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Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers: What Went Wrong? | The Nation

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers: What Went Wrong?

The United Farm Workers was once a mighty force on the California landscape, with 50,000 members at the end of the 1970s; today the membership is around 6,000. What happened? And to what extent was the UFW responsible for its own demise? Frank Bardacke has been thinking about that for a long time—he was active in the student and anti-war movements in Berkeley in the 1960s. He moved to California's Central Coast in 1970, worked for six seasons in the Salinas Valley fields and then taught English as a Second Language at the Watsonville Adult School for twenty-five years. Verso has just published his book Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers—it's a masterpiece of sorts, on the order of Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch. I spoke with Frank Bardacke recently on KPFK 90.7FM in Los Angeles.

You worked in the fields in Salinas, picking celery. What was that like?

It’s done by collective piecework, with a crew of thirty to thirty-five people, paid for each box of celery. They share that pay equally. The crews are all men. They have a high degree of solidarity. They try to make the jobs equal. The men typically come from the same small towns in Mexico, often they are brothers and cousins and fathers and sons. You can’t get on a crew unless the members want you and are willing to carry you while you learn the work. The core of the crew will stay together over many seasons. The result is that they have a tremendous amount of power and leverage at harvest time, because they can’t be replaced except by other crews with similar skills. They never split up if it comes to a strike—they either strike together, or they don’t strike. These people, along with the lettuce workers, were the heart of UFW strength in the fields.

How much did piece-rate vegetable workers earn in the mid-1970s, at the height of UFW power?

When I worked on a celery harvest crew in the mid-seventies, we made about $14 an hour. The guys who cut the lettuce made about $20 an hour. That’s the equivalent of about $50 an hour today. They were among the highest paid people in the US working class. This resulted from their own power in the fields, coupled with the UFW’s institutional power and ability to mobilize support in the rest of society. That was in the 1970s.

When you went to work in the fields, were you doing research for a Berkeley PhD thesis? Or was it political organizing, because you believed the working class could overthrow capitalism?

Neither! I left Berkeley during the Vietnam War and went to work in an anti-war GI coffeehouse near Fort Ord, not far from Salinas. That didn’t pay much money, so I was also a PE teacher at a local high school. But I was fired because my police record from Berkeley arrived. So I needed a job.

One day I picked up a hitchhiker who told me he had just finished working for a couple of weeks in the fields with the UFW. He told us how to do it, so a friend and I got jobs, working hourly, with short-handled hoes. The work was extremely difficult. I worked in the fields for six years, and by the end I was just barely an average worker. But eventually I made my way onto a piecework crew, and made a decent living. I only had to work for six months of the year, and then I qualified for unemployment for the next six months.

The politics were extremely interesting. The farmworkers the year before had won a really big strike. In 1971 the crews we were on often refused to get off the bus, for instance if they smelled pesticide in the air, or if they didn’t like the foreman. There was a level of daily struggle that was much greater than all the politics I’d done in the anti-war movement as a student. It was thrilling.

At the end of the 1970s, the UFW had 50,000 members; today it’s 6,000. That makes us ask how the UFW got beat. If you ask UFW leaders today, what do they say?

The standard UFW line is that the Republicans came into power in California and throughout the country, and the fields were swamped by immigrants. It’s not entirely wrong. But the story is a lot more complicated than that. It took me 700 pages to explain it. Actually there were 1,400 pages to this book when I handed it in.  It took my wonderful editor JoAnn Wypijewski two years to turn it into a regular book.

Your book is subtitled The Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. What were the two souls?

The UFW was a union of Mexican farmworkers, but it was also a cadre boycott advocacy organization that was not connected directly to the union. When those two souls were in unison, in the grape strike and grape boycott of the late 1960s, the UFW was extremely powerful and won a lot. When those two souls came into conflict, then the UFW was debilitated and was set up for its eventual defeat.

What was the conflict?

There were lots of conflicts. The first key is that the union did not have locals. There was no way for local farmworkers to be elected to the UFW staff. The UFW had field offices staffed by people appointed by the people above them, so they were responsible not to the workers but to the people above them. The staff went in one direction and the farmworkers went in another direction.

There was a big ethnic difference between the staff and the farmworkers. The staff was Chicano and white. The farmworkers were Mexican. This is a huge difference. The staff kind of looked down on farm work. But for a Mexican immigrant, the fields, especially in the mid-1970s, made for a great success story—they were making fabulous wages compared to Mexico. The fields were not something to get out of. The fields where a place where people built successful lives.

There was also a whole different attitude toward where the UFW’s true power lay. The staff came to believe the UFW’s true power lay in the supporters of the boycott, whereas the more militant farmworkers thought the union’s true power was in the fields.

Another difference was also crucial: The UFW’s income did not come primarily from farmworkers dues. It made money off contributions, donations and government subsidies. So the staff had an independent source of income.

Because farmworkers couldn’t be elected onto the staff, because there was an ethnic difference from the staff, and because the staff had a different attitude toward where the union’s power was, the conflict erupted in an internal fight in the late 1970s that thoroughly debilitated the union.

You say Cesar Chavez built an organization that did not tolerate dissent. Please explain.

That’s not a very controversial statement. Because the structure of the union was entirely top-down, you got a culture of command and obedience. In the UFW there was no way for worker opinion to be expressed. Everybody served at the pleasure of Cesar Chavez and the executive board. If you didn’t like what the union was doing, you didn’t put up a fight. You quit.

The dispute came to a head around the 1979 strike. The farmworkers won it, which gave them a sense of their own power. They wanted commensurate power inside the union. Cesar didn’t want to give it to them.

What is the significance of this story for what’s left of the labor movement today?

There’s no substitute for democracy. That’s the major lesson of the UFW experience. Democracy inside unions might be difficult and seem like a waste of time, but it’s only through democratic debate that people build the kind of commitment that is necessary to stand together. The UFW had no locals. That was a tremendous mistake. There’s no substitute for face to face debate, people having direct control over their local union affairs. That’s the way you build strength.

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