Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers, and the Question of Unions in Contemporary Capitalism
This review is conceived as a further contribution to the discussion of contemporary trade unions in Insurgent Notes, as we have attempted in articles, book reviews and letters on Greece, Andy Stern’s SEIU, Wisconsin, the Arab Spring, New York City transit, South Africa, the ILWU’s role in the terrible Longview defeat, and on the fall 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike. The length and detail of the following treatment of Bardacke, in contrast to most earlier IN articles, grew out of his book’s exceptional quality as labor history of a not too distant past, but nonetheless a past mostly contained in the post-World War II boom and the movements of the sixties and seventies from which we are separated as by a chasm by the intervening, relentless decades of “neo-liberalism.” In the three years of IN ’s existence, we have attempted to document the discontinuity from that earlier period, in order to better articulate the recomposition of class terrain on a world scale. Nonetheless, Bardacke tells the story of one movement’s evolution from grassroots obscurity to such (relatively little-known) successes as the Salinas Valley (California) general strike of lettuce pickers in 1979—a veritable mass strike in Rosa Luxemburg’s sense—and from there to the collapsed shell of a union nonetheless administering fourteen non-profits with millions in assets. In today’s world, when the diminished unions in the “advanced” capitalist countries are heavily invested in pension funds, real estate and other areas, even as their memberships plummet, Bardacke’s story of one union’s evolution in that direction is in fact quite contemporary. All quotes in the review are from Bardacke’s book unless otherwise indicated.
From Grassroots Worker Ferment to Non-Profit Portfolio Management: A Case Study
This book is social and labor history of an E.P. Thompson or Peter Linebaugh quality. It’s hard to think of any comparable work detailing in so many dimensions the history of any American workers’ movement since World War II. For an earlier period, Steve Fraser’s study of Sidney Hillman or the Dubovsky–Van Tine study of John L. Lewis come to mind, but they mainly deal with pre-1945 developments and do not have quite the lived, total social history “from below” feel of Bardacke; Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive has some of that, but it is a survey of the United States working class as a whole in the 1970s and not written with the “participant-observer,” Thucydides-like, feel that Bardacke brings to his subject. In Bardacke’s book, as with Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class or Linebaugh’s The London Hanged, one quite simply enters…a world. At a first pass, criticizing it would seem tantamount to criticizing Picasso’s Demoiselles of Avignon or Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue ; the only meaningful criticism would be another work presenting another world.
The book’s own history is worth a mention: Bardacke, a 1960s Berkeley radical, suffering (in 1971) from the New Left burnout that carried off so many in that dismal period, hitched a ride in central California and was dropped off in Watsonville, an agricultural town. He stayed a lifetime, working first for six years in the fields, and then teaching English as a Second Language for decades more. Trampling, in its sprawling 740+ pages, thus comes across as a life’s work in a double sense.
Our main purpose in reviewing the book, however, is not to add to the multiple (and deserved) rave reviews it has received since it appeared in 2011. We wish to use the material it presents, and some gathered elsewhere, to continue an ongoing analysis of the role, real or potential, of trade unions, either of the traditional business or newer “social movement” type (the United farmworkers—hereafter UFW—obviously being one of the latter) in post-1945 American and world capitalism, and particularly in the context of the almost uninterrupted defeats, to which the UFW was hardly immune, which began in the mid-1970s.
Seen in that context, it is difficult to think of a comparably successful (if only temporarily) union movement started from scratch in the United States (or for that matter in any other “advanced capitalist” country) in the postwar period. The UFW fits well into the general working class upsurge of the 1960s and early 1970s (it was in fact able to carry out and win militant strikes as late as 1979), but most of the other struggles, from the post-1955 wildcats in auto to the post office, Teamster and New York Telephone wildcats of 1970, were revolts against established unions, not the creation of a new one. The UFW, in turn, in the explosive 1979 lettuce strike in the Salinas Valley, found itself confronted by a militant rank-and-file that threw the leadership’s caution to the winds and won, but even that was more the brief emergence of a pole independent of Cesar Chavez’s micromanaging (not to say authoritarian) style than a revolt against the union per se, not to mention against the (by then) mythical Chavez himself. And, as Bardacke shows, Chavez wrought his revenge in short order, even if it meant destroying the UFW as an organization of farmworkers in the process.
The UFW, it should be noted, also triumphed for a time in a sector—agribusiness—which could not readily move operations overseas, as so many US industries started to do in the 1970s. But despite that difference with auto, steel, textiles and electronics, where relocation and foreign imports helped snuff out the United States worker revolt of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and although agriculture, unlike those industries, is the number one US export sector today, we find, by the end of Bardacke’s story, agribusiness as well undergoing a complete reorganization through bankruptcy, creating ghost companies to void union contracts, and finally succeeding in eliminating highly skilled workers (such as in lettuce picking) in ways similar to those that swept through the rest of the economy in the 1980s and beyond.
The “two souls” of the UFW in Bardacke’s title refers to ever-growing tension between, on one hand, Chavez’s great talent for boycotts and raising outside support, followed by his retreat into the Tehachapi mountains where he attempted to build an “intentional community” with the top UFW leadership and volunteer support staff, and on the other hand the actual organization of farmworkers which over time became almost an afterthought and from which the whole project acquired its original legitimacy.
Cesar Chavez never conceived of the UFW as merely a trade union. It had its origins in his lifelong, deep Catholic faith combined with his early training in Alinsky-style community organizing, and was actually a step or two behind the emergence of farmworker militancy in their 1959–1962 strike wave. The UFW as a union cum boycott had its glory days, in a larger 1960s context, between its defeat of the Di Giorgio growers in Delano in 1966—the first big albeit ambiguous victory—and the successful organizing of much of the table grape industry by 1970. After a big downturn and many lost contracts, it had a second surge in the late 1970s, culminating in the 1979 Salinas lettuce strike which Mexican immigrant militants imposed on Chavez and the union leadership. But by 1980 and thereafter, Chavez had turned the Tehachapi headquarters of the union into almost a Gandhi-inspired ashram with the intensive use of the methods—the Game—of the increasingly bizarre and cultish Synanon group, as well as into the administrative center of a burgeoning number of non-profits having their origins in union activity controlling millions of dollars in assets, while union membership plummeted to a few thousands of workers.
This evolution from a popularly based militant mass movement operating on a shoestring, with hundreds of volunteers, including top-quality legal staff, working for years for $5 or $10 a week plus expenses, to the later farmworkers Movement (FWM) controlling non-profits with millions in assets and an actual worker membership a shadow of its earlier dimensions, is actually part of a larger, worldwide phenomenon which is necessarily beyond the scope of Bardacke’s book—he has more than enough on his hands in 740 pages which were edited down from a manuscript twice as long. But this phenomenon is of real importance if we are to look above and beyond an excellent work of social and labor history, a story from the 1950s to the 1970s unrepeatable today for reasons Bardacke himself provides, to lessons for a present and future movement.
In fact, the evolution of the UFW followed a broader movement in American and world trade unionism. According to Marshall Ganz, the former SNCC organizer who became part of Chavez’s “kitchen cabinet” until he was forced out much later, the UFW by 2009 had declined from its peak of 60–70,000 to 5,000 members. It has fourteen non-profits with $42 million in assets, run by the Chavez family. These assets developed out of the capitalization of funds from 1970s and 1980s labor contracts, direct mail marketing, and an investment portfolio. The related National Farm Work Service Center Inc. has assets of $24.6 million and nine radio stations, and builds affordable housing in four states. The Juan de la Cruz Pension Fund in 2004 held $102.7 million in assets, and makes pension payments to only 2,411 retirees. The RFK Medical Plan has $7.9 million in assets, and insures less than 3,000 workers. The UFW has an annual income of $6 million, of which 60 percent comes from fundraising. Union dues in 1992, just before Chavez’s death, were only 27 percent of total income .
But here we get ahead of ourselves.
In this review, we will emphasize the following key “threads” running through Bardacke’s book:
- the religious dimension, in the influence of Catholicism, from Cesar Chavez’s early 1950s involvement with Catholic Action and the cursillismo which arrived in the United States from Franco’s Spain, to his use of penance, pilgrimages and fasts, as well as the official Catholic and Protestant organizations which supported his organizing almost from the start;
- the influence of Saul Alinsky’s methods, specifically designed as an alternative to various “class struggle” traditions which openly challenged capitalist class society, methods shaping Chavez’s lifelong anti-Communism, anti-leftism and periodic purges of his movement;
- the overall evolution from a hardscrabble, grassroots movement with a serious democratic impulse, enlivened by Mexican-American popular culture, to a depleted, authoritarian union structure almost hidden, under the above-mentioned well-endowed non-profits, with millions of dollars in assets;
- the tension between, on one hand, the US-born Mexican-American population around Delano, California, Chavez’s original base, and on the other hand the ever-increasing Mexican immigrant population ultimately swamping that base, both within the UFW and in California demography generally;
- the related tension between the Delano grape pickers and the Salinas Valley lettuce pickers (lechugeros), personified in the final showdown within the union between Chavez and his close aide Marshall Ganz, who went over to the rank-and-file;
- the union’s movement from unaffiliated obscurity to the national embrace of the AFL-CIO, the UAW, and the ILWU, as well as its battles with the Teamsters (IBT);
- the closely related absorption of Chavez and the UFW by the national left-liberal wing of the Democratic Party, by California’s Governor Jerry Brown, and finally in failed, expensive attempts to play kingmaker in the California state legislature;
- the “two souls” of the movement, one increasingly focused on Chavez’s strategy of boycotts and outside political influence, the other growing from the rank-and-file militancy of the farmworkers themselves, and the confrontation between the two that destroyed the union as such, leaving only the non-profits and their millions.
The Origins: Catholicism and Alinskyism
Cesar Chavez is of course the main, but hardly the only protagonist in Bardacke’s epic. Whatever else might be said about him subsequently in this review where his political choices are concerned, he was undoubtedly a remarkable figure of great charisma, commitment and talents, as attested by the rise from scratch of a movement that at one point mobilized 60,000–70,000 of the most marginal, neglected and despised workers in the United States at the time. Bardacke himself points out that the very qualities of resolute toughness that led to Chavez’s successes were behind the blind spots that later led him to destroy his creation. But before we can see this clearly, it is necessary to follow out his story.
Chavez was born in Arizona in 1927. In 1939, when he was 12, he watched a tractor level the corral on his father’s destitute homestead in a scene, as Bardacke indicates, right out of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which appeared in the same year. His family joined the migration into California, after which Chavez served in the United States Navy during World War II. His strict Catholic upbringing made him receptive, in 1950, when a priest shaped by the socially-oriented Catholic Action current knocked on his door in San Jose.
Catholic Action derived from the papal encyclical De Rerum Novarum of 1891, in which the church consciously set out to counter the rise of socialism and anarchism with its own orientation to social problems, resulting in the Christian-influenced unions and Christian Democratic political parties still present today in many countries. There were many roads from the 1891 encyclical, and Chavez’s road brought him to cursillismo, a right-wing spinoff of Catholic Action that flourished in Franco’s Spain before arriving in the United States in 1957, and which put adepts through a rigorous four-day retreat from which they emerge committed to both a life of piety and study as well as to (undefined) action in the world. Chavez’s path was prior to and distinct from liberation theology, and he studied St. Paul, Gandhi, John L. Lewis, Debs, Machiavelli and even the management theorist Peter Drucker. Nor was he influenced by the Vatican II reforms of 1962. The priest passed Chavez on to his second mentor, the Saul Alinsky protegé Fred Ross, for the next phase of his training. Starting in 1952, Chavez began a ten-year apprenticeship with Ross and with Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), working for the Alinsky-inspired Community Services Organization (CSO).
Saul Alinsky had emerged from the collapse of the Popular Front era after World War II with, as Bardacke puts it, “an idiosyncratic non-Communist” grassroots orientation, put forth in his 1946 book Reveille for Radicals. Alinsky’s focus was on concrete community organizing, in which the organizer helped people marginalized by the system mobilize and then faded away, his work concluded. Alinsky’s perspective involved making existing institutions responsive to grassroots community pressure, and never calling into question those institutions or capitalism generally. This is what allowed him to operate in the shadow of McCarthyism; he never involved himself in red-baiting or aiding government repression of Communists, but, as Bardacke puts it, he “promoted his own political ideas as the best way to combat Communism.” While coming himself from a secular Jewish background, Alinsky’s work in Chicago’s Back of the Yards district brought him into close contact with the Catholic Church, and both Catholic and Protestant “progressive” groups were always among his backers. As Bardacke puts it, the early Alinsky was not so much a social democrat as a democrat, period. He was not about radicalizing corrupt unions but “reawakening” them with vibrant democratic community organizations of poor people. Not for him taking on union bosses in a fight for radical democracy or class-wide organization; as Bardacke writes, “None of that was in Cesar Chavez’s intellectual arsenal; all of it was missing from the UFW…Alinsky championed John L. Lewis’s destruction of independent locals” in the UMW and saw that destruction as a key to Lewis’s power. Alinsky and his followers replaced theory with conversation and storytelling. They paid no attention to “great speeches and speechmakers”; “political oratory” (read Marxism et al.) was the enemy. (Alinsky’s 1971 book Rules For Radicals is a polemic against the disintegrating New Left and what Alinsky calls “rhetorical radicalism.”) Chavez was in fact an ineffective public speaker, but excelled in one-on-one conversation and small-group organizing meetings.
In Bardacke’s view, Chavez’s twist on Alinsky’s organizer, who faded out when the job was done and the community group established, was a fusion of the roles of organizer and leader. But in that twist, Chavez imported the Alinsky bag of tricks of the “juggler, the catalyst, the alchemist” and made them instead a permanent repertoire. He would never fade out.
Chavez’s first organizing was in Oxnard, a town in the heart of lemon orchards north of Los Angeles, on a one-year project co-sponsored by the United Packing House Workers of America (UPWA), the union Alinsky had worked with in Chicago. The problem there was the impact of the bracero program on the labor market for the local limoneros. The bracero program originated in 1942, involving the importation of tens of thousands of Mexican farmworkers to work in the American Southwest, ostensibly to deal with a wartime labor shortage. (The program, in fact, was only abolished in 1965.) The braceros lived in labor camps in terribly exploitive general conditions similar to those of older company towns, a plentiful cheap labor force for the growers that undercut wages of domestic (white or Mexican-American) farmworkers. With his community-based Alinskyite perspective, it never occurred to Chavez to organize the braceros and the local limoneros together on a class basis; the task, rather, was to “throw (them) out of the orchards” of the big companies such as the Sunkist Corporation. Relating the struggles of native-born Mexican-American farmworkers to the braceros and, later, to waves of Mexican immigrant laborers would be a constant problem Chavez would never solve, for which he would later contrive reactionary policies and which would, by the 1980s, be one factor that overwhelmed the UFW.
Chavez mentor Fred Ross was (in one UFW member’s words) a “heavy red baiter” and his “narrow definition of politics” focused on “community action, voter registration and voter participation.” By 1962 the CSO had registered 400,000 Mexican-Americans to vote and brought together key figures of the future UFW such as Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla. This organizing brought them to the attention of the state’s Democratic Party, which they assisted in a liberal Democratic victory in the 1958 elections. Thus another piece of the “non-ideological” Alinsky-Ross-Chavez outlook fell into place: a close relationship to one of America’s two capitalist parties, the Democrats, and especially its (then) ascendant liberal wing. And liberal Democratic governor Edmund Brown, whom the CSO had helped elect, after he had made noises about helping US-born farmworkers, “was turned around in the middle of his term by the power of agribusiness” and “went on to defend the Bracero Program up to its last days.”
This approach, pitting US-born workers against imported labor in California’s rural economy was, to put it mildly, not the only possibility. As Bardacke shows, there was already a long tradition of much more militant struggle in the California fields, including the IWW prior to US entry into World War I, the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) of Magonista revolutionaries who fled repression during the Mexican Revolution and who worked with the IWW on both sides of the border (the red flag briefly flew over Tijuana in 1911), as well as the great strikes of 1933, organized in part by Communist Party trade union militants. PLM influence remained alive in Los Angeles and other Mexican-American centers into the 1950s. The Filipino-based Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) around Larry Itliong (about which more below) was in favor of reaching out to the braceros as class brothers. But for the cursillo adept and Alinsky-trained Cesar Chavez in 1950s Cold War America, this classwide approach was not only an “unknown past,” as Bardacke points out, it was a past he would have viscerally rejected, and did reject when it later re-erupted in his periodic purges of “leftists” and real or imagined “Communists” from the UFW, or finally when “in 1979, the ghost of Ricardo Flores Magon” made “a cameo appearance at one of the most dramatic moments in UFW history.” This antagonism between braceros and Mexican-Americans even began to crack during a rural strike wave of 1959–1962. At the Dannenburg Ranch labor camp in the Imperial Valley in February 1961, a thousand UPWA pickets striking nearby lettuce fields confronted hundreds of braceros, potential scabs, through a fence topped with barbed wire designed to keep the braceros from escaping. After calling on the braceros to join them, and confronting the local sheriffs who arrived to clear the strikers away, the militants watched as hundreds of braceros jumped out of the scab-herding growers’ trucks and more than a hundred of them climbed the fence in solidarity.
Dealing with the braceros and heading off the growing wave of militancy among US-born farmworkers required action from the incoming Democratic administration of John F. Kennedy, and his Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg, “one of the chief architects of the CIO’s expulsion of the Communists in 1947.” Kennedy renewed the Bracero Program in 1961, while pushing Goldberg to raise bracero wages (to $1 per hour, against the legal minimum wage of $1.15) and implement other restrictions on their use against domestic farm labor. George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, later killed off the affiliated Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), but in 1962 it was ordered to become another prop of the Brown gubernatorial campaign under a conservative Meany appointee.
Bardacke, against academic interpretations, credits the struggles of both the braceros and the domestic farmworkers for the end of the Bracero Program. From the mid-1950s onward, they had begun to organize and “unite with striking domestic workers” and ran away from their camps to join “the ranks of undocumented workers outside any government control.” Far-sighted growers such as lettuce magnate Bud Antle decided that “farmworker unionization was inevitable,” and even Time magazine got on board. In the midst of all this, Cesar Chavez was still “a minor player” in the 1960–61 Imperial Valley strike.
Total Social History
Before proceeding any further with the main line of the “story,” we should emphasize, as indicated at the outset, some of the “social history” with which Bardacke brings to life the “events,” complex enough in themselves to unravel. Not to do so would be to focus on an extremely interesting road while neglecting a fascinating landscape around it.
The influence of the Mexican Revolution and of magonismo has been mentioned and will recur; there are detailed descriptions of the labor process in the cultivation and harvesting of an array of fruits and vegetables, and its differing impact on the organizing potential of different “specialists” among, e.g., lettuce (lechugero), celery (apiero) or lemon (limonero) workers, some of them, at least when they were working the seasonal harvests, among the best paid workers in the United States at the time. Bardacke also provides the economic and labor history geography of rural California, from the Imperial Valley in the south to the Central and Salinas valleys farther north; detailed snapshot portraits of dozens of protagonists, as in a sprawling novel; a discussion of the near-impossibility of mechanizing many of the forms of agricultural labor, despite millions spent on research by agribusiness and its university annexes. There is the role of the brilliant and charismatic Dolores Huerta, who became over time a Chavez ultra-loyalist (alone of the main protagonists still living, she refused to be interviewed for Bardacke’s book), as well as of Chavez’s brother, the “saintly” Richard, and his cousin the “charming scoundrel” Manuel, who over time took charge of the union’s undercover and sometimes violent dirty work, always leaving Cesar “plausible deniability.” Bardacke evokes the importance of Mexican-American popular culture, particularly as it influenced the early irreverent newspaper El Malcriado (the “Bad Boy”) and the Teatro Campesino, the latter highly successful in publicizing the farmworker struggle all over the United States, and which gave the early UFW its irreplaceable “feel” as a genuine popular movement. The same feel is present in his description of the freewheeling atmosphere of People’s Bar in Delano, where many of the early disagreements were thrashed out when there was still an open, democratic movement. Bardacke gives the history of US table grape consumption since the 1920s and of the growers’ ups and downs, and later the history of lettuce. Another leitmotiv is the long-standing tension between the more left-wing and politicized Filipino farmworkers in California and their Mexican-American counterparts. Bardacke shows Chavez’s persistent use of Catholic symbolism, penance, the pilgrimage and the fast, which was not unopposed by some UFW militants, and which began over time to make the boycotts into more of a charity campaign. There is background on the 1947 Taft-Hartley and 1957 Landrum-Griffin Acts which outlawed some of the militant labor tactics of the 1930s, as well as the anomalies of farm labor’s exclusion from the Depression-era National Labor Relations Act, which initially allowed the UFW to use those boycott tactics. Bardacke shows the tension between Chavez as a “big dreamer” and Chavez the micromanaging small businessman, who once spent two years working on reducing the UFW’s telephone and travel expenses; finally, there was Chavez’s involvement with Synanon and even Silva Mind Control.
Beginnings of a New Union
Chavez tapped the mutualista tradition of earlier Mexican-American history when he set out to build something more than just a union in Delano in 1962, with his farmworkers Association (FWA). It provided things ranging from burial expenses to a community newspaper. Chavez mapped out the 86 towns and villages of the California Central Valley to target for organizing. He had no interest in building a typical American union. His low-key, personal and small group methods contrasted sharply with those of the AFL-CIO affiliated Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). He involved women from the outset. “The involvement of so many mothers and wives gave the FWA moral weight, signifying that the association was not just another hit-and-run organizing attempt.” The California Migrant Ministry, a Protestant group linked to Alinsky, offered support. Chavez envisioned a community based on land ownership, “medical clinics, recreational halls, radio stations and newspapers.” The newspaper, which he edited and largely wrote in its early period, became El Malcriado.
The renamed NFWA (National farmworkers Association) had one of its first successes in a rose grafters strike in Delano. It is an early example of Bardacke’s ability to describe a highly skilled labor process whereby those proficient in it could put great pressure on an employer in the short periods of the year when their skills were needed, and how inept unskilled scabs could be in replacing them. Many more instances would follow. A veritable strike wave erupted in the California fields in 1965 with the end of the Bracero Program. The INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) countered by issuing tens of thousands of green cards to Mexican farmworkers. The NFWA “was not prepared for mass activity.” This policy change from the earlier self-help orientation was not Chavez’s idea but “just seemed to happen.” El Malcriado became a virtual strike bulletin. Workers were not waiting for Chavez to make up his mind before they struck. The NWFA became a union movement willy-nilly and, as Bardacke puts its, he “was never entirely satisfied with what became of the new child.”
Growing table grapes, like rose grafting, depends on skilled workers at different times of the year for pruning and other tasks. The Delano grape growers were a hard-working ”authentic rural bourgeoisie,” still close to their first-generation immigrant roots. They were not receptive to farmworker unions. The first action was a “stay at home” by Filipino workers who by the 1960s were “the highest paid ethnic group in California agriculture”; they were led by Larry Itliong, whose involvement in farm labor struggles went back to 1929, and by the AWOC. The Filipinos were a sub-culture in rural California whose “union victories in the thirties were among the great adventures of their youth.” At the outset, “there was nothing inevitable about Mexican solidarity with the Filipinos.” Chavez again felt a strike would endanger the fragile young NFWA, but decided to join it. In that decision, he was influenced by the black civil rights movement, just then achieving its final victories.
The out-of-town organizer of the AWOC, backed by the AFL-CIO and with ties to the West Coast Teamsters, brushed off Chavez, “that Mexican,” and left town leaving Itliong in charge of the strike. In the first two weeks enough workers struck to slow production. “The first great triumph of the strike was the newfound warmth and solidarity between the Mexican and Filipino strikers.” The growers recruited strikebreakers, and the California Highway Patrol enforced injunctions. The strike faded over the remaining weeks of the harvest, with some growers granting the wage demands, but seemed to end when the harvest ended. The next key triumph, however, was the breakthrough of the NFWA, both with the outside supporters who came to Delano, and the local Mexican-American families.
The isolation of farm labor from urban America had been lessened by changes of prior decades; “television, radio, faster cars, better roads…airplane travel,” the integration of baseball and the breakthroughs of the civil rights movement were so many factors breaking down earlier barriers. The growers were newly vulnerable to a boycott. Chavez applied “moral jujitsu” to get the strike into the news. Forty-four people were arrested for shouting “huelga” (strike) on a picket line after an overzealous local sheriff had issued a gag rule against the word. The next day the strike was in the national press. It continued until the end of the harvest, but “the NWFA broke farmworker custom” and refused to call it off, making it rather a “call to arms,” and extended to a boycott of grapes. San Francisco warehouse workers of the ILWU refused to handle scab grapes until the growers got injunctions against them, though the farmworkers, excluded from the NLRA in the 1930s, were thus, ironically, free to call for a secondary boycott. The NFWA and its supporters shifted to calling for a consumer boycott.
Integration into National Democratic Party and Trade Union Elites
The national boycott struck a chord with liberal Democrats looking for a cause after they betrayed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at their 1964 convention and after their “peace candidate” for president, Lyndon Johnson, escalated the Vietnam war. Marshall Ganz, who had worked with SNCC in the south and had witnessed the Democrats’ betrayal of the MFDP joined Chavez’s movement at this time; “emotionally and politically as well as chronologically, the early sixties were just about over.” Non-violence and Alinsky-style community organizing in black America were showing their limits when confronted with national power politics. Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers and one of the key figures who had abetted the betrayal of the MFDP, came to Delano, endorsed the strike and boycott, and announced that the UAW and the AFL-CIO would be donating $5,000 a month to the strike. Despite Reuther’s checkered history, Ganz felt it was Reuther “who was scrambling for a connection to another social movement.”
It was, however, not so simple. Chavez and the NFWA hit upon the idea of a pilgrimage to Sacramento, the California state capital, to build support. Reuther meanwhile was pushing to integrate Chavez into his national political and trade union networks, and got a liberal Democratic Senator from the east to hold Congressional hearings in California about extending the NLRA to farmworkers. The pilgrimage of 25 days took off from Delano just as the hearings ended. Then–US Senator from New York Bobby Kennedy also jumped on board, in the early phase of his 1968 run for president. Thus began an intense relationship with Chavez which ended only in May 1968 when Kennedy was assassinated on the night he won the Democratic presidential primary in California. The die was cast; the NFWA catapulted from obscurity into the big time…of the national liberal Democratic and trade union establishment.
The pilgrimage was a tremendous success, moving from one Central Valley town to the next and gaining momentum with each stop. The radical Luis Valdez of the Teatro Campesino rewrote the Zapatista “Plan de Ayala” from the Mexican Revolution into the milder “Plan of Delano,” which, in contrast to the original template, said “Our revolution will not be armed” but continued: “we want the existing social order to dissolve; we want a new social order…The time has come for the liberation of the poor farmworker.” Such formulations did not slow down the back-room union intrigue occasioned by the march, involving a George Meany emissary, Bill Kircher, sent to “untangle the farm labor mess” in California, as well as Reuther, Harry Bridges of the ILWU, and Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters. All wanted to gain mileage from the farmworkers’ momentum. “But Chavez was reluctant to enter the house of labor…he didn’t like the ostentatious lifestyle of most labor officials. He was worried that he and his association would have less independence as part of a larger union body…Chavez, who had set out to organize Bill Kircher, had himself been organized by the old pro.” Chavez decided to affiliate with the AFL-CIO.
The pilgrimage was galvanized by the news that the NFWA had just signed its first contract with the Schenley Corporation, more a liquor company than a grower and hence more vulnerable to the urban boycott. The marchers reached Sacramento on Easter Sunday 1966, and held a three-hour rally with Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders as well as speakers from the AFL-CIO, Longshore, the Teamsters and the UAW. As Bardacke puts it, Chavez would be able to hold this unlikely coalition together “long enough to force the entire California grape industry to capitulate four years hence.”
First Success and Steps In Shedding a Popular Grassroots Image
History was accelerating around the world in the spring of 1966. But, as Bardacke puts it, “if the exhilarated and exhausted folks who lived through this period of democratic Delano ever happened to encounter Dickens’ description of revolutionary Paris, they would have understood what he meant…Across twenty tumultuous months, the virulently anti-union DiGiorgio Corporation moved for a representation election in the fields and sheds; the Teamsters became the NFWA’s rivals in the fields…NFWA affiliated with the AFL-CIO; troubles developed between Chavez and the Teatro Campesino and El Malcriado.”
DiGiorgio brought in the Teamsters (International Brotherhood of Teamsters-IBT) in a time-honored Valley tradition in which the IBT offered itself “as an alternative to the radical rank-and-file unionism of the day.” The IBT would contest the unionization vote with the NFWA. The battle would continue for eleven years, also reflecting factional battles between different IBT “barons.” Two thousand DiGiorgio workers were ruled eligible for the union vote, hundreds of whom were former employees. The NFWA found them and brought them in from as far away as Texas. When the IBT brought in goons to intimidate, the Seafarers Union from San Francisco sent goons to protect the NFWA. The NFWA merged with the Filipino AWOC, forming the UFWOC, to present a single force opposed to the Teamsters in the representation election, and affiliated with the AFL-CIO with “an unprecedented amount of autonomy” within the Federation. Its National Executive Board answered to no one in the AFL-CIO, which would moreover be giving the UFWOC $1 million a year. The UFWOC defeated the Teamsters at DiGiorgio, 530–331. Inspired workers elsewhere seized the initiative and the UFWOC won contracts at seven more wineries. Di Giorgio countered by selling off his agricultural holdings, and the new owners did not sign with the union. To the workers, this showed the DiGiorgio victory to be an “empty triumph,” but to Chavez and the boycott campaign, it hardly mattered. “Thus, ‘DiGiorgio’ came to mean something different to a New York City boycotter and a Delano grape worker—a contradiction hardly noticed at the time but a harbinger between the two souls of the union.”
Following the empty but symbolically loaded triumph at DiGiorgio, the next turn of the screw was Chavez’s moves against El Malcriado and the Teatro Campesino. His hatchet man was an austere technocratic former seminarian named LeRoy Chatfield, who had been influenced by Catholic Social Action and Catholic Worker activists. “The pruning of democratic Delano was done primarily in the name of efficiency, discipline and unity.” But it was also political: “Chavez pruned to his left, while allowing his right to flourish,” making use of “a standard instrument of internal union repression: anti-Communism.” In early 1967, at one raucous party in Delano, Spanish Civil War songs and the “Internationale” were sung, and many people present were purged from the union shortly thereafter. All of them had opposed the AFL-CIO merger. Then came the shutdown of El Malcriado, “as good an illustration as any of the trajectory of a scrappy farmworker community organization from family association…to independent union…to big labor affiliate…” The paper’s intended audience began to shift from farmworkers to the union’s urban supporters. Criticisms of the AFL-CIO and Governor Edmund Brown were toned down or eliminated. A blast at Brown questioning if he were any better in practice than his soon-to-be victorious opponent for California governor, Ronald Reagan, brought down the wrath of the AFL-CIO. Chavez also imposed public neutrality on the Vietnam war because of the Federation’s support of then-President Lyndon Johnson, and prohibited UFWOC staff from using union flags and symbols at anti-war marches. El Malcriado staff sometimes disagreed with the leadership, and did not back down. They were purged. “Delano had changed. Conversations were more guarded. People were looking over their shoulders. Who was next?”
The Teatro Campesino was next. Its repertoire included acts against the Vietnam War and the Catholic Church which did not go down well with Chavez and Chatfield. It was wildly popular in the cities, as part of the new urban orientation, less so in Delano. Chavez tried to prevent the Teatro from going on a national tour that was already booked, and Luis Valdez and the other Teatro members declared independence from the union and went on the tour any way. When they returned to Delano after publicizing the strike and raising money, Chavez told them they were out.
Rising Arc of Success, 1965–1970
The next major development was the strike at Guimarra Brothers Vineyards, a large table grape producer close to Delano. Chavez’s plan from the beginning was to win with the boycott. Tellingly, he sent Eliseo Medina, a talented organizer, to organize the Chicago boycott instead of organizing Guimarra workers. In light of later developments, some believed it was an early case of Chavez attempting to marginalize a charismatic figure who could challenge his authority in Delano itself. The strike also prefigured another negative development, as the UFWOC pressured the INS to remove the “wetbacks” and green-carders who were flooding rural California as replacements for the braceros.
Both the union and the growers used vandalism of property in the struggle. It was seen by the workers as an alternative to real violence. As always, it was carried out while giving Chavez plausible deniability, given his public promotion of non-violence; the vandalism (chingaderas) was often organized by his cousin Manuel. The boycott spread nationally, and Chavez fasted at the new Forty Acres headquarters of the union outside Delano. Chavez appeared in court after a week, apparently weakened. He read Louis Fischer’s Life of Mahatma Gandhi several times; “Like Chavez, Fischer’s Gandhi was a great showman who knew how to maximize the political effect of his moral experiments.” Workers came from all over California and Arizona to talk to him. However, “many inside the union family were put off by the religious aura that surrounded Chavez.” The fast consummated Chavez’s role as a mythical, untouchable figure. He concluded it after 25 days, and Bobby Kennedy arrived in Delano.
In the tumultuous following months, Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the presidential race in face of the rising anti-war sentiment articulated by Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, Martin Luther King was assassinated, blacks rioted across the United States, Kennedy won the California presidential primary and seemed on course to win the election, but, as indicated above, was assassinated a few hours later. “With King and Kennedy gone, Cesar Chavez had a new role to play…He was not only the main representative of the Chicano people, he was also the nation’s principal symbol of nonviolent political action.”
The UFWOC escalated what began at Guimarra by striking the Coachella grape fields in May 1968. The boycott was spreading nationally. In New York, there was an unofficial hot cargo campaign by seafarers. The New York Central Labor Council endorsed the boycott. “No one doubted that the boycott was the key to victory. ‘La huelga’ became a mythic rallying cry, a call to general rebellion rather than a specific reference to workers’ withdrawal of their labor power.” The 300 volunteers working for $5 a week plus expenses were typically putting in sixteen-hour shifts, six and seven days a week, under very tight discipline enforced by Chavez and the ex-seminarian Chatfield. Manuel Chavez intensified the campaign of chingaderas in big cities like New York, ranging from shop-ins to fire bombings of big supermarkets. On the other hand, the boycott “began to take on the feel of a charity campaign,” portraying the farmworkers as victims rather than active militants. Bardacke points out, however, that “the construction of the victim-as-hero didn’t become popular in the United States until the complete rout of the movements of the 1960s…” But in 1968, the union was able to extend the struggle to one against pesticides. When the United States Department of Defense bought scab grapes, it could further extend to the antiwar movement. In April 1970, under the pressure of the boycott, the Coachella growers caved and signed contracts for wage increases, but also for pesticide regulation and a hiring hall. Other growers followed. Mass strike was in the air; peach workers and melon workers struck as well. By July, Guimarra, where it had all begun in 1968, followed in surrender, bringing twenty-eight other Delano grape growers with them.
The sweeping victory of 1970, however, slowly ratcheted up the tension in Bardacke’s “two souls,” the boycott vs. farmworker organizing. 10,000 workers had continued to work in the Coachella vineyards throughout and then became beneficiaries of the improved conditions in the UFWOC contract, which had been won by the boycott in the cities. “If the difference between winning and losing did not depend on these workers’ willingness to withdraw their labor and stop production, then where did they fit in UFWOC’s battle plans? If they weren’t the heroes of their own liberation, who were they?”
War with the Teamsters
There was no time to think seriously about these questions, as a new battle with the Teamsters in the Salinas Valley loomed immediately. “Between 1960 and 1970 the official population of Salinas more than doubled” with the influx of Mexican green-carders and undocumented workers, many of them ex-braceros. And there was also a major difference in outlook from Delano; as one UFW militant put it: “The Salinas workers were so much more confident than the Delano workers…They were clear about why they were going on strike…They were not cap-in-hand guys.” Further, they were made up of thousands of skilled lechugeros. Salinas produced 90 percent of the lettuce crop and 80 percent of all fresh vegetables sold commercially in the United States. It was “among the most lucrative agricultural lands in human history.” In 1970, big national companies moved in.
(These differences between Delano and Salinas would ultimately become the basis of the biggest confrontation between the “two souls” in 1979, in the last major strike waged by the UFW.)
The depth and breadth of the Salinas general strike, which began in late summer 1970, caught the union staff off guard, and “Cesar Chavez most of all.” The growers responded by bringing in the Teamsters to impose sweetheart contracts. It involved national backroom politics between George Meany, IBT president Frank Fitzsimmons and the IBT’s decentralized feudal barons, who often went their own way. Strikes spread among workers wanting to join the UFWOC and not the IBT. At a major mass meeting, the workers wanted an immediate strike while the UFWOC leadership wanted to wait three days in a complicated back-and-forth between the Teamsters and the UFWOC. Chavez was fasting, as ever worried that a strike would not be effective. The debate over an immediate strike or waiting for three days of negotiations “mattered, as it became the first public airing of the most active workers’ understanding of the situation and an open clash between their assessment and that of the top union staff.”
Three thousand workers attended a UFWOC rally. The strike lasted three and a half weeks. Despite concerted scab herding by the growers, production by the end of the strike had fallen by half. There was mass, enthusiastic picketing. The Franciscan Fathers of California contributed $125,000 to the strike fund. Fifty to 75 “self-satirizing” Teamster goons showed up to intimidate, strut around and protect scabs, but accomplished nothing. A local of white (Okie) workers in the coolers refused to cross the UFWOC picket lines. Dolores Huerta starred in the negotiations. “She did not fear the bosses. She talked back to them, interrupted them, made jokes at their expense. She never backed down. She not only articulated the workers’ current grievances, she talked about the humiliations farmworkers had suffered over generations. She never let a grower’s racist remark or semi-racist assumption pass. She defended women and children. She attacked pesticides. She also used her position as translator to give the workers a running, confidential, often humorous analysis of what was happening.” United Brands, the renamed United Fruit Company of earlier notoriety, signed the first UFWOC contract in the Salinas Valley. The workers won a hiring hall, seniority, grievance procedures, field foremen as part of the union, ten cents an hour for the medical plan, and a ban on five pesticides, with a right to consult on future ones. Wages rose by 20 percent and piece rates even more. The lechugeros would get 40 ½ cents per box, and could earn $10 an hour (more than $50 per hour in 2013 wages) “placing them among the best-paid workers in the country.”
Local growers, their wives and some Teamsters set up their own picket lines to denounce the ruin of Salinas by two giant “outside” forces, the Boston-based United Brands and the UFWOC. Then one local grower caved, and others followed. It was the end of an era for the small-town white establishment. “The strike marked the emergence of the Mexican and Mexican-American community as significant players in Salinas.” The Teamsters rescinded their contracts and Frank Fitzsimmons announced that the IBT was leaving the fields. Chavez declared a boycott of all non-union lettuce, but it never had the momentum of the grape boycott, either in worker participation or in appeal in the larger world. “The scarcity of lechugeros on the boycott and on the union staff pointed to a peculiar inversion in the relationship between the staff and the workers. The grape workers, whose strike had been ineffective, were more heavily represented on the staff than were the lettuce workers, who had proved their strength in the fields. In 1970, this was barely discernible…By 1980, however, this inversion…would be an essential element of the UFW’s internal warfare and subsequent decline.”
A judge ruled that the Salinas struggle was a jurisdictional dispute between the IBT and UFWOC and issued an injunction against the boycott. Chavez ignored it and went to jail with 2,000 people accompanying him to the courthouse. The national left-liberal establishment, increasingly, as indicated, bereft of causes it could support in the polarized atmosphere at the end of the sixties, responded as they had in 1965 to an opportunity to connect with a popular movement, even as the Chicano movement had moved sharply left a few months earlier, following a police riot in which the Los Angeles Police Department had killed three Mexican-Americans. With such national pressure and attention, the California Supreme Court ordered Chavez’s release. But as Bardacke notes, “Chavez had not been with the workers during the strike…he did not develop strong personal ties with many Salinas strikers.” He preferred his close aides and people working on the urban boycott. “Chavez, ever careful about his control over the union, did not seem wary of the potential power of the rank-and-file Salinas leaders.”
Chavez Moves the Union Leadership to a Mountain Retreat
In early 1971 Chavez took another step toward the estrangement of the two souls of the UFW: he moved union headquarters from Delano to the Tehachapi foothills near Bakersfield. The move to the quiet, rustic site, called La Paz, was spun as encouraging more democratic participation by the workers in Delano. There was opposition within the union to the move by people who (rightly) foresaw a greater disconnect from the realities of the fields. The union had 40,000 members, an annual budget of $1.5 million, and a series of non-profits—a health plan, a farmworker development fund, a farmworker service center and a credit union—involving millions more. In La Paz, Chavez’s micromanaging style as a “control freak” was intensified.
One real disaster was the union’s management of the hiring halls that had been won with the new contracts. A Byzantine system of seniority and dues requirements conceived in La Paz resulted in huge backups of workers waiting each morning for job assignments. The ILWU hiring hall, won in the 1934 strike, had been the template, but the UFWOC hiring hall had to operate in the very different conditions of farm work. One sympathizer from the ILWU said “In Delano they didn’t have a union. It was a hiring hall where workers paid their money so they could go to work…From the workers’ viewpoint it was a racket.” Workers were also fined for not attending union meetings.
National Prominence and Estrangement from a Working-Class Base
Attempts to deal with “a rigid leadership at the top of a top-down hierarchy enforcing an inappropriate formula on non-cooperative growers and a suspicious membership” were greatly complicated because the union’s energies also had to confront a new grower offensive, involving national agribusiness, the Nixon administration, and millions of dollars from California growers. 1971 was no longer 1965, and with Reagan as governor and Nixon as president, “reaction was blowing in the wind.” The UFW was able to slow the offensive with its still-considerable influence with still-Democratic state legislatures. The hiring hall problems were somewhat straightened out. But the Nixon administration tried a legal maneuver to bring the UFW under the NLRA, thereby making most boycotts illegal as they were for other unions. The threat to the union’s most powerful weapon, which was successfully repelled, pushed it closer to the national Democratic Party.
In late spring 1972, Chavez began a fast against a particularly reactionary piece of anti-farmworker legislation in Arizona. The nation’s liberal Democratic elite visited him as the fast extended to 24 days. The 1972 Democratic Party convention that nominated left-liberal George McGovern for president prominently featured the lettuce boycott. For George Meany, however, the McGovern nomination indicated that the Democratic Party had been taken over by the “radical left.” As a small union with exceptional autonomy, the UFW was able to buck the national unions’ refusal to support McGovern.
Chavez meanwhile threw the UFW forces into a battle against California Proposition 22, which would “prohibit secondary boycotts delay harvest strikes for sixty days, and effectively disenfranchise seasonal workers in all farmworker elections.” The campaign resulted in a sharp electoral repudiation of Proposition 22, and also cemented the UFW’s relationship with Jerry Brown, son of Edmund Brown and future pro-UFW governor of the state: “the UFW was well on its way to being one of the most effective electoral machines in California.” Months later, in February 1972, George Meany presented Chavez with the union charter, and the UFWOC became the UFW. It kept its previous singular autonomy and there was no “restructuring of the organization. Like the UFWOC, the UFW would not have locals with elected principal officers in control of their union budgets. This produced an unnoticed irony: the UFW, supposedly a radical alternative to the old-time AFL-CIO unions, actually had less structural democracy than most of its famously bureaucratic sister affiliates, whose workers could at least vote for their local officials.”
At the same time, however, the union suffered a series of defeats against growers, including at Schenley, where it had won its first contract in 1966. The disconnect between the UFW’s national presence and political power and what was happening in the fields grew wider. The union also intensified its use of the INS against undocumented workers, who had scabbed in several of the defeats.
The Mass Struggles of 1973
Things went from bad to worse. “The 1973 table grape strike was a crushing defeat for the UFW. The union was pushed out of its dominant position in the table grape industry, never to return.” It was a “bountiful scab harvest.” Farmworkers “who had been victims of the hiring hall and back dues fiascos…fined for not coming to meetings…blamed for failed strikes…kicked out or kept out of the union for lack of documents had their moment of revenge.” The larger context of defeat was, however, the ongoing anti-union offensive. Up against an array of forces starting with Nixon in Washington and Reagan in Sacramento on down, Bardacke asks: “Isn’t it, then, misleading to stress the UFW’s errors? Against such power can the union’s contemptuous attitudes, moral lapses and tactical failures count for much?” Nonetheless, “the UFW leaders, unchallenged by democratic debate, rarely admitted their faults…they always explained away the union’s defeats.” For Bardacke, the habitual litany to this day of Chavez supporters explaining UFW decline, i.e., the Republicans in power in the 1980s, the nationwide anti-union climate, the masses of illegal immigrants, whatever its merits, “obscured the truth that haunted the UFW throughout its history and, having been ignored, spelled its doom: that ultimately a union’s power depends on the support of the workers.”
Finally, “the growers might not have won the table grape strike without the intervention of the Teamsters…the biggest and richest union in the country…” The Teamsters would attempt to win farmworkers away “by matching or bettering the wages and benefits won by the UFW, while maintaining friendly relations with the employers by giving them a relatively free hand in hiring, firing and control over production.” The main Teamster organizer in the Coachella vineyards thought he “could get the grape contracts away from Chavez through a combination of collusion with the bosses, high wages, and terror.” In spite of days of Teamster thuggery in June 1973, which were widely publicized in the national media, the UFW’s real problem was the thousands of scabs who worked throughout, picking even more grapes than in the previous year. Then the IBT staged two successful strikes in the canneries and with truckers to prove that it was not a “sweetheart union.”
In the California Central Valley in the summer of 1973, “everything seemed to be happening at once.” The UFW waged three separate strikes. “For a month and a half, as many as 3,000 pickets, 10,000 strikebreakers and hundreds of sheriff’s deputies, police and highway patrolman clashed…no other moment in UFW history contains such a multiplicity of contradictory simultaneous events.” Mass arrests of UFW pickets defying a temporary restraining order in Fresno County “would make Fresno the UFW’s enduring emblem of 1973 and a marker in Chicano history, shorthand for a liberating act of rebellion against years of exploitation and humiliation…A few hundred Mexican American local farmworkers were willing to get arrested again and again, and to spend days, nights, ultimately weeks in jail. They sang, fasted, gave the police false names…and openly, joyfully defied their jailers.” Meanwhile, “nearly unfathomable” internal Teamster politics were the backdrop to Guimarra and most other Delano growers signing with the IBT. A UFW militant was killed by sheriffs’ deputies and his death ruled an accident. A second UFW member was killed on a picket line days later. Thousands of people marched at the funerals. Chavez called off the strike, arguing that it would be won through the boycott and the ballot box. “But the prudent decision to call off the strike could not make up for the failure the strike revealed” in the thousands of workers willing to scab.
In fall 1973, the UFW top staff retreated to La Paz, which was more accessible to outsiders, with its press conferences and publicity, than the farmworker world, which “was hidden, as obscure as pruners in the tule fog, made up of people who either lived outside the law or were uncounted and unaccounted for by government agencies and academics. Farmworkers didn’t issue press releases.” La Paz controlled their public image, “designed to elicit sympathy, even pity.” With the loss of the table grape contracts, union membership had fallen to less than 6,000, and dues were less than 15 percent of union revenue. The difference was made up by “outside supporters—liberals, labor, churches…” But the battles of the previous summer galvanized farmworkers around the United States and even in Mexico. A small tomato strike near Stockton won an important pay raise by the mere threat of calling in the UFW.
In September 1973, the UFW held its First Constitutional Convention in Fresno. The press corps noted the differences with a typical AFL-CIO convention. “The delegates ate bag lunches, not fancy meals; they stayed at supporters’ homes, not at expensive hotels…(nonetheless) this gathering did not depart radically from the pattern of most union conventions, which are designed to be demonstrations of strength and unity, with all big decisions made in advance and presented to the delegates for ratification.” National political, union and church luminaries were present. Chavez spoke, emphasizing three main concerns: “farm labor legislation, settlement of the ongoing war with the Teamsters, and renewal of the grape and lettuce boycotts…‘the only weapon we have left.’ ” The new constitution was ratified, confirming the undemocratic structure already in place. Only low-level ranch committees were elected, and also delegates to the convention every two years, who in turn elected the Executive Board, and “as this first convention demonstrated, voting for the Executive Board meant endorsing candidates pre-selected by Chavez.” Staff volunteers with six months on the job were made full members, just like farmworkers. They could be dismissed by Chavez at will, unlike the workers. The UFW was a “volatile hybrid…a staff organization and a farmworker organization” with 85 percent of the union budget coming from non-farmworker sources. “The UFW now was officially a two-souled body: a farmworkers’ union and a volunteer boycott organization rolled into one.” Chavez worked 20-hour days and micromanaged every detail.
Chavez Bonds with Meany, Reuther
The UFW needed help from the AFL-CIO just as the conjuncture turned against it, and also the rest of organized labor, as the worker insurgencies around the United States in 1972 and 1973 “turned out to be the end of a brief era of rank-and-file militancy rather than the dawn of a new day…In the late 1960s, workers struck more often than they had in the 1930s and ’40s, excepting the extraordinary year of 1946.” But following the 1974–75 recession, “…real wages and working conditions for the entire US working class have been declining ever since.”
Chavez and Meany came together “at a high point of mutual need.” Meany needed Chavez to refurbish his progressive credentials. Chavez needed Meany after losing 80 percent of his members to the IBT. Meany exacted his price: the integration of Chavez into the AFL-CIO’s “CIA-aided operation, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD)”; Chavez would stop criticizing Meany publicly; and the UFW would support Israel following the 1973 war, including with financial contributions. In return, Meany granted the UFW only full AFL-CIO support for the grape and lettuce boycott, and tried to negotiate a truce with the Teamsters, which quickly fell apart.
The UFW also turned to the UAW, which needed Chavez’s progressive aura as well, after sending a thousand officials armed with baseball bats to crush a wildcat at Chrysler the previous summer. As Bardacke points out, Chavez’s acceptance by the AFL-CIO and the UAW, while he was hoping to ride a further wave of militancy, in fact prefigured his own trajectory ten years later when he “found himself following the UAW’s reactionary lead. In the early 1980s, he would destroy the nascent movement of his own rank-and-file militants, thereby setting up his union for the slightly delayed but even more sweeping counter-offensive of California agribusiness. What the events of the mid-seventies make clear is that Cesar Chavez’s attack on his own membership fits easily into the ripe tradition of US labor.”
Forty Years after the NLRA, the ALRA
The two souls of the UFW grew farther apart. A “semi-autonomous strike wave” was set off in early 1974 after the gruesome crash of a bus that killed seventeen Imperial Valley farmworkers, nominally Teamsters but with “fictive contracts.” Seventeen of the company’s buses were torched in a parking lot in response. Fifteen hundred asparagus workers struck around their own demands and, with the help of the UFW, won after a week, and other workers followed their lead. Chavez, however, ramped up the national boycott, assigning to it 85 percent of the union’s volunteers while only a handful worked the fields. But the farmworkers among them mainly quit the boycott. “The people from religious orders brought a spirit of voluntary poverty to these collectives that the people who had spent their lives in involuntary poverty could not understand.” They were further galvanized when in that year Chavez was granted a private audience with Pope Paul VI. Chavez spent more and more time on the boycott circuit and less and less time with farmworkers. “Thus, as he became the living symbol of the United States farmworker movement around the world, he moved further away from the fight in the fields.” A successful two-week strike of limoneros unaffiliated with the UFW, which won most of its demands, was not even mentioned at the next UFW Executive Board meeting, nor was the earlier victorious asparagus strike. The board debated strategy for different types of strikes, which were “puny.” The emboldened growers began to warm to an Agricultural Labor Relations Act which would impose state-regulated elections on farmworkers. A strike wave erupted, unplanned by the UFW. Strikes spread from Watsonville to Oxnard to Stockton. Cesar Chavez’s cousin Manuel, usually involved in organizing the nighttime chingaderas, used the headline-grabbing strikes to threaten a general strike in the fields if the California state legislature did not pass a farmworker law. The strike wave culminated in the apple orchards of Watsonville and generally succeeded in raising wages.
“Finally the growers sued for peace. Two years of strikes, disruptions, boycotts and harassment had clinched the case…Law enforcement officials throughout the state had had their budgets wrecked fighting the UFW. Supermarkets large and small had been harassed for the past eight years.” Newspapers and trade journals called for peace. “The politicians had to deliver it. Some kind of accommodation with the UFW was their best hope. The UFW was ready to be accommodated. What it needed was the right kind of law. That is what it got.”
“Most concessions are made to tame an adversary, and the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act [hereafter the ALRA–LG] was no different.” It conceded a legal framework beneficial to the union, but “it was also meant to diminish the unruly power of the farmworkers movement by bringing it under the formal structure of law. But this concession smelled more of victory than co-optation.” A safety board banned the use of the hated short-handled hoe, and shortly after the bill passed, Jerry Brown, by then governor, made farmworkers eligible for unemployment benefits. “Thus, by the summer of 1975, California farmworkers were covered by a comprehensive labor law, minimum-wage guarantees, unemployment insurance, and industrial safety requirement…” They had “torn down the wall that agribusiness had built in the 1930s to keep the New Deal out…Despite all the losses and setbacks that the UFW suffered later, that wall has never been rebuilt.” The UFW kept up the pressure with rallies and demonstrations to get the provisions in the law it wanted. Jerry Brown knew a friendly UFW would help his presidential ambitions. The UFW thus got almost everything it wanted, but what “the growers got was the prospect of stability in the fields and relief from union recognition via boycott.” Brown appointed a majority friendly to the UFW to the board it established; in Bardacke’s view, “farmworkers and the UFW had won one of the best labor laws in the world…”
The UFW Patrols the United States–Mexican Border against Immigrants
Chavez’s virtually exclusive orientation toward native-born Mexican-Americans, with occasional, short-lived collaborations with long-established Filipinos in the Central Valley farm labor force, had already shown its ugly face in the UFW’s occasional calls on the INS to arrest and expel “undocumented workers” and “green-carders.” Even as it was winning the ALRA, that face got even uglier in the “wet line,” actual union patrols on the US-Mexico border aimed at keeping illegals—“wetbacks” in popular usage, including by the UFW—out of the country. The boycott offices themselves collected signatures on petitions “calling on the Justice Department and (INS) to enforce the immigration laws and expel hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens. There were many people in and around the union who opposed this turn. But several hundred people patrolled a main crossing on the Arizona-Mexico border and beat people trying to cross into the United States. “The union leaders, particularly Chavez, seemed blind to the consequences of [the] demographic shift that was happening before their eyes…By the mid-1980s, when the UFW was defeated in the fields, less than 10 percent of California farmworkers would be native born…” For Bardacke, it was in part Chavez’s focus on the boycott which blinded him to the “disastrous policy” of the “wet line.” The policy also served to cover up the union’s failure in many instances to involve illegal workers in strikes. But Chavez went even farther in a memo, saying “We’re against illegals no matter where they work because if they’re not breaking the strike they’re taking our jobs.” But by the time of the anti-“wetback” campaign in mid-1974, “most of the unionized jobs in the fields were not held by Chicanos, and the majority of UFW members were Mexicans…” In Bardacke’s view, Chavez’s visceral commitment was to his original base, the Mexican-American workers.
The INS in the mid-1970s, unlike its post 9/11 successors today, was so understaffed and underfunded that it was almost a joke. Up to 300 people on a “UFW Border Patrol” used “dune buggies, cars, vans and small trucks to chase people down….County, state and federal officials gave the UFW a free hand in this wilderness.” Hard-to-verify accounts differ considerably on the level of violence used by the UFW Border Patrol, organized (as usual) by cousin Manuel Chavez. The border patrol initially emerged as an alternative after a local judge had banned picketing by striking limoneros at both the work sites and the morning shape-up. Cesar Chavez had his usual plausible deniability. But “nothing Chavez did…could stop stories from the wet line from becoming common coin in the farmworker world, a collective memory that still counts in the California fields.” One UFW veteran told Bardacke in 2004: “Unfortunately, I still run into people whose first experience with the UFW was a beating they received in the Arizona desert.” Criticism of the “wet line” grew inside and outside the union, and diminished Chavez’s stature in the larger burgeoning Chicano movement. When the National Lawyers Guild attacked the policy, Chavez told the UFW Executive Board “They’re rats, they’re strikebreakers.” Three members of the UFW legal staff who also belonged to the NLG were “dressed down” for not resigning from “such a chickenshit outfit.” As Bardacke puts it, “…it was a taste, a promise of things to come.”
Honeymoon with Liberal Democrats
September 1975 saw the “first elections for union representation under the direction of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.” Chavez embarked on a 1,000-mile walk of fifty-eight days through farmworker communities to spread the word, speaking constantly in “rallies big and small.” The evening rallies showed a film, Fighting For Our Lives, which the UFW had made during the 1973 battles with the Teamsters, which, as Bardacke points out, conveniently omitted the fact that during the often violent face-offs with Teamster goons, thousands of farmworkers were scabbing on the strikes the UFW was purportedly defending. A problem was posed by the fact that under the law, illegal workers were eligible to vote, the very same illegals against whom the “wet line” had been directed. The union had no real choice but to acknowledge that the campaign as a “mistake” and welcome all workers into the union, even calling “for amnesty for all illegal workers in the country.”
Though the ALRA top board was made up of strongly pro-UFW Jerry Brown appointees, much of the staff under them had been recruited from the NLRB, “famous for its delays and weak enforcement policies.” Few staffers spoke Spanish and they “moved slowly, a pace they had mastered in adjudicating industrial disputes.” The growers and the Teamsters benefited. The growers brought in famous union busting firms. “They would play the ALRB as industry played the NLRB, where employers violated the law with relative impunity.” The Teamsters’ strategy was, as before, to win better contracts than the UFW “while maintaining good enough relations with the growers to use them as allies.” The growers were not pleased with this expense, but still preferred the IBT to the UFW. In Delano, all the groups the UFW had alienated, such as the Mexican migrants and the Filipinos, voted for the IBT 60–40 percent over dozens of elections. One UFW organizer said: “When we got the law, we had not won over the workers. We won the contracts on the boycott. And then when we had people under contract, we didn’t win them over either.”
The UFW did significantly better in the Salinas Valley, deepening and prefiguring the emergence of a militant pole there in the 1979 strikes that brought the “two souls” of the union to a final confrontation. As Bardacke points out, the UFW “had arrived [in Salinas] as the vehicle for a successful strike…[it] hadn’t had the same problems with the hiring halls…hadn’t made the undocumented a target.” This different dynamic also increasingly emerged around Marshall Ganz, who would ultimately take the fall as the main advocate of farmworker organizing against Chavez’s increasingly remote “intentional community” in La Paz. This discrepancy between Delano and Salinas was never discussed within the union. One Teamster summed it up: “In Delano the UFW had mishandled the contracts; in Salinas they had…the skilled lechugeros on their side.”
The UFW “made a strong showing wherever workers knew little about the troubles with the grape contracts and the union’s offensive against undocumented workers.” In the first month, the UFW won 87 elections and 52 percent of the vote; the IBT had 73 wins with 31 percent, and the No Union vote won 19 times with 16 percent.
Chavez attacked the ALRB’s lax enforcement of the law; his religious supporters from around the country, as well as the AFL-CIO, came to check out the situation. The weak enforcement and outcry about it posed a serious political problem for Jerry Brown and his presidential ambitions. His “most important achievement, the ALRA, was being attacked by his most important supporters.” He didn’t want to take on the board’s lax enforcement and he didn’t want a public battle with the growers. Brown finally hired new people to put teeth into the law. The IBT, “typically unsubtle in their reaction,” roughed up a Catholic bishop and a board member, and “slashed the tires of the bishop’s car.” In one dramatic episode in the Imperial Valley, Brown’s new appointee heading the board confronted an aggressive IBT bureaucrat in a face-to-face shouting match in front of thousands of workers at the morning shape-up; the UFW swept the elections there. Agribusiness also counter-attacked, getting the state legislature to defund the ALRB a mere five months after it was established.
Top-Down Management Systems
The UFW had thrown itself into 1975 at a “furious pace” and had won the majority of the elections, but “hadn’t done as well as most people expected.” As a result, Chavez took another step toward the isolation of the leadership and staff in La Paz by deciding to learn management systems. The union had 500 full-time volunteers with a monthly budget of $200,000, and was administering fourteen non-profits with $7 million in assets. “If [Chavez] wanted to maintain control over the UFW, he would have to learn to manage it.” He brought in Crosby Milne, a “retired Navy systems management expert” who was appalled to find more than “fifty or sixty people reporting to Chavez.” Many top UFW staffers welcomed the introduction of more order into the management of the union’s affairs. But “Milne’s military approach to management questions served to reinforce the antidemocratic structure and culture of the union.” The Executive Board had considered the alternative, namely “union locals with officials democratically elected by the workers.” UAW and AFL-CIO officials were urging the UFW to go this route. But the Board rejected the idea unanimously. It was opposed because such locals would use up money, because they would be parochial, with local officials “concerned about themselves rather than the whole union,” and because “they are hard to establish among migrants.” Bardacke dismisses the third objection as “ridiculous,” because in places such as Salinas a nine-to-ten-month season meant that “farmworkers were only slightly more migrant than many construction workers.” But as for the first two objections, money was power, and the idea of “parochial leaders with power” aroused “Chavez’s distaste for politics in the union…‘politics’ was a dirty word for Chavez. In his vocabulary it meant manipulation, deceit and the pursuit of personal interest.” But, as Bardacke notes, “…politics cannot be wished away. Instead of democratic politics, the union was left with a palace politics of the most intense variety, complete with alleged conspiracies and periodic purges.”
Within a year, Chavez lost interest in Milne’s system. As indicated earlier, “Chavez was both the dreamer of big dreams and a small businessman… [unable to]…free himself from an obsessive concern with petty financial details.” And for all its victories in the 1975 elections, “the union was sloppy about post-election follow-up…The promised benefits were slow in coming” because of the complications of actually getting a contract. “Many workers felt abandoned; some felt betrayed.” The Board actually almost blamed “the workers for their high expectations.” A year after the first wins, “the union had converted 113 certified elections into only thirty-five new contracts.” Only 6,000 new members had joined.
Electoral Politics Trumps Organizing; A Major Purge
One reason for the lack of mobilizing workers on the ground was the UFW’s increasing conviction that political influence was the key to winning: “Political power, the ability to shape the policy of the state, became the locus of the union’s hopes and fears in 1976…” which included vaulting Jerry Brown into the White House. Bardacke sees “Chavez’s commitment to conventional politics” as consistent with “his distaste for political discussion within his own organization.” He held the electoral and legislative game “disdainfully…at arm’s length” and “wielded his power without mercy.” But “what he was willing to do in Sacramento he did not want anyone to do inside his union. Sacramento was already corrupt; he wanted to keep the UFW pure.” The passage of the ALRA had drawn the UFW into California legislative politics. The union spent so much money cultivating politicians “that the UFW jeopardized its standing among farmworkers, continuing to impose a mandatory levy on its members despite widespread worker protest.” It threw itself into a campaign for a state proposition, Proposition 14, that would make the ALRA and its funding permanent, collecting 700,000 signatures in a month, the “last great accomplishment of the union’s boycott infrastructure.” This in turn involved them in Jerry Brown’s failed run for the 1976 Democratic Party nomination. Despite political advice from the Democratic pros to drop Proposition 14, which was mobilizing the opposition, the UFW pushed ahead into a disastrous defeat. But the wrong-headed decision had flowed from their whole shift into conventional politics. The UFW presence in the fields withered while the Teamsters intensified theirs. They won contracts in grapes and lettuce. A Salinas newspaper noted the change: “If the rank and file members of a union feel strongly enough about what they’re doing, there is, as a practical matter, no way to force them to go to work.” And Bardacke notes: “It was the Teamsters who took advantage of that lovely, mostly forgotten, proletarian truth. With only a few exceptions, the UFW did not.” Because growers still having UFW contracts had to pay into the medical plan, the pension plan and the service center, their expenses were higher than growers with IBT contracts paying higher wages. “These problems,” writes Bardacke, “required the active interest of the union leadership and an extended dialogue between the leaders and the rank and file. Neither happened.”
Chavez was caught up with electoral campaigns. His top security man noted that “organizing farmworkers was not his main goal…We went to Georgia and Denver to campaign for Carter among Chicanos. He enjoyed that a lot more than farmworker elections and running a union.” A story arose that the defeat of Proposition 14, “the first time that Chavez had petitioned the general public and lost,” changed Chavez permanently, undermining his “self-confidence…[robbing] him of his sense of humor,” and it “pushed him over the edge into severe paranoia.” He began seeing dark forces within the union, undermining it. Farmworkers themselves “were not invited to participate in policy debates.” Chavez attempted to revive El Malcriado, but the only issue that appeared merely echoed the official line, in contrast to the lively variety of opinions expressed in the original. It was later replaced with the officious “President’s Personal Newsletter.” Chavez came to the conclusion that a top-level staffer who had been with the UFW for ten years and had at times worked and lived at close quarters with him was part of a Communist conspiracy to destroy the union. Half the boycott staff was fired or exiled to “demeaning assignments” that would prompt resignations. When the purge became publicly known in the media, the UFW insisted it had nothing to do with “ideology” but was merely about “competence.” The old Alinskyite Fred Ross said the boycott staff had “disrupters” and “losers” in its midst. The Executive Board went along with the purge. Most members later told Bardacke that they “wished they had stood up to Chavez.” And like those who, on a much larger historical stage (such as in Stalin’s Russia) who had gone silently along, “those who failed would pay. Having collectively participated in a major bloodletting, they were not equipped to stop the bleeding that was to come…The purge’s mix of anti-Communism, scapegoating, and peremptory firing of staff was neither exotic nor deranged. It put Chavez squarely in league with the ‘union bosses’ he so commonly scorned.”
In January 1977, the eleven-year war with the Teamsters ended as the IBT pulled out of the California fields for good, and arrived at an agreement with the UFW. The UFW got all farmworkers, and the Teamsters got all non-field workers, such as in the canneries and coolers. The IBT gave the UFW their farmworker contracts, pending worker agreement.
Synanon: Cultish Practices at the Top
The next step in the mutual estrangement of the “two souls” was Chavez’s introduction of the methods of Synanon, known as the “Game” to the UFW top staff and volunteers at La Paz. Management systems had failed to give the union the desired form; using Synanon’s method might rejuvenate its spirit.
Synanon had become known in the 1960s for its aggressive “attack therapy” that had been successful in work with drug addiction and alcoholism. In groups of ten or fifteen, people ganged up on each other in sometimes devastating verbal attacks on personal quirks and failings, in which people who could not take the heat were called “assholes.” Synanon had been founded by Chuck Dederich, who by 1976 was taking in $9 million a year in nonprofit fundraising. Synanon was an “intentional community,” part of the burgeoning “human potential movement” of that period. It had shifted from drug addicts and alcoholics to “increasingly middle class and professional” people, “primarily young and middle-aged adults dissatisfied with their lives and looking for meaning in community.” It established itself in California’s Marin County, “one of the wealthiest counties in the country,” like other parts of early 1970s Northern California, “home to all manner of utopian and dystopian adventures in collective life.” It then shifted to Badger, in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Members were subjected to a highly ascetic discipline. The point of the Game was “to confront and humiliate people for their debilitating life patterns so that they could overcome them.” What Chavez liked about Synanon was the community built by survivors of the Game who stayed on, “emotionally dependent on the people who had simultaneously humiliated and befriended them, willing to work for little pay and do what they were told as long as they were allowed to live in the Synanon community.” Chavez saw it as a way to build “a better, happier, more productive union.” The UFW had always been, for Chavez, more than just a union, and adding the Game might make that a concrete reality.
Applying Synanon methods to the UFW, however, meant confronting the question of democracy on which the union had always been ambivalent. In theory, the convention of the workers set the policy of the Executive Board. But the hundreds of volunteer staff were excluded from any voice in union policy. Chavez saw Synanon’s Game, modified for the UFW context, as a way to reconcile the hierarchy and authoritarian structure of the staff with the presumed democracy of the farmworkers at the conventions.
The question was posed immediately by a proposal from the UFW’s highly skilled paralegal staff to end the $10 weekly wage plus room and board and to introduce a minimum wage for all UFW staffers that would never rise above minimum union farmworker wages, in addition to which the union would pay into “staffers’ Social Security, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation funds,” and finally would include staffers in the union’s health and pension plans, with vacation time, sick days and the like. In short, they proposed to shift the staffers from voluntary poverty, which only white middle-class people could entertain and which kept knowledgeable farmworkers with families to support away, to a decent minimum with the accoutrements of what at that time was still considered a normal benefit package. Chavez responded to this modest proposal by saying that the legal staffers had “lost that movement feeling.” He felt that La Paz was already halfway to the kind of community he envisioned. This was particularly true since “the UFW staff was becoming hostile to dissent or independent thought of any kind.” La Paz was already “to a startling degree, independent of the farmworker world,” since the majority of union funds came not from workers’ dues but from its middle-class urban supporters. The Game was, further, kept a secret from farmworker members.
“Chavez’s lifelong fascination with Gandhi” also came into play, since he imagined that La Paz would become “a little ashram.” But, in Bardacke’s view, Chavez seriously misread Gandhi, who never mixed his ashram with his role in the Indian National Congress. But Chavez wanted to do exactly that, a “catastrophic wish” in Bardacke’s view. Combining “his ashram and his union…meant the death of both.” Bardacke situates this in the larger context of the “antidemocratic structure and culture of the union, and the enormous gulf between the membership and the staff.” Chavez’s doubts about the UFW being “just a union” had been present from the earliest days of the NFWA. “Chavez remained pessimistic about the power of workers on the job…” He invoked the idea of a “movement,” “but the authoritarian community he built at La Paz had little to do with any actual historical social or labor movements.” Chavez took what he liked from previous movements, above all the importance of volunteers and the feelings of community. He ignored the fact that in such examples as the nineteenth-century American Populists, the latter “argued out their politics in more than a thousand independent newspapers. For the UFW, even one newspaper was too many.” The UFW was squandering the democratic potential in its farmworker base, which had fought the great battles of the summer of 1973 and launched a strike wave that forced the adoption of the ALRA and won them “unprecedented control over their jobs.” Informal networks of workers were forming in the fields, as they learned how to use their power.
The Game proceeded apace in La Paz. “What had been tolerated as acceptable opinion, criticism, or complaint was redefined as bitching, bad-mouthing or active organizing against the union.” In this atmosphere, Chavez carried out the orchestrated “Monday Night Massacre.” A small group was put up to calling on him “to act immediately to remove from La Paz those who spread discord and unhappiness.” A meeting of the entire community was called and a Chavez shill pretended to be making these charges on her own, and Chavez pretended to be hearing them for the first time. “Department heads read off the names of the people who had to go. They had to leave right then, in front of the crowd.” Those few who protested were ejected by security, one even being handed over to the Tehachapi police for trespassing. To make the line clear, Chavez started the (previously mentioned) “President’s Newsletter” that tried to fill the role once played by El Malcriado, but as a unilateral memo with no dissenting opinions or discussion. The former editor of the freewheeling initial newspaper wrote to Chavez that the newsletter was a “carefully controlled house organ,” in no way drawing on the “vast reservoir of experience, knowledge, and wisdom which exists within the membership.” The “President’s Newsletter” was a “fawning, sycophantic self-serving sheet of narrow views and sanitized news, printed at the union’s expense.”
“Something happened in the course of those years that just really shattered something within him…he sort of lost his soul out there. And became a very different person. The Cesar of 1979 was a very different guy from the Cesar of 1969. It was like he went through a serious personality change…he went mad.”
Chavez ventured into Silva Mind Control and Mexican folk medicine, curanderismo. Some staffers believed he had special healing powers such as laying on of hands.
Bardacke rejects the madness hypothesis. He sees Chavez’s single-mindedness and will power as qualities that were “helpful in winning power but…harmful when he got it…He didn’t change; his situation changed.”
One nurse worked for the union from 1966 to 1971, went away to medical school, and returned as a union doctor in 1983; she said Chavez hadn’t changed during her absence. “He was a control freak when I first met him, and was a control freak when I came back…Only one thing had changed. Cesar had always been a great listener, but in 1984 he wasn’t listening any more.”
Bardacke rejects the madness hypothesis because it pushes into the background all the complexities of the UFW’s development and the larger world context in which it evolved, to focus on “his cruel purges, his paranoia, and his wild claims of being able to perform bloodless surgery.” He locates the indisputable manifestations of paranoia as a “political matter” stemming from unchecked power. He was “not subject to the give and take of ordinary politics.” One victim of Chavez’s paranoia said “[he] never would have been as crazy as he was had there been a good democratic structure in the UFW.”
Bardacke, sifting through this evidence and these testimonies, concludes: “Cesar Chavez did not go crazy and destroy the union. The reverse is closer to the truth: the UFW was crazy, and it destroyed Cesar Chavez.”
Such a conclusion is perhaps the greatest disagreement of this reviewer with Bardacke, first of all because he supplies so much evidence to the contrary, including after the introduction of the Game. The UFW in 1977 was still made up of thousands of farmworker militants who, as Bardacke himself says shortly before, had all the elements in hand to shape a truly democratic rank-and-file union. They were not even aware of the weird evolution in La Paz. In 1979, they carried out, in Salinas, perhaps the most brilliant strike in the UFW’s history, against the caution and skepticism of Chavez and many of his top staff, and won resoundingly. There was nothing “crazy” about this. There were many uneven characteristics in the union, as in many mass organizations, such as the differences, described above, between the Mexican-American workers in Delano and the Mexican immigrant workers in Salinas, with their roots in 1930s cardenismo and even earlier magonismo. There was a “dialectic” at work, which Bardacke has traced from as early as 1970 in the growing gulf between Chavez’s infatuations with the boycott and his national political projection, on one hand, and the real organizing in the fields from which his stature away from them grew and spread. It was, among other larger factors Bardacke introduces, this process which shaped the conditions which, a few years after the Synanon turn, in fact allowed Chavez to destroy the union in the larger, classic bureaucratic pattern that Bardacke had already identified.
New Defeats in Grapes; Delano vs. Salinas
The last quote about the UFW being crazy concludes one chapter, and Bardacke begins the very next chapter saying “If the membership had been consulted about what the union’s organizing priorities should be in the spring of 1977, the UFW might have avoided the calamity that awaited it in the vineyards of Coachella and Delano.” So we are back to the much more substantial analysis Bardacke has developed of the dialectic between the UFW’s autonomization from the farmworker base, and the militants on the ground. The members were not consulted. The UFW turned away from the increasingly militant workers in vegetables and focused on its origins in table grapes. There, in the words of one veteran, it would learn that “some of those grape workers really hated the union.” Marshall Ganz, continuing to emerge as the one member of the Executive Committee most concerned about the growing gap between La Paz and the realities in the fields, argued for a focus on vegetables, where the overwhelming majority of UFW members worked. The union threw its forces into grapes. It won some initial victories, but everywhere else either “lost or was rebuffed without a vote…it wasted energy and resources in a doomed campaign.” One member who had direct experience of both the workers in grapes and those in vegetables said “some of those grape workers had more than enough reason to be pissed off at the union and union leadership. It was then that the skeletons started to rattle and fall out of the closets of every grape growing area…” This contrasted sharply with the attitude of the lechugeros “who really wanted us to organize everywhere they went.”
In response to the defeats, “the union turned on its own.” A UFW organizer was raped by a grape worker. Persuaded not to go to the police in the midst of the campaign, she and other UFW women met to discuss self-defense. The UFW leadership denounced them, saying there would be “no caucus of any kind in the UFW,” and fired the lead organizer. Ganz and others went along. Years later, Ganz told Bardacke “we were really caught up in the paranoia.”
Chavez had convinced himself against all evidence that the union was strong in the vineyards. “He had said it so often, to audiences for whom the farmworker world was invisible…”
The Embrace of Philippines Dictator Marcos
He made the further disastrous decision to visit the Philippines, then under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, to win over the Filipino workers in Delano who were estranged from the union. (This may also have been one of his AIFLD ventures.) The sole Filipino on the Executive Board, Philip Vera Cruz, opposed the trip and ultimately left the UFW altogether. Chavez denounced him as a traitor, married to a woman who was part of a Communist conspiracy against the union. He devised a pledge of silence about the board meeting where all present would refrain from talking or writing about what was discussed. Vera Cruz refused to sign, and never attended another meeting. Later, in an oral history, he said “…one thing the union would never allow was for people to criticize Cesar. If a union leader is built up as a symbol and he talks like he was God, then there is no way you can have true democracy in the union…” Bardacke goes on to quote a Chavez rant about the Vera Cruz episode in which he says: “remember, we have been infiltrated by leftists and by Commies…”
Chavez went to the Philippines on a nineteen-day official tour, quite ignoring the thousands of political prisoners in jail without charges or trial. He met with “government officials, labor leaders [those not in jail] and…[tolerated] newsmen…” He accepted an honorary doctorate and an award from Marcos, praising him, and saying that martial law in the Philippines was different from the way Americans conceive it. He told a press conference that farmworkers were better treated in the Philippines than in the United States. He told a Washington Post reporter the same thing, and set off a firestorm. Protestant and Catholic activists doing political work in the Philippines, some of whom had been jailed by Marcos or expelled from the country, were “especially outraged,” as were many others, both Filipinos and Americans, with real experience there. Chavez not only did not recant but went on the offensive, “beginning with critics on his staff.” One participant at a meeting in August 1977 said later “…[the trip] was such a blatant ploy for votes [among Filipino workers in Delano–LG] that we were all disgusted. It was disgusting.” A lot of staff people announced they were leaving. A lot of volunteers not based in La Paz stayed on, with the reasoning that they were doing good work with the union elsewhere.
Chavez went on to highlight the Philippines visit at the UFW convention shortly after. Marcos’s secretary of labor and the Philippine consul general addressed the delegates. Following another spat about the trip, the convention changed the constitution and “made farmworkers’ contributions to the union’s political fund mandatory.” Despite some opposition, the measure easily passed. Opponents were again accused of being disloyal. The convention had touted the coming election at Guimarra, where the UFW had won a big victory years before, but the workers there voted No Union 900, UFW 673. The union’s past record with undocumented workers, who were half or more of the total, and despite the union’s break with its earlier hostility to them, probably was decisive. “Rarely has the coop been more crowded with chickens coming home to roost. Ten years of opposition to the undocumented and a couple of years of badly administered contracts are not easily overcome in a three-week blitz…The defeat intensified Chavez’s retreat into internal union politics…[he] dressed down critics of the trip to the Philippines in front of 400 people. He set up some of the union’s religious supporters who criticized the trip at a meeting he packed with staffers, pro-Marcos Filipinos and union loyalists. He made a short speech denying that he supported martial law or the Marcos regime. He handed the meeting over “to five representatives of the Marcos government, who spent the next five hours aggressively defending the dictatorship.” Skeptics were threatened with lawsuits and told to keep their mouths shut about things they “didn’t understand.”
Non-Profits vs. Organizing in the Fields
Contracts were expiring for vegetable workers at the end of 1978, but the La Paz leadership was still smarting from the defeats in grapes in 1977. Meanwhile, the various “movement entities” separate from the union, which by the time of Chavez’s death would ultimately loom much larger than the union itself, were in good shape. The service center had $700,000 in assets (which would be $6 million by 1985), the medical plan had $6.8 million, the pension plan had $2.5 million, and the educational fund would have $8 million by 1985. In addition there was the credit union, a health group and seven other bodies. Taken together, these entities were called the Farm Worker Movement, which in 1978 had roughly $10 million in assets. In the previous year, they had received federal grants for $1.8 million. In all this, there were small irregularities, but “nobody was getting rich off the money…What did matter was that the La Paz staff had a separate income stream independent not only of membership dues but to a large extent of the UFW itself…Put simply: the La Paz staff could potentially survive without the UFW.” By calling all this the Farm Worker Movement, Chavez could convince himself that the UFW was “not just a union, but a movement.” Chavez could deceive himself in this way because he was blind to the democratic content of actual movements. The fact that no active farmworkers were central figures in the Farm Worker Movement did not bother him. “He believed he could run the farmworker movement from his ashram in the Tehachapis…The Farm Worker Movement would survive even if the UFW languished.”
In this context, in Bardacke’s assessment, the “anti-left, anti-Communist, anti-disloyalty purges made sense.” For leftists, farmworkers should be something other than recipients of benefits from non-profits. In the spring of 1978, Chavez expelled a volunteer who had been with the UFW since the age of 14, and a Chavez intimate, in the cruelest manner, in front of a large crowd, calling her a “Communist bitch” and having his bodyguards deposit her at the gate. This expulsion “capped the anti-leftist, anti-Communist purge of the UFW staff.” It followed an Executive Board meeting “where the union and its main support operations were cut back.” The boycott operation was dismantled, the hiring hall was eliminated from new contracts, the legal department’s operation were curtailed, health clinics and field offices were closed or consolidated, and it was decided “to conduct new organizing campaigns only among workers who came to the union seeking representation.” Marshall Ganz alone was circumspect, perhaps, in Bardacke’s view, because he “was mostly out in the field…spending more time talking to farmworkers than to the rest of the board.” Or because “monumental decisions about the union’s future were being made without consulting any farmworkers.”
Ironically, just as all these cutbacks were being made, “thousands of limoneros in Oxnard…were pushing at the union’s door and trying to force their way in.” They struck massively and contacted the UFW. The movement was so overwhelming that an ALRB election was held immediately, with the UFW winning 897 to 42 for No Union. Chavez spoke to a rally of more than 1,000 people and the strike continued. They “knew that the farm labor law had not changed the basic truth in the orchards: if they could maintain their unity, they would be a lot more powerful striking than working.” Back in La Paz, discussion of the strike was not a priority at an Executive Board meeting, which was focused on the cutbacks. The next day, an attorney of the growers called to make an offer. “The strikers’ strategy had worked.” Chavez couldn’t stand in the way. “After five weeks of strike, on-the-job action, lockout, mass marches and sit-ins, contract negotiations…intensified…thirty-eight days after the first walkout, Coastal Growers signed a contract providing for a 22 percent raise over three years.” The new organizing director, Eliseo Medina, saw a whole new perspective: “The workers could lead the process from beginning to end.” He saw a possibility of taking the union “away from the lawyers and [to] make it into a workers’ movement.” The UFW by this point represented 70 percent of the lemon pickers in Ventura County. Medina made plans to organize the rest of the state, only to discover that he had no staff and no resources.
Key Figures Diminished
Bardacke describes resistance to the transformation of the UFW staff. Chavez pressured the legal staff to downsize, and became estranged from its long-time head, Jerry Cohen.
Chavez was suspicious because Cohen had moved the legal department to Salinas, and he pressured it to come to La Paz to play the Game. At that very time the cultish aspects of Synanon were coming to public attention, culminating in the placing of a rattlesnake in the mailbox of an attorney who had sued Synanon and won. Chavez spoke in defense of his old friend Chuck Dederich, who was indicted in the case and later pleaded no contest. One month later came the mass suicide of the Jim Jones movement in British Guyana, highlighting (if highlighting were necessary) the intensifying cult phenomena of the period. Chavez insisted on distinguishing “between Synanon’s unfortunate trajectory and the usefulness of the Game.”
A confrontation erupted between Chavez and the legal department when the lawyers followed the earlier example of the paralegals and demanded raises, but with none of the “egalitarian simplicity nor elegant simplicity of the paralegals’ earlier plan.” The issue was bigger than just the lawyers’ demand for a raise. They had been crucial in ALRB elections. Eliseo Medina, who had seen the Oxnard limoneros bypass the need for lawyers, thought there should be paid staff in general. No worker with a family would leave a job in the fields to join the volunteer staff making $10 a week plus expenses. The more successful the union was in driving up wages, the less likely it became “that the rank and file indigenous leadership within the union would rise up and take charge of the organization. So I thought the volunteer system had outlived its usefulness. Because now we didn’t need volunteers. Now we needed the workers themselves to do it.” The board voted against the raises and for ongoing volunteerism. In a one-on-one discussion, the defeated Jerry Cohen “convinced Chavez to close down the (legal) department in sections over the period of a year, so that the union would not be left defenseless.” The legal department was a shadow of its former self by 1981.
Chavez also rid himself of Eliseo Medina. He “ridiculed Medina’s new statewide organizing plan” as “much too expensive.” Medina resigned in August 1978. (He went on to become an official of SEIU.) He had been “the most obvious candidate to rally around” for any challenge to Chavez’s leadership. Underscoring the disconnect between La Paz and the farmworkers, “Medina’s resignation hardly registered in the fields.”
Toward the Salinas General Strike of 1979: The Rank-and-File Rejects Chavez’s Boycott Strategy and Wins
The January–September 1979 confrontation between the UFW and the vegetable growers seemed, to participants, to be a war. Twenty-eight companies’ contracts were expiring. The growers sensed weakness in the UFW. “They believed they could win a strike and thereby eliminate the hiring hall, get their crews under control, narrow the labor cost differential between themselves and the non-union companies, discipline the union, shake up the leadership, and shape its future direction.”
The workers were also optimistic. The union was getting better at signing contracts after winning elections. There were 47 contracts in Salinas and Watsonville and 24 in the Imperial Valley, covering 19,000 vegetable workers. The UFW looked on course to win many more. A grower’s journal in June 1978 had written: “The union is here to stay and must be dealt with as such…most [growers] in California would agree that they would be much better off if they would have accepted unionization ten years ago…”
Chavez wanted to go for a master contract without a strike. But Marshall Ganz discovered that most of the wage gains since 1978 had been eaten up by inflation. He also discovered that “farmworkers still made significantly less than other, mostly white, unionized workers” in the coolers and elsewhere outside the fields. The UFW’s contract proposal amounted, in Ganz’s estimate, to a 70 percent increase in grower labor costs; the growers claimed it was 200 percent. The workers refused to give up the hiring hall. The workers also wanted paid union reps in the fields. If the UFW won what it was asking, “farmworkers would no longer be the poor cousins of other unionized US workers. They would be poised to take their place at the top of the labor pyramid among auto, steel, transportation and skilled construction workers.”
Preparations intensified through December. Tons of food were obtained in anticipation of a long strike, and the welfare committee was able to negotiate late payments in “a surprisingly large numbers of cases” on rent, cars, phones and utilities. The growers also prepared. They decided to go for a master contract to give the appearance of collective strength. This unity was fragile, however, since it “was a heterogeneous coalition in a highly differentiated, complex industry.”
In late January 1979 the growers submitted their offer of 7 percent per year over three years, and 1,700 workers struck at four companies. The UFW aimed to break grower unity by “forcing one company to capitulate, then pressuring the others to follow.” Five more companies were struck. Roving caravans of strikers were successful in pulling scabs, who had none of the skills of lechugeros, out of the fields. By the tenth day, these encounters turned violent. Growers were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Chavez came and spoke to 3,000 strikers. “He praised the workers for conducting the strike themselves with minimal help from the staff.” The price of lettuce soared to $14 a box, and one grower estimated that $2 million worth of lettuce had already rotted.
On February 10, a striker was shot dead charging, along with dozens of other workers, into a field of scabs. The three men arrested for the killing were free on bail within hours. All evidence pointed to a trap. (Two and a half months later, a judge dismissed the murder charges.)
Marshall Ganz called for a one-day general strike. Three thousand silent farmworkers, holding candles, marched through Calexico. The Imperial Valley was entirely shut down. Cesar Chavez announced he would lead workers into the fields to talk to the scabs. Ten thousand people marched from the funeral to the cemetery. But instead of leading the strikers into the fields, “Chavez did what he could to cool off the strike.” He went to Los Angeles to resume negotiations with United Brands. He replaced Ganz with an old friend, Frank Ortiz, who told the strike coordinators that “Chavez wanted them to stop aggressive picketing. No more strike caravans, no more rushing the fields or one-day walkouts.”
The coordinators told Ortiz to go to hell. But they were “confused, angry, desperate…They wanted more action, not less.”
Bardacke speculates on why Chavez walked away from the strike. “Most likely, [his] pledge to lead people into the fields was primarily rhetorical flourish.” His friend Ortiz “ran the strike into the ground.” The strike coordinators, however, tried to revive it by calling a one-day general strike. Two thousand people joined a strike caravan, intending to shut down the fields. They came upon “a mixture of high school students, the relatives of small growers, and a few regular scabs.” “It was like Vietnam,” according to one deputy. The strikers destroyed all the property they could find, and flooded the fields. The sheriffs and guards used batons, tear gas, guns and two helicopters. Negotiations went nowhere, the harvest season ended, the struck growers had lost an estimated $24 million, and those growers not struck, with prices peaking at $14 per box, had a windfall season. The main hope became reviving the strike in Salinas.
In the 1970s, 15,000 Salinas workers “produced about 75 percent of all fresh vegetables sold commercially in the United States.” The lettuce harvest moved north from the Imperial Valley and the growers used the time lag to recruit a fair number of scabs. They turned Salinas into an armed camp, with “four camps with eight-foot Cyclone fences surrounded by barbed wire” and 24-hour armed guards; “…foremen, scab herders, and strikebreakers” were also armed; “strikers would know that anytime they went into the fields they risked being shot.”
Chavez put Marshall Ganz back in charge of the strike; “no one else on the board had sufficient authority among the active workers to revive the battle.” Chavez also limited the strike to the six companies that had been struck earlier in the Imperial Valley. The ratio of scabs to strikers was also much higher in Salinas than in the first phase of the strike. Ganz did not inform the strike coordinators about Chavez’s order, hewing to the discipline of La Paz. The Salinas militants wanted a general strike to correct the striker-scab ratio and thereby increase the chances of winning. Meanwhile, “nighttime vandalism became a regular tactic…Vandalism prospered because mass action stuttered.” The California Highway Patrol, sheriffs and police roughed up the strikers they arrested and humiliated them in jail. The strikers were protected to some extent by the 1980 presidential ambitions of Jerry Brown, who refused to pressure the union and appeared at UFW rallies; the ALRB he had established in 1975 made it difficult for the growers to get an injunction against mass picketing. Ganz extended the “pre-huelga,” essentially a slowdown strike, where workers would walk off the job after a couple of hours or work too slowly, which shifted daily from one non-struck company to another. The growers were reluctant to fire regular crews involved in the pre-huelga, because of “the difficulty and expense of finding scabs.” The pre-huelga’s success was “made possible by the special characteristics of agricultural production.” Foremen and supervisors went “slightly berserk” from the surprise and irregularity. If they fired the crews, it “would be the perfect transition into the extended strike” the organizers expected.
Ganz organized strike authorization votes at the companies not yet struck; the strike was voted unanimously. Internal and external solidarity (from unions and churches) was widespread. Chavez, meanwhile, was in Washington, DC, reviving the union’s old campaign against “illegals” and criticizing the INS’s failure to move against them. He attacked then-President Jimmy Carter, for whom the UFW had registered 400,000 voters and sent staffers to work on his 1976 campaign; “we have not heard from since.” Carter, said Chavez, had failed to enforce immigration laws. As a result of this and other gambits, the INS sent extra forces to Salinas; on their first day there, they apprehended 335 undocumented workers. “In an unprecedented intervention by a US government body in support of a farmworker strike, the INS dramatically went into struck fields and pulled out undocumented workers.” The latter, however, were not the majority of the strikebreakers. Over a month the INS was deporting a hundred workers a day, “mostly at ranches that had nothing to do with the strike.” Among Salinas militants, attitudes toward the intervention of la migra were mixed. In part because undocumented workers were not the bulk of the scabs, the INS action, for one militant who was opposed, “was bound to be insignificant and would only make the undocumented mad at the union”; “…the issue of the scabs’ legal status came and went.”
Negotiations stalled; the major growers rejected the union’s proposals. The growers became more confident. Vandalism increased. Six months into the strike, in June 1979, the two sides came closer together on wages, “but the growers were intransigent, still demanding the end of the hiring hall and significant changes in the work rules and grievance procedure.” The workers responded with “Black Monday.” “Workers at the ten UFW companies not on strike would leave their jobs and join the picket lines at the six struck firms.” Different caravans carried out different actions all over the Salinas and Pajaro valleys: they tried to stop scab buses; they led the deputies on wild goose chases while others confronted the scabs in the fields thus left unprotected. Twelve people involved in confrontations required hospitalization. 134 strikers were arrested. Strikers went to nonunion fields and often succeeded in getting workers to walk off for a day. Under this pressure, the growers made their first concessions in secret negotiations with Chavez and Jerry Cohen, but demanded that union “terrorism” stop. “According to Ganz, Chavez was furious about the mass charges into the fields and warned Ganz not to do it again. And he reiterated his opposition to any extension of the strike.”
The Salinas lettuce strike was happening at the same time, in June–July 1979, as an independent truckers’ action protesting fuel costs, the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit and other matters. “90 percent of the lettuce was shipped out of Salinas in trucks.” The harvest slowed down as growers stopped production. Strikers’ morale plummeted; Marshall Ganz said later “it was a very, very hard time.”
The situation widened the gulf between Chavez and Ganz, whom the strike committee came to see as a master organizer and tactician and much closer to the rank-and-file than Chavez. One militant said: “Chavez preached to us. You got the feeling he was doing charity work…He was very paternalistic. Marshall never patronized us…He never treated us like pobrecitos.” Ganz thought that unity and hard work could do it. “And because he believed it, we believed it.”
“Ganz wanted to extend the strike; Chavez wanted to keep it small…The two argued mostly over the phone.” Chavez, once again, was pushing for a boycott. Ganz and Chavez finally agreed on two marches, one by the UFW’s urban supporters from San Francisco to Salinas, and the other a ten-day march of farmworkers approaching Salinas from the south. If the growers had not caved by the time the marches arrived, Chavez would call for a general agricultural strike.
Into this situation arrived the lightning bolt of news that the major grower Bud Antle had signed a contract with the Teamsters paying what the UFW had demanded at the beginning. The strikers thought: “Antle workers had won what the UFW was demanding; with a further push, they could win it, too.” An Antle worker sympathetic to the UFW and the lettuce strike had organized there against a sweetheart contract, and then led a walkout. Two-hundred fifty lechugeros arrived in Salinas and mixed with the UFW strikers.
The march north to Salinas began the next day with 1,000 farmworkers. Chavez went on a fast for “love and patience.” The march north “exploded” and reached 3,000 by the time it reached Watsonville. Comparisons were drawn to the convergence of Villa’s Division of the North and Zapata’s Division of the South in the Mexican Revolution; participants “knew that they were in the midst of a great event, comprehensible only through comparison with other grand achievements.”
According to the police, “15,000 to 20,000 people marches into Salinas on August 11,” led by Chavez walking arm in arm with Jerry Brown, and followed by a state official and an officer of the California AFL-CIO. Brown spoke at the rally and said “farmworkers should be paid as well as factory workers.” Chavez spoke, promising “an extended strike and a full-on boycott.”
Bardacke describes “an extraordinary movement in UFW history. For months the workers had been locked in a blind conflict with the union leadership that was, in its own way, as serious as their conflict with the growers. This night they would confront each other, face to face, and it would all be captured on tape.”
Two meetings took place, first that of the Executive Board and then an expanded meeting including the strike committee. Ganz, while endorsing the idea of a boycott, communicated the desire of the Salinas workers for a general strike. Chavez expressed sympathy for the idea, but insisted the union didn’t have the money for a strike, and that, as usual, a boycott was the way to go. He also insisted that the union didn’t have money for a strike. Their meeting concluded with Ganz and Chavez agreeing on tenterhooks that the union should keep its options open, for either option or both. The action shifted to a joint meeting with the strike coordinators.
The strike committee waiting in the next room was not interested in a boycott; after Chavez outlined a union victory at a tomato company which might influence the lettuce strike, “what followed was unlike any discussion [Chavez] had ever had in La Paz.” He said the union was “broke.” He argued for a boycott, with a general strike as “not difficult, impossible.” The strike would be the “coup de grace.” A militant countered that there was great momentum for a strike and if there wasn’t one, “all the strikers are going to be very disappointed.” Dolores Huerta supported Chavez. Then another militant spoke, “and then the dam broke.” He argued that the great effort to build the march had rejuvenated the strike, and if a general strike was not called, all that energy would be lost. Seconds later, the workers were chanting “Huelga, huelga, huelga,” Huerta argued that there were too many scabs. Chavez argued a strike would deplete the union’s resources. The tone mounted. Then another militant spoke: “…if we don’t go on strike we are going to have to abandon everything, abandon all our fellow strikers. The faith that everyone has in us will turn to dust.” Huerta again insisted that there were too many scabs, over shouts and interruptions. Another militant argued that they could pull the scabs out of the fields.
“The meeting had been polite but ambiguous. Cesar Chavez had had an argument with the rank-and-file leadership, and lost. They had consistently applauded people who spoke against his position.”
The next day was the union convention, at which the matter would be put to a vote. But the resolution, drafted during the night, called for “all-out economic warfare” but mentioned only the boycott. Carlos Bustamante, a key militant and legendary lechugero who had argued for striking the night before, “was furious…the strike committee was being double-crossed.” The gatekeeper, “whose job it was to keep anything discomfiting to the organization’s leadership from reaching the convention floor,” let him add an amendment extending the strike. He saw that “what the strike committee had won the night before would be taken away from them through convention maneuvering.” The amendment “passed unanimously amid chants of ‘Viva la huelga!’ The convention broke up with people snake-dancing through the aisles and chanting “Huelga, huelga, huelga.” Chavez and a few people tried to start a counter-chant of their own for “Boycott, boycott, boycott.” “It could barely be heard.” After this development, the “protagonists woke up on the morning after the UFW convention in a different world.” Chavez “had been defied in a face-to-face confrontation and on the floor of his own convention.” He returned to La Paz to plan the boycott.
Ganz prevaricated. Chavez wasn’t supporting the strike but he wasn’t actively opposing it, even if he might withhold strike benefits. But “when the choice had to be made between the Executive Board and the strike committee, Marshall Ganz took the side of the workers…[Chavez] had been pushed aside by the workers on the strike committee. It was now their strike to win or lose, and Ganz had cast his lot with them.” The strike spread. “What La Paz had to say was worse than irrelevant.” Two tomato contracts were big wins for the UFW. Then two big lettuce companies caved. One contract was “a stunner.” $5 per hour, $700 in retroactive pay since the expiration of the old contract, a cost-of-living adjustment that would pay hourly workers “$6.20 in July 1981, a 67 percent hike over their previous wages.” Lettuce would be paid at 75 cents a box. The following Monday, “farmworkers throughout the Salinas Valley began to enforce that deal as the new standard wage.” They sat down. Most companies caved and agreed to the new rates. A few companies went higher; “even scabs refused to work, demanding that their wages be raised to the new industry standard.” Tomato workers at another company walked out and “voted 201–4 for UFW representation. Sun Harvest, one of the biggest lettuce companies, caved. A few days later, “workers at all the other companies negotiating with the UFW went on strike.” They wanted what had been set in the earlier agreements elsewhere. Hot weather worked for the strikers, with lettuce and broccoli crops threatened with ruin by further delay of the harvest.
“Eventually all but one of the UFW companies in Salinas signed. Nine months after receiving the union’s first contract proposal, the growers were surrendering on terms not much different from those they once dismissed as ‘staggering’ and ‘outrageous.’ ”
Chavez vs. Marshall Ganz; An Independent Rank-and-File Pole Emerges
The aftermath of this impressive victory, however, was “not a happy time for Chavez.” The problem was Marshall Ganz, he said: “He has his own union in Salinas.” Meanwhile, in the Salinas and Pajaro valleys, writes Bardacke, “there had been almost continuous celebration…The picket lines were festive, the meetings raucous, spirits high. The workers were playful, some delirious with joy.”
“Perhaps the most judicious course of action…would have been for Cesar Chavez to go to Salinas, make peace with those who had defied him, and claim credit for what had been won. But Cesar Chavez didn’t know how to do that. He had built an organization that did not tolerate dissent, and he had no experience of continuing to work with people who had disobeyed him.” He did not speak to Ganz for several months. He began a whispering campaign aimed at tearing down Ganz’s stature. Ganz submitted a memo for moving forward but also offered to resign. “Chavez never answered. He was too smart to part ways with the coordinator of the most successful farmworker strike in US history in the immediate aftermath of its triumph.”
The strike committee and other Salinas militants met with a delegation from La Paz to work out terms for the paid field reps which had been won in the new contracts. La Paz wanted them to be appointed by Cesar Chavez, but the Salinas militants wanted them to be elected and independent. The meeting voted overwhelmingly to have elected paid field reps. A compromise was reached allowing Chavez to confirm “that the (ranch committee) president would be the paid rep;… it was a unique episode of democratic dialogue and decision making inside the UFW, it was never to be repeated…the paid reps were a small democratic wedge that potentially could shift the weight of the entire edifice from the mountain to the valley. For the first time in UFW history, people who worked for the union would be elected by their fellow workers rather than appointed by La Paz.” Chavez also accepted this arrangement because he thought he could “handle” the paid reps; in his view, the real threat was, as in the past, “malignant forces” undermining the union from within. A militant slate of rank-and-file workers overwhelmingly won the first ranch committee election, and similar victories over moderate forces more likely to compromise with Chavez followed.
Despite the victories in Salinas, the UFW was still “in a perilous position,” with the vegetables industry only half organized. “It had to grow or die.” The unorganized growers “matched union wages to keep the UFW out…The 1979–80 winter season did nothing to damage the Imperial Valley’s reputation as the graveyard of farmworker unions.” It was a different situation, and “the remarkable rank-and-file democracy that had characterized the last month and a half of the Salinas strike could not last indefinitely.” But Chavez still wanted to go with the boycott, using some “discernible evidence that the strike was still alive…” Ganz hoped to push the strike wave further. There was, however, none of the momentum that had made the Salinas victories possible. The high wages paid to keep the UFW out set 7,000 workers and “several crews of committed scabs” against no more than 200–400 active strikers. At the ceremony opening a new union hall in Calexico, one militant called Chavez the “new Moses,” but the “new Moses…was in Washington D.C. talking up the boycott at an AFL-CIO testimonial dinner for George Meany.”
Chavez envisioned a boycott campaign that might last five years, like the grape boycott of the sixties. “But 1980 was not 1966. The social movements that had sustained the table grape boycott of were long gone.” The student movement, the black movement, and the rank-and-file labor upsurge had been replaced by the era of Ronald Reagan; the “left had suffered a profound historical defeat…” Chavez’s visit to Marcos, stories circulating about the purges and the Synanon connection, and the union’s opposition to illegals had undermined the UFW’s outside support. In 1979, The New York Times ran a story about the violence of the “wet line” and some of the failed scams of Manuel Chavez, Cesar’s cousin, alienating liberal supporters.
In spite of these obstacles, the “farmworker movement was not yet dead. It had just scored its greatest victory, and its power was semi-institutionalized in more than a hundred contracts and in the new system of paid reps.” But the “farmworkers could have used the support of their old allies…The days of mass participation in UFW boycotts were over.”
Chavez turned instead to the Democratic Party, with a plan to back a speaker in 1980 for the state assembly, “the second most powerful political job in California,” who would be beholden to him. But, asks Bardacke, “could Chavez operate in this polluted arena and retain his saintly reputation?” Chavez lacked sufficient weight in Sacramento politics “to deliver enough to the growers on pesticides, land and water” in exchange for contracts. If he could be a kingmaker for the position of speaker, “he just might be able to win there what he was sure he couldn’t win in the fields…Such logic was by then common fare in union circles, as many AFL-CIO leaders tried to win in electoral politics what they had lost on the picket line or across the negotiating table.” Chavez leaned on two Chicano assemblymen to elect his choice, Howard Berman. The maneuver, however, collapsed and Chavez would throw money into the 1981 campaign to elect people who would support Berman.
But before that was possible, further developments within the union and its position in the fields continued to shift the balance of forces. The RFK Medical Plan was in disarray, a major source of complaint among unionized workers. Chavez put Marshall Ganz’s companion Jessica Govea in charge, but things improved only slowly. The paid field reps were establishing their power and presence in the fields; “the power of the 1979 strike had created a UFW in Salinas through the back door.” There was as yet no direct confrontation with Chavez. “[The field reps] didn’t see [their authority] as opposed to the union’s power, but rather as part of it…they were not in rebellion against Chavez or the union; they were enthusiastic unionists.” On the other hand, their new role as effective shop stewards put them in the position of having to enforce discipline on the rank-and-file; having won control of their jobs, seniority and a grievance procedure, “they did agree that the bosses could insist on some basic standards of workmanship.” They also focused on organizing the non-union companies “to organize the rest of the Salinas vegetable industry.”
Meanwhile, the growers regrouped. They paid higher wages than the union contracts, some introduced a medical plan, and “the foremen were on their best behavior.” Other growers “shifted their field work to nonunion growers…private companies appeared and disappeared” in what the workers called “ghost companies.” It was not unlike the kinds of corporate shell games that would sweep through much of US industry in the 1980s and beyond. Sun Harvest, a major company, “slashed its acreage in the Imperial Valley” and “began to shed some of its Salinas operations.” Non-union contractors were brought into do the work, and the union was unsuccessful in stopping it. “All of these grower maneuvers were only a start, a hint of what was to become the entire reorganization of the California vegetable industry. The small stream in 1980 would become a substantial river in 1981, and a wild flood in the mid-1980s.” In Bardacke’s view, a united effort by the UFW might have resisted, but “initially divided, then at war with each other, and finally shattered from within, they didn’t stand a chance.”
Towards Civil War within the UFW
A surprise mini-strike wave that began among garlic workers in August 1980 showed the new dispensation. The strikes were successful in raising wages, and the UFW was able to win thirty-one quick elections under the ALRB, involving 2,000 workers. As it peaked, however, Chavez turned against the movement, and red-baited one of his own loyalists out of the union when the latter got too swept up in the enthusiasm for the strikes. The real problem was that the successes were, as one Salinas militant put it, “a feather in Marshall’s cap, and as far as Cesar was concerned he had enough feathers already.” Shortly afterwards, “Cesar Chavez turned against Marshall Ganz, and this time he never let up.”
A second top leader, Gilbert Padilla, who had been with Chavez since 1955, hit the end of the road in a poorly-prepared grape strike in the Coachella Valley. Padilla was sent in to try to turn it around. Chavez was again talking about “dark forces” stirring up the workers. The company’s manager, with some insight into what had become of the UFW, held out and told journalists that “Union officials were always too busy with Governor Jerry Brown and US Senator Teddy Kennedy to meet with us.” Padilla tried to convince the workers it was too early to strike, only to meet with cries of “Go back to La Paz!,” and some empty beer cans were thrown at him. Ganz was called in and argued for the pre-huelga slowdown tactic that had worked in Salinas. Padilla’s car, provided by the union, was falling apart, “another example of the twisted priorities of the union, which was giving away big money to politicians but refused to provide its officers and organizers with reliable cars.” The pre-huelga tactics, however, worked and the company signed, and “the workers overwhelmingly accepted the contract.” A few months later, however, Chavez turned on a long-term loyalist and friend of Padilla’s working in La Paz, accusing her of disloyalty and, in what was becoming classic fashion, depositing her in tears at the gate. After further, Synanon-style attacks led by Dolores Huerta and others, Padilla resigned.
A few weeks later, it was the turn of Jerry Cohen, who had previously anchored the UFW’s legal department. He felt that Chavez was sabotaging a settlement at a large company because it would be another triumph for Marshall Ganz. The legal department had been dismantled earlier. “From the mid-sixties to the late seventies, the UFW had had the whip hand. More than a dozen skilled lawyers, backed up by dedicated paralegals, worked for the UFW at very low wages while the union’s foes, the growers and the Teamsters, had to hire their own attorneys for hundreds of dollars an hour…the entire UFW legal department understood [the ALRA] better than even the best lawyers on the other side.” By 1980, because of the earlier shakeup, that advantage was gone, and the growers were putting more resources into legal fights, challenging “every decision that went against them, successfully gumming up the works.” Cases were tied up for thirty months, and “pro-union workers were fired without redress…” Cohen himself had no illusions about the ALRA; it was “no substitute for a farmworker movement…Absent farmworker pressure, the board would be of little help…in March 1981, the union would be gripped in a civil war incapable of pressuring anybody…The ALRA, on paper the best labor law in US history, and the board, all liberal Jerry Brown appointees, would be but a legal spider web, snaring the UFW in its procedures so that the growers could come in for the kill.”
As his oldest and most experienced collaborators prepared to bail, Chavez turned to his “latest managerial enthusiasm,” the Top Management Plan. It was the successor to various earlier plans, including the incorporation of Synanon methods. It was, once again, top-down, emphasizing “strict unity of purpose and action.” Chavez argued that the “absence of a management team” was the main obstacle to the union’s growth. When the new plan was first floated, all the emerging dissidents on the Executive Committee, including Ganz, Govea, Padilla and Cohen, had considered it a “total waste of time” when the real task was “organizing the rest of the vegetable industry.” Ganz countered with a long document that became known as the “Marshall Plan,” arguing that the main task was not administrative but rather building “a strong democratic national farmworkers’ union.” The union had to organize the rest of California agriculture, Ganz argued, and could not “long exist as an island…The island must either become the continent or the sea will swallow it up.” He argued that the headquarters should be moved back to the valley, the volunteers replaced by moderately paid staff with medical and pension plans, and that the legal department should be rebuilt. Though Ganz thought differing viewpoints in the union were necessary, “he stopped short of proposing a bottom-up, democratic structure.” But Ganz made no effort to inform the paid reps or the workers of these conflicting proposals. For Chavez, Marshall’s Plan was “a reasoned, direct, open rejection of his policies.” The Executive Board adopted Chavez’s new management plan unanimously, “in a gesture of unity.” Immediately afterward, a Chavez emissary was sent to talk to another key rank-and-file militant, Cleofas Guzman, telling him that “there were two groups in the union, one led by Cesar Chavez and the other by Marshall Ganz” and that Guzman “and all the other paid reps would have to choose between them.”
Palace Politics and Further Involvement in the Democratic Party
“A cupped hand that hides a mouth, delivering a dirty secret, is one of the dominant images of palace politics, and so of the UFW in the desperate, cataclysmic period of 1980–81…Well-sown rumors blighted reputations, sprouted lies, threatened lives…Disagreements were interpreted as disloyalty while betrayal, or the fear of it, prepared the ground for a terrible conclusion…the brisk betrayals and backroom deals of the state capital appeared if not quite wholesome, then at least more like comic opera by comparison.”
Chavez returned to his plan to be a kingmaker in the California state legislature by backing Howard Berman for speaker. But the slick, black, long-time assemblyman from San Francisco, Willie Brown, upended Chavez’s plans. Two key Chicano assemblymen, Alatorre and Torres, backed Brown, and UFW members rang doorbells in their East Los Angeles districts denouncing them as traitors. The feud launched by Chavez “diminished UFW support among some Chicanos…” He made peace with Brown with a $750,000 contribution from union funds.
The now explicit factions influenced ongoing organizing in the Imperial Valley, where six companies had not signed contracts. A Chavez ally talked up the lettuce boycott and a “possible ALRB ruling that the growers had been bargaining in bad faith,” which would require the growers to give the strikers back pay from the beginning of the strike. The Chavez emissary told the workers “straight out, and in no uncertain terms, that the union planned no new organizing in vegetables.” Cleofas Guzman and other paid field reps resisted. Those who did not toe the new lines were told they were enemies of the union. One of them, Mario Bustamante, the militant from Salinas who was close to Ganz, was beaten in the union hall by five sidekicks of Manuel Chavez, Cesar’s cousin and specialist in dirty tricks. “This was not the first time in US labor history that men originally recruited to protect strikers from company goons or to take rough action against scabs attacked union members opposed to official policies.” But it was the first time in the UFW.
Marshall Ganz’s “power base in Salinas accounted for about 80 percent of the union’s dues income.” A UFW sympathizer in Sacramento told Dolores Huerta about an ostensible plan by Ganz “to kick Chavez upstairs into a ceremonial position and take over the UFW.” Huerta took the sympathizer to La Paz where he repeated the story to Chavez. “No one confronted Marshall Ganz,” but the rumor mill against him intensified; in Bardacke’s words, “this was gossip and nothing else.” Ganz only heard about his purported plan twenty years later. None of Ganz’s rank-and-file supporters ever heard him criticize Chavez; “in fact, his silence made them a little angry.” Bardacke in fact thinks “Ganz may have made some remark…about workers getting more power in the union and Chavez becoming primarily the union’s public face” which then “became a full-fledged conspiracy in the ears of Huerta and Chavez.” There was the “Marshall Plan,” and Ganz and Cohen did want to throw the union’s resources into organizing the vegetable industry. “To Huerta and Chavez, this alternative proposal implied betrayal, a plot to bring down Chavez.”
“The union had long run on Chavez’s power to command and everyone else’s inclination to obey, and this had once given the organization a certain strength. But what had been strong became brittle with time, unable to bend in the face of internal differences inevitable in a union of thousands of workers in different crops and regions, with conflicting interests and political views. Under the pressure of disagreement, the union cracked. The wild accusations of conspiracy were the pathetic sounds of an organization breaking apart.” In Bardacke’s view, the great irony was that Ganz had never done what Chavez accused him of, “the very thing he should have done.” He never went outside the leadership, “keeping the active farmworkers out of the internal politics of the union.”
Ganz, Cohen and two other allies spent a week writing out the history of the UFW on four large sheets of butcher paper. They were trying to figure out if there was any chance the workers could take it over. “A major problem of this gang of four was that they were so white.” Further, Ganz and Cohen were Jews; “Chavez’s fascination with Judaism was acute.” Some farmworkers fifteen years earlier had asked “why are there so many whites telling us what to do.” Chavez had always defended the union’s diversity. “As the New Left broke down into competing oppressed identities, complaints from Chicano nationalists increased.” Chicanos were becoming more influential in California politics, and Chavez “began to shift his emphasis, promoting the union and its leadership as Mexican…”
Bardacke sees this shift as “not essentially opportunistic.” For all Chavez’s successes, “he was a brown man in a white racist country…” Ganz had arrived from the breakup of SNCC and the increasingly militant black movement in 1965, “relieved…to be part of an organization where color supposedly wasn’t an issue. To the extent that [he] believed that, he deluded himself.” His excellent Spanish, his being mistaken for a Mexican, his ability “to fit smoothly in the farmworker world…may have prompted him to take insufficient measure of the extent to which, ultimately, he did not fit in.” But as his situation had evolved, particularly after joining the rank-and-file revolt against Chavez in Salinas in 1979, “he had slipped into an untenable position in the UFW…[Ganz’s]… whiteness made his an easy target once Chavez withdrew his support, and prevented him from fighting back effectively.”
The Defeat of the Field Reps
Ganz’s only hope was to turn to the paid reps. But as he and the other white organizers chose “to fight the inside battle exclusively among insiders, they accepted the division between the mountain and the valley, the people who ran the union and those who were just members.” Ganz and his allies “rolled up (the butcher paper), put it in the closet, and went their separate ways. Nothing could be done, they concluded.”
Chavez’s last battle was against the paid field reps, whose independent power base was the result of the 1979 Salinas general strike, undertaken against his will. The field reps “brought their fight onto the open stage in a direct, public confrontation with Cesar Chavez. It was such a departure from the past that Chavez and Dolores Huerta could hardly recognize it for what it was.” They saw it only as a maneuver by Ganz to regain power.
“They couldn’t have been more wrong. The battle between La Paz and the paid reps was different from the UFW’s periodic internal disputes, not something that could be resolved by one more staff purge…it was a claim by farmworkers that the union was theirs.” For Bardacke, it was “two worlds in collision,” pitting the Chicanos on the UFW staff against the Mexicans who had won the 1979 strike. The “Mexican paid reps did not regard work in the fields as a calamity…They considered themselves craftsmen…” They did not like the way they were used to promote the boycott. “They did not feel like victims, and they did not like to pretend that they were…They had not wanted to be obliged to wear old work clothes when they went to press conferences…They sought justice, not charity.”
Mario Bustamante, after becoming a paid rep, “realized that the priorities in the union were twisted by its charitable appeals…Why did people have to wait all day in the service centers when the union had money to hire skilled professionals?…Why was the union staff shopping at thrift stores for their clothes?…It was all part of the union’s badge of poverty, its appeal to the public for help as poor farmworkers and their impoverished union…the performance took precedence over the actual needs of the members.”
Bustamante felt patronized when he went to La Paz. “…It was almost something religious…But if you went to La Paz with something serious to talk about, they weren’t interested in that…we [lettuce workers] work so hard, but it is not easy to push us around. If we have differences, we like to argue them out. Chavez didn’t want to do that.”
As Bardacke comments, Chavez “never wanted to do that.” Not in Oxnard in the late fifties, not in the early sixties. “He didn’t argue politics; he told exemplary stories, and looked for followers.” “The paid reps…didn’t need the veil pulled from their eyes…They would follow a leader, but not one who was unwilling to argue things out. Chavez… didn’t want comrades. He wanted disciples…People like Mario Bustamante could not be integrated into the union staff without changing the nature of the whole enterprise.”
In January 1981, Cleofas Guzman was warned by Mexicali police that Manuel Chavez, Cesar’s cousin, had threatened to kill both of them if they didn’t stop “messing up the UFW.” A Chavez point man instructed Guzman to drive to San Luis, Arizona, the next day for a meeting. On the road, “a cotton truck pulled out from a side road right in front of him.” Guzman suffered head injuries and a permanent speech impairment. The driver of the cotton truck fled the scene. A nearby witness said the truck had been waiting for some time and that the driver had been spirited away in another car. The crash was labeled an “accident.” Many paid reps thought it was a setup organized by Manuel Chavez. Many of them dropped out of controversies on internal union matters. Cesar Chavez had sent Ganz and Govea to investigate, and “Govea believed that Cesar was afraid he would be blamed for it…hoping their report would absolve him… [Guzman] was an extraordinary leader…not afraid of Cesar, nor was he intimidated by him. He was not an in-your-face guy, but he was very clear about who he was and what role he wanted to play in representing workers…he was very principled, and it nearly cost him his life.” A few weeks later Chavez and two acolytes went to Calexico to meet with the paid reps and others “to combat the many rumors surrounding the event.” Chavez produced a memo sent to all involved in the meeting, affirming that Manuel Chavez was a founder of the union and that he “assists the President on special problems and projects.” He implied that there had been no setup, either in Guzman’s case or in the earlier attack on Bustamante in the union office. His memo also said the task at hand was getting contracts signed and not to continue organizing.
As Bardacke puts it, the “civil war had escalated. The dispute was no longer an argument on the Executive Board. It was down in the valley, and blood had been spilled.”
Chavez sent Ganz and Govea to Israel for “a month-long study of agricultural practices of the kibbutzim.” Govea didn’t want to leave the UFW but Ganz interpreted the trip as a “parting gift, a gracious goodbye from Chavez.” Ganz had dropped out of most union work, and “cut his last ties to the paid reps.” He went into seclusion. He told Bustamante that he could not help him and that the paid reps were on their own. But, writes Bardacke, the reps “had no map, no equivalent of the Marshall Plan…” They threw themselves into standard union work, and then the ongoing problems of the poorly-managed RFK Medical Plan. Confrontation with La Paz intensified and the reps wanted the union, with all its money, to hire competent people to run the plan. They refused invitations to go to La Paz to straighten things out, where they “had always gotten the runaround.” Chavez sent a hatchet man and some other errand runners to Salinas, where they broke up a meeting of the reps, and attacked their management of the health plan; one rep was also a “Communist.” Chavez’s men spread slander around town.
A small strike erupted and the workers approached the UFW. One of Chavez’s hatchet men said they had to go back to work, because the union already had a backlog of contracts to settle. He told the reps that “the union was not interested in Salinas any more.” Chavez convened everyone in La Paz for a “Serious Meeting.” In a five-page memo, he reiterated that there was a “conspiracy against the union,” like conspiracies in the past going back to 1965. The “Big Lie” that the union is no longer interested in organizing was being spread by “ex-volunteers…other unions, ‘extremist groups,’ the growers…” “The conspirators would be named ‘at the appropriate time.’ ” Chavez would spend the next few months in Hollister, “a short drive from the alleged conspirators in Salinas.” Ganz later told Bardacke “they just destroyed the whole Salinas operation, and it was a horror to watch.”
Chavez tried to answer charges of his remoteness from the fields with “one last campesino campaign before he made the moves that would finally doom the UFW as a farmworker organization.” Chavez and his son Paul involved themselves in a union drive with local garlic and mushroom workers. The garlic growers had their eyes on selling out to the expanding San Jose property market nearby. They stonewalled and never settled. The mushroom growers caved after a ninety-six day strike, “a considerable success” in Bardacke’s view, given the overall momentum.
Chavez had refused to meet with the paid reps while in Hollister. Many of them still believed in him, thinking, like many before, that they only needed to talk to him to straighten him out, that he didn’t know what was going on. But one day another veteran union militant and field rep was invited to a one-on-one meeting with Chavez. They argued about the problems of the medical plan, and finally Chavez justified the late payments to workers because “meanwhile the union was earning interest.” “The union is a business…you have to understand that.” He had never talked that way to a worker before, always presenting the union as something bigger, a cause. The militant “walked away, devastated.” “[My] world fell on top of me. How could I have been so blind for so long?”
The grower onslaught intensified in 1981, subcontracting to non-union grower-shippers or simply going out of business. The UFW and its depleted legal department could do nothing but “file unfair labor practice charges with the already gummed-up ALRB.” The paid reps organized “what turned out to be their final stand in the union.” They ran three candidates for the Executive Board, pointing out that there had never been farmworkers fresh from the fields on the board. They saw it as an “extension of their victory in the 1979 strike.” It was the soul of the farmworkers against the soul of the boycott, which by then “was accomplished mainly by the UFW’s string of charity organizations and Democratic Party politics.” The field reps ran the first genuine oppositional campaign for the board. “In a union without a tradition of political debate, La Paz considered that treason.” They could only see conspiracy and “evil, behind-the-scenes manipulators.” Dolores Huerta and other Chavez acolytes responded with a “political sledgehammer,” accusing the slate and the field reps “of being dupes of Marshall Ganz. An element of anti-Semitism was slipped in, referring to Ganz and Jerry Cohen. Huerta pointed out that the strikes where UFW militants were killed had been organized by Ganz. The real issues were lost in “charges and counter-charges.” At Sun Harvest, “the UFW’s most important contract was being hollowed out from the inside” but Chavez was too busy quelling the opposition. Huerta tried and failed to convince ranch committee meetings, where convention delegates were being chosen, to vote against the paid reps, and failed. The reps stood firm, but because of the specific history in Salinas, had trouble spreading their campaign around the state.
The UFW’s fifth national convention took place in Fresno. The Chavez leadership used every bureaucratic trick in the book to weaken the opposition, “small tricks commonly used by unions to silence opponents.” As a final blow, they contrived a maneuver that Bardacke nominates for the “Dirty Tricks Hall of Fame,” coming up with a complicated “emergency” voting formula neutering the field reps’ pre-convention victories so that, in the words of one Chavez hack, “they couldn’t vote for anybody but Cesar’s slate.” An opposition attempt to void the voting formula was beaten back. Some Chavez loyalists displayed handguns. The opposing forces faced off at the lunch break. Half the Salinas and Watsonville delegations walked out to cries of “traitors, traitors.” Dolores Huerta led a group to Salinas to force a recall of the “traitorous” paid reps. When they failed to get the necessary signatures for a recall, they began a campaign of dirty tricks and intimidation. They failed again. “The reps could not be recalled, and they would not resign.” Huerta and her hatchet people issued letters to the reps from Cesar Chavez saying they were fired, even though they were independently elected and paid through union contracts. “Since he hadn’t appointed them, he couldn’t fire them.” The affair wound up in the courts and dragged on for seven years, after which the reps backed out. The La Paz campaign had its effect, and a significant minority resigned itself to supporting Chavez. “The unity of the lettuce crews was destroyed.”
Bardacke writes: “in keeping control of the UFW, [Chavez] crippled it. He politically enfeebled its local leaders and divided its ranks. The union still had the contracts, but it didn’t have a united membership and a movement to protect them. La Paz had smothered the farmworker soul of the union. The body would wither and die. Only the head would live on.”
It still took the growers several years to push the weakened UFW aside, intensifying the tactics begun in the previous several years. They leased land to non-union companies and blackballed UFW members throughout the industry. The union, incapable of mounting a fight in the fields, fell back on the non-existent boycott and a legal challenge. When the hearing finally took place, the weakened UFW legal department was “shockingly incompetent,” and lost. Joint ventures with non-union harvesting companies increased. Other organized companies went out of business. Huge shipper-retailers appeared which hired non-union harvesters or contractors. “Seven years earlier, the UFW had the grower-shippers by the throat; now the grower-shippers had disappeared.” The shipper-retailers marketed food on a huge scale to supermarkets, while business boomed. “Everything went up but wages,” which fell between 20 and 40 percent, with no benefits. “Farmworkers lost homes they had bought in the good years. Families doubled and tripled up in single-family houses…Some people didn’t have enough to eat, and many filled up on bad food.” The ALRA remained on the books, but remained mainly dead letter. There was speedup, firings and the reintroduction of the short-handled hoe. Shifts in taste nationally allowed the growers to rid themselves of the lechugero crews, and today they work for $8–$10 per hour in vastly devalued dollars. The same tactics that had diminished the union in lettuce also worked against the limoneros, whose work was outsourced to labor contractors. The fall in real wages, after the elimination of union benefits, was 20 percent.
New immigrant groups arrived, such as Mixtecs and Zapotecs from Oaxaca; they did not speak Spanish, and “the UFW ignored them.” Economic crisis in Mexico in 1982 brought millions of Mexican migrant workers into the United States. In 2000, there were “12 million native-born Mexicans” in the United States, up from under 2 million in 1960. “The union had been born in a period of labor scarcity; it died during a labor surplus.”
Bardacke asks “how Chavez, so adept at seeing the opportunities that history provided in 1965, could have been so blind to one of the most significant historical trends of his time: the massive migration of people from Mexico and Central America to the United States. Chavez had tried to put his finger in the dike with his Campaign Against Illegals. Then he tried to make peace with the newcomers. But he never spoke for them or sought to represent them, never even welcomed them. That, along with his commanding role in the destruction of his own union’s farmworker leadership, was his greatest historical failing.”
With the 1983 election of Republican George Deukmejian as governor of California, the wave of reaction accelerated as he attacked Chavez, the UFW and the ALRA. In keeping with national trends where people were appointed heads of government agencies whose very purpose they opposed, Deukmejian appointed David Sterling, a “shill of agribusiness” head of the ALRA, who upon leaving office in 1990 boasted that “The Board is no longer responsive to the needs of farmworkers.” Deukmejian and Sterling popularized the view that “they, personally, had beaten back the Cesar Chavez union. The UFW aggressively promoted the same idea…,” masking the other reasons for its losses. “Thirty years later, Deukmejian, Sterling and the Republicans remain among the most prominent villains in semi-official UFW history…(along with Marshall Ganz, some insiders will add).” Bardacke dismantles the official story, showing that the key legal defeats happened before 1983. As for the general restructuring of agriculture, “that could only have been halted in the fields, by a farmworker movement willing and able to stop harvesting crops…But a movement capable of doing that had been undermined by Cesar Chavez well before Deukmejian became governor.”
The UFW became “a successful cross between a farmworker advocacy group and a family business.” The union soul died, while the “boycott advocacy” soul supported itself in “a string of non-profit organizations that Chavez had earlier dubbed the Farm Worker Movement.” By 1986, the non-profits had assets of $15 million. The union shifted to a “high-tech boycott” strategy. Chavez tried to launch a “Chicano lobby” to pressure the state legislature, but it never took off. The UFW’s political impact, however, greatly increased through targeting money for Democratic politicians. The high-tech methods were shifted from boycotts to fundraising appeals, “expanding on the descriptions of farmworker misery.” La Paz was engulfed by a “commercial ethos.” “The boycott became a ‘social marketing program.’ ” “As a substitute for an actual fight in the fields, the UFW staged one-day appearances by Chavez in California farm towns…serving as publicity for the new boycotts…” The UFW began signing substandard contracts. With 2 percent of pay going to union dues, “people working under contract sometimes received smaller paychecks than before the union signed.” The UFW also organizes against attempts by other workers to fill the void left by its “retreat from the fields.” When a small group consisting mainly of Mixtecs and Zapotecs in Stockton formed La Asociación Lazaro Cardenas to organize, Dolores Huerta tried to get the leader fired from his job. In 1983, when the Asociación launched a tomato strike, the UFW “rushed to the scene, seized control of the strike” and tried to take over the strike leadership.
After Chavez’s death in April 1993, the UFW made a “genuine effort to return to the fields and regain its identity as a union.” The union has about 5,000 members, “who work under contracts with wages and benefits not much different from the current low standards in the California fields.” Chavez is now an “official hero”; his birthday, March 31st, is a California state holiday; “schools, streets, parks and stamps bear his name and image.”
Cesar Chavez, as indicated at the outset, partially broke with the methods of his early mentor Saul Alinsky by not “fading away” after setting in motion a movement of previously unorganized people. The myth of Chavez and the UFW is alive and well, as indicated above, as are Alinsky’s methods, specifically opposed to any anti-capitalist class struggle and cozily ensconced with the Democratic Party. Chavez’s myth will probably survive the publication of Bardacke’s book, as it survived the appearance of Miriam Pawel’s earlier, shorter, far less detailed but still sharp critique. Dolores Huerta, at 82, portrayed in Bardacke’s book in a role not generally connected with her public image, maintains the myth and has her own non-profit, the Dolores Huerta Foundation. The myth and the methods which gave rise to the UFW are too valuable to people and groups heavily invested in them, including in a certain wing of support for ex–community organizer, now Commander-in-Chief of US Armed Forces Barack Obama. We see those methods, for example, in the long post-1960s evolution of ACORN and, following ACORN’s partially self-inflicted decline, a series of reconstituted post-ACORNs today. We see them in the proliferation of NGOs, in which professionals of identity politics consciously oppose efforts by black and brown militants to develop serious class (read Marxist) politics. We hope that in giving Bardacke’s exceptional book the attention it deserves, we are contributing modestly to a deflation of these myths and are helping to clear the way for a class politics outside all the respectability and organizations of official society that Chavez cultivated from Day One.
-  The name of the organization evolved from NWFA to UFWOC to UFW to FWM. I will attempt to use the name it used in the period under discussion, but sometimes UFW as a generic term, the name by which it became best known. ↩
-  Student Non-Violent Coordination Committee, which evolved from a civil rights group in 1960 to one of the sources of the Black Power movement by 1965. ↩
-  Marshall Ganz, Why David Sometimes Wins (2009). ↩
-  In Germany, the DGB (Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund), the central trade union federation, established the Bank für Gemeinwirtschaft, which in 1982 was the ninth largest German bank. Earlier, in 1974, the DGB created a holding company BGAG, from various firms it controlled. The DGB’s construction company, Neue Heimat, originally created to build worker housing, wound up a sprawling network of 150 companies, including 60 abroad. In 1982, it sank into scandal involving top leaders of the DGB. The Israeli Histadrut (General Confederation of Israeli Workers) controlled an empire so vast that it was the second largest employer in Israeli after the state itself. In the United States and the United Kingdom, pension funds by the 1990s controlled more than half of all stocks, and in 2003, US unions controlled $12 trillion of the $17 trillion invested by pension funds. The trend had begun with the municipal union bailout of New York City. In 1976, Peter Drucker, the management theorist studied by the young Chavez, declared the United States the first country in which the wage laborers were the real owners of industry and controlled the capital markets. See João Bernardo and Luciano Pereira, Capitalismo sindical (2008). ↩
-  Mexican anarchist (1874–1922) and key figure in the 1910–1920 Mexican Revolution. ↩
-  Head of the AFL-CIO (previously AF of L) from 1952 to 1979. ↩
-  Also known as the Wagner Act, the main New Deal piece of labor legislation, which carefully excluded coverage for farmworkers and other marginal sectors of workers. ↩
-  See below. ↩
-  A form of visualization meditation which purports to raise IQs and tap “higher powers,” discredited as pseudo-science. ↩
-  Mutual self-help, largely apolitical. ↩
-  International Longshore and Warehousemen’s Union, which won the 1934 general strike in San Francisco and which has had closed shop contracts in west coast shipping ever since. ↩
-  A racially-integrated alternative delegation to the Democratic Party national convention in summer 1964, which demanded to be seated instead of the official white segregationist delegation from Mississippi. The liberal Democratic establishment maneuvered their ouster, basically ending the honeymoon between the Democratic Party and the still-ascendant black civil rights movement. ↩
-  Walter Reuther (1907–1970), head of the United Auto Workers from 1946 until his death in 1970, was by the 1960s a left-liberal icon and “labor statesman.” He played a key role in knifing the MFDP in 1964. ↩
-  Leader of west coast longshore (ILWU) for decades until his retirement in 1977. ↩
-  Head of the Teamsters from 1958 to 1971; disappeared in 1975. ↩
-  Catholic organization founded by Dorothy Day in 1933, oriented toward the poor. ↩
-  Took over leadership of the Teamsters in 1967 when Jimmy Hoffa went to prison; was president until 1981. ↩
-  An interesting but flawed portrait of the “courtier culture” of many US unions, including the Teamsters, is Robert Fitch, Solidarity for Sale (2006). ↩
-  Left-liberal US Senator from South Dakota, opposed Vietnam War but also called for wage freeze to stop inflation; massively defeated by Richard Nixon. ↩
-  The AIFLD was the AFL-CIO’s Cold War international arm, founded in 1962, promoting “free unions” against Communist and nationalist-oriented unions in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. It was dissolved in 1995 when John Sweeney’s “New Labor” took over the AFL-CIO. ↩
-  Miriam Pawel, The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement (2009). ↩
-  A not terribly critical but factual history of ACORN is John Atlas, Seeds of Change (2010). ↩