A Book Review by Mike Matejka, Grand Prairie Union News, Bloomington, Ill.
Across the U.S. are schools and parks named for Latino union leader Cesar Chavez (1927-1993). Chavez, a civil rights and labor icon, is an historic bridge between labor and Latinos.
Yet the union he founded in 1965, the United Farm Workers (UFW), today has a small membership, estimated in the 5,000 range. Farm laborers remain among the most exploited and impoverished Americans. Why didn’t Chavez’s valiant efforts create more lasting change?
Two recent books explore the UFW’s history: Trampling out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the two Souls of the United Farm Workers by Frank Bardacke, and Miriam Pawel’s The Union of their Dreams: Power, Hope and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement. Both books well document the challenge of union organization and Chavez’s unique vision, including not only the movement’s successes but also failures..
The two books take very different approaches; Bardacke’s Trampling out the Vintage is perhaps the most comprehensive history of California’s farm labor movement. Having actually worked in the fields under UFW contracts, Bardacke details the often skilled labor required in speciality crop production. The book thoroughly covers the various campaigns the UFW waged with great detail, yet never bogs down in its narrative.
Bardacke notes that workers had organized before the UFW. Chavez’s initial vision was to organize farm worker service centers, rather than a union. His effort coincided with the 1964 end of the infamous bracero program, where Mexican workers were brought into the U.S. with little protection. Ending the program meant labor shortages and farm workers took that moment to press their conditions.
Chavez’s unique tactic was linking farm workers’ with civil rights, taking the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent struggles. He also brilliantly adopted the boycott strategy, convincing urban consumers to avoid grapes or lettuce until the farm workers got contracts. As the nation was torn asunder by the Vietnam War, anti-war activists, cold war liberals, labor and churches supported the UFW, becoming one of the great causes of the 1960s and 1970s.
Epic 1973 strike
The UFW endured members’ deaths and an epic multi-month strike in 1973, before renewing its boycott and winning passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, for the first time giving farm workers a legal right to organize. In short order the union was winning elections, but slowly its power ebbed. Was it a Republican governor or agribusiness’ power that curtailed the union’s growth, or was there another story?
Pawel’s A Union of their Dreams tells the UFW story through the eyes of people who were once critical to the union’s efforts- three farm workers, a minister, two attorneys, a student and a big-hearted volunteer. They all became caught up in the vision of a farm worker union, a poor people’s movement for social change.
By the 1980s, many of these people were no longer associated with the UFW. Many had been drummed out by the union’s leadership.
Both books expose the tensions of a movement always under pressure. Chavez tinkered with organizational models and at times shifted focus without warning. Those who left, or were forced out, blame the union’s culture for being too centralized in one individual and they worried about the union losing touch with workers in the fields. Their criticism and questions often found them dismissed from the union.
Building a union, particularly a poor people’s union, is an epic struggle. Both these books capture the union’s heady days well, but also what the authors would consider its stumbles. There are lessons here for any union that range far beyond California’s fertile fields, exploring the tension between union unity and internal democracy.
Farm workers still need organization. The UFW still fights, joined by another AFL-CIO union, Ohio’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) active in Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina. Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers has successfully challenged the fast food industry to pay higher prices for vegetables so farm workers get better wages. Overcoming poverty for those who feed us is an American story still not complete.