Cesar's Ghost | The Nation


Cesar's Ghost

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What the U.F.W. called publicity strikes hurt quite a bit too. Typically, the union would enter a small spontaneous walkout (a tactic California farmworkers have been using for more than a hundred years to drive up wages at harvest time), escalate local demands as a way of publicizing the overall plight of farmworkers and then leave. This played well enough in New York and Chicago, but made it more difficult for farmworkers to win these local battles.

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The union's strategy after passage of California's Agricultural Relations Act in 1975 was similar. The union would aim to win as many certification elections as possible, thereby demonstrating to Governor Jerry Brown, allies in the California legislature, boycott supporters around the world and even agribusiness that it had the allegiance of a large majority of California farmworkers. The U.F.W. hoped that this would result in some sort of statewide master agreement, imposed from above, that would cover farmworkers in most of the larger agribusiness companies.

As with the publicity strikes, the U.F.W. came onto a ranch with its high-powered organizing techniques, explained how important it was for people to vote for the union, usually won the elections and then left. Less than a third of the elections resulted in union contracts, however; too many workers felt used and deserted; and opposition to the U.F.W. grew in the fields.

Just how out of touch the U.F.W. was with farmworker sentiment is perhaps best illustrated by its approach to the question of undocumented workers. Most all California farmworkers have people in their families who have trouble with their legal status, so any union trying to organize them cannot risk taking the side of the I.N.S., the hated migra. Yet the U.F.W. sometimes supported the use of the migra against scabs, sacrificing long-term respect for a possible short-term gain.

It was the lack of strength among farmworkers that made the 1983 change in the Governor's office and the weakening of boycott support so devastating. Some of the biggest ranches reorganized their operations and replaced union contracts with labor contractors. Others let their U.F.W. contracts expire and refused to renegotiate them. In both cases, the union was powerless to stop them; the years of neglecting farmworker organizing finally took their toll.

A natural question arises: How could a farmworker organization staffed by so many intelligent people of good will, and led by one of the heroes of our time, make so many mistakes? The answer is just as direct. Structurally, the U.F.W. is one of the least democratic unions in the country. Officials in the local field offices are not elected by the workers under contract in those areas, as they are in most other unions. They are appointed by the U.F.W. executive board and were under the direct control of Cesar.

This meant that local farmworker leadership had no way of advancing within the union, other than by being personally loyal to Cesar or other high-level officials. Complaints about the union and its practices, although freely discussed among workers on the job, could not influence union policy.

This criticism does not fall from some idealized heaven of union democracy. Many staff members, who either resigned or were purged from the union, have complained privately about Chavez's authoritarian style and the lack of democracy within the U.F.W. They have rarely gone public, however, because they believed that any criticism of the U.F.W. would only help the growers, and because they were intimidated into silence by Chavez himself or by others on the U.F.W. staff. Even now people are reluctant to speak for fear of reprisals.

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