Real Farmworkers, Real Chavez

by SAUL LANDAU

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 (cinemalibrestore.com) He’s an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. His BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch.

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