In the watch fires of a hundred circling camps

Trampling Out the Vintage:

Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers

COMING OF age in the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s, it was almost impossible to not hear about Cesar Chavez, the man most often identified with beginning the United Farm Workers (UFW). If one shopped in a grocery store or ate at a college cafeteria, one was often met with someone handing them a leaflet asking to boycott table grapes or lettuce. These boycotts were related to the farmworkers’ struggle in the fields for better wages and working conditions. When I lived in California in the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, the UFW was still a force that commanded respect among workers and hatred from many businessmen. When I worked out of the day labor office in Berkeley, California, calls would occasionally come in for a few dozen farm laborers. The crops included garlic, artichokes, or some other crop that some of us knew was being organized by the UFW. There was no way I or any of my friends were going to scab. So, when a call came in, we would tell people that they were being called on to cross picket lines. Usually, most people would then refuse to get on the bus or truck taking laborers to the fields. 

Until 2011, there had not been a critical and comprehensive history published about the UFW and Cesar Chavez. Former Berkeley activist, farmworker, and California schoolteacher Frank Bardacke corrected that. Trampling Out the Vintage is primarily an instructive and detailed history of one of US labor’s most inspiring unions and a narrative of the rise of a people and their challenge to monopoly capital. It is frank in its discussion of the union and its primary movers. In addition to being a detailed and impeccably researched history of the UFW, it also tells the story of the man most identified with the pioneering union. The book is not a whitewash or hagiography. Instead, Trampling Out the Vintage is a clear-eyed narrative and analysis of the successes and mistakes made by a group of men and women trying to organize a section of the US working class notoriously difficult to organize. 

The UFW did not represent the first efforts to organize farmworkers. That occurred in the 1930s. It was from that history, though, that Cesar Chavez received his inspiration. He learned his organizing approach from adherents of Saul Alinsky and applied it to the situation in the fields. Despite cynicism from other labor organizers and fellow farmworkers, Chavez believed the task he had chosen was possible. Bardacke tells a story of a man who, with a few others, made his vision of a farmworkers union a powerful and visible reality—in fact, a force to be reckoned with and a force that the growers made every effort to defeat. 

Trampling Out the Vintage is first and foremost the story of how the UFW forever changed the relationship of the farmworkers to their work and the businesses that owned their workplaces. It is a case study in how to build a union among some of capitalism’s most exploited workers. “Getting workers out of the fields required no special authority in 1970,” writes Bardacke of the 1970 lettuce strike in Salinas. “The picketing was a massive, enthusiastic demonstration of power and authority.” 

Trampling Out the Vintage is also, however, a study in what can go wrong. As Bardacke tells it, under Chavez’s control, the UFW faced a constant struggle over the definition of its purpose. Was it a union or was it a movement? This is an important question because it defined how the UFW organized. Those in the organization that considered it a union naturally wanted to focus their organizing efforts on the workers themselves and their struggles on the job. Those in the organization that considered the UFW to be more of a movement for farmworkers and, by default Mexican-Americans (foremost among this group was Chavez himself), were more intent on reaching out to liberal donors, clergy, politicians, and supporters. 

The workers in the field never bothered with that distinction. As Bardacke makes clear, whenever he describes an action in the fields or a meeting of the workers, the UFW was their hope, their army, the embodiment of their pride as working people, and a testament to their worth. As the union slowly gained a place in the fields and in the workers hearts, it also became part of their identity. Unfortunately, the leadership occasionally assumed this allegiance meant they had free rein to conduct things however they saw fit. Bardacke describes a repeating scenario where successful strike actions in the fields that had potential to lead to broader actions and genuine contracts were called off by the head office, only to be replaced by a call by Chavez to his liberal supporters for another boycott. Echoing some of the union’s top organizers, Bardacke contends that the UFW ultimately failed as a union because it did not build a relationship with the workers but focused instead on building one with politicians and donors.

An aspect of the UFW leadership’s policies that not only reflected its distance from the reality in the fields but also the anti-internationalism of most US unions was the UFW’s targeting of undocumented workers. Although the number of them working the fields in the early 1970s was small compared to those numbers since the early 1990s, Chavez and much of his top leadership saw their presence as a problem and a hindrance in the UFW’s struggle to organize US farmworkers. At this point, the UFW could have done two things: It could have embraced the presence of undocumented immigrants and included them in their organizing efforts, or it could treat them like scabs and use whatever means necessary to chase them from the fields. The leadership of the UFW chose the latter course. 

This strategy ultimately backfired, as more and more Latinos came across the southern borders to do the work of agribusiness at a lower cost than unionized workers. By the time the UFW changed its strategy, it was often too late. Its reputation among the undocumented workers was poor. Naturally, the growers and corporate buyers manipulated this fact. Indeed, the growers and the Teamsters, which in the fields of California acted much like a company union, pounced on every mistake made by the UFW leadership. 

The union Bardacke describes in Trampling Out the Vintage is a union torn between democracy and autocracy, between worker power and the presence of a powerful and charismatic leader. Bardacke acknowledges the personal conflicts between staff members in the UFW, but to his credit he keeps the politics, not personalities, at the forefront. Chavez’s politics were at times puzzling and not only alienated supporters and union staff, but ran counter to reality. This was never clearer than in his support of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos. 

Bardacke also describes Chavez’s penchant for blaming failures of the union on communists within the organization instead of on poor decisions at the top. This blindness, combined with what can only be termed a lack of faith in the workers, meant that Chavez’s UFW was setting itself up for failure. The reality of Chavez’s megalomania was that the divide between the workers and union leadership became an unbridgeable chasm.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Bardacke’s narrative, it is that the power of a union is first and foremost with its members. This book is an expansive, readable study of one of the more meaningful struggles of the twentieth century and an instruction book for anyone interested in organizing workers to regain the wealth that they create. 


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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