/And the Farmworkers Are Still Poor

And the Farmworkers Are Still Poor

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A Review of Frank Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (New York: Verso), 742pp, hardcover, $54.95.*

Frank Bardacke labored over this book for fifteen years. We can be grateful that he didn’t give up. This is the best history ever written of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Cesar Chavez. It explains better than any other book how the UFW under Chavez’s leadership became in the 1960s and 1970s one of the most remarkable and successful unions in U.S. history but then crashed and burned so breathtakingly fast that by the end of the 1980s it had pretty much disappeared from the fields.  Bardacke relies on primary sources—letters, interviews, personal papers, archives, newspaper accounts, court and police records, his own considerable experiences as a farm laborer (He spent six seasons in the fields between 1971 and 1979. A minor political conflict with the union during the 1979 lettuce strike led to his blacklisting by both the growers and the union, and this forced him to take up other employment). In the main, he lets the record speak for itself, avoiding the apologetics or the rancor we typically find in books, articles, and reviews about the UFW and Chavez.

Several things set Bardacke’s history apart from everything that preceded it. First, he pays attention to the farm workers themselves, to their organizing history, the nature of their work, and the changes that have taken place in their industry. His descriptions of the skilled, difficult, and body-destroying work of harvesting lettuce, celery, broccoli, asparagus, and lemons are among the most moving and beautifully written parts of the book. They help to foreground the author’s demonstration that the organization of farm workers did not spring suddenly from the will of Cesar Chavez. As Bardacke shows with scores of examples, agricultural workers have been doing battle with their employers for nearly one hundred years. Their skills, the short time the growers have to get crops harvested, and the self-organization of the workers, especially those who toiled as part of  tightly-knit teams, all combined to create a sense of potential power, power that became reality when conditions were propitious.

Second, Bardacke delves into Cesar Chavez’s life in more depth than anyone ever has, giving him insights that are critical to an explanation of the historical trajectory of the UFW. Unlike most of the union’s members, Chavez’s parents owned a small farm and suffered sharp downward social and economic mobility when they lost it in 1939 and had to work in the fields. The anger he felt because of this was not the same as that experienced by another UFW stalwart and founder, Gilbert Padilla, who was born into a farmworker family, worked in the fields as a young child, and learned class consciousness as he lived his life. Padilla had a natural affinity with the workers that Chavez never had, and he was not nearly as anticommunist as was Cesar. Chavez also identified more as a Mexican-American (a Chicano) than as a Mexican. The first workers in the UFW were settled vineyard laborers and not migrants. Chavez had a lifelong antipathy for the unsettled Mexicans who soon enough comprised the majority of California’s farmworkers.

Cesar Chavez was also a devout and conservative Catholic. He embraced both the “social action” philosophy of Pope Leo XIII, which recognized certain rights of working people, and the strictly hierarchical structure of the Church. Under the tutelage of Saul Alinsky and Fred Ross, Chavez was able to blend his Catholicism with Alinsky’s community organizing techniques to become a master organizer, first in community action groups and then in his union. He came to believe with Alinsky and Ross that organizing could be taught and that the organizer was the critical actor in all efforts to build political power. At first, he also accepted the Alinsky position that the organizer had to be a disinterested outsider, who, once an organizational structure had been built, moved on to the next assignment. However, when his superior organizing skills helped build a core farm labor organization, he decided to remain as both the organizer and the leader. He thought that he could be both the disinterested organizing outsider and the insider running the union. As might be expected, this proved untenable. An outsider might be able to assess a situation objectively and offer useful advice and criticism to the insider. But when the two roles are combined in the same person, problems are bound to arise. Chavez, as an insider, could run the union, and Chavez, as an outsider, could criticize too. But when he began to identify the union with himself, who else inside the union could criticize him?

Most writers and commentators who have attempted to explicate the UFW’s history have argued that there was a sharp change in Chavez’s behavior after the union’s failure to win a referendum that would have built funding for the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act into the state’s constitution. Bardacke’s analysis of Chavez’s life, however, shows that there was a consistency to what Chavez did throughout his tenure as UFW president.

Third, Bardacke situates the union in the social, economic, and political flux of the period, from the first astounding union victories of the 1960s and 1970s, to the national and state shift to the right in the 1980s, when the union began its precipitous decline. The main factors here were the War in Vietnam and the crisis of liberalism this engendered, and the attack by mainstream unions on both the antiwar left and their own dissident rank-and-file. Chavez was the last great hope of the liberals who saw themselves as champions of the poor but who could not tolerate war protesters, militant and radical Black and Chicano civil rights activists, or workers who chafed at the boundaries enforced by liberal but autocratic union leaders. Chavez used his charisma, his leadership skills, and his Catholicism to build a fanatically dedicated band of volunteers (including hundreds of farmworkers who traveled thousands of miles to tell the nation their stories of misery and exploitation) and staffpersons that took liberal America by storm. People boycotted grapes; they gave money; they came to California to volunteer for La Causa. It wasn’t only the workers to whom Cesar Chavez gave hope.

Bardacke’s insights help make sense of  key events in UFW history. Chavez’s antipathy toward Mexican immigrants and his need to explain why certain winnable strikes failed might be reasons why the UFW waged a despicable war against “illegal aliens.” The union turned undocumented workers  in to the “Migra” and engaged in a vicious vigilante campaign along the U.S.-Mexican border. Bardacke tells us, “the union took action itself, fielding an extralegal gang of a couple of hundred people who policed about ten miles of the Arizona-Mexico border, intercepting people attempting to cross it, and brutalized the captives.”

Similarly, Chavez’s need to maintain support from his liberal and Catholic bases provided rationales for an emphasis on boycotts even when strikes were succeeding and boycotts had outlived their usefulness. This also provides context for his numerous fasts and pilgrimages, some done when it might have been better for him to focus more directly on negotiating contracts and building direct worker power. The union’s successful strikes were often roughly and violently waged, belying the nonviolent ideology that played so well with liberals. The boycotts played out far from the fields and featured farmworkers trained to make potential supporters feel guilty enough to contribute money and refuse to buy the growers’ grapes and lettuce. The pilgrimages and fasts made Chavez appear to be a modern-day Gandhi, suffering selflessly for the poor and oppressed.

Chavez’s commitment to conservative Catholicism and the aforementioned hostility to immigrants meant that he could not countenance the establishment of union locals. He callously fired and blacklisted the heroic local leaders (skilled Mexicans who were vegetable workers) of the 1979 lettuce strike who had the audacity to believe that the union belonged to the workers and were willing to defy Chavez at a national UFW convention. Like Leo XIII, Alinksy, Ross, and most liberals, he was virulently anti-communist and was forever claiming that communists were sabotaging the union. This helped justify the many purges of staff. Anyone who challenged Chavez’s authority could be denounced as a red (and at the same time blamed for whatever went wrong in the union).

Bardacke does not argue that Cesar Chavez was insincere in his beliefs. His fasts and pilgrimages would help purify himself and his union. He believed in poverty and sacrifice. A union that aimed just at raising wages and winning benefits for the members was not enough for him. He always insisted that the union had to be subordinate to a larger movement based on poverty and sacrifice. The union’s finances were even organized as a collection of nonprofit entities, some of which did not depend on member dues for survival; these could continue to exist if the union failed and they could provide funds for a farmworkers’ movement.

He wanted a movement of workers and staff, living cooperatively and self-sufficiently, with a strict set of rules, like a religious order. As Miriam Pawel reports in her book, The Union of Their Dreams, Chavez had his confidant, Chris Hartmire, look into the possibility of starting a new religious order. He often neglected important union business as he investigated one utopian community after another.

One such community brought the union no end of trouble. Cesar had known Charles Dederich, the leader of Synanon, for many years. Synanon began as a successful drug addict rehabilitation community, but Dederich gradually turned it into a cult-like organization. He used a technique known as “the game,” a group therapy exercise in which participants were encouraged to be completely honest with one another and were free to point out, with vehemence if necessary, the faults of any other participant. The idea was that the game would break down the defenses of newly arrived addicts so that they could begin to rebuild themselves mentally, emotionally, and physically, and, having regained their health, no longer use drugs. Inside the game, each person was an equal. Outside it, everyone lived in a controlled, hierarchical environment.

Chavez was attracted to the game and to the collective and authoritarian structure, and he began to use the game with his staff. He said that it was a good way for people to air out interpersonal grievances and build a stronger community. But, staffers never attacked Chavez in the same way they attacked each other, and the game was often used as a convenient way to rid the union of “troublemakers.” Remarkably, the farmworkers, themselves, never knew about Synanon (or much else about the UFW’s bureaucracy). As knowledge of the union-Synanon connection began to filter out to the public, Chavez had to dissociate himself from Dederich. However, a lot of damage had been done: staffpersons were purged, others quit in disgust, and many steadfast supporters lost interest in the union.

When the economic and political environments in which the UFW operated were favorable, as they were in the 1960s and 1970s, Chavez’s strengths helped to build a committed staff and a zealous band of supporters across the country. They also assisted farmworkers and the communities in which they lived to use their inherent collective power. Bardacke shows that there were many union farmworkers who were earnings wages comparable to their counterparts in auto plants and steel mills. Their power on the job grew so greatly that on some ranches foremen had almost no authority at all. In retrospect, troubles were brewing. Talented and devoted staff were fired or quit, and they could not always be easily replaced. Chavez’s unwillingness to delegate authority often meant that the union was badly administered: financial records were in disarray; necessary work didn’t get done, including timely negotiating of contracts and processing of grievances; and the members were not encouraged to take control over what was presumably their union.

Matters came to a head in the 1979 lettuce strike. More than any other UFW strike or boycott, this one was dominated by rank-and-file leaders. Just when it was poised to rout the growers, a feat that would almost certainly have put the union in a position to greatly expand its membership and power, Chavez pulled the plug on it, pushing instead for a boycott and eventually allowing a decent but, given what might have been, inadequate settlement. He followed this with what can best be described as a vendetta against the newly empowered local leaders.

The union never recovered from what should have been its shining moment. Not long after, the political climate shifted sharply to the right, empowering the union’s enemies. A cohesive, well-administered, and democratic union might have survived and continued to grow. One weakened by purges, mismanagement, and autocratic rule could not. Today the union is little more than a collection of “social service” entities (what remains of Cesar’s “movement”) that more than one commentator has described as rackets run for the enrichment of Chavez’s relatives.

The story of the UFW and Cesar Chavez is complex and compelling. Trampling Out the Vintage tells it with skill and clarity. I have been studying this story for more than thirty-five years, but I learned something on nearly every page of this book. I got excited all over again when I read about the early years of struggle and victory, and I again got upset and angry when I read about what happened later.

I have been traveling around the western United States for ten years. Everywhere I go, I see that tremendous business profits are made on the backs of poorly paid and overworked Mexican laborers. I have read that not many of them, including those who plant, cultivate, and harvest our crops,  know of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. This didn’t have to be so. The UFW could have become central to the lives of all poor workers, and  it could have been the catalyst for the rebirth of the entire labor movement. Herein lies the tragedy so magnificently chronicled by Frank Bardacke in a book that is certain to become a classic of U.S. working class history.

*A shorter version of this review appeared on the Labor Notes website at http://labornotes.org/blogs/2011/11/cesar-chavez-and-enduring-poverty-farmworkers