Looking Back at the UFW, a Union With Two Souls
Cesar Chavez, in plaid shirt, marches with members of the United Farm Workers outside a Delano, Calif., supermarket in protest of the sale of products not harvested by their union, Aug. 25, 1975. (AP Photo/Walter Zeboski)
Frank Bardacke was down to his last few dollars when he visited a hiring hall run by the United Farm Workers (UFW) in 1971. Though only 30, he had already developed a reputation for militant activism, fighting for the creation of People’s Park in Berkeley and in 1967 being charged, as a member of the “Oakland Seven,” with conspiring to incite a riot in front of a military recruitment center. The group was eventually acquitted, with one media account noting that while the verdict was being read, Bardacke spent his time watching a basketball game on a television he had brought into court.
But by 1971 Bardacke was a self-described political washout. He had lost his job at a grade school when his superiors learned of his brushes with the law, and he was disillusioned with his antiwar work. For the young radical, the decision to visit the Salinas hiring hall was pragmatic. “I was a New Leftist, but not one of those who consciously set out to ‘proletarianize’ myself as a way of reaching out to the working class,” he writes in his new book, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. “I just needed a job.”
He got a lot more than that. Dispatched to a lettuce crew, he watched a farmworker defy a foreman by tearing up a warning notice. The farmworker kept his job; the foreman was fired. The workers, on the heels of a victorious strike, were flexing their newfound muscle. “It wasn’t as dramatic as stumbling into a Detroit automobile factory in 1937, one year after the victorious sit-down strike,” Bardacke writes. “But it had some of the flavor.” The washed-out New Leftist had found a home.
Forty years later, he’s still living in the farmworker town of Watsonville, where he teaches reading, writing and ESL at the local school for adults. In the era of so many book-a-year authors, Trampling Out the Vintage has a lifetime-achievement feel—one isn’t surprised to learn it was begun on a typewriter and at one point ballooned to 1,400 pages. (It was edited down to half that length by former Nation senior editor JoAnn Wypijewski, who also edited Bardacke’s July 26, 1993 Nation article “Cesar’s Ghost,” which led to the book.)
Trampling Out the Vintage skillfully tells the dramatic story of the rise and fall of the UFW, but what makes this a landmark book is its emphasis on the rank-and-file leaders, who are too often obscured by the long shadow cast by Chavez. It is these workers who are the heroes of Bardacke’s book—workers whose leadership was essential to the union’s success, and whose betrayal contributed to its eventual demise.
You spent six seasons in the fields, working on celery and lettuce crews. How did your time as a farmworker influence the way you approached the book?
If I hadn’t worked in the fields, there wouldn’t have been a book. I started just writing about farmworkers, telling the story of the UFW from the point of view of the militant rank-and-file lettuce crews. But that didn’t work. To make any sense of it, I had to tell the story from the point of view of the staff and the executive board as well. That’s the crux of it; that’s what’s so fascinating: the interchange between these groups. When they were working together, they were a very powerful force; and when in opposition, the union came undone.
Early on you describe the life of a farmworker, especially in the Salinas Valley. When a previous crewmate asks you whether you miss the fields, you answer, “I can still feel the pain in my back, but I miss the life of the fields.” This seems like a strange statement, as we tend to think of farmworkers mostly as exploited victims.
Well, if you believe in the image of the poor, powerless, hat-in-hand farmworker, you can’t understand what happened in the UFW. Because many farmworkers were not like that—they were very powerful people, and their power was built into the nature of agricultural production. The grower has to invest a whole bunch of money—plant, cultivate, thin—before he has a product to sell, and then he only has that product for a very short period of time. So farmworkers have periodic power during harvests, and within farmworker culture there is a tradition of harvest-time action—sabotage, slowdowns, strikes—all of which existed before the UFW came around.
In the UFW years of the 1970s, the Salinas Valley was responsible for 70 to 80 percent of the lettuce sold in the country. That lettuce was cut and packed by about 3,000 workers, organized in piece-rate crews. These crews were paid collectively for each box of lettuce they produced, and the money was split evenly among them. The crews were made up of friends, relatives or paisanos from the same small towns in Mexico. They stayed together from season to season and developed a high degree of internal solidarity. Lettuce-cutting and packing was a craft that demanded incredible skill, and they were paid very good wages. In the late 1970s, lechugeros [lettuce workers] made $12 an hour, or almost $50 an hour in today’s wages, making them among the highest-paid members of the US working class.
These crews were the core strength of the UFW. They were the reason the union won various strikes and elections. Many of these workers came to the US with radical politics. In some ways the story of the UFW is not that different from the rest of US labor history, in which left Italian, Jewish, Irish and Spanish immigrants helped build the US labor movement. Unless you appreciate these folks—for example, if you take the history of the union as just an aspect as Cesar’s biography—you don’t get it.
So you have these militant workers, who are often overlooked during discussions of the UFW. But you also have Cesar Chavez, a brilliant leader who was able to build a lasting union where others had failed.
Yes, and by the time he formed what would become the UFW in 1962, he already had extensive organizing experience. For the previous decade he had been organizing the Community Service Organization, which was the most powerful Mexican-American organization in the United States. In CSO, Cesar was under the tutelage of Fred Ross and Saul Alinsky. These were serious people doing politics for a living, with developed theories on how to organize. So it was no accident that the same people who built the CSO—people like Cesar, Gilbert Padilla and Dolores Huerta—would later build the UFW. It was not just luck.
I argue in the book that within Alinskyism there is a celebration of the organizer as hero, a view that rank-and-file leaders are so trapped by their ambitions and interests that they need an outside organizer to show them the way. Cesar was taught that for ten years. And his own experience seemed to confirm it. He would go from place to place—spending ninety days in a community that was divided and putting together an organization. He seemed to be making something out of nothing. What I think he brought from that was an organizer-centric view of the way to do politics—that the organizer is the principal actor and the rank and file is the material acted upon.