floors when there’s no bed,” he says. “It’s a way to stay in touch. Sure it’s inconvenient when you have to run to pay phones, but I get insights I wouldn’t get if I stayed in motels.”

Chavez counts his family among his disciples. Most of his eight children are grown and work for the UFW, and Helen, 51, his wife of 30 years, ran the organization’s credit union until she retired last month. Some of the family have converted to his vegetarian diet, but few of his children have adopted the 30-year habit of yoga and contemplation that he believes is the source of his stamina. “I wouldn’t last if I didn’t do that,” he says. “As it is, I’m made for this kind of work—no heart attacks or ulcers or high blood pressure or anything [though he admits to some back problems, which he attributes to his days at stoop labor]. Prayer and meditation have a lot to do with that.”

To his newly vocal critics outside of California, Chavez presents a formidable adversary. Even growers admit that his stature in Mexico, combined with an aggressive UFW advertising campaign, has helped to keep Mexican workers from flocking across the border to cash in as strikebreakers. Rivals in other states complain that his enormous influence is itself a flaw. “He thinks he Is the farm labor movement,” complains Texas Farm Workers organizer Alfredo Avila. “The UFW is the only union I know of where there is no concept of a union local—everything comes from Cesar.” But if Chavez is stung by the criticism, he shows no sign of it. “I don’t plan to retire,” he says. “This is a good place for me to be and a good time to be here. It is a burden to be a leader, but I won’t burn out. We have to discipline ourselves more than most people because we must win. We have to win.” It is the invocation of a commitment grown bolder with success. The lettuce growers of California—or the consumers of America, for that matter—will take little comfort from it in the hard days ahead.