Monday, April 02, 2012

Cesar Chavez, Dissent, and Nelson Lichtenstein

Duane Campbell and Cesar Chavez, 1972. 

 by Duane E. Campbell
   Dissent Magazine has a review of Frank Bardacke’s book on the Cesar Chavez written by Nelson Lichtenstein,  Director of the Student of Work, Labor and Democracy at U.C. Santa Barbara.  The review is here.
While there are some distinct strengths to the Bardacke book I also find some strong drawbacks which Lichtenstein did not deal with.   I wrote a response to the Lichtenstein review but Dissent decided to not post nor print my response.  Here is my response.      I think that these issues concerning Chavez and the UFW deserve a response, not because Chavez is above reproach, which he wasn’t, but because the Chavez -Huerta, Vera Cruz legacy of the UFW has made a strong and lasting contribution to Chicano/Latino politics.
The review of Frank Bardacke’s book,  Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers,  by Nelson Lichtenstein that appears in the Winter 2012 Dissent does an excellent job of describing some of the issues in farm worker organizing in California and of summarizing the views of Bardacke in his book.   It also makes some strong arguments about union organizing and repeats several unfortunate claims about Cesar Chavez and the union.
            Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. (2011, Verso). is the view of a well- informed observer  who  worked in the lettuce fields near Salinas for six seasons,  then spent  another 25 years  teaching English to  farm workers  in the Watsonville, California  area. His views on the growth and decline of the United Farm Workers union – some of which I do not share–  offer  important points of history and reflection  for unionists today.
            Lichtenstein in his review  summarizes well  some of this important issues and he reveals his own position in claims such as , “ instead he focuses his narrative onto the next decade when Chavez became increasingly self-destructive  leader even as an enormously hopeful wave of farm worker militancy exploded across the state..” By the way.  Why was there an explosion of militancy ? Perhaps it was the development of hope for change provided by the early UFW victories.

Trampling Out the Vintage, provides several insights including those of the   important  differences between grape workers and  workers in row crops such as lettuce; the length of time workers were in the UFW,  the more settled family nature of grape workers, the strength of each  type of ranch committees,  the leadership of ranch crews  ( and thus the potential differences in creating democratic accountability), and the differing histories of worker militancy in  different  crops.  The author correctly argues that each of these led to somewhat different organizing environment in building the  union.
We do not have to project a “self destructive leader” as does Lichtenstein, nor to blame Chavez’ s Catholicism and mysticism as does Bardacke.  These significant differences developed as a consequences of different experiences in organizing.
In 1962 Cesar Chavez made the decision to organize  the settled mostly  Mexican American workforce in and around Delano - a grape growing region in California’s Central Valley.    Based upon his prior work with Community Services Organization (CSO)  [U1] and his training by Fred Ross in the Saul Alinksy tradition, Chavez  decided to organize entire families into an association, not just the workers into a union.   This required, for example, organizing women as family members and as  workers.  Most of the working families had settled in the area; they had roots,  they stayed year- around rather than migrating from place to place.  Chavez saw this population as  a  base for building a permanent organization. The decision to focus on Delano and its semi-permanent grape workers was a choice to  not focusing on recently arrived Mexican workers – those whom Bardacke worked among in the Salinas valley.  Bardacke criticizes the decision by  Chavez and Dolores Huerta to organize  the more family-established Mexican Americans rather than the more migrant Mexican workers in the vegetable and row crops. 
            As an example of the importance of this issue, Bardacke reports on the sharp differences in views those who thought that the struggles in Salinas could be won by strikes and work stoppages (paros) and the Chavez, Huerta, Executive Board position to depend more upon building a boycott.  These differences led to sharp divisions in the union.  The two groups had learned different lessons from their different experiences in the fields.   The Chavez, Huerta group insisted upon the strength of the boycott.  That is what their experiences had taught them.  The Mario Bustamante, Mojica, side, and author Bardacke, wanted to push for extensive strikes and work stoppages, perhaps a general strike, including preventing strikebreakers from harvesting enough crops.   This direct workplace action approach is what their experience had taught them.  The two groups of union activists had learned different lessons from their different experiences of confronting corporate –grower and racist power.
In my view Bardacke under analyzes the nature of the racial state and  the interaction of racial and economic oppression in the fields of California and in the U.S.  .While he  makes some brief references to a role of  Chicano or Mexican nationalism within the UFW,  these are not analyzed in depth.   Specific incidents of police and political repression  are treated as abuses of power rather than a  racially constructed system of oppression.   All  the previous attempts to organize farm workers were broken with violence along racial lines.
The role of racism, and the individual reactions to systemic structural   racial oppression are complex and  vary in part based upon the differences in experiences of the participants.  As the Chicano movement argued  at its core- the experiences of U.S. born and reared  Mexican Americans and Chicanos were different than the experiences and the perceptions of racism of Mexican immigrants, both documented and undocumented.   There are a diversity of racisms and a diversity in the manner in which workers   learn to  respond  to oppression.  Chicanos and Mexican Americans grew up, were educated, and worked in an internal colony.  Their schools, their unions, and their political experiences were structured along racial  lines.  They learned colonized structures.   Bardacke does not sufficiently  acknowledge  the struggle of the UFW and the Chicano Movement in breaking this colonial legacy.
             Mexican migrants had a difficult life under an oppressive one-party state at home,  but usually  did not suffer  this internalized colonialism.  Bardacke reports on these differences in his descriptions of  the early lives of  rank and file leaders Mario Bustamante,  Hermilo Mojica,  Marcos Munoz  and others.  Their struggle in the fields  was initially primarily a workers struggle for economic justice.
Different organizers learned different things from their experiences.  Perhaps a mass strike could have won in 1972, perhaps not, we do not know.    Marshall Ganz in Why David Sometimes Wins,  does a better job than does Bardacke in describing some of the racial fault lines of  farm worker organizing.  Ganz was  director of organizing  for the UFW in Salinas and a long time member of the UFW executive board.  He  notes, the unions were organized along ethnic lines- as were the growers and the political power of  dominant Anglo  political forces. ( Ganz P.161)  Since the organizations were structured along racial and  ethnic  lines, it is peculiar then to have  Bardacke describe  conflicts between the UFW and its opponents  as if they were  primarily economic in nature.   Barnacke discusses   the volatile  issues of racism  as primarily about   Chavez’s liberal supporters – by which he means largely white or Anglo supporters.  There were  additional issues of racial and ethnic conflict within the union responding internally  in part to the rise of Chicano nationalism.
            What we can agree upon is that the UFW failed to gain sufficient strength to survive as a union representing the vast number of farmworkers.
            The failure to gain strength is not surprising.  Compare the period of  decline of 1977-1986 in the UFW to the complex battles of  the Reuther Brothers to gain control and to keep control of the  United Auto Workers, including the UAW’s relationship with the AFL-CIO . (1949- 1970).  The UAW went from 1.5 million members in 1979 to 390,000 in 2010, and the United Steelworkers and other unions  suffered similar declines. Is it any wonder that the smaller, less established, less well funded UFW suffered dramatic  declines  from racial oppression and the brutal  assault on the union  in the fields of  Texas, Arizona and California?
Did the UFW decline?   Yes.  Did farm workers lose the substantial gains in wages and working conditions they had won in the 1970’s? Absolutely. How do unions build a movement when undocumented workers can replace strikers ?  This issue has continued to divide and defeat unions in the U.S.
Lichtenstein follows Bardacke in criticizing Chavez as “obsessed” in not following up on the California Agricultural Labor Relations law passed during the term of then, and current governor Jerry Brown.   Well, the UFW did follow up.  They won the vast majority of the elections.  But then, and now, elections did not result in contracts.  The problem was not Chavez’s obsession, it was that this law is not working.
   Bardacke    spends a great deal of time on the purges of UFW activists, organizers, and volunteers  in 1977 -1981 period.  While often  presented as anticommunist decisions  by Chavez and an example of his “obsessions”  many of the dismissals were for lack of loyalty to Chavez and his decisions as the final arbiter of all issues in the union.   Their had been dismissals all along the history of the UFW, including in 1972.   Some of those dismissed in the 80’s were active supporters of the dismissals in the  70’s.  Some of the “purges”  were based upon left politics, and some of the dismissals were based upon other differences, including differing views of the best direction for the union. 
As a leftist myself for over forty years (DSA) , and an observer of some of these events,  I argue that some of these dismissals may have been  legitimate.  If you follow the role of the Progressive Labor Party in the region, or the efforts of the Communist Party M-L, there were real problems.  One was the effort to take over the newspaper El Malcriado.   Leftists are not always responsible allies.   There was reason for concerns.   
In the Chavez-Huerta direction of organizing, as developed by Alinsky and the CSO, left ideologues are often seen as a problem and at times manipulative.  I am not claiming that any specific firing was legitimate. .   Bardacke does describe some cases where honest, dedicated volunteers were purged after being  accused of being communists.  This was appalling.  And, I do not know the Chavez’s state of mind at the time.  Nor does Bardacke.   I don’t know about the other cases.   However, there was reasons for concern.   And, other leftists continued to work with and support the UFW for decades.  Dolores Huerta is an Honorary Chair of DSA, and Eliseo Medina is an Honorary Vice Chair.  Philip Vera Cruz was a clear leftist and he left the union for reasons other than his left politics. 
There were dismissals and  staff leavings for a variety of  reasons.   Some of the most significant dismissals were not about left nor right, but were about issues of both policy differences and personal loyalties.
We know that social movements emerge, are organized, grow and then are institutionalized – or they decline. Few unions have been able to create democratic internal culture.  Few social movements have been able to maintain their momentum for more than a decade and they leave behind little of institutional power except small  advocacy groups.  Where are the examples of unions building a democratic process which fights for their jobs?   Certainly not the rival Teamsters union in the canneries and packing houses  of California.
Lets recognize a labor leader and an innovator.   Cesar Chavez Day is a state holiday in California – one of eight states to recognize the  date, and one of the few holidays  in the nation  dedicated  to a labor leader.  This is the 50th. anniversary of the founding of the UFW.

 I recommend the book  Trampling Out the Vintage and the review for serious students of the Farmworker Movement who wish to learn of the diverse perspectives of the struggles in the fields.   There are major issues of leadership and organization to be considered.  In particular the book is excellent on the struggle in the Salinas /Watsonville lettuce area.   There is a longer review of the book here.   and, there is much more to be said.
I do not recommend it as a sole or primary source on UFW history or the history of Cesar Chavez.   Rather it should be read  in conjunction with other sources on the UFW including Marshal Ganz’s Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement,  Randy Shaw’s  Beyond the Fields; Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st. Century and the extensive sources available on the Farmworker Movement Documentation Project
Duane Campbell , professor emeritus of Bilingual/Multicultural Education at California State  University-Sacramento,  worked with the UFW as a volunteer from 1972-1976. He then collaborated with Bert Corona on immigrants-rights efforts.
His most recent book is Choosing Democracy: a practical guide to multicultural education.  (2010) He is currently  chair of Sacramento Democratic Socialists of America and chair of the Chicano/Mexican American Digital History Project for the Sacramento region. 
For information on the projects, go HERE []

 [U1]Spell the name out in first rererence.

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