Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Real Farmworkers, Real Chavez


Frank Bardacke has written the comprehensive history of the United Farm Workers, a definitive biography of Cesar Chavez and a magnificent guide to the politics and sociology of the 1960s-80s.

In the mid 1960s a nascent union of field workers transformed themselves into moral guideposts for middle class liberals as well as the first media magnet for Mexican Americans. Cesar Chavez became an almost instant icon, able to marshal a variegated supporting cast of politicized farm laborers, civil rights veterans and radical organizers and make communion with elements of the Catholic Church, the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party.

Together they organized a sector of the middle class: not to buy grapes. Imagine! A group of humble darker skinned poor people requested consumers to postpone their God-given needs for instant grape-ification just to support the cause of a union of those who picked and processed the succulent commodity!

Bardacke chronicles the farm workers’ union’s campaign to convince pre-soccer moms to shun grapes and the organized religious and union-backed march through California’s Central Valley. Together, these campaigns helped pressure major grape growers to recognize the United Farm Workers. Sacrificing consumers and workers rejoiced. But within two decades of its meteoric rise and seemingly solid liberal and political alliances the UFW fell into obscurity.

Bardacke explains the process by which the charismatic Chavez at the helm of a potential labor powerhouse then failed to try to organize the majority of California’s farm laborers. The boycotts and political pacts – especially when Democrats lost – proved insufficient by themselves to sustain a viable union. Without the specter of mass union power, powerful adversaries would – and did — squash the UFW.

Chavez played the key role in the UFW’s rise and then undermined its future. Bardacke examines internal union struggles, and those within Chavez himself, “Trampling” dramatizes the man’s legendary strengths, but also his weaknesses.

From his Arizona boyhood, through military service “Tarmpling” shows how Chavez emerged as a natural leader. Bardacke also provides perceptive critiques of influences on him, from the Catholic Church through the organizing mantras of Saul Alinsky; and how Chavez used these doctrines to shape his own world-view. The book does not debunk Chavez; it brings him from legend to earth.

Like some devout Catholics, Chavez linked penance with justice. The long Central Valley march became a religious journey, a symbol of “the long road we have traveled.. and the long road we have yet to travel, with much penance, in order to bring about the Revolution we need.” Chavez suffered immense physical pain on the pilgrimage, but it offered “an excellent way of training ourselves to endure the long, long struggle.”

“Trampling” also recounts anecdotal biographies of dozens of the countless extraordinary men and women who contributed their energy, brains, and talent – and sacrificed – to make possible the birth and initial successes of the UFW.

Characters like Gilbert Padillia and Epifanio Camacho emerge alongside Dolores Huerta and the white organizers like Marshall Ganz, Catholic priests and the gifted Luis Valdez who helped organize through theater. His now celebrated teatro campesino employed enormously talented field workers and barrio residents to teach lessons through drama and song.

Bardacke paints three-d pictures of the characters to emphasize that history is not just class confrontation, but also dialogue and debate, anger and frustration: the intellectual and emotional components of class struggle.

The author refuses to lump tens of thousands of men and women as “farm workers.” Instead, we meet apieros (celery choppers) and lechugueros (lettuce pickers) with amazing skills and discipline. Those who tended the grapes and dealt with the eccentricities of broccoli, also had full lives. Some could make rousing speeches, or sing and play instruments, plot strategy and become role models.

They didn’t always agree. Indeed, the UFW splintered over the next decade so that most of the thousands of mostly dark skinned people stooping over the crops that feed this nation no longer have a union or even earn a sustenance wage. But they share a legacy that Cesar Chavez helped build. Chavez forged the Chicano identity, but didn’t endure as the labor leader who could lead the working class battle against agri-business and lesser capitalists who reap huge profits from the farm workers’ backs.

The book explores in excruciating detail how Chavez blamed “illegal aliens,” Mexican farm workers for losing strikes. He claimed they weakened the union because they loomed as strike-breakers. Bardacke documents how the UFW actually reported Mexican workers without papers to the INS and how the union forged “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.”

Chavez leaned toward consumer boycotts over militant organizing. He fasted and indulged in self-sacrifice during tough bargaining. He also exercised ruthless central union control, not allowing organizing initiatives to develop without his approval. Bradacke cites examples of how he actually ousted and even blacklisted some potential leaders who defied his authority. And he also shows Chavez’ virtues: A balanced and just portrait.

(TRAMPLING OUT THE VINTAGE: CESAR CHAVEZ AND THE TWO SOULS OF THE UNITED FARM WORKERS Verso, $54.95, 742 pages) deserves #1 ranking as best labor history of the year. Professors should assign it as a text for labor history, California history, and US history. I suggest it for all book-lovers.

Saul Landau’s WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP is on dvd ( He’s an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. His BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch.

SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
Lara Gardner
Why I’m Not Voting
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Sheldon Richman
Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Joseph Natoli
Seething Anger in the Post-2016 Election Season
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017