The Fate of Cesar Chavez’s Dream

From MARC COOPER
TruthDig

[Having worked for Cesar Chavez from 1968 - 1972, I am saddened by the ineffectiveness of the union in subsequent years. -DS]

In the midst of a searing heat wave in the summer of 2005, three Mexican-born California farmworkers succumbed to the relentless sun within a few weeks of each other. Outraged local community groups, some with roots in but no longer affiliated with the legendary United Farm Workers union, organized a protest march and rally in the gritty town of Arvin, in California’s Central Valley.

At the last minute, a delegation from the UFW more or less commandeered the event from the original organizers. I was there reporting on the conditions in California’s fields (for a piece that would be published few weeks later in the L.A. Weekly) when I saw the UFW arrive. Accompanied by a caravan of shiny vans, with a high-tech mobile broadcast unit along from one of the union-run radio stations, UFW members in trademark red-and-black T-shirts disembarked from a couple of buses and joined the crowd assembled in a church patio.

The contrast couldn’t have been more stark. The farmworkers were dusty and rail-thin and mostly young men dressed in jeans and work shirts. Many, if not most, were fairly recent border-hoppers from the impoverished Mexican state of Oaxaca. And most of them were Mixtec Indians who spoke choppy Spanish. The UFW members, by contrast, were older, clearly middle-class, many of them Chicanos, many of them college-educated, thick around the middle and wearing neatly pressed chinos.

As one of their leaders used a bullhorn to shout “Viva La Causa! Viva Cesar Chavez!” many of the heat-weary farmworkers only politely clapped or just stood unmoved.

Among those who have worked as California farmworker advocates, or who have done any reporting among such advocates over the last decade or so, there’s a well-known and grim joke: Ask almost any farmworker today just who is Cesar Chavez and the answer is that he’s a great boxer—Julio Cesar Chavez, that is.

If one needed any proof of the waning influence of Chavez’s UFW, he or she would have to look no further than a momentous union election held shortly after this rally at the giant Giumarra vineyards. Even though the union had had one of its first contracts with the massive grower and was riding the crest of anger over the recent heat-related deaths (so dire that even California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger imposed an emergency order to give some relief to fieldworkers), the UFW was soundly defeated in a slap-dash drive to reunionize the Giumarra workers.

Again, this was hardly a surprise to those few lawyers, advocates and organizers still paying attention to California’s campesinos. By 2005, the UFW held no contracts with any Central California table grape growers. Indeed, more than 40 years after its founding, only about 1 percent—or 5,000—of the state’s farmworkers were organized by the UFW. The union reaped revenues of $20 million to $30 million a year by cashing in on the iconic stature of its founder, who died in 1993. And it controlled a $150 million network of affiliated foundations, charities, service groups, construction firms and housing corporations, managed mostly by Cesar Chavez’s offspring and relatives. But it simply did not organize farmworkers. It was a family business. Not a union.

In the spring following that overheated summer of 2005, then-Los Angeles Times reporter Miriam Pawel set off a ruckus by writing a deeply researched multipart series detailing this tragic decline of the UFW and the rampant Chavez family nepotism that was capitalizing on the name of the union’s founder while ignoring the plight of its supposed constituents.

Some Latino and leftist groups went apoplectic over the public critique of the Chavez legacy. The union reacted furiously, picketing the Times, handing ultimatums to its then-editor and ultimately issuing a 62-page letter from one of its lawyers threatening to sue Pawel and the Times unless they retracted the story. And, not coincidentally, the L.A. Weekly and this author was served with a similar threat, in a 20-page demand, over a similar piece I had written before Pawel’s series.

The union enlisted Democratic Party allies including Rep. Howard Berman and Clinton crony Mickey Kantor to pressure reporters and even bloggers who had any part in the spate of public criticism of the UFW. (In February of 2006 Truthdig summarized 100 pages of pushback spin from the UFW.)

The Los Angeles Times made a few very minor corrections, but no retractions were made and Pawel’s story stood basically unscathed. Nor were any lawsuits ever filed. What had been written about the UFW, as uncomfortable as it might be, was true. And the union knew it. In the end, it was the heavy-handed UFW press relations chief who had to quietly resign.

Pawel, drawing on and greatly expanding the research she did for the L.A. Times series, has come back for a second dipping with her engrossing and just as exquisitely assembled book “The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement.” Her tack this time is quite different. Instead of a dry, almost legalistic indictment of the failings of the UFW, her approach now feels like the script of the great Costa-Gavras film “The Confession,” or like Arthur Koestler’s classic anti-Stalinist memoir “Darkness at Noon.”

Chronicling the lives of eight of Cesar Chavez’s closest allies—including crack organizer Eliseo Medina, UFW legal eagle Jerry Cohen and Chavez’s closest spiritual aide, Chris Hartmire—Pawel takes us painfully deep into their personal agonies and heartbreak. Like the loyal Czech communist Arthur London in “The Confession,” all eight gave their youth if not their very souls to a deeply passionate and idealistic cause only to eventually find themselves victims of some sort of trumped-up purge in which they are forced to put allegiance to the leader over all moral and ethical concerns. Imagine idealistic young lawyer Ellen Eggers, who joins the UFW to fight the bosses only to find herself forced to defend the union bureaucracy against lawsuits filed by unjustly purged UFW field reps. Her payback for doing Chavez’s legal work is to eventually see herself ostracized and ignored by the union founder.

Pawel is no anti-union right-winger. She openly expresses her awe for the bedazzling talent, commitment and magical moral charisma that allowed Cesar Chavez to build the unthinkable dream of a union of California’s most oppressed and forgotten workers. From the first Delano strike in 1965, working with the handful of supporters whom Pawel chronicles, Chavez chalks up a miraculous decade. Not only does he wind up on the cover of Time, but farmworkers claim a noble space in American history.

The real problems begin, however, when in the mid-1970s then (and most likely future) Gov. Jerry Brown allies with the UFW and ushers into life the most advanced farm labor legislation and regulatory agency in America—the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

Just when the decks are cleared for Chavez to push full steam ahead in organizing his union on an unprecedented even playing field, he balks. Moreover, he seems to sink into a paranoid depression and become prone to unpredictable and unprovoked tirades and lashing out at the closest of friends, suddenly branded as traitors.

Pawel can’t answer the central enigma surrounding Chavez—his true state of mind and motivation. No one can. Whether he was, as one aide put it, “a little crazy,” or whether he was more a utopian visionary or a Christian ascetic, or a simple megalomaniac, he told everybody around him he was definitely not interested in building one more “business union.” And that’s the theme Pawel repeatedly circles back to. Every time history offered him a choice between building a vigorous union or dreaming up a more amorphous social movement, Chavez always chose the latter. At least verbally.

He saw virtue and redemption in a life of poverty and sacrifice and was notorious as a penny-pinching micro-manager averse to delegating any real power. His most talented organizer, Eliseo Medina, who broke his piggy bank to join the union as a teenager only to be ignominiously pushed out 12 years later, argued that workers wanted to join a union to have a better life with less sacrifice, not more. (Medina’s argument was borne out by history. He went on to build a still-thriving career inside the country’s largest union—the SEIU—precisely by organizing tens of thousands of service workers and ushering them into the middle class.)

But Chavez wouldn’t budge from his grandiose and rather inarticulate vision of building something bigger. Worse, by 1977 he started dabbling in the Synanon cult and imported its vicious and abusive role-playing “Game” into union management, and he deployed it ruthlessly to tear down those around him.

Dissidents, opponents and loyalists alike were chewed up in a series of purges led by Chavez. His brilliant legal team, instrumental in building the union, was forcefully dismantled because its members complained they could no longer support their families on a salary of $150 a week and they refused to move to Chavez’s bunkered and isolated headquarters in the barren California mountains. Chavez forced other union staff members to get by on a wage of $5 a day and resisted all demands to professionalize the union.

As the years passed, and the union waned (its last real organizing effort before Chavez’s death in 1993 had taken place 14 years previously), it morphed into primarily a direct mail outfit, soliciting millions of dollars for a series of boycotts no one could keep track of. Those campaigns were warmly embraced by urban liberals but did little if anything to improve working conditions in the field. Meanwhile, Chavez was increasingly isolated in his remote La Paz compound—30 miles east of Bakersfield—while he dreamed of building an ascetic, pious, collective community.

Shortly after Chavez died, leftist author Frank Bardacke wrote in The Nation that “at the time of Cesar Chavez’ death, the U.F.W. was not primarily a farmworker organization. It was a fundraising operation run out of a deserted tuberculosis sanitarium in the Tehachapi Mountains, far from the fields of famous Delano, staffed by members of Cesar’s extended family and using as its political capital Cesar’s legend and the warm memories of millions of aging boycotters.”

Pawel fully if not reverently acknowledges the immeasurable contribution the early UFW and Chavez made to the creation of a broader Latino rights movement. Even more important, the UFW spawned an enormously talented and committed corps of unionists and activists who, after being forced out from La Union, went on to enrich the rest of the labor movement.

As to the UFW, neither its yin nor yang ever fully materialized. It failed to grow either into a mature union or a broader social movement of poor people, as Chavez advocated. Nor did it ever build any of those self-sustaining communities Chavez extolled—except for becoming essentially a Chavez family business which tightly controls the multimillion-dollar network of UFW-affiliated groups and Democratic Party lobbies.

The plight of the farmworkers themselves, meanwhile, remains pretty much unchanged, with barely any significant UFW presence in the fields. As Pawel notes, the workers still earn barely the minimum wage, lack health care and sometimes find themselves sleeping in cars or tents or under trees.

There is one sad, ironic coda to this tale. Chavez’s progeny did finally scrap his limiting ethos of hair-shirt austerity. In the decade after his death, the salaries they granted themselves and other top managers of the UFW shell groups rose 600 percent. And more since then.

Los Angeles-based writer and author Marc Cooper is director of Annenberg Digital News at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California.
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