For more than a dozen years, Jerry Cohen was the United Farm Workers’ brazen legal weapon. The UFW’s general counsel battled judges to get farmworkers out of jail, negotiated hard-fought contracts with resistant growers from Delano to Salinas and was instrumental in winning a landmark labor law that gives farmworkers the right to choose their union.
“Nothing thrilled Jerry like a good fight,” Miriam Pawel writes in her new book, The Union of Their Dreams. “The worse the odds, the greater the fight.”
Unfortunately, as Pawel describes, in the late ’70s the union’s fight shifted from the fields to an internal power struggle that severed Cohen and some of the UFW’s best organizers from the union. Cohen, who lives in Carmel Valley, will be a featured panelist during Pawel’s Oct. 23 book launch at the Steinbeck Center.
Cohen, who graduated from U.C. Berkeley’s law school during the height of the Free Speech Movement, was attracted by the UFW’s marches up and down the San Joaquin Valley and started mingling with union staff. After a meeting with Cesar Chavez, the union voted him in as the UFW’s first general counsel in 1967.
Cohen says his first impression of Chavez was a quiet and “incredibly smart” leader. “He gave me a lot of freedom to experiment,” he says.
Though he was still a rookie lawyer tossed into the uncharted territory of farmworker law, Cohen’s legal skills were pivotal in protecting the worker’s right to boycott table grapes and picket in Delano vineyards.
The tactics worked. After a nationwide grape boycott and violent clashes in the fields, the UFW achieved the impossible, getting major grower Giumarra to sign an historic labor contract. “Today when we see so much violence in our country, in our midst, this event here truly justifies the belief that millions of people that through non-violent actions in this nation and across the world, that social justice can be gotten,” Chavez said of the triumph.
But there wasn’t much time to celebrate. Salinas growers preempted the UFW’s next move by signing with the Teamsters union. The UFW countered with walkouts and a prolonged lettuce boycott. Cohen shifted his attention to getting the Teamsters out of the Salinas Valley fields, leading to a violent face-off at Hansen Farms.
While arguing with the ranch owner, a Teamster named “Tiny” socked him, Pawel writes. “The last thing Jerry remembered was a black-gloved fist approaching his head. Jerry ended up in the hospital for several days with a concussion.”
In negotiations, Cohen, an Anglo who could chat up growers, played good cop while Chavez, a stubborn Chicano activist, played bad cop. “There were times when a little theater always counted,” Cohen says. “[Growers] thought Cesar was something inscrutable and I could talk baseball with them.”
While still plotting a legal strategy to void Teamster contracts in Salinas and trying put out fires in Delano, Chavez convinced Cohen to move to La Paz, the UFW’s isolated headquarters outside of Bakersfield, which Cohen calls “Magic Mountain.”
As contracts expired in Coachella Valley vineyards, the UFW went on strike. A judge declared the pickets illegal, saying the strike was a jurisdictional dispute between unions, Pawel writes. With more than 450 farmworkers jailed, Cohen successfully argued that the injunction was unconstitutional because the union wasn’t given notice. The workers were freed and the picket continued. But in the end, the UFW lost the Delano contracts, and Chavez slowly lost interest in creating a strong union and eyed a broader social movement, Pawel writes.
Cohen’s next milestone was negotiating what he calls “the best labor law in America.” Cohen courted then-candidate for governor Jerry Brown and got him to publicly endorse a bill giving farmworkers the right to a union election. Cohen moved his legal headquarters to Salinas to be closer to Sacramento to negotiate the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which Brown signed into law in 1975. The bill not only gave field workers a right to a secret ballot but kept boycotts in the union’s arsenal.
Despite this success, Chavez started routing out “traitors, disloyalists, leftist agitators and spies,” Pawel writes. Long-time volunteers were fired. After nearly finalizing a deal that would at last rid the fields of Teamsters, Cohen headed to an executive board meeting in February 1977.
Cohen was expecting a plan to build on the union’s momentum; organizers were anxious to move onto lettuce harvesters or citrus workers, he says. Instead, Chavez had them meet in a Synanon drug rehabilitation community east of Fresno.
Cohen brought a proposal “from the paralegals to be paid $450 a month, instead of the standard five dollars a week plus room and board,” Pawel writes. Chavez didn’t want to pay salaries and threatened to quit the union.
Chavez wanted to start a community like Synanon, the first step being having people learn the Game, which Pawel describes as “an encounter group exercise where players ‘indicted’ one another for bad behavior and hurled obscenities in a therapeutic effort to enhance communication.”
Game participants jumped on Cohen for abandoning Chavez in La Paz when he moved to Salinas, he says.
“One of the ironies is they were talking about building a ‘community’ up there. But there was a real community based here in Salinas built on the common struggles that workers went through to get the contracts.”
A raise request from attorneys then forced a referendum on having a volunteer legal staff or paid attorneys, Pawel writes. Chavez stuck to his subsistence wage policy and – by one vote – won his request for a volunteer legal staff based at La Paz. Chavez offered to pay Cohen, but he says he couldn’t stay on without leading by example.
Cohen resigned as general counsel but stayed as a negotiator to settle remaining vegetable contracts. He says two cultures developed: Organizers who wanted to focus on Salinas fields, and Chavez and his supporters, who wanted to start a broader Poor Peoples Union at La Paz. Cohen says it’s a shame the two groups didn’t find a way to coexist.
“Here we were able to negotiate out our differences with the Teamsters… with the growers, with Jerry Brown, to get a law,” he says. “And we couldn’t negotiate the differences in the union.”
Around the time Cohen left the union in 1981, he says Chavez resisted allowing Salinas farmworkers a chance to run for the union’s executive board. “That was the crucial element in causing the union to be weak here in the Salinas Valley,” Cohen says.
“[Chavez’s] behavior in the ’70s was regrettable,” he says. “He was not perfect. He made a lot of misakes. I think it’s healthy for everyone involved to confront that.”
Despite the fallout, Cohen says the union was still an incredible training ground for talented activists. Cohen went on to act as special counsel for an organization fighting U.S. foreign policy in Central America under Reagan. Today Cohen is helping lead a movement to end the exclusion of farmworkers and domestic workers under the National Labor Relations Act.
Cohen says farmworkers aren’t on big labor’s national agenda anymore, and it will be another long struggle to earn them the same rights they have in California. Cohen is still waiting for a charismatic leader like Chavez to step up to the unfinished business. “I’m hoping sooner or later, there will be another Cesar popping up somewhere,” he says.