Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Strategic Racism and the Contested Legacy of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta

 On March 31, Eleven  states will hold holidays celebrating  labor and Latino leader Cesar Chavez.   A new film Cesar Chavez: History is Made One Step at a Time,  starring  Michael Peña   as Cesar Chavez and  Rosario Dawson  as Dolores Huerta opens in cities across the country on April 4, 2014.  Here is a trailer.
There is a film review by Randy Shaw in the post below.
Let us be clear.  Chavez was religious, but he was not a saint. Neither were the growers, the Teamster collaborators, nor corporate agribusiness saints.  Celebrations should not be about hero worship or uncritical praise, nor should we ignore the present oppression of farm workers in the U.S. 
What Chavez and Huerta did  accomplish along with Philip Vera Cruz ,  Marshall Ganz, LeRoy Chatfield, Gil Padilla and  hundreds of others was to   organize in California the first successful farm worker union against overwhelming odds.
With Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, and others Chávez and Huerta  deliberately created a multiracial union; Mexican,  Mexican American, Filipino, African-American, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Arab workers, among others, have been part of the UFW.  This cross-racial organizing  was necessary in order to combat the  prior divisions and exploitations of workers based upon race and language. Dividing the workers on racial and  language lines, as well as immigration status  always left the corporations the winners.

Each of the prior attempts to organize a  farm worker union  had been  destroyed by racism and corporate power. Chávez chose to build a union that incorporated the strategies of social movements and community organizing.  They allied the union   with churches, students,  and organized labor.  The successful creation of the UFW changed the nature of labor organizing  in the Southwest  and contributed significantly to the growth  of Latino politics in the U.S.

The UFW and Chavez and Huerta have always had severe critics from the Right and  from corporate agriculture.  Dolores Huerta  has  been   banned from the history text books in Texas and Arizona as too radical, in part because she is an Honorary Chair of DSA.   Both  also have critics from the left.  
 Miriam Pawel in The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement (2009)  writing from an individualist, personality based approach  asserts that Chavez himself organized “Witch hunts” to expel union staff who disagreed with his leadership.  And, she argues that UFW support organizations “ parlayed the memory of Cesar Chavez into millions of dollars of public and private donations.” P.329.   These charges are well refuted in a review of the book by LeRoy Chatfield  of the Farmworker Movement Documentation Project.
  On the other hand Cesar Chavez was  given the U.S. Presidential  Medal of Freedom posthumously  in 1994, and Dolores Huerta ( A DSA Honorary Chair) was given the Medal of Freedom in 2012.  They have schools, scholarships, foundations,  organizing institutes and political organizations named after them.  Few  labor or Latino leaders  have achieved such positive recognition.   
What the left critics allege,
Frank Bardacke’s Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. (2011), Verso.  and Bruce Neuberger Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of  Work and Struggle in the Fields of California (2012)  provide  well informed views of the struggle in the lettuce  fields in  Salinas Valley,  Reviews of these books have been published on Talking Union.
But these books, along with  Miriam Pawel’s The Union of Their Dreams,  argue  a peculiar point of view:  they strongly imply that current  problems of exploitation of workers  in farm labor was caused by the destructive behavior of  Cesar Chavez,  his instability, and his ego  rather than by corporate agriculture and not by the racist state in rural California.
I, for one, wonder why these authors and  some  other left writers  see the major problem as the growth of a legend and myths about Cesar Chavez rather than the major problem being the role of corporate agriculture, exploitation and racism. When  writers take this view,  they then  need to explain why and how the parallel decline of the Teamsters, the ILGWU, the Auto Workers , the Steelworkers, the IAM, and other unions  occurred during this  same era.
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.
It doesn’t require a theory of emotional instability and personal  character failings   to explain that the smaller, less established, less well funded  union – the UFW-  suffered dramatic  declines  from racial oppression and the brutal  assault on the union  in the fields of  Texas, Arizona and California.
The above critics under play the role of the corporate assault on unions, and in particular the assault on a union led by  Mexican American leaders. This was, after all,  the era when  Ronald Reagan came to power in California and  the organization of the forces that came to be called neo-liberalism.  It was also a time of  consolidation of racial power in agriculture. 
This isn’t to say that Chavez, Huerta and many on the UFW Executive Board  did not have shortcomings.  They did . Marshall Ganz, who was a leader in the union and a participant in the internal struggles, tells a more complex and more complete story in his book, Why David Sometimes Wins. (2009) See  a review here;
Ganz describes  several of the issues  in his  book and in interviews he participated in for the new book, From the Jaws of Victory by   Matt  Garcia (2012).  Ganz  provide  insightful observations on the dynamics of a union trying to transition from a movement to a union- or to something else. 
There were conflicts and  internal contradictions.  Not  many movements last for even ten years let alone 30.    In addition to the assault from corporate agriculture, the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan, neoliberalism and racism, the UFW was confronted  internal union struggles for democracy,  an intra union assault by the Teamsters,  and with the tumultuous and disruptive  politics on the left in the 60’s and 70’s.
In my opinion, Bardacke, Pawell, and Neuberger under analyze  the nature of the racial state and  the interaction of racial and economic oppression in the fields.  As a consequence, these  critics significantly  failed  to see the they dynamics of  the struggle for  Chicano/Mexican American self determination within the UFW.
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 ; Anglo, Mexican, Mexican-American, etc.  The authors do not  sufficiently  acknowledge  the struggle of the UFW and the Chicano Movement in breaking the  colonial legacy of oppression in the fields and in the Southwest.
Marshall Ganz in Why David Sometimes Wins,  does a better job of describing the internal dynamics of UFW organizing- after all he was there.  He describes  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.
Chavez knew well some of  the failings of unions  in the 1960’s, including  the problems of a growing internal bureaucracy, but the UFW in the 1980’s  was not able to create a viable  democratic union.    Ganz  argues that Chavez deconstructed the organizational strength of the UFW in the 1979 -1981 period in an effort to keep personal control of the union.  (p. 247 )
The critics  who blame two individuals for the union’s decline  also miss the important rise of Latino politics in the Southwest.   The UFW and Chavez played an important role in organizing and training of generations of  future leaders as described  in Randy Shaw’s, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st. Century.   The UFW was a  place  where hundreds of current union leaders and politicians learned organizing skills, politics, discipline, and how to work in  union and movement politics. 
The Current Situation- Strategic Racism
The movement led by Cesar Chavez  and Dolores Huerta  and others  created a union that  reduced the oppression of farm workers -for a time.   Workers  learned to not accept poor jobs, poor pay,  unsafe working conditions as natural or inevitable.  Then the corporations and the Right Wing forces adapted their strategies of oppression and regained control in the fields.   

The current reconquest of power in the fields is an example  of strategic racism, that is a system of racial oppression created and enforced because it benefits the over class- in this case corporate agriculture and farm owners.  Strategic racism as described by Ian Haney López is the development and implementation of practices because they benefit a group or a class.  The current renewed oppression is a product  of strategic racism including  a complex structure of institutions and individuals from police and sheriffs, to immigration authorities and anti immigrant activists, and elected officials and their support networks.  These groups foster and promote inter racial conflict  and job competition as a strategy to keep wages and benefits low, to prevent unions, and  to promote their continuing white supremacy in rural California.

As the union was  weakened by the Right Wing corporate assault, the conditions in the fields returned almost to their prior level of exploitation.  Workers  do  continue to have a few health, safety and wage protections of  California labor laws along with the right to  farm worker collective bargaining elections and binding arbitration  established significantly by the political activity of the current UFW – more than farm workers have in any other state.
            I recommend the movie and  well informed consideration of these complex events.
Duane Campbell,
Cesar Chavez and Duane Campbell, Sacramento. 1972.

Duane Campbell is a professor emeritus of bilingual multicultural education at California State University Sacramento, a union activist, and chair of Sacramento DSA. (Democratic Socialists of America).  He was a volunteer for the UFW from 1972- 1977. He is the Director of the Mexican American Digital History project.


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