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.