Field of Schemes

Mural of Cesar Chavez at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Academic Middle School, San Francisco, 2010.
Mural of Cesar Chavez at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Academic Middle School, San Francisco, 2010.

We have grown so accustomed to seeing the American labor movement in a state of decline—and coming under constant attack—that it is easy to dismiss the whole subject as a romanticized legacy of an aging progressive Left. I was reminded of this hazard during a recent conversation with a college student. When he asked what I studied, I said “labor,” whereupon the student replied: “Unions—I read about them once in my history class.”

This detached, antiquarian outlook comes in part from the familiar plotting of much of our writing about labor along a rise-and-fall narrative. The story of labor pre-1970 is one of promise and political partnerships, but the post-’70 labor story becomes one of decline and abandonment. While we cannot minimize the real damage wrought upon organized labor by the hostile incursions of neoliberalism and globalization, we need to remind ourselves that earlier generations of workers who faced enormous pressures from the outside nevertheless have organized to effectively claim the power to control their wages and working conditions.

This is why Frank Bardacke’s new landmark biography of United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez, Trampling Out the Vintage, is so important now—it serves as both a cautionary and inspirational tale that delimits the profound reach of grassroots field organizing, while also detailing the inward-looking drift of a labor leadership that wound up crowding out the key concerns of the union’s own members. Bardacke, a former social-justice activist, farmworker, and labor educator, is a deft and sensitive storyteller, and he’s produced an affecting dual portrait of both Chavez and the rank-and-file agricultural workers who aided his rise to power.

Chavez is most commonly remembered today as a hero saint of labor—a new leader from an immigrant background who emerged in the 1960s and, unlike the more hidebound labor leaders of that era, was able to energize and recruit New Leftists and social-justice activists. Still, in reconstructing Chavez’s own role in this organizing pantheon, Bardacke insists that the farmworkers themselves turned him into a leader:

The full history of the UFW . . . is not just a tale of how Cesar Chavez came out of obscurity to lead his new farmworker union to victory, although it is authentically that. It is also the story of the farmworkers who were at the center of the union’s strength in the fields, and how, once Chavez lost their support, the UFW was doomed.

And indeed, as Bardacke goes on to demonstrate, Chavez was shaped by multiple forces and people. A native of Yuma, Arizona, raised in a large family of farmworkers, he gravitated in his younger life from one mentor to another—in and out of the labor movement. There was Fred Ross, who represented Saul Alinsky in California; then a Christian Brother named Brother Gilbert; and then the Catholic Church. Along the way there were others, such as Chuck Dederich, founder of Synanon—a drug recovery group with a distinctly authoritarian strain, and a source of some unfortunate experiments in group dynamics that Chavez adapted for the UFW.

Chavez readily took what he learned from each of these figures and melded it into something wholly his own. And in each instance, he demanded that members of the union’s inner circle declare their loyalty to both him and his newly modified method. If UFW allies and members failed to fall in line with the program, Chavez wasted little time in deeming them suspect, and eventually he purged all those considered disloyal—even some of his closest and most trusted (and rational) staff.

The early success of the union was rooted, however, not in Chavez’s inner circle, but in the organic farmworker community itself and its allies, whom Bardacke calls “the history makers from Delano”—the California town that proved instrumental in the new union’s rise. Chavez’s ability to bring influential allies to the cause helped farmworkers to redress the skewed power dynamics of a labor-punishing agricultural economy—but the heart of the union leader’s appeal was his ability to galvanize them in the world they lived in. The union, through strikes and allied boycotts, was able to bring workers a hiring hall, health and welfare benefits, and higher and steadier wages. “For anyone who was not there,” writes Bardacke, “it may be hard to imagine that celery workers in the 1970s made what would be about $50 an hour in today’s economy.”

In Delano, this worker-centric approach meant taking the union’s case to three main institutions in the Southern California agricultural community. The first was a bar, People’s, that became in many ways a heart of the union—the place where the farmworkers and their allies met, argued, chaffed, and plotted. The other quasi-independent institutions were Teatro Campesino, a worker theater, and El Malcriado, a newspaper for the community. In these early days, the theater and newspaper opened up discussions that continued at People’s and the Pink House, the union hall. In those forums, workers were able to challenge the leadership, open up new avenues or topics for discussion, and educate themselves on the most pressing issues before the fledgling union. Chavez was a participant in these exchanges—an important one, no doubt—but he brought people over to his side more by force of his democratic example than by sheer personal charisma. He gained workers’ trust and respect through long hours of conversation and sharing in the union’s formative civic experiences. It was when Chavez changed this worker-centered method—via his fascination with Synanon and other methods of consolidating his personal power—that the UFW lost critical organizing momentum, creating distance between the movement and his leadership, and ultimately dooming the union.

The initial success of the union rested with the farmworkers’ ability to sustain their famous decades-long grape strike, while volunteers brought the boycott to the nation. The boycott clearly pushed the growers to settle, giving workers at the Schenley Corporation (the first to sign a contract with the UFW) $1.75 an hour and abolishing the use of labor contractors. Chavez later said “it was the boycott” that brought the victory. But unless the workers held strong, the boycott was only half a weapon. Over time, the UFW and Chavez seemed to forget this, instead relying on an army of volunteers—most of them nonfarmworkers—dedicated neither to the boycott nor the fields, and creating a union structure that lurched perilously beyond the workers and workplace.

There were, for example, no traditional local chapters of the UFW—only regional offices, staffed by volunteers. Looming large in this corps of Chavez supporters was a team of “Anglos” (often referred to as a “white kitchen cabinet”), such as Marshall Ganz and the former Brother Gilbert, LeRoy Chatfield—an inner circle that contained no workers, and no one close to workers. Alongside the Anglos were trusted “original” union members, all owing their positions to a personal relationship with Chavez. He paid their bills, since they were not on salary. This created a very dependent relationship, with any criticism of the embattled UFW founder leading to transfer or a withdrawal of resources—and, in some cases, an outright purge. And as the boycott surpassed the strike as the sole weapon in the union arsenal, these Anglo volunteers supplanted workers in the field as the union’s key operatives. “Chavez believed,” writes Bardacke, “that the volunteers, not the workers, were fundamental to the union’s success.”

A fateful decision, symbolically marking the end of the union’s great growth phase, came in 1971, when Chavez decided to move the union headquarters from Delano to La Paz, an isolated compound in Kern County. In the union’s new headquarters, the leadership became completely isolated from workers. “La Paz,” Bardacke observes, “became a primary marker in UFW history, an arena for mutual self-destruction that figuratively rivaled the cannibalism of the Donner Party.” It was from this insulated perch that Chavez decided to essentially declare war on illegal aliens, scapegoating them as the cause of the union’s decline. In 1973, the UFW set up “wet lines” along the Arizona-Mexico border to keep undocumented workers from entering the US and breaking the strike. In this effort, the UFW operated much like a traditional skilled-craft union, pursuing a strategy of limiting the labor supply.

Chavez’s strategic miscue on illegal immigration, combined with his distance from the fields, jeopardized his hold on the UFW—and the union’s weakened position emboldened the state’s powerful agribusiness interests, with their new GOP allies in the California House, to rescind their collective-bargaining agreements with Chavez’s lieutenants. The union died quickly. “In 1980,” writes Bardacke, “UFW contracts covered about 70 percent of Ventura’s lemon pickers. Five years later the UFW had no active contracts.”

In the end, Bardacke writes, Chavez’s peculiar rage for order proved his—and the union’s—undoing. “In keeping control of the UFW, he crippled it. He politically enfeebled its local leaders and divided its ranks. The union still had contracts, but it didn’t have a united membership to . . . protect them. La Paz had smothered the farm worker soul of the union. The body would wither and die. Only the head would live on.” In other words, Bardacke’s study gives us an unflinching view of the UFW’s rise and decline—emerging largely from a series of self-inflicted ills.

Richard Greenwald, a professor of history and sociology, is dean at St. Joseph’s College in New York. He is the coeditor of the forthcoming Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America (New Press, 2012).