Chavez’s leadership sparked a movement, but at untold cost to some of his followers.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
In an e-mail interview, former Los Angeles Times reporter Miriam Pawel, author of The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement, described her painstaking efforts to describe a painful, but important, part of the UFW’s history.
How did you come to write the book? Was it simply an outgrowth of your reporting on farmworkers for the L.A. Times, or did you have something in mind before then?
My reporting for the L.A. Times focused on the UFW today, and while researching those stories I began to report out the past solely in order to put the present into context. I became convinced that the events of the late 1970s and early ’80s were critical to understanding the limitations and problems of the UFW today, and my editors and I decided to include a separate piece about the past as part of the series. While reporting that story, I became fascinated by the characters and events, the stories that had never been told, the unanswered questions, and the way this eclectic group of brilliant, passionate people was still haunted by its collective past. So I decided to write a book.
“Almost all previous writings about Cesar Chavez have hewed close to his version of history,’’ you write in the introduction. “This book offers a reevaluation of his legacy. His ultimate shortcomings as a labor leader do not diminish his accomplishments or his influence.’’ What was his legacy?
Chavez and the movement created profound change for a generation of farmworkers, both in the day-to-day working conditions in the fields as well as the more intangible, but perhaps more important, realm of self-respect and dignity. For the first time, there was a Third Way for workers – they had recourse to demand certain basic rights and had options beyond being a worker or a foreman. Chavez also had a lasting legacy outside the fields; for thousands of people who were part of the movement, even briefly, that experience shaped the rest of their lives.
Those tremendous accomplishments only underscore the tragedy of what happened later: The disintegration of the UFW just at the moment it had the potential to become an established union and a lasting force, Chavez’s inability to make the transition from charismatic leader to union president, his distrust of even his most loyal advisers, and his need for absolute control.
You write: “At the height of the boycott, 17 million Americans stopped eating grapes so that farmworkers in California could win better wages and working conditions.” The early days in Delano and Salinas, the Salad Bowl of the world, were charged with idealism. How were Chavez and the other UFW organizers and members you chronicle able to wage their fight so successfully?
Chavez was a brilliant strategist and risk-taker; sending farmworkers across the country to plead their case on the grape boycott put a human face on the cause and rendered it irresistible for millions of people. The workers who organized those boycott operations learned and grew through that experience, and some became leaders as well. Chavez’s own actions and sacrifice, such as the 1966 march to Sacramento and the 1968 fast, dramatized the crusade. He capitalized on the times – the anti-Vietnam war movement, the Free Speech Movement, the Civil Rights Movement – and attracted dozens of young, smart, committed people willing to live on $5 a week plus room and board and devote their lives to la causa. He built on that with key coalitions and allies, like religious and labor support. The movement gave people something to believe in, and often a very simple way, like not eating grapes, to feel they were really making a difference in peoples’ lives.
Parts of the struggle sound like fun. You describe how organizer Marshall Ganz came up with a prank against the Guimarra growers to place a dry substance in portable toilets that turned into tear gas on contact with liquid. Did they ever catch on?
A wonderful spirit infused the early years, when those in the union felt bound together by the David-versus-Goliath struggle against a common enemy. [Former UFW chief lawyer] Jerry Cohen often says, “We were at our most dangerous when we were laughing loudest.” Chavez held joke sessions sometimes to break up executive board meetings. I don’t know whether the growers ever figured out the tear-gas-in-the-toilets prank, but they certainly were frustrated by the union’s success in the public relations arena, which often outstripped its success in the fields.
Closer to home, you write at length about the strikes against lettuce growers in the Salinas Valley, in which Sabino Lopez participated, in part because of indignation about the way his field worker father had been treated. The organizing efforts were subverted by secret agreements between the growers and the Teamsters. How did the UFW ultimately win?
The 1970 sweetheart contracts between the growers and the Teamsters in Salinas presaged a similar move in the grape vineyards two years later, and the UFW lost almost all its contracts. The union fought back with a variety of clever legal maneuvers – including a ground-breaking anti-trust suit against the Teamsters and the growers for conspiring to keep wages artificially low.
Even short of winning in court, the UFW’s legal team was able to tie up growers, cost them money, and force them to drop suits rather than divulge sensitive information. Chavez built public support and economic pressure through the boycotts and massive civil disobedience and arrests on picket lines in 1973. The multi-pronged strategy eventually generated sufficient pressure that all sides wanted some sort of peace.
That coincided with the election of Governor Jerry Brown, who used his considerable strength to forge a consensus and push through the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in the spring of 1975. For the first time in the country, farmworkers had the right to organize and hold elections; the UFW went on to win dozens of elections and oust the Teamsters from many ranches.
What were some of the differences between the lettuce growers and the Delano grape workers?
The UFW enjoyed far greater success in the vegetable fields than in the vineyards – partly because the union had botched the administration of earlier contracts in Coachella and the Delano area. But the differences also stemmed from the different workforces and cultures. Vegetable workers tended to be single men, far more militant, and willing to challenge authority and engage in collective protests. Like the industry itself, where growers rented fields and were highly mobile, vegetable workers could easily move from job to job and followed the seasons from the Imperial Valley up to Salinas. Grape workers were more often families, and like the vines, tethered to one place. Some migrated, but the workforce was far more stable and liable to build longstanding relationships with supervisors and labor contractors.
Like Cohen and many of the other early activists you write about, Lopez ultimately became the target of UFW wrath, facing accusations of “dereliction of duty’’ as ranch committee vice president at Sun Harvest, being stripped of the post. He ended up suing the union and Chavez, and winning vindication. But the UFW even threatened to picket when he found another job with the California Rural Legal Assistance. How did things go so wrong?
Chavez empowered workers, and some, like Lopez, became leaders. But once empowered, their priorities began to clash with Chavez’s own. He viewed the movement as his, and there was no place for those whose agendas might compromise or conflict with his vision. He argued workers must be educated to appreciate the value of sacrifice so they would share his beliefs. Workers often had slightly more prosaic concerns.
The pattern from the beginning was that those who disagreed with Chavez had to be branded as traitors, sell outs, spies or self-aggrandizing stars. They had to be demonized to discredit them and deflect attention from issues they raised that might well have been popular among workers. One of the main points of contention with the Salinas dissidents in 1981, for example, was the failure of the union to properly administer the medical plan – a widespread complaint among workers. So Chavez framed the issue, as he often did, in black-and-white terms: You are with us or against us. You support me, or you support my enemies. He used his own popularity, which was enormous, to build support for purges, like the one that claimed Sabino Lopez.
The UFW responded to your L.A. Times series, repudiating what they said were your central charges: That the UFW has given up organizing farmworkers, that farmworkers remain largely unorganized because the UFW has abandoned them, and that the “Chavez family runs a web of family businesses that trade on Cesar Chavez’s name, but don’t help farmworkers.” What’s your response?
In more than 100 pages, they failed to raise any valid challenges to the stories or to substantiate their charges. And their orchestrated protests notably failed to attract support from many prominent figures who had been long-time UFW boosters, because those people, sadly, recognized the accuracy of the reports. What I wrote was not a secret; many, many people knew the reality – even if they didn’t want to read it. Nobody had actually documented the extent of the problems, and that had allowed the UFW to continue trading on its reputation and to raise money by evoking a leader and cause that were long gone.
Were you physically intimidated in the course of your reporting?
The threats and attempts at intimidation were all verbal; the UFW leadership waged an ad hominem attack on me after the L.A. Times series ran and threatened to sue for libel, which wasn’t particularly pleasant but didn’t do anything to undermine the stories. If anything, I think their attacks on the credibility of people quoted in the stories probably backfired.
After I left the paper, I tried to report on a UFW organizing drive and they threw me out of a meeting with several hundred workers in Delano. But the current leaders of the union were not important in the Chavez years, so their hostility wasn’t an impediment to my reporting for the book. The book required a huge commitment of time – to dig through records, listen to hundreds of hours of tapes, and conduct oral histories – and the challenge was to win the trust of the people I wrote about. The hardest part was wanting to make sure I was doing justice to their story, in all its complexity.
The book seems like a melancholy ode, an account of how human imperfection, ego and power got in the way of a political movement that is rightfully celebrated for helping to change the world. The current farmworkers’ struggle is being played out in the midst of the worst economy since the Great Depression. What chance do laborers have under these conditions? Did the UFW ultimately help them, or were they undone by following a charismatic leader?
One of the things the history of the UFW shows is the power of collective action, creative strategy and committed organizing. Few people thought a bunch of poor, often semi-literate farmworkers stood a chance against the most powerful industry in California. Chavez helped a generation of workers, and some of those benefits had lasting value. Unfortunately, too few.
Workers in the fields today will have to find their own leaders, seek out organizers willing to make the kind of commitment that people did in the 1960s and ’70s, and develop strategies appropriate to today’s struggles and problems – rather than those of four decades ago. Organizing farmworkers is hard work that requires real dedication. But the basic idea that farmworkers are entitled to the same fundamental rights and protections as any other workers is a concept that I think has the same popular appeal today that it did then – it’s just that farmworkers are absent from people’s consciousness, invisible once again.