Dave Smith: Cesar Chavez and Me…

Excerpted from To Be Of Use
The Seven Seeds of Meaningful Work (2005)

“When we are really honest with ourselves,” Cesar Chavez once said, “we must admit our lives are all that really belong to us. So it is how we use our lives that determines the kind of men we are. … Our cause goes on in hundreds of distant places. It multiplies among thousands and then millions of caring people who heed through a multitude of simple deeds the commandment set out in the book of the Prophet Micah, in the Old Testament: ‘What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’”

While my [Fundalmentalist preacher] dad was building a church, Cesar Chavez was building a union. My dad believed that by winning others to his belief system, he was building himself a mansion in heaven on a street paved with gold. Cesar was living and organizing for a better life for farmworkers in a San Jose barrio called Sal Si Puedes, which means “Escape If You Can.”

What I loved most about the farmworkers’ movement when Cesar asked me to join in 1968 was our complete and utter absorption in the cause. The work consumed our everyday lives 24/7, and it had real meaning. I had gone from work that was, for me, soulless and dispiriting to work that was meaningful; from systems analysis and writing computer code to support weapons systems and make the distribution of cars more efficient, to learning about nonviolence and direct action, walking picket lines, and hiring programmers to write computer code that mattered, that had meaning. My work was now helping make the world a better place for the lowly, not through charity, but by helping them find the power of their own organization and their own voice.

My main responsibility with the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) was to design and implement a computerized system for the union’s service center to run the membership, credit union, and medical services. Some Stanford MBA candidates and their professors had designed a computer system for the union, and the union had just started looking for someone to implement it for them. My job application to become a supported community organizer, after volunteering for a year, arrived there at just the right time. They saw my background in computer systems development and invited me to join them at headquarters to head up the project.

The Stanford people had designed a good system based on textbooks and theory, but I had to redesign it for the real world of business that I knew. I hired four computer programmers who came to work for room and board and five dollars a week, like the rest of us. We developed bilingual reports for use at the service center offices that would be available to the migrant farmworkers who followed the harvest from southern California to Washington State. When we needed to work on political campaigns, we would pack up and move to a city as a team, organize and campaign, then return and resume the work we’d left behind.

One of my projects with the UFW was the honor of working on member registration with Dolores Huerta, who was the cofounder with Cesar and is now first vice president emeritus. The mother of eleven children, fourteen grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, Dolores is a smart, fiery dynamo who negotiated the first union contracts in 1966 and spoke out against the toxic pesticides that threaten farmworkers, consumers, and the environment. These early union contracts required growers to stop using such dangerous pesticides as DDT and parathion. She also directed the UFW’s national grape boycott, taking the plight of the farmworkers to the consumers. As a result of the boycott, the entire California table grape industry signed a three-year collective bargaining agreement with the UFW. Dolores has more than paid her dues; she’s been arrested twenty-two times for nonviolent peaceful union activities.

[Dolores was equally responsible, if not more responsible, for the early success of the union. I daresay respectfully that if the union leadership had relied less on their “machismo” after Cesar’s untimely death, and appointed Dolores Huerta to her rightful place as President of the Union, which she so richly deserved, the union would not have slipped so far back into ineffective obscurity as it has now. -DS]

The growing success of the UFW was challenged in 1970 by the teamster’s union, which saw an opportunity to gain contracts in “sweetheart deals” with growers who did not want to deal with the growing effectiveness of the Chicano worker–led Farm Workers Union. In the process, the UFW lost many of the contracts it had worked so long and hard to obtain, and with them, much of its dues-paying membership, which had peaked at seventy thousand. As the conflict of union against union got hot and heavy, I volunteered to work as a soundman on a film about the union, Fighting for Our Lives, which later was nominated for an Academy Award. The producer/cameraman and I posed as TV station reporters from Bakersfield to get footage from behind the Teamster lines, out in the fields. We thought we were pretty clever until we were told that a carload of Teamster goons with baseball bats had found out we were actually from the union and were hunting for us. Not wanting to test our nonviolent mettle at that particular time, we left town.

Ideals Meet Real Life
You never know just how you will stand up to injustice until it happens, until you are actually confronted with a life-or-death situation that tests your idealistic, and theoretical, commitment to nonviolence.

In 1969 we had moved the headquarters for the UFW from Delano, California, to the hills above Bakersfield near the town of Tehachapi, where my son, Josh, was born. A former tuberculosis sanitarium had been purchased by a Hollywood movie producer and donated to the union. The compound of ramshackle buildings and mobile homes was named “La Paz,” but the peace was shattered several times daily by freight trains running through the grounds.

Because of previous threats to his life, Cesar was forced to live with twenty-four-hour bodyguards and two trained German shepherd guard dogs he named Boycott and Huelga (Spanish for “strike”). He also traveled in a two-car convoy. As problems escalated between the two unions, we began hearing rumors, verified by the police, that the Mafia had put out a contract on Cesar’s life and planned to rub him out. At a meeting called by the head of security, we learned that law enforcement had notified us that La Paz could be invaded, with the goal of killing Cesar. We were given guns and ammo to keep in our homes, and we began taking target practice with revolvers and shotguns at the nearby shooting range maintained by the local police department. We took turns standing watch with the regular security staff, driving around the perimeter of the grounds throughout the night.

Needless to say, this armed response to threat conflicted with the philosophy of nonviolence espoused by the union, and by most of us personally. I was puzzled at the lack of any challenges to this policy — including my own silence. Our families, our movement, and our leader were being threatened, and we were preparing to defend ourselves by violent means, regardless of our philosophical dedication to nonviolence. Did that mean justice is only ultimately possible through the barrel of a gun as Chairman Mao famously stated, that our own reality was like the Old West after all? Were we helplessly weak and naive to believe in values that, when push came to shove, we would simply give up? Would we really regress back to force rather than live our ideals, no matter what? What was the responsible thing to do?

Although I regularly worked with Cesar and his wife, Helen, I was not part of the inner circle that made major policy decisions. I don’t know personally whether Cesar knew about the arming of headquarters staff, but I assume he did. In either case, knowing him, I am quite certain he would never have made such a decision in order to save his own life. Rather, it would have been a responsible decision made to save the union and the people he cared for. When Gandhi was killed, his movement died. When King was killed, his movement lost its momentum. Cesar was not going to let that happen to his movement and the hopes and dreams of farmworkers, even if it meant his personal beliefs were violated. As for me, although my Tolstoyan/Gandhian idealism died a little death during this experience, my admiration for Cesar grew because of it. I say, good for him. I loved him for that.

This brief episode of armed vigilance ended suddenly one day, when the guard at the front gate of our compound apparently got into an argument with a rancher who had access rights through the property. As the incident was described to me, the argument escalated and the guard pulled a shotgun and leveled it at the rancher. No shots were fired, but as the reality of what could go wrong when loaded guns are available to poorly trained volunteers sank in, it became too obvious a risk to continue. All the guns were quietly confiscated, and we once more became nonviolent pacifists.

As human and fallible as anyone, Chavez was resolute and unyielding in his determination to find justice for his cause. Just as strong were the virtues of compassion and humility he demonstrated in his personal relationships with friend and foe alike. He believed in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone, not just a chosen few or those in authority. Like Gandhi, when he asked for sacrifice he was willing to make the biggest personal sacrifices himself. It was my honor to have known and worked with him.

A union of poor people working together to better their lives takes a true leap of faith — into the arms and hearts of each other. Only by believing in each other, working with each other, caring for each other, is anything worthwhile accomplished. Justice, democracy, peace, time, and money walk hand-in-hand into our shared future. A just, equitable distribution of resources comes only with an economic democracy made real and true by our commitment of personal time and money to make it work for us. And when it works, true economic democracy brings peace.

What are the character traits of those who have faith in each other, who hope for a bright future not only for themselves but for everyone, and who understand that justice and democracy are the keys to that future? As we’ve seen [earlier in the book], they are generous, unselfish, warmhearted, openhanded, receptive, freely giving, benevolent, and tolerant. Would you say that’s a good list? Would you want to have someone like that as a friend or coworker? I keyed those words into my online dictionary. They are synonyms for, and definitions of, a word that has been besmirched and much belittled of late: