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Marc Cooper on the Fate of Cesar Chavez’s Dream

Posted on Nov 13, 2009

By Marc Cooper

(Page 2)

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.


book cover


The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement


By Miriam Pawel


Bloomsbury Press, 384 pages


Buy the book

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. 

Los Angeles-based writer and author Marc Cooper is director of Annenberg Digital News at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California.

Editor’s note: Click here for a response to this piece from UFW spokesman Marc Grossman.

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By Oliver A. Rosales, November 19, 2009 at 11:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Interesting comments all around. I look forward to reading Pawel’s
book and am enthusiastic about any and all attention brought to
the history of race, labor, and civil rights in California’s Central
Valley. There is validity to everyone’s comments. The criticism of
urban Chicanos is, however, unwarranted. Many urban Chicanos,
as well as African Americans, have experienced their own histories
of poverty and discrimination quite separate and apart from the
poverty of their rural brothers and sisters. The fact that the UFW
helped meld these two and often separate struggles into a social
and labor movement is significant.  Secondly, while I appreciate
truth and am a lover of wisdom, truth is entirely relative. Context
is obviously important. The entire American labor movement
arguably failed and or is failing for reasons that warrant
discussion elsewhere. The UFW exists today beyond the fields
because it diversified and has become institutionalized. If that’s
called middle-class or selling-out, that’s fine. The importance of
the union, however, is well beyond the cliche of “we need a hero
too,” and is connected flesh and bone to serious progressive and
institutional changes that have occurred in the valley over the past
40 years and are continuing to be fought for today. The legacy of
the UFW conflated as a failure is therefore inaccurate and I agree
dangerous to what’s happening on the ground in the valley today.

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By Lucas7, November 16, 2009 at 7:57 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have been reading all of these comments and find it so interesting that how easy it is to invent and distort as both this book and this review do.  I was one of those “Chicanos” who was at the Arvin march and to have Marc Cooper describe the UFW participants as “clearly middle-class, many of them Chicanos, many of them college-educated, thick around the middle and wearing neatly pressed chinos” is just an example of the total distortion that Marc Cooper attempts to do to the history of the UFW and others. He clearly was trying to paint the UFW participants as Teamster thugs who came into the fields in the 70s with no knowledge of the conditions of farm workers…

If that is a reflection of his writing and opinion then he is abviousley more interested in distorting the truth then to accurately report the true history of the UFW.

I could take his entire review piece by piece but what would be the point…more distortion and more of the same.  Telling the truth is the last thing on Marc Cooper’s mind.  That would be boring…

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By Sammy, November 16, 2009 at 5:57 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I just finished reading Pawel’s book and found it devastating.  I too have been a long time supporter of the UFW but without much intimate knowledge. Over the years I had picked up this and that negative view of what had been going on inside the union but mostly shrugged off. I dutifully sent in my regular check, thinking that the union was taking care of our farm workers.

I can’t do that any longer. Pawel’s case is compelling and airtight. If anything, Marc Cooper’s review goes easy on Chavez. Cooper’s overall view, however, accurately reflects what the book fully documents.

I want to add that I am a long time Angeleno (and an active member of UTLA, the teacher’s union) and I grew up listening to Cooper on the radio and following his writing in The Nation and L.A. Weekly. His work has always been of the highest quality and he is well known for overturning apple carts and telling uncomfortable truths. I have used his articles countless times in my high school social studies class.

Accusing him of being a neocon or anti-union is to display one’s own ignorance and narrow-mindedness. Cooper has established a record in the best tradition of a George Orwell.

What kind of Left will we have if we are not willing to be self-critical?

I’m also one of the original readers of Truthdig but this is the first time I have been compelled to comment. I am appalled by the lynch mob atmosphere here in the comments and rather surprised they have not been moderated out. Then again, Truthdig apparently has a broader definition of free speech and open inquiry than some of its readers do who would prefer not to read things they disagree with.

Thanks to Pawel and Cooper and to Truthdig for this eye-opening experience.

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By borderwatcher, November 16, 2009 at 3:39 pm Link to this comment

I must come to the defense of my old friend, Marc Cooper. Marc is an excellent investigative journalist in a time where such reporting has become scarce. Both he and Miriam Pawel have made a positive contribution to the ongoing revisionist history on Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers.

In 1971 I published a book on Cesar and the the UFW Forty Acres. I plead guilty if critics say it was just another hagiography. (by the way, hagios in Greek means holy—so there you have it, a “holy story.’ after all, i was a Franciscan padre at the time, with four years of organizing farmworkers under my belt.)

Those were heady days and many good things were accomplished.  But at the same time, the union was rapidly becoming a cult, not too disimilar to the Jim Jones crowd and the Rajneesh groupies in Oregon. The mantra was “Cesar says” and everyone swallowed the koolaid. Even the famous Fred Ross remarked to UFW-VP Philip Veracruz on a visit to La Paz: “What the hell is going on here? Is this a cult?”

I haven’t read Pawel’s book, (btw, the mailman just handed me my copy) but of one thing i am certain. According to my sources, no matter what she reported, and no matter what Marc has written—things were actually much, much worse—and I am convinced, for various reasons, that the true story wll never come out. That’s often how it is with icons. They are untouchable. “We have so few heroes,” people say. Leave him/her alaone.”

Meanwhile, thanks to the First Amendment, reporters and investigataors will continue to subject the UFW and its late leader and fall, it’s their job. It’s what they do best.

Mark R. Day

But much has happend since then

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By Virginia777, November 16, 2009 at 12:57 pm Link to this comment

no, Russian Paul, I like Mr. Fish’s work sometimes. (I just can’t take his Obama-bashing). But he is dead-on sometimes, and a great artist too.

I was seriously suggesting this bit of right-wing hypocrisy be considered for a future cartoon.

Mr. Cooper wants to “have his cake and eat it too”. He wants to write years and years of neo-con propaganda,

and then be able to tell the “Truth”?

(which he isn’t, by the way, in this article)

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By Russian Paul, November 16, 2009 at 12:21 pm Link to this comment

Virginia, sorry for the knee-jerk reaction, I’m tired of Mr. Fish being called a
right-winger by people who can’t read between the lines. But looks like I myself
might have misinterpreted your comment. Indeed, Marc Cooper’s review and his
subsequent comments would be comical fodder for Fish indeed.

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By Russian Paul, November 16, 2009 at 12:10 pm Link to this comment

Virginia, don’t bring Mr. Fish into this. Just because you misinterpret his work,
does not make him a neocon. His attacks on faux-liberalism are unfortunately
misconstrued as attacks on the actual left. It simply isn’t true.

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By Virginia777, November 16, 2009 at 11:12 am Link to this comment

Mr. Fish, you have your next cartoon here in Mr. Cooper’s comment

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By Virginia777, November 16, 2009 at 11:06 am Link to this comment

“Which brings me to the absurd wisecrack by Virginia saying that I am a well known neo-con.  Well, let’s say that were true. Would that make it impossible for me to write something that might be truthful?”


it would

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By Virginia777, November 16, 2009 at 10:55 am Link to this comment

How dare Marc Cooper attempt to portray “the waning influence of Chavez’s UFW”

(what a union-buster)

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By LostHills, November 15, 2009 at 10:45 am Link to this comment

All American labor unions have been on the ropes since the 1980s. Union membership in this country is the lowest it’s been since the great depression and real wages for all blue collar workers across the board have been stagnant for 25 years. Every year fewer and fewer Americans have health insurance, paid holidays or sick days or pensions. That’s not the fault of Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers Union.

It would be valuable to focus some attention on the plight of farm workers in America, but attacking the UFW at this point in time is really shameful. The life of every farmworker in America is measurably better due to the efforts of that organization. That more work needs to be done is obvious, but farmworkers are not the only sector of the workforce that has lost ground since the 1980s. It’s happened to the entire blue collar sector.

It’s too bad that Pawel and Cooper can’t use their journalistic skills to examine the real causes of the decline in unionization in America instead of pursuing their sad little personal vendetta against Cesar Chavez. I don’t find the book, or the review, or this discussion of them to be valuable in any way. Pawel and Cooper will get some attention and make some money, and the workers of America will continue to struggle to get through another damn week.

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By Samson, November 15, 2009 at 10:11 am Link to this comment

This is classic Marc Cooper.  Writes a hatchet piece. Then is very aggressive at attacking anyone who dares to criticize him.

Anyone with any sense on the left stopped paying any attention to him at least a decade ago.

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By Samson, November 15, 2009 at 10:07 am Link to this comment

I just realized that I’ve had a wonderful few years where I haven’t read a single word that Marc Cooper has written. They’ve been lovely years.  Now spoiled by having Truthdig plaster his junk all over the front page.  Yuck!

When you see Marc Cooper, you can expect a hatchet piece on someone who’s being useful as an activists. That’s been Cooper’s role for at least a decade.  A fake leftist who churns out hatchet pieces. 

I’m really sorry to see Truthdig stooping to publishing his junk.

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By thebeerdoctor, November 15, 2009 at 2:47 am Link to this comment

re: smchndlr

A quick biographic perusal of Marc Cooper’s career in journalism reveals that politically speaking, he is all over the place, from Pacifica radio to CBS. And when you write: “Neither does he deserve a voice on Truthdig, writing of Cesar Chavez.” I simply marvel at the utter fascism of such a comment.

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By smchndlr, November 14, 2009 at 8:26 pm Link to this comment

Let no one ever forget the endless attacks on radio station KPFK from Mr. Cooper.  Just check the LA Weekly archives.  The valentine-interview he had with Robert McNamera,one of the premier war criminals in the history of this country.  In my opininon he deserves friends like David Horowitz, and none others. Neither does he deserve a voice on Truthdig,writing of Cesar Chavez.

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By Miriam Pawel, November 14, 2009 at 8:11 pm Link to this comment

I’d like to point out one thing about my book that is relevant to this discussion and has not been made clear: “The Union of Their Dreams” is a rigorously researched history, endorsed by leading historians in the field, and based largely on primary source documents—memos, letters, journals, notes and audiotapes made at the time. All quotes in the book come from those sources. Chavez preserved a remarkable record of the history of his movement, and I spent years researching the documents he sent to library archives. My book is not based on the recollections of the principal characters; the quotes from Chavez and others are all taken directly from the words they spoke at the time. For further information including links to documents themselves, see my website at

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By thebeerdoctor, November 14, 2009 at 3:23 am Link to this comment

There is something incredibly emotional and raw when someone is critical of a dead icon. In this case Cesar Chavez, a famous advocate for farmworker social justice, quite a few decades ago.
Charges with vitriol have been aimed at Marc Cooper’s book review, questioning both his motives and perhaps ulterior intentions. But one thing about perceived reality, it can really sting.
Here is a quote from Cooper’s newspaper article:
“Go out in the fields and ask today’s workers what they think of Cesar Chavez and they will say, ‘oh you mean Julio Cesar Chavez the boxer,’” says Don Villarego, founder of the Institute For Rural Studies. “A focus on Cesar and his legacy has much more traction with middle-class liberals than it does with actual farm workers, many of whom have just arrive in the U.S.”
Since there is a tendency to discount critical statements by the claim it is astro-turfing by some fake grassroots organization, I looked up the Institute For Rural Studies and found it to be a credible advocacy organization in California.
Which brings up the Chavez legacy matter. I am fully aware that the late Senator Kennedy was a champion of Cesar Chavez, but I have often wondered when such a high profile (and rich) endorsement becomes a liability? Time and again entire new industries are created out of populist/social justice struggles, where it also seems the core values which these organizations were created, ultimately become compromised, as they move up on the political food chain and become power players. Established union hierarchy that has become estranged from the members who created them in the first place, is an often told story, where union presidents never walked a picket line in their lives.
Here in Ohio, the recent backing of local NAACP and AFL-CIO to legalize casino gambling shows their is nothing saintly about advocacy groups and/or unions, once they are established with political power.

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By Marc Cooper, November 13, 2009 at 7:38 pm Link to this comment


I think it is rather obvious at this juncture in history that Cesar Chavez inspired millions. We know that, right? So, do we need to preface every serious review of his history with a ritual homage to all the good that we know was accomplished before we are allowed to say anything critical? Or can we be adults and discuss sometimes very uncomfortable truths? The former is a type of religious protocol.

I see nothing in your lengthy rebuttals that challenge any of the basic facts under review here.

If we look at the legacy of MLK we find a Civil Rights Act, affirmative action, not the abolition of but the ostracism of racism and ultimately a black man from a Kenyan father who is President of the United States.

If we look at the fields of California, 44 years after the founding of the UFW, we find as many as 700,000 farm workers whose average annual wage is about $10-12k per year. They constitute the poorest zip codes in the state. They die of heat exposure. They are regularly cheated by labor contractors and unscrupulous growers. And among them, by the most generous of counts, the UFW represents about 7,000 of them, or 1%. Indeed, other unions—who get NO celebrity from their work in the fields like the United Food and Cannery Workers—represent just as many (or as few) workers as the UFW does. If you have spent any prolonged time in the Central Valley, as I have, you know the UFW barely has a palpable pn the ground presence. The real work is, in fact, done by beleaguered attorneys and community advocates at the CRLA. The UFW has not conducted a major successful organizing drive since nobody remembers when. They lost the major strawberry campaign of the last decade. And they bungled the Giumarra campaign during the 2005 heat wave.  While thousands of Caliifornia farm workers sleep in their cars (go to the El Toro market parking lot in Mecca, Ca to see them) or under the trees, the Chavez family controls foundations and non profits that take in millions of dollars per year.

Yes, there are plenty of external reasons why unionization of farm workers has failed. But there are just as many that can be ascribed to mistaken strategies and actions of the UFW. If we are not willing to face them, review them, and absorb the lessons without kowtowing to a cheap hagiography then we will never achieve success.

Your moral abd ideological exhortations as to the basic goodness and nobility of the UFW and Chavez don’t help feed or protect a single farm worker. And most of them, as I have said, have no idea who Cesar Chavez is. It’s because the UFW has no relevance to their lives.

I have one final idea. Why don’t you read Pawel’s book and then write and long as critique as you please? Otherwise this is rather pointless shadowboxing.

Over and out.

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By NABNYC, November 13, 2009 at 6:52 pm Link to this comment

Marc:  I don’t understand your hostile response to my comments.  Calling them “quasi religious” is demeaning and offensive.  I did not attack you or the author. 

I’ll just respond to a few of your points.  The book is based on the recollection of 8 individuals.  I know many people who were involved in the UFW, in key central positions, during the period in question.  There were different factions, serious disagreements, and people have different recollections and interpretations of what happened. The word of 8 is not gospel.  That was my point. 

Whether a boycott or organizing is a better move is a judgment call, not “fact.”  Some of the unions today, which are almost management-sponsored, seek to turn unions solely into isolated groups dedicated to negotiating a cents-per-hour increase.  Broader union movements of necessity are based on social justice considerations and soliciting support from the public is critical to their survival.  Boycotts are quite effective, which is why the corporate lobbyists bribed the politicians to pass laws making them illegal. 

I’m not sure why you are so concerned about attorneys.  I’ve been one for over 25 years, and I know many of the attorneys who worked for the UFW and for Cesar Chavez.  It was a personal decision, involving great sacrifice, to work for such low wages.  However, the attorneys were the most likely to be able to leave and go get other work making very good incomes.  Why worry about attorneys’ wages?  It was their decision to be involved in what they saw as an important movement.

I had one friend who was an organizer with the UFW and who often found herself facing down farmers with shotguns pointed into her face.  This was dangerous and stressful work.  It was taking place during a time when the FBI routinely was placing undercover agents inside progressive organizations to try to get the members to engage in violence, to set them up to be gunned down and destroyed.  Was Chavez concerned that this was happening inside the UFW?  Possibly.  But to characterize him as delusional or insane is just taking cheap shots at a dead man.  What’s the point? 

Funny you should mention MLK Jr. and Malcolm X. The right-wing has generously funded organizations for decades which have the responsibility to create a mythical history, to revise the truth, to teach younger generations lies.  So they are taught that MLK Jr. was a womanizer and a conman instead of being a great and courageous civil rights leader murdered by the right-wing.  They are taught that Malcolm X was a convict and thug instead of being an inspiration to millions of Americans.  They are taught that the war in Vietnam was lost because cowards wanted to withdraw, and that feminists were ugly hairy lesbians who hated men.  All organizations that promoted social justice are on the hit-list.  It’s not just a coincidence that we are suddenly seeing this flurry of anti-Chavez writing.

I’m not saying that people should not learn from the past, and accurately report it.  But these assaults seem intended to kill the idea of workers organizing unions to promote social justice and workplace benefits.  It was the ideas of Chavez and the UFW that inspired so many people.  That is why so much of the current writing, focusing on petty personal attacks on a dead man, advances the revisionist goals of the right-wing.  And it is that aspect of these writings to which I object.

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By berniem, November 13, 2009 at 5:44 pm Link to this comment

The fate of the UFW, as has been that of the other major unions in this country,is a result of these organizations becoming themselves businesses and corporations who in time have sought to make profits while devloping an elitist hierarchy to ensure to an ever increasing degree the survival of the union “species” at the expense of it’s membership. Like the old joke informs, when a photo in the paper showing a group of individuals heralding the signing of a labor agreement is uncaptioned, who can tell the union guys from management? The labor movement started dying when it went from being revolutionary to adopting the collegiality of political deliberation.

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By Marc Cooper, November 13, 2009 at 4:38 pm Link to this comment

Gerard, I apologize for not properly reading your tone. The Web does play that trick on us and am sorry to have gotten it wrong.

As to NABNYC, I find your attitude interesting if not distressing. It is quasi religious. You simply declare someone a super-human hero without flaws and foibles and then stamp your feet and close your eyes and ears if something contradicts your idolatry.  Cesar Chavez, as noted both by yours truly and Ms. Pawel, was, indeed, in many ways an heroic and admirable figure.  But you are engaging in hagiograpgy which is a dis-service both to the truth and to those who would wish to learn from mistakes as to not repeat them. Pawel is hardly the first author to lay bare the internal and serious dysfunction of both Chavez and the UFW.  Indeed, her entire book is based on the deep debriefing of eight of his most important followers and lieutenants who speak freely of what went wrong. Other books and articles over the years have been written by some of his former aides with these same conclusions. Anyone with a real insider knowledge of the UFW knows that Pawel is on the right track. It’s hardly a secret.

It is patently NOT true that Chavez did everything possible to build his union.  In a series of circumstances he chose other less constructive paths. Legions of former UFWers, for example, believe that staging consumer boycotts in the cities rather than organizing in the fields was a monumental error.

I did not know Chavez personally and not being a clairvoyant it is difficult to measure what you claim is his inherent goodness and decency. Engaging in vicious, personalized purges, dabbling in anti-semitism (as is well documented in the book), staging outright red-baiting McCarthyite purges of much of his leadership, ostracizing and erasing from his personal life those who dared to even mildly dissent are not the best indicators of unflawed goodness. I don’t think Chavez was a monster. More likely he was a mortal human being who demonstrated all the weaknesses and strengths of the species.

Your point about his desire for an egalitarian organization that avoided the top-down corruption of traditional unions is well-taken. But there is ample documentation that Chavez refused to ever delegate any personal power and is on the record, on various occasions, expressing scorn for a union that would be run by mere farm workers as they were, according to him, only interested in petty material gains and not the grander vision he claimed to have.  This is a great attitude for a priest or a guru but it doesn’t work very well when trying to build a union. It’s one thing to bar inflated salaries. It’s quite another to ask middle-aged lawyers who were the lifeblood of the union to continue feeding their families on $150 a week and also ask them to move to his remote compound far from any city. Please.

What I don’t understand is why you would dismiss out of hand criticism of someone you judge to be so crucial.  The more historical importance Chavez has, the more it is that serious people should study what really happened.

We have seen the Establishment turn figures like MLK into mythical comic book figures and strip from them all real historical context. There is quite literally a brand of Malcolm X potato chips.

While your motivation might be different, the logical extension of your argument is also that we should treat Chavez as some sort of commodified deity, to be worshipped and revered but never examined or questioned. Even some hard core Jesuits are willing now and then to cast a critical eye on Jesus.

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By gerard, November 13, 2009 at 2:47 pm Link to this comment

Marc, sorry you thought I was “shooting the bearer of bad news.” I must have hit a sore spot by accident.  My concern was and is that unions in general struggle against constant “guilt by association” allegations to make it appear that they are all bad.  So, the excesses of one are used to delegitimize all.  That’s no more than a statement of known fact, having nothing to do with you personally as you can’t do much about it, personally.
  But you know this as well as I do, and might therefore have forestalled that result by looking a little deeper into some of the book’s negative emphases—one, on Chavez’s shift of purpose from union to social movement, and two, on the family’s mishandling of funds. My statement about the most interesting aspects as missing was a criticism of the book, not of your review. 
  P.S. I was not in attack mode when I wrote the comment.

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By bandz, November 13, 2009 at 1:53 pm Link to this comment

Thanks for your comments NABNYC. Your final paragraph is, I think, true:  “All these books by people who want to trash Cesar Chavez are missing the point.  He inspired people by being a moral leader, rejecting personal wealth, inspiring others to sacrifice to help the poorest members of our society.  Maybe he wasn’t cool, didn’t live like a king.  But he was a good and decent man, all his life.  There are few leaders in our country about which we can say the same.” Cesar Chaves was not perfect [none of us are] but the fact that he was “a good and decent man” and his committment to non-violence are why he still remains as one of my"favorite people”—one of my “heroes.”

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By bandz, November 13, 2009 at 1:52 pm Link to this comment

Thanks for your comments NABNYC. Your final paragraph is, I think, true:  “All these books by people who want to trash Cesar Chavez are missing the point.  He inspired people by being a moral leader, rejecting personal wealth, inspiring others to sacrifice to help the poorest members of our society.  Maybe he wasn’t cool, didn’t live like a king.  But he was a good and decent man, all his life.  There are few leaders in our country about which we can say the same.” Cesar Chaves was not perfect [none of us are} but the fact that he was “a good and decent man” and his committment to non-violence are why he still remains as one of my"favorite people—one of my “heroes.”

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By NABNYC, November 13, 2009 at 1:22 pm Link to this comment

Cesar Chavez dedicated his life to creating a union and a social movement to try to improve the lives of the wretched of the earth, the migrant farmworkers who the farmers treat worse than animals, who were denied even clean drinking water or bathroom facilities, who were “housed” by the farmers in plywood sheds with wooden bunks built one on top of the other, who were so poor they ate nothing but beans and rice, who were routinely gassed with poisonous chemicals by cropdusters, intentionally, rather than move them out of the fields, who have no medical care, whose children get no education, and who live miserable lives and die young, often from diseases caused by their occupation.  All this while U.S. corporations, agri-business, was expanding its reach to take control of all the farms, all the seeds, all the animals, all the foodstuff in the world.

Cesar Chavez not only dedicated his life to trying to help the poor, but he also resisted the temptation to take money for himself, to get rich by exploiting the same people he had committed to helping.

For this, he should be trashed?  Shame on these people.

I know well of the conflicts that arose within the UFW.  I know because I know some of the key players, and have heard their versions of the stories.  Conflicts which created long-lasting bitterness among those who once were the closest of allies.

But we must not ignore the good, engage in revisionist ridicule of the UFW, simply because it is popular and easy to be cynical.  As for the criticism that Chavez was running a social movement, no union movement can succeed unless it is, fundamentally, also a social movement.  Anyone who doesn’t understand that knows nothing of the history of labor.

As for the individuals who supposedly went on to have great [financial] success in other unions, that is the problem.  When some unions pay their leadership hundreds of thousands of dollars, while their members barely survive on minimum wage, that is not a good thing.  It’s not a sign of “success” to say that someone who was part of a union in which everyone earned the same amount has sold out, and embraced the Republican attitude of living a life dedicated to seeking personal wealth. 

One of the key democratic points of the UFW was that all union workers should earn about the same.  If the farmworkers who did back-breaking short-hoe field work earned $5/day, then so did the organizers and management.  Unlike, for example, the SEIU in which many members are making around minimum wage, while management insiders are paying themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.  That is not evidence of “success” by former UFW insiders.  To me it is a sign of a sell-out, someone who chose to enrich themselves and to abandon the idea of helping working people, other than as a marketing campaign to make themselves rich.

And remember the concept of principles, not personalities.  Did Chavez despair, did he suffer?  Remember he was a deeply religious man.  Did he suffer from witnessing the misery of the people slaving in the fields, at his relative inability to radically change their lives?  Yes, he did suffer, because he was a good man. 

Did Chavez’s successors use the union to enrich themselves?  If so, don’t blame Cesar Chavez.  He did everything he could while he was alive to create a union.  If others destroyed it after he was dead, or if it was busted because of neo-con policies, that’s a separate subject.

All these books by people who want to trash Cesar Chavez are missing the point.  He inspired people by being a moral leader, rejecting personal wealth, inspiring others to sacrifice to help the poorest members of our society.  Maybe he wasn’t cool, didn’t live like a king.  But he was a good and decent man, all his life.  There are few leaders in our country about which we can say the same.

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By trebla, November 13, 2009 at 1:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I supported Chavez and his movement for justice for California farm workers, as
did so many of us who made calls, boycotted and wrote letters. There are many
reasons why the movement to unionize workers did not become the force we
hoped for,  which may include the failings of Chavez himself. But nowhere here is
mentioned a major proximal cause of the unionization and perhaps Chavez
himself- illegal immigration. The relentless flow of scab labor rendered the UFW
toothless in negotiations with large farms. Yet the progressive identification of
the labor movement with La Raza would not allow the UFW to rail against

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By Marc Cooper, November 13, 2009 at 1:02 pm Link to this comment

A couple of quick responses. First to Gerard. Those who wish to fight unions are going to fight them with or without this book or review. It is also true that I could have written a more comprehensive history of the UFW, perhaps another book. But my task was to review THIS book by Pawel and that is what I did. The question should never be HOW a book will be used but whether or not it is accurate. Pawel’s is accurate. And the truth is always revolutionary,

Which brings me to the absurd wisecrack by Virginia saying that I am a well known neo-con.  Well, let’s say that were true. Would that make it impossible for me to write something that might be truthful? Is that your standard for detecting truth vs falsehood, an ideological test?

That said. I think I am, modestly, well-known as anything but a neo-con. I am and have have always been on the left.  But my real vocation is that of reporter and I call them as I see them. No one gets a pass. Indeed, if I didn’t care as much as I did about the legacy and future of unions, I assure you I wouldn’t have cared less what Pawel said ir didn’t say about the UFW. The UFW is a failure. Less than 2% of California farm workers are unionized. Less than 1/2 of them in the UFW. After 50 years of existence, the union takes in $25 million a year but has less than 5,000 members under contract in the fields.  If you really cared about the plight of field workers, you would make at least a minimal attempt to learn the lessons of the past rather than to shoot the bearers of bad news.

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By gerard, November 13, 2009 at 12:41 pm Link to this comment

Sad story—but—this article can and will be easily used to fight unionization in general. “Told ya so!” will be the mantra of every grower and ADM stockholder in the nation.  It would be no more than fair if Cooper had referred readers to sources beyond this one book—especially regarding the possible basis for Chavez’s desires to build a “social movement” rather than a trade union. This is not entirely a bad idea, it should be said.  And what accounts for the family’s aggrandizement?  The most interesting issues of this story seem to be missing, if the review is an accurate portrayal of the book.

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By Eugene Hernandez, November 13, 2009 at 11:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I too knew Chavez as a student and activist. All of what Patel and Marc Cooper said are true. One of the other downfalls of the UFW was their insistence on supporting first Jerry Brown, then Kennedy for their Presidential bids. Their strategy took away organizers and staff from the California fields and could have been used instead to strengthen their few existing contracts. One strategy the UFW never pursued was to register to vote and run candidates in the many Central California towns to challenge the reactionary Democrats and Republican who represented these town. Instead they threw their support and money into failing Presidential campaigns which yielded nothing for the the UFW.

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By mandinka, November 13, 2009 at 10:21 am Link to this comment

Failure?? This is typical of every union take the dues and make themselves wealthy. Unions had a role in the 1900’s but today they are an excuse for the lazy and incompetent.

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By JeremiahIII, November 13, 2009 at 10:06 am Link to this comment

Abe Lincoln had a similar vision of America…A Nation of honorable folk of the land.  Family farms and amber waves of grain.  Boy was he wrong.  Miscalculating human greed and laziness gets a guy killed, for sure.

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By bandz, November 13, 2009 at 9:10 am Link to this comment

This is one of the saddest, most tragic and discouraging articles I’ve ever read. I’ve listed Cesar Chavez on my Facebook and many other profiles as one of my “most admired persons” along with Gandhi, M.L. King, etc. I was attending graduate school at Fresno State in the mid-1960s and became a strong supporter of Cesar and the UFW.  I took part for two days in the Delano to Sacramento march as it passed Fresno. I still have a large UFW poster framed and mounted on my wall here at home. I’ve continued to contribute $$, sign petitions and write letters in support of the UFW ever since.

I had never heard of the changes in Cesar’s “dream.” or of the changes in the goals and activities of the UFW.Sadly, I’ve not kept informed mose closely of the Union and it’s activities except for email from the UWF that I receive regularly. What has happened as portrayed in this article causes me profound sadness and dismay. I feel like a light in my life has gone out.

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By Virginia777, November 13, 2009 at 8:38 am Link to this comment

Marc Cooper Truthdig?? a long-recognized neo-con?

I can’t even comment

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By dihey, November 13, 2009 at 6:35 am Link to this comment

What failure, family businesses are as American as Apple Pie, are they not?

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