Perspectives on César Chávez and the Farm Workers Movement

Trampling Out the Vintage: César Chávez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers 
By Frank Bardacke
Verso, 2011

The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in César Chávez’s Farm Worker Movement
By Miriam Pawel
BloomsBury Press, 2009

Reviewed by Fernando Gapasin


Americans who know anything about the farm workers movement know it was started by César Chávez (or maybe by Chávez and Dolores Huerta). In reality, Arab, Chicano/a, Mexican, Filipino/a, black, and white farm workers founded it too. In fact, the movement to unionize farm workers is multinational and generations old. It has peaked and waned throughout the twentieth century. In the 1960s, it took the confluence of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, international liberation movements, and the end of the U.S. Bracero Act in 1964 to create an environment that made it possible for a small union led by people of color to win against conservative local governments, the Teamsters (one of the largest unions in the U.S.), and the wide- reaching political influence of international agricultural corporations (which extended to the President of the United States).

The rise of this movement—and its subsequent decline—is the subject of ongoing scholarly work. Miriam Pawel, a Harvard-educated reporter for the Los Angeles Times, weaves a series of eight interviews (with most of the emphasis given to three United Farm Workers staffers: Eliseo Medina, Chris Hartmire, and Jerry Cohen) into a multi-perspective revisionist history of the United Farm Workers Movement. Frank Bardacke, a Berkeley-educated political activist and former farm worker, creates a complex mosaic which centers on the same movement from the perspective of farm workers and volunteers. Each author—one a reporter, the other a social movement activist—offers a critical analysis of the movement.

As a Chicano/a and labor activist, I was greatly influenced by the farm workers move- ment. In September 1965 I sat in the mud in Vietnam, reading a letter from my father telling me about the farm workers’ Delano sit-down strike: “In Delano, the manongs (older Filipino men) sat down in the grapes and brought dignity to the fields,” he wrote. The Filipinos had been organized by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) of the AFL-CIO, with Larry Itliong as the lead organizer. On September 16, Mexican Independence Day, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA)—led by César Chávez—joined the strike. Years later, NFWA co-founder Dolores Huerta told me that, at the time, NFWA might have had no more than $76.00 in its treasury. AWOC and NFWA merged into the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), before later becoming the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). The expressions “Huelga!” and “Si Se Puede,” the huelga eagle, the Virgen de Guadalupe, and Chávez’s face became integral parts of the Chicano/a movement’s identity. Chávez continues to be the most important role model for labor activists and Latino/a youth.

Because of the international success of the farm workers movement—and its capacity to have created multiracial, multiclass coalitions across the U.S. during the Great Grape Boycott of the late 1960s, and its perceived appeal to liberal America—in 1996 the AFL- CIO chose the UFW’s strawberry organizing campaign in Watsonville, CA as the coming out party for the organizing orientation of John Sweeney’s AFL-CIO. With the help of the AFL-CIO, national and regional food chains such as Kroger, Lucky, and Ralphs signed the union’s pledge demanding that the growers take five cents from the sale of each basket of berries to raise the wages of workers. The stage was set for success and, in April 1997, more than thirty thousand people marched in the small town of Watsonville, including unionists from all over the U.S. But the loyalties of the farm workers were split between the UFW and the company union, the Coastal Berry Farm Workers Committee. In time, after having initially lost, the UFW won representa- tion for about one thousand strawberry workers. The UFW and the AFL-CIO tried to invoke victory by using Chávez’s name. Unfortunately, most of the workers thought “César Chávez” was a reference to the professional boxer Julio César Chávez, and the com- pany union held more votes than the UFW.

Bardacke’s book helps us to better understand why victory was not assured in Watsonville in 1997. He explains how the UFW failed to create an institutional base in the area by not having created a local union structure. He argues that, because of the organization of work in the Watsonville-Salinas area, there was more potential to build a permanent militant base for the union in the 1970s—and that when the UFW decided to center its work elsewhere, it missed a historical opportunity.

A central theme in both books is the lack of democracy within the UFW. They both make reference to Chávez’s autocratic and mercurial leadership tendencies. In some of the reviews of Pawel’s book, middle-class supporters of the Grape Boycott were shocked and disappointed to hear that humble, self-sacrificing, Gandhi-like César Chávez could have been so committed to La Causa, and a utopian vision, that he used undemocratic methods in an attempt to control the UFW. For those who worked closely with the UFW, this is not new information. In fact, the same ground has been covered in books that are fifteen years old and that even predated Chávez’s death, such as The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement by Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval (1997); and Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement by Craig Scharlin and Lilia V. Villanueva (1992)—a scathing indictment of Chávez’s leadership.

Both Bardacke and Pawel mention my uncle, Philip Vera Cruz, who was national co-chair of the Committee Against Martial Law in the Philippines and UFW Vice President when he retired in 1977. But they fail to explain that he had been an outspoken critic of Chávez’s leadership and threatened to expose him publicly before stepping down. Later, as a popular speaker on college campuses, he often criticized Chávez, saying: “it is the movement that is important not one man.” What is unique about the interviews in Pawel’s book is that this is the first time the former “Chávistas” (Medina, Hartmire, and Cohen)—who had long remained silent— have publicly voiced their own criticisms.

Another important theme in Bardacke’s and Pawel’s books is Chávez’s attempt to build a movement according to his utopian vision, and his consequent failure to build an institutional union. Both write that César’s religious motivation for fasting and the peregrinación (religious pilgrimage) were for penance. Bardacke points out that in 1968, before and during his first fast, farm-worker leaders and volunteers openly opposed the strategy. He notes that one of the union’s leaders, Tony Orendain—who later became the president of the Texas Farm Workers Union—said, “While one was fasting, others were feasting.” César distanced himself from Orendain by sending him to Texas in 1969. Bardacke also cites Fred Hirsch—an experienced union- ist and volunteer strategist for the grape strike—who issued a letter of protest to the UFW’s executive board, arguing that not only had the fast been a hypocritical misuse of religious symbolism—Chávez and his white advisers made all the important decisions and showed contempt for people’s labor, “as volunteers were given make-work and moved from job to job willy-nilly.” Fred and his late wife Virginia Muir Hirsch (an experienced legal secretary who set up the union’s legal department and taught Jerry Cohen, the union’s general counsel) left the union in 1968.

In La Paz, UFW’s headquarters in the Tehachapi Mountains, in 1972 Chávez spoke about his long- term vision for the salvation of farm workers that was centered on the creation of self-sufficient religious communes. He also understood that members’ dues and donations from unions like the UAW kept the farm worker boat afloat. Pawel suggests that the UFW could have become a more viable trade union if César had adopted some of Medina’s suggestions about making the union more efficient and organized about administering contracts and addressing the economic needs of the farm workers. The importance of building the UFW into an institutional union, however, was not going to have much traction with Chávez, who wanted something different for the farm worker movement. From my perspective, autocratic and mercurial union leadership is not limited to leaders with religious zeal—it’s, more often than not, motivated by nothing more than leaders’ interest in saving their jobs within the union bureaucracy. If Medina and others really wanted to build an effective and democratic union, they should have tried to replace Chávez. Admittedly, this is a lot easier to say than to do, especially after Chávez consolidated his internal and public influence after his twenty-five-day fast in 1968.

Both books talk about the UFW’s campaign against “illegals” after 1974, but I experienced the UFW’s collusion with the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) firsthand before that time. Neither Bardacke nor Pawel sufficiently discuss the importance of the cultural divide that separates Chicano/as (Mexican-Americans) and Mexican immigrants. This—as well as the failure to grasp the concept of working- class solidarity—may partially explain the UFW’s inability, at that time, to devise an effective strategy that organized more workers who were without papers rather than utilizing the INS for deportation.

Pawel’s book provides multiple perspectives on different parts of UFW history, and it offers an interpretation that does not focus only on Chávez. However, the book still puts Chávez at the center of its story, to blame him or to praise him, and readers must also remember that those who Pawel interviewed still have their own legacies to protect.

Bardacke’s book attempts to do everything and, to a large degree, it succeeds. He helps to clarify the dichotomy in the strategic direction of the UFW. I would not describe the two souls of the movement as boycott vs. union, but rather as Chávez’s spiritual mission vs. union building. In a manner reminiscent of the late historian David Montgomery’s work, Bardacke gives voice and power to the actual work people do in the fields by providing a detailed description of the skills it takes to do the jobs. Bardacke’s compassion and affinity for the subjects of his study are clear. Pragmatically, the book offers strategic implications for organizing, including the idea that understanding how the jobs are

performed and organized can provide the best opportunity for success in an organizing campaign. His lengthy musings on why Chávez did what he did reflects empathy and respect, and his explanation of the ideas of Saul Alinsky is the best I have read. In addition, Bardacke places the UFW into a historical context and does an excellent job of portraying earlier organizing efforts and the role of the leftists. But, most of all, Bardacke gives voice to so many of the workers and volunteers who made the difference in the farm worker movement, and he credits these activists for their continued efforts in the labor movement.

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