The struggle of farm workers

From the Jaws of Victory:

The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement

MARTIN LUTHER King Jr., Malcolm X, and Cesar Chavez followed similar paths: lifetimes of courageous struggle against elite power, embraced in death as saints by elites coopting the aspirations of the disenfranchised. Their popular legacies, while still contested by those committed to their causes, are now dominated by pro-establishment whitewashing. Rescuing the real Chavez, however, means not uncovering a radical behind the liberal legend, but coming to terms with a profoundly flawed leader deserving of perhaps as much blame as credit from the movement he built. Among many farm workers’ movement veterans active in California social justice issues since the 1970s, this understanding of Chavez has been an open secret. With the decline of the United Farm Workers’ union (UFW), and thus absent the pressure to avoid unintentionally assisting the growers, non-hagiographic accounts such as Marshal Ganz’s Why David Sometimes Wins (2009) and Frank Bardacke’s Trampling Out the Vintage (2012) have exposed unpleasant facts and opened debates on how to explain the failures. Matt Garcia’s From the Jaws of Victory continues the trend.

Garcia writes engagingly, and the oft-told story of the union’s rise inspires here again. Chavez, born to a family of farm laborers in Yuma, Arizona, joined and came to lead the Community Service Organization (CSO) founded by Fred Ross, Sr., protégé of community organizing theorist Saul Alinsky. While implicitly anti-leftist, Alinsky’s approach nevertheless stressed patience, leadership development, and deference to the views and needs of community members, all within a framework of professionally staffed and foundation-funded groups. In 1962, Chavez abruptly left the CSO, with a handful of followers and virtually no money, to organize a union of farm workers.

Patience and a community organizing orientation paid off in the coming years. Chavez and fellow organizer Gilbert Padilla established contacts among Mexican laborers across California’s Central Valley, at one point leading a rent strike of 300 families in the Woodville labor camp near Tulare. Meanwhile, an AFL-CIO sponsored organizing drive happened in parallel. Future United Farm Workers’ (UFW) leaders Larry Itliong and Phillip Veracruz built with an emphasis on organizing workers through their contractors, many of whom were Filipino. Competition between the two proto-unions spurred Itliong to initiate the great grape strike in 1965. As Padilla remembers, “Cesar was afraid to call a strike,” but came around when his own members pushed for it. Though Itliong got the jump on him, Chavez’ better-cultivated base meant he would win the presidency of the UFW when the AFL-CIO brokered the merger founding it in 1966. Tensions between Filipino and Mexican members later flared when Chavez visited and defended Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Here Garcia’s narrative takes an odd turn. The remainder of the book focuses on relations among staff, volunteers, and the union’s international network of grape Boycott Houses. Actual farm workers’ organizing, strikes, and experiences are glaringly absent. Garcia acknowledges as much, explaining that historical records exist for UFW staff and volunteers, but not for workers. Perhaps time or monetary constraints prevented him from interviewing farm workers to compensate. But the one-sided result, while revealing important dynamics, fails to explain the UFW’s trajectory.

The Boycott Houses’ success defied labor orthodoxy and Chavez’ own expectations. Before the union had more than several thousand members, key growers surrendered to the boycott, recognized the union, and signed contracts. Staffer Jerry Brown (no relation to the later California Governor) rigorously analyzed key grape markets in the US and abroad, and House organizers autonomously developed locally effective boycott campaigns in their cities. The boycott succeeded in the context of civil rights and New Left-era consumer consciousness, but on a foundation of support from powerful port, transportation, and grocery unions in the United States, England, and Scandinavia.

The most useful sections of the book detail the ensuing war between the Teamsters’ union and the UFW. New Teamsters’ President Frank Fitzsimmons sought to counter indicted ex-leader Jimmy Hoffa’s eastern loyalists by building up membership in the union’s Western Conference. This dovetailed with President Nixon’s early neoliberal approach to 1971’s US trade deficit—the first in the 20th century. Nixon used trade negotiations and promotion to boost California’s agricultural exports, thus reducing the trade deficit. This explains Nixon’s hard line against Chavez and the UFW, in comparison to his attempt to coopt other civil rights leaders with rhetoric about a procapitalist version of “Black Power.” Nixon instead allied with Fitzsimmons as the lesser union evil, pardoning Fitzsimmons’ rival Hoffa but barring Hoffa from participating in the Teamsters for ten years. Thus blessed, Fitzsimmons perceived a green light to compete with the UFW to organize California farm workers. He broke ranks with labor to endorse Nixon for President in 1972.

But despite the thuggery unleashed by Teamster loyalists in the infamous “Battle of Coachella,” most farm workers preferred a union that didn’t regard them as racially inferior dues machines. Strikes, boycotts, and interunion violence raged in the early 1970s, and when the dust settled the Teamster Goliath, with its gigantic financial and membership advantage (nearly 100 to 1), concluded an agreement with Chavez to leave field workers to the UFW. Newly elected Governor Brown, for his part, sought to end 10 years of instability in state agriculture with the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), intended to be favorable to the UFW by facilitating union elections. Garcia proffers abstract criticism of the UFW’s ALRA strategy, lamely citing “social theorists” to the effect that entanglement with state institutions inherently invites defeat for social movements. No doubt such involvement does bring serious dangers, but unions must navigate amid myriad capitalist social relations, not least the inherently exploitative institution of wage labor itself. Garcia doesn’t clarify why ALRA was a greater threat in theory or in the UFW’s actual history.

ALRA’s initial staff blatantly favored the growers, and the need to file election petitions, negotiate contracts, and service members overwhelmed the inexperienced union. But farm-by-farm election successes began to stack up, especially with the Teamsters out of the way. Even when ALRA was defunded by pro-grower state legislators and the UFW lost badly in an initiative battle to improve state labor law (Proposition 14), the desert and coastal valleys boasted surging membership, with the potential for the UFW to run the table organizing the farms.

Garcia claims that Chavez broke down emotionally with the defeat of Prop 14. He contrasts Chavez’ earlier openness and collaboration (with staff, not workers) with an increasingly stubborn, autocratic, and paranoid style after 1975. The book climaxes with transcripts of two 1977 Executive Board meetings in which Chavez insists that the union model itself on the bizarre substance-abuse treatment cult, Synanon. Much to the frustration of E-Board members Marshall Ganz and Eliseo Medina—leaders of the growing regional organizing efforts—the UFW began to drift from its organizing mission.

Chavez’ close friend Chuck Dederich, founder of Synanon, turned his followers into compliant cultists through highly confrontational and demeaning group pressure meetings called “The Game.” Chavez implemented The Game at headquarters, included E-Board members, and tried to spread the practice to the whole union. Purges of those suspected of disloyalty or Marxist views accompanied this, with the cumulative result that many left the UFW, and supporters began to question it. Widespread resistance to “The Game” limited its spread and ended the practice within two years.

Shocking as Chavez’ behavior was, the emotional breakdown thesis is hard to prove, and in any case of limited use. More fruitful, but unexplored by Garcia, are possible ideological roots of Chavez’ “one man, one vision” approach in both the contradictions of Alinskyism, and in his connection to the Catholic cursillos de cristiandad movement.

Garcia paints The Game episode as the leading cause of the UFW’s decline. But while it clearly tarnished the union’s image and drove away good people, it was practiced little among the 50,000 or so members under contract (with thousands more represented) at the end of the 1970s. In 1979 a militant strike wave occurred in the Imperial Valley, opposed by Chavez. The main areas of union strength saw an autonomous workers’ movement that Chavez could not control, leading to the first ever independent, rank-and-file candidacies for the UFW Executive Board. In 1981 Chavez fired these leaders and changed union rules to prevent candidacies outside of his control. Soon after, the union began hemorrhaging members, many disillusioned by these practices and other manipulative, top-down maneuvers. In this context, the “Game” episode appears merely as a flagrant example of a leadership style that played out more damagingly in relations with actual farm workers.

Today the UFW, with around 5,000 members, is no longer the leading farm worker organization. But Chavez’ mystique gives those connected to him outsized influence. Marshall Ganz ran the “grassroots” part of Obama’s presidential campaign, Dolores Huerta intervenes with a high profile in immigration-reform politics, and Eliseo Medina sits on the Executive Board of the powerful Service Employees’ International Union. More and more unions adopt UFW methods in organizing and contract campaigns. The turn toward Latino workers, to social justice unionism, and the embrace of student volunteers championed especially by Change to Win Coalition unions (of which the UFW is one) represent the pervasiveness of the best of Chavez’ legacy. All of this also remains tied to undemocratic and conservative politics like those that ultimately ruined the UFW. One can get a sense of these issues from Garcia’s book, but with a worker-centered focus, others have told the story better.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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