Reclaiming the United Farm Workers’ legacy

April 9, 2009

Gillian Russom draws out the lessons of a new book about Cesar Chavez and the founding of the United Farm Workers.

WITH THEIR rallying cry of ¡Sí Se Puede!, Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) brought the brutal treatment of workers in the fields to national attention in the 1960s. In Beyond the Fields, Randy Shaw seeks to reclaim the legacy of the UFW for a new generation of activists.

Shaw argues that a number of strategies that are now taken for granted within social movements – consumer boycotts, building an alliance with clergy, connecting environmental and social justice, grassroots "get out the vote" campaigns and putting Latino workers at the forefront of the labor movement--were pioneered by the UFW more than 50 years ago.

Although the UFW itself experienced a sharp decline in power by the 1980s, Shaw uncovers the human legacy created by the farmworkers' movement--hundreds of young people trained in activism by the UFW who went on devote their lives to social change. He also argues that the UFW's struggle laid the basis for the immigrant rights movement of the 21st century.

Cesar Chavez grew up in the fields, traveling throughout California with his family to pick or plant whatever vegetables were in season for wages of $3 a day. When he began organizing the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, Chavez picked cotton from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then worked late into the night visiting workers' homes to recruit them. Having seen several failed organizing campaigns, Chavez realized that it would take patient and persistent organizing to build a union in the fields.

Grape harvest in California

The use of consumer boycotts grew out of the need to broaden the power of farmworkers' strikes beyond the isolated arena of the fields where growers exercised enormous power. With the national grape boycott that began in 1968, volunteers were sent to a hundred different cities to spread the word about the working conditions in the fields.

The boycott transformed a local union struggle into a nationwide social justice movement that engaged hundreds of activists and millions of supporters. An estimated 17 million Americans refused to buy grapes between 1966 and 1972, creating economic pressure that helped the UFW to win over 200 grape contracts covering 70,000 workers.

Shaw argues that this grassroots movement--in which the farmworkers themselves took center stage--was very different than the "paper boycotts" implemented by unions in later decades as a substitute for workers' struggle.

Another brilliant strategy of the UFW was its campaign against pesticides. Farmworker illness and death from exposure to DDT and other toxic insecticides were commonplace, yet the only federal regulations were those that protected the growers from being "wrongly accused of causing harm." Through a nationwide publicity campaign, the UFW convincingly showed that a union contract was the only way to limit growers' use of pesticides, which would protect the health of consumers as well as farmworkers. This campaign provides a model for connecting the issues of environmental and social justice.

Perhaps the UFW's most lasting contribution to other movements was that they trained a new generation of activists in practical organizing for social justice. The UFW was the first union to actively recruit young people as organizers. "While the Peace Corps and the poverty programs were recruiting us, unions were too afraid of communists to talk to us," remembers Marshall Ganz, who joined the UFW at an organizing meeting of Students for a Democratic Society in 1965.

In contrast, the UFW staffed its national boycott with young people, who sometimes worked 100 hours a week for just $5. The UFW was able to inspire these activists by combining concrete tasks that would make a difference with a vision of a long-term struggle--creating a national union for farmworkers. After the UFW, many of these people continued to work for unions or other social justice causes for the rest of their lives.

OTHER UFW tactics that Shaw celebrates are more problematic. In 1968, Chavez began his 25-day "spiritual fast" to gain support for the grape industry boycott. Chavez initially embarked on the fast in order to dissuade farmworkers--who were becoming frustrated with the lack of progress in their strike--from using violence on the picket lines. As thousands of supporters made pilgrimages to the farm where he was fasting, Chavez used these meetings to increase their loyalty to his leadership.

His fast certainly succeeded in gaining publicity for the UFW and increased the moral authority of their cause. At the same time, it turned Chavez into a saint-like figure, and increased the degree to which the farmworkers' struggle was associated with him and his sacrifice alone.

This approach may have contributed to a lack of democracy in the UFW that was a major factor in its decline. As UFW leader Philip Vera Cruz explains, "If a union leader is built up as a symbol and he talks like he was God, then there is no way that you can have true democracy in the union because the members are just generally deprived of the right to reason for themselves."

Shaw also devotes much attention to the UFW's grassroots "get out the vote" campaigns. Through the early 1970s, these campaigns were mostly focused on defeating pro-grower legislation, but by the 1980s, the focus shifted to support of Democratic Party politicians such as Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi. Certainly, aggressive efforts by the UFW and its affiliated organizations to register Latino voters have played a part in shifting California from a Republican to a Democratic-majority state over the past 50 years. But if supporting Democrats is an effective strategy for social change, why have conditions for farmworkers only gotten worse in the state as the number of Democrats in Sacramento has grown?

One of the book's central arguments is that the UFW and its alumni laid the basis for the explosion of the immigrant rights movement in 2006. Indeed, the way that the UFW brought immigrant workers out of the shadows and showed their centrality to the U.S. economy has benefited today's movement.

More specifically, UFW alumni such as Los Angeles County Federation of Labor Maria Elena Durazo and Service Employees International Union Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina played a role in organizing the 2003 Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride (IWFR). With the IWFR, the U.S. labor movement finally put out a public argument about why all workers must support immigrant rights, and brought this message to dozens of small towns around the country that would take part in the immigrant rights movement's explosion three years later.

But the record of the UFW itself on immigrant rights is conflicted. The UFW accepted all farmworkers, regardless of immigration status. However, when growers brought in undocumented immigrants as strikebreakers, Chavez's response was to call on the government and the Immigration and Naturalization Services to increase border enforcement and deport the scabs.

At the time, Bert Corona and his Hermandad Mexicana Nacional disagreed with Chavez's position, and argued for organizing the undocumented instead. While this certainly would not have been an easy thing to do in the heat of a strike, Chavez's approach only served to bolster the idea that immigrant workers were the cause of poor working conditions in the U.S. and to strengthen the repressive forces that have been used against farmworkers' attempts to organize time and time again.

When he applies Chavez's politics to the struggle for immigrant rights today, Shaw ends up supporting the most conservative wing of the movement. For example, he approvingly quotes a student organizer who "ordered classmates to put away Mexican flags they had brought to the demonstration" because "the UFW understood the symbolic potency of American flags."

Incredibly, Shaw also agrees with Eliseo Medina's opposition to the powerful "Day without an immigrant" one-day strike and boycott on May 1, 2006, saying that it "resembled the...ineffective paper boycotts" that Chavez opposed! Medina and the "Somos America" coalition argued for students and workers to attend an evening rally instead of skipping work and school, but tens of thousands boycotted anyway.

As immigrants and their supporters took to the streets to demand equality, "Eliseo Medina was in lengthy meetings with senators and their staffs." He ended up supporting a "compromise" immigration bill that included a guest-worker program. The end of the bracero "guest-worker" program was the precondition for the building of the UFW. Yet Shaw defends Medina's surrender on these vital issues as an effort to "put the immigrant rights movement on the side of progress and cooperation."

IN CHAPTER 10, Shaw returns to the UFW itself to examine why the union experienced a sharp decline in membership and influence by the 1980s. "By 2006, the UFW had no table grape contracts...Sadly, some believe that the wages and working conditions for farmworkers today lag farther behind those of other workers than they did in 1965, when the Delano grape strike began."

Shaw argues that the main factor in this decline was the way in which Chavez increasingly sought to assert total control over the UFW's activities, expelling those who disagreed with him and leaving no space for alternative viewpoints. As a result, most of the key figures who had built the union left between 1977 and 1981. Shaw writes:

[A]s typically happens to human beings who become symbols of larger ideals, Chavez's shortcomings...have been minimized or even ignored. As a result, most accounts of the union's decline primarily blame external factors--chief among them California's election of a pro-Republican governor...This...view, which insulates Cesar Chavez from responsibility for the union's decline, actually undermines the great accomplishments of the farmworkers movement. It wrongly assumes that Chavez was powerful enough to continue building the UFW without most of his key allies, and it perpetuates the false idea that politicians can readily defeat progressive social movements.

In other words, true respect for the struggles of the past requires that we learn from their mistakes as well as their successes. This same critical approach should be applied to the UFW's whole history, not just its disintegration in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With this approach, we should be able to reject those strategies that did not build a stronger union--turning Chavez into a saintlike figure, supporting border enforcement and pouring resources into electing Democrats--while embracing all the inspiring successes of the UFW's struggle.

A new generation of activists needs such a critical approach so that we can build stronger, lasting movements for the future.

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