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labor Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and Why Unions are Needed

The movement led by Cesar Chavez , Dolores Huerta and others created a union and reduced the oppression of farm workers for a time. Then the corporations and the Right Wing forces adapted their strategies of oppression. The assault on the UFW and the current reconquest of power in the fields are examples of strategic racism, that is a system of racial oppression created and enforced because it benefits the over class -- in this case corporate agriculture.

The author and Cesar Chavez. 1972.,

On March 31, 2015, Eleven states and numerous cities will hold holidays celebrating labor and Latino leader Cesar Chavez.  Conferences, marches and celebrations will occur in numerous cities and particularly in rural areas of the nation. A recent film Cesar Chavez: An American Hero, starring Michael Peña as Cesar Chavez and Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta presents important parts of this union story.

The current UFW leadership, as well as former UFW leaders and current DSA Honorary Chairs Eliseo Medina and Dolores Huerta are recognized leaders in the ongoing efforts to achieve comprehensive immigration reform in the nation. 

UFW President Arturo Rodriquez says, “We urge Republicans to abandon their political games that hurt millions of hard-working, taxpaying immigrants and their families, and help us finish the job by passing legislation such as the comprehensive reform bill that was approved by the Senate on a bipartisan vote in June 2013,” Rodriguez said.  Similar compromise proposals, negotiated by the UFW and the nation’s major agricultural employer associations, have passed the U.S. Senate multiple times over the last decade. The same proposal has won majority support in the House of Representatives, even though House GOP leaders have refused to permit a vote on the measure. “The UFW will not rest until the President’s deferred relief is enacted and a permanent immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants, is signed into law.”

Meanwhile,  in March of 2015  hundreds of farmworkers have walked off their jobs in Baja California, Mexico, from the agricultural fields just a few miles from the U.S. border , fields developed to provide a harvest to the U.S. markets.  Farm labor strikes and violence against strikers remains a volatile issue.  Farm workers deserve dignity, respect, and fair wages.  Achieving these goals will require a union.

Let us be clear. Chavez was religious, but he was not a saint. Neither were the growers, their Teamster collaborators, nor corporate agribusiness saints. Celebrations should not be about hero worship or uncritical praise, nor should we ignore the present oppression of farm workers in the U.S.

What they did accomplish along with Philip Vera Cruz , Marshall Ganz, LeRoy Chatfield, Gil Padilla, Eliseo Medina and hundreds of others was to   organize in California the first successful farm worker union against overwhelming odds.

Each of the prior attempts to organize a farm worker union had been destroyed by racism and corporate power. Chavez, Huerta, Philip Vera Cruz, and the others deliberately created a multiracial union; Mexican, Mexican American, Filipino, African-American, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Arab workers, among others, have been part of the UFW. This cross racial organizing was necessary in order to combat the prior divisions and exploitations of workers based upon race and language. Dividing the workers on racial and language lines, as well as immigration status always left the corporations the winners.

The violent assaults on the farmworkers and UFW from 1960- 1980 along with the current reconquest of power in the fields by corporate agriculture are examples of strategic racism, that is a system of racial oppression created and enforced because it benefits the over class- in this case corporate agriculture and farm owners. Strategic racism as described by Ian Haney López in Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class ( 2014) is the development and implementation of racial practices because they benefit a group or a class.

Chávez chose to build a union that incorporated the strategies of social movements and community organizing. They allied the union   with churches, students,  and organized labor.  The successful creation of the UFW changed the nature of labor organizing  in the Southwest  and contributed significantly to the growth of Latino politics in the U.S

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The UFW and Chavez and Huerta have always had severe critics from the Right and from corporate agriculture. Dolores Huerta has been banned from the history text books in Texas and Arizona as too radical. Both also have critics from the left.

Miriam Pawel in The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement (2009) uses individualist, personality driven reporting to assert that Chavez himself organized “Witch hunts” to expel union staff who disagreed with his leadership. See Steve Early’s essay non Talking Union.

What the left critics allege,

Frank Bardacke’s Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. (2011), Verso. is the view of a well- informed observer who worked in the lettuce fields near Salinas as is Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of Work and Struggle in the Fields of California (2012) by Bruce Neuberger. These books, along with Pawell’s have been reviewed in prior posts on Talking Union. See review here.

These books argue a peculiar point of view:   they strongly and persistently imply that the current problems of exploitation of workers in farm labor was caused by the destructive behavior of Cesar Chavez, his instability, and his ego – not by corporate agriculture; not by the racist state in rural California

On the other hand Cesar Chavez was given the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1994, and Dolores Huerta ( A DSA Honorary Chair) was given the Medal of Freedom in 2012.   Teaching materials and videos have been made recording their work. Schools, scholarships, foundations, organizing institutes and political organizations have been named after them. Few labor or Latino leaders have achieved such positive recognition.

I, for one, wonder why these authors and some other left writers see the major problem as the growth of what they see as a legend and myths about Cesar Chavez ( and recognition of the UFW) rather than the major problem being the role of corporate agriculture, exploitation and racism.

When writers take this view, they then need to explain why and how the parallel decline of the Teamsters, the ILGWU, the Auto Workers , the Steelworkers, the IAM, and other unions occurred during this same era. Compare the period of decline of 1977-1986 in the UFW to the complex battles of the Reuther Brothers to gain control and to keep control of the United Auto Workers, including the UAW’s relationship with the AFL-CIO . (1949-1970). The UAW went from 1.5 million members in 1979 to 390,000 in 2010, and the United Steelworkers and other unions suffered similar declines.

It doesn’t require a theory of emotional instability and personal interventions to explain that the smaller, less established, less well funded union – the UFW- suffered dramatic declines from racial oppression and the brutal assault on the union in the fields of Texas, Arizona and California.

The above critics under play the role of the corporate assault on unions, and in particular the assault on a union led by Mexican American leaders. This was, after all, the era when Ronald Reagan came to power in California along with the organization of the forces that came to be called neo-liberalism. It was also a time of consolidation of racial power in agriculture.

Marshall Ganz, who was a leader in the union and a participant in the internal struggles, tells a more complex and more complete story in his book, Why David Sometimes Wins. (2009) See the review in Talking Union

This isn’t to say that Chavez, Huerta and many on the UFW Executive Board did not have shortcomings. They did. Ganz describes several of these in his book and in interviews he participated in for the new book, From the Jaws of Victory by  Matt Garcia (2012). Ganz provide some well researched and insightful observations on the dynamics of a union trying to transition from a movement to a union- or to something else. This analysis is helpful to organizers trying to build unions.

There were conflicts and internal contradictions. Not many movements last for even ten years let alone thirty.    In addition to the assault from corporate agriculture, the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan, neoliberalism and racism, the UFW was confronted with internal union struggles for democracy, an intra union assault by the Teamsters, and with the tumultuous and disruptive politics on the left in the 60’s and 70’s.

In my opinion, Bardacke, Pawell, and Neuberger under analyze the nature of the racial state and the interaction of racial and economic oppression in the fields. And, these critics significantly failed to see the they dynamics of the struggle for Chicano/Mexican American self determination within the UFW.

The role of racism, and the individual reactions to systemic structural racial oppression are complex and vary in part based upon the differences in experiences of the participants. As the Chicano movement argued at its core- the experiences of U.S. born and reared Mexican Americans and Chicanos were different than the experiences and the perceptions of racism of Mexican immigrants, both documented and undocumented.   There are a diversity of racisms and a diversity in the manner in which workers   learn to respond to oppression. Chicanos and Mexican Americans grew up, were educated, and worked in an internal colony. Their schools, their unions, and their political experiences were structured along racial lines. They learned colonized structures. The authors do not sufficiently acknowledge the struggle of the UFW and the Chicano Movement in breaking this colonial legacy.

Marshall Ganz in Why David Sometimes Wins, does a better job of describing the internal dynamics of UFW organizing- after all he was there. He describes some of the racial fault lines of farm worker organizing. Ganz was the director of organizing for the UFW in Salinas and a long time member of the UFW executive board.

Chavez knew well some of the failings of unions in the 1960’s, including the problems of a growing internal bureaucracy, but the UFW in the 1980’s was not able to create a viable democratic union movement. Marshall Ganz argues that Chavez deconstructed the organizational strength of the UFW in the 1979 -1981 period in an effort to keep personal control of the union. (Ganz, p. 247 )

The critics who blame individuals for the union’s decline also miss the important rise of Latino politics in the Southwest today.  Chavez and the UFW played a significant role by training generations of future leaders as organizers as is well described in Randy Shaw’s, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st. Century.   The UFW was a place where hundreds learned organizing skills, politics, discipline, and how to work in multi racial movement politics – skills needed by many on the left.   Today hundreds of union and community leaders, particularly in California are veterans, trained in for the long distance struggle of the UFW.

The Current Situation – Strategic Racism

The movement led by Cesar Chavez , Dolores Huerta and others created a union and reduced the oppression of farm workers for a time.   Workers learned to not accept poor jobs, poor pay, unsafe working conditions as natural or inevitable. Then the corporations and the Right Wing forces adapted their strategies of oppression.

The assault on the UFW and the current reconquest of power in the fields are examples of strategic racism, that is a system of racial oppression created and enforced because it benefits the over class- in this case corporate agriculture and farm owners. The current renewed oppression is a product of strategic racism including a complex structure of institutions and individuals from police and sheriffs, to immigration authorities and anti immigrant activists, and elected officials and their support networks. These groups foster and promote inter racial conflict, job competition, and anti union organizing, as strategies to keep wages and benefits low and to promote their continuing white supremacy in rural California.

As the union was weakened by the Right Wing corporate assault, the conditions in the fields returned almost to their prior level of exploitation. The Agricultural Labor Relations Act had it budget cut by 30 % for years under Governor Deukmejian in 1982- 1986 along with other assaults on the law. Now, thousands of new immigrants harvest the crops and only a small percent are protected by union contracts. Over 200,000 indigenous workers, mostly from Mexico, harvest the crops in the Southwest. They are Mixtec, Zapotec, Triqui and more. They do have a few health, safety and wage protection by California labor laws, along with the right to farm worker collective bargaining elections and binding arbitration established significantly by the political activity of the current UFW – more than farm workers have in any other state. For a record of this period see David Bacon’s, The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (2013).  

Portions of this piece were previously posted on Talking Union.

Duane Campbell is a professor emeritus of bilingual multicultural education at California State University Sacramento, a union activist, and chair of Sacramento DSA.  He was a volunteer for the UFW from 1972- 1977. He is the Director of the Mexican American Digital History project