Roberto and the U.F.W. are not far wrong. The virtual destruction of a unionized work force in the fields of California in the 1980s was due finally to the overwhelming social, financial and political power of the biggest business in our Golden State. The weight of the internal errors of the U.F.W. is secondary to the longstanding anti-union policies of the people who own and operate the most powerful agro-export industry in the world.
Nevertheless, in the late seventies, at the height of the U.F.W.'s strength among farmworkers, some in California agribusiness had come to the conclusion that Chavez's victory was inevitable and that they would have to learn to live with the U.F.W. Why wasn't the union--with perhaps 50,000 workers under contract and hundreds of militant activists among them--able to seize this historic opportunity?
The short answer is that within the U.F.W. the boycott tail came to wag the farmworker dog. While it was not wrong of Chavez to seek as much support as possible, this support work, primarily the boycott, became the essential activity of the union. Ultimately, it interfered with organizing in the fields.
It was an easy mistake to fall into, especially as the failure of the first grape strikes was followed so stunningly by the success of the first grape boycott. The very best farmworker activists, the strongest Chavistas, were removed from the fields and direct contact with farmworkers, so that they could be sent to work in the boycott offices of major cities. From the point of view of building the boycott, it was a genius decision. But from the point of view of spreading the union among farmworkers themselves, it was a disaster.
The manipulative use of farmworkers gave the union boycott its texture and feel. In the mid-1970s a story circulated in Salinas about a union meeting in the Imperial Valley called to recruit workers to go to a press conference in Los Angeles to support one of the boycotts. For the workers it meant a ten-hour round-trip drive on one of their days off, but many of them were willing to do it. These particular farmworkers were mostly young piece-rate lettuce cutters who earned relatively high wages, and who, like a lot of working-class people able to afford it, put their money into clothes and cars, which they sported on their days off. They're proud people volunteering to spend a weekend in Los Angeles organizing support for their movement. As the meeting closed, Marshall Ganz--one of the union's top officials at the time--had a final request. At the press conference everybody should wear their work clothes.
The union officials didn't want farmworkers to appear as regular working people appealing for solidarity. They had to be poor and suffering, hats in hand, asking for charity. It may have made a good press conference, but the people who told the story were angered and shamed.