Harvest of up to 30 percent of the nation's iceberg lettuce has been halted by a United Farm Workers' strike prompted by growers' adherence to the Carter administration's anti-inflation wage guidelines.
But there is disagreement over whether the guidelines apply in the case of low-paid lettuce workers and a possibility that the dispute, if protracted and coupled with more bad weather over the California lettuce fields, could lead to higher lettuce prices.
Contending they are covered by the guidelines, which seek to limit annual wage increases to 7 percent, the growers have restricted their money offers for each of the next three years to 7 percent across the board.
The UFW argues that 55 to 60 percent of the lettuce workers earn less than $4 an hour and are thus exempt from its provisions. Moreover, the union rejects the voluntary guidelines as unfair and is seeking wage increases amounting to about 40 percent over the next three years.
Negotiators for the two sides are sharply split, and last Monday more than 1,600 members of the union struck five large farms reportedly produce between 20 and 30 percent of the nation's winter iceberg lettuce crop.
Bad weather in the Imperial Valley has caused lettuce prices to rise in recent weeks, and industry sources have said a long and possibly widening strike, coupled with more weaher problems, could drive prices even higher.
The growers have gotten a court injunction against striking at one of the farms, but the union, which claims to represent a majority of all California lettuce workers, is threatening to expand the walkout to other fields.
Already the strike is the largest to be called by the UFW since California enacted its farm labor law in 1975, paving the way for an end to more than a decade of organizing strife on the state's rich farmlands.
The current UFW contract provides for a minimum hourly rate of $3.70, although most workers earn more -- some up to $10 an hour on a piece-rate basis, according to the growers. The union contends that, in addition to the fact that most earn less than $4 hourly, the seasonal nature of the work means that annual income is still far below national averages.
On Tuesday, UFW President Cesar Chavez rejected a company proposal to call in the government's Council on Wage and Price Stability to clarify the guidelines dispute. "We don't want the government there," Chavez was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. "It is none of their business, and we are not abiding by President Carter's recommendations."
Bill Macklin, one of the growers' lawyers, said many growers feel they have no alternative but to comply with the guidelines because they sell to the government and could lose their contracts for violating them.