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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLkfMrqAmD0
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.
Yet they continue to be repeated as factual in other labor sources. see: http://talkingunion.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/a-union-of-their-dreams-becomes-a-nightmarehas-ufw-history-been-replayed-in-seiu/
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. http://talkingunion.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/its-a-long-way-from-delano-to-watsonville-a-review/
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; http://talkingunion.wordpress.com/2009/10/16/why-david-sometimes-wins-marshall-ganz/
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.
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. www.MexicanAmericanDigitalHistory.org