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Marc Cooper on the Fate of Cesar Chavez’s Dream
Posted on Nov 13, 2009
By Marc Cooper
Pawel is no anti-union right-winger. She openly expresses her awe for the bedazzling talent, commitment and magical moral charisma that allowed Cesar Chavez to build the unthinkable dream of a union of California’s most oppressed and forgotten workers. From the first Delano strike in 1965, working with the handful of supporters whom Pawel chronicles, Chavez chalks up a miraculous decade. Not only does he wind up on the cover of Time, but farmworkers claim a noble space in American history.
The real problems begin, however, when in the mid-1970s then (and most likely future) Gov. Jerry Brown allies with the UFW and ushers into life the most advanced farm labor legislation and regulatory agency in America—the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.
Just when the decks are cleared for Chavez to push full steam ahead in organizing his union on an unprecedented even playing field, he balks. Moreover, he seems to sink into a paranoid depression and become prone to unpredictable and unprovoked tirades and lashing out at the closest of friends, suddenly branded as traitors.
Pawel can’t answer the central enigma surrounding Chavez—his true state of mind and motivation. No one can. Whether he was, as one aide put it, “a little crazy,” or whether he was more a utopian visionary or a Christian ascetic, or a simple megalomaniac, he told everybody around him he was definitely not interested in building one more “business union.” And that’s the theme Pawel repeatedly circles back to. Every time history offered him a choice between building a vigorous union or dreaming up a more amorphous social movement, Chavez always chose the latter. At least verbally.
The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement
By Miriam Pawel
Bloomsbury Press, 384 pages
He saw virtue and redemption in a life of poverty and sacrifice and was notorious as a penny-pinching micro-manager averse to delegating any real power. His most talented organizer, Eliseo Medina, who broke his piggy bank to join the union as a teenager only to be ignominiously pushed out 12 years later, argued that workers wanted to join a union to have a better life with less sacrifice, not more. (Medina’s argument was borne out by history. He went on to build a still-thriving career inside the country’s largest union—the SEIU—precisely by organizing tens of thousands of service workers and ushering them into the middle class.)
But Chavez wouldn’t budge from his grandiose and rather inarticulate vision of building something bigger. Worse, by 1977 he started dabbling in the Synanon cult and imported its vicious and abusive role-playing “Game” into union management, and he deployed it ruthlessly to tear down those around him.
Dissidents, opponents and loyalists alike were chewed up in a series of purges led by Chavez. His brilliant legal team, instrumental in building the union, was forcefully dismantled because its members complained they could no longer support their families on a salary of $150 a week and they refused to move to Chavez’s bunkered and isolated headquarters in the barren California mountains. Chavez forced other union staff members to get by on a wage of $5 a day and resisted all demands to professionalize the union.
As the years passed, and the union waned (its last real organizing effort before Chavez’s death in 1993 had taken place 14 years previously), it morphed into primarily a direct mail outfit, soliciting millions of dollars for a series of boycotts no one could keep track of. Those campaigns were warmly embraced by urban liberals but did little if anything to improve working conditions in the field. Meanwhile, Chavez was increasingly isolated in his remote La Paz compound—30 miles east of Bakersfield—while he dreamed of building an ascetic, pious, collective community.
Shortly after Chavez died, leftist author Frank Bardacke wrote in The Nation that “at the time of Cesar Chavez’ death, the U.F.W. was not primarily a farmworker organization. It was a fundraising operation run out of a deserted tuberculosis sanitarium in the Tehachapi Mountains, far from the fields of famous Delano, staffed by members of Cesar’s extended family and using as its political capital Cesar’s legend and the warm memories of millions of aging boycotters.”
Pawel fully if not reverently acknowledges the immeasurable contribution the early UFW and Chavez made to the creation of a broader Latino rights movement. Even more important, the UFW spawned an enormously talented and committed corps of unionists and activists who, after being forced out from La Union, went on to enrich the rest of the labor movement.
As to the UFW, neither its yin nor yang ever fully materialized. It failed to grow either into a mature union or a broader social movement of poor people, as Chavez advocated. Nor did it ever build any of those self-sustaining communities Chavez extolled—except for becoming essentially a Chavez family business which tightly controls the multimillion-dollar network of UFW-affiliated groups and Democratic Party lobbies.
The plight of the farmworkers themselves, meanwhile, remains pretty much unchanged, with barely any significant UFW presence in the fields. As Pawel notes, the workers still earn barely the minimum wage, lack health care and sometimes find themselves sleeping in cars or tents or under trees.
There is one sad, ironic coda to this tale. Chavez’s progeny did finally scrap his limiting ethos of hair-shirt austerity. In the decade after his death, the salaries they granted themselves and other top managers of the UFW shell groups rose 600 percent. And more since then.
Editor’s note: Click here for a response to this piece from UFW spokesman Marc Grossman.
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