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Harvard's Grapes of Wrath: A Refreshing Lack of Substance Characterizes the Latest Harvard Debate

Douglas E. Heimburger

While the Institute has a somewhat-meaningful discussion about freshman housing, Residence andOrientation Week, and alcohol policies, our friends down the street at Harvard seem to be in the middle of a war of their own. It is not in a war about residences, relationships, or other issues, but a debate about grapes and whether to serve them in the campus dining halls.

Don't take me wrong, grapes are a serious issue. I really like eating them. I just don't see what's in it that can tear a campus apart.

Of course, those at Harvard see it differently. Five years ago, students there voted to ban the sale of grapes in the undergraduate dining halls. The motion came after a boycott called in 1984 by the United Farm Workers, led by Cesar Chavez. The movement was a response to revelations that grape farm owners commonly resorted to physical violence to prevent their workers from organizing and protesting the poor working conditions at their farms. In California, many workers are paid not for the number of hours they work, but for the number of boxes of grapes they pick, and workers receive few if any benefits.

Harvard wasn't the only school to ban grapes in the early 1990s: students at Yale, Stanford, and Duke have passed referenda banning the use of grapes in dining halls.

Recently, however, Harvarddining services decided unilaterally to bring the grapes back into the dining halls after receiving many comment cards requesting them back.

Many students at Harvard, however, saw this decision as a retreat from the protest of the working conditions. Astudent activist group, UNITE, encouraged its members to send forms to HDSto complain about their decision. "If [HDS] is buying from a unionized grape grower, Iapprove,"said Dan R. Morgan, a member of Harvard's Progressive Student Labor Movement. "If it's not I'm concerned."

Harvard is a democratic place, and so naturally the diningservices group decided to hold a referenda on whether the grapes should be brought back. The Harvard Crimson quickly voiced its opinion in favor of continuing the boycott, editorializing, "Unfortunately, the boycott has not yet been successful. However, this is no reason to lose hope or to waver in our support."

Many students disagreed, however. A new group formed to call for the reinstatement of grapes in the dining halls. Calling itself the grape coalition, the group claims that a boycott is probably the most ineffective way of making improvements to worker conditions. In addition, the coalition stated, only one percent of all grape workers in California joined the UFW, and many rejected the opportunity to join. Even the UFW has moved on from the grape boycott, preferring to focus on a boycott of strawberries for poor grower working conditions.

This argument is a powerful one. Proponents use the same arguments that many have used when arguing to keep or strengthen the trade embargo that the United States has against Cuba. It has the same flaw, in that other groups are freely trading the same materials. Harvard students, for example, are completely free to buy their grapes from Star Market,City Foods, or even LaVerde's Market if they're down here at the Institute for some reason.

The grape boycott fails to serve its purpose. It really doesn't mean anything to California grape-growers, except that Harvard doesn't buy as many grapes as it could.

But the groups at Harvard both in favor and opposed to the boycott of course won't stop with just simple discussions and perhaps a debate. Aheated e-mail exchange between supporters and opponents devolved into racial comments, with some claiming that proponents were being racially biased. "People tend to make [the grape boycott] an issue of race, and instead it's an issue of human rights and worker conditions,"said anti-grape supporter Edgar Salvidar.

Harvard students were initially to vote in their dining halls last week on whether to bring back their grapes. However, after the dining services group decided to give the students six different choices, including such gems as "I support only the serving of California grapes in the dining halls if they are picked by a UFW member,"students protested the use of paper balloting and the lack of information about the referenda.

Harvard is slated to hold the vote tomorrow, choosing between whether to bring back grapes or not. HDS decided to have students vote with their IDcards on Wednesday, and the leaders of both sides agreed to ban campaigning in their dining halls on the voting day to avoid any potential confrontations.

In the end, I'm glad that we MIT students have more close-to-home topics to talk about. After all, I have to admit that Ireally can't get that excited about grapes in dining halls.I think a personal liberty approach to this topic would be the most appropriate. Those who want to protest the alleged poor working conditions inCalifornia only have to stop eating grapes to make their statement known. Besides, letters to members of Congress and owners of the farms may be far more powerful than a simple boycott.

An institutionalized boycott only serves to advance the feelings of a certain group over others. Hopefully Harvard students will have the ability to express their feelings on the working conditions of grapes soon, if they are returned to the dining halls. At the same time, they should consider whether they don't have better, more important campus issues to talk about.