Cesar’s Ghost

Cesar’s Ghost

Cesar, who was always good at symbols, saved his best for last: a simple pine box, fashioned by his brother’s hands, carried unceremoniously through the Central Valley town he made famous.


Cesar, who was always good at symbols, saved his best for last: a simple pine box, fashioned by his brother’s hands, carried unceremoniously through the Central Valley town he made famous. With some 35,000 people looking on.

Here was meaning enough, both for those who need it blunt and for those who like it subtle. No one–especially not the newspaper and TV reporters whose liberal sympathies had been one of his main assets–could fail to hear that pine box speak: Cesar Chavez’s commitment to voluntary poverty extended even unto death. And perhaps a few among the crowd would get the deeper reference. Burial insurance had been Cesar’s first organizing tool in building the National Farmworkers Association back in 1962. Many farmworkers, then and now, die so badly in debt that they can’t afford to be buried. By joining up with Cesar and paying dues to the association, workers earned the right to take their final rest in a pine box, built by brother Richard.

The funeral march and picnic were near perfect. The friendly crowd was primarily Chicano, people who had driven a couple of hours up and over the Grapevine from Los Angeles to honor the man who was the authentic representative of their political coming of age in postwar America. Martin Luther King is the standard comparison, but Cesar Chavez was King and Jackie Robinson, too. Chicanos and Mexicans had played well in their own leagues-they built a lot of power in the railroad, mining and factory unions of the Southwest- but Cesar forced his way into the political big leagues, where Chicanos had always been excluded. And, like Robinson, he played on his own terms.

Not only Chicanos but also all manner of farmworker supporters marched at the funeral: liberal politicians, celebrities, Catholic priests, grape and lettuce boycotters. This was fitting too, as Chavez had always insisted that his greatest contribution to the farmworker movement was the consumer boycott. The boycott, he argued, ended the debilitating isolation of farmworkers that had doomed their earlier organizing. And so it was right that the boycotters marched at Cesar’s funeral, and it was their buttons (the word “grapes” or “uvas” with a ghostbuster line through it) that everyone wore.

What the march lacked was farmworkers, at least in mass numbers. Several buses had come down from the Salinas Valley, and farmworkers from the immediate area were well represented, but as a group, farmworkers added little weight to the funeral. I saw no banners from U.F.W. locals, nor did I see a single button or sign proclaiming the idea of farmworker power. And this, too, was symbolically perfect, for at the time of Cesar Chavez’s death, the U.F.W. was not primarily a farmworker organization. It was a fundraising operation, run out of a deserted tuberculosis sanitarium in the Tehachapi Mountains, far from the fields of famous Delano, staffed by members of Cesar’s extended family and using as its political capital Cesar’s legend and the warm memories of millions of aging boycotters.

It was my second funeral march for Cesar Chavez. The first had been two days earlier, back home in WatsonviIle, in the Pajaro Valley, four and a half hours by car from Delano. Throughout the 1970s, Watsonville, together with nearby Salinas, had been a center of U.F.W. strength. Back then, most of the major growers (the two valleys specialize in vegetable row crops) were signed up with either the U.F.W. or the Teamsters, and pushed by the militancy of several hundred Chavistas, the two unions had won increasingly better contracts. In the 1980s the entry-level hourly wage moved up over $7, and working conditions on U.F.W. crews significantly improved. But by the end of the decade that had all come apart. In Watsonville, the U.F.W. now has only a couple of apple contracts, covering no more than a few hundred workers. In Salinas, the Teamsters still have a contract with the giant Bud Antle/Dole, but for most workers, unions have been replaced by farm labor contractors, and average hourly wages have fallen to around $5.

So I was surprised by the farmworker presence at that first funeral march. Fewer than 200 people had shown up, but a good number of them were field workers. I ran into my old friend Roberto Fernandez (a pseudonymn): the man who taught me how to pack celery in the mid-seventies and who helped me make it on a piece-rate celery crew, where on good days we made over $15 an hour. Roberto came to California first as a bracero in the early 1960s and later as an illegal. We worked side by side for three years, and I have a lot of memories of Roberto, but my fondest is when we were on a picket line together, trying to prevent a helicopter from spraying a struck field. We were with a group of other strikers, half-jokingly using slings to throw rocks at the helicopter as it flew past. Suddenly, Roberto ran into the field, directly at the oncoming helicopter, a baseball-size rock twirling in the sling above his head, screaming a warrior’s roar. The rest of us were astounded; God knows what the pilot thought as he yanked the helicopter straight up and away from the kamikaze attack.

Roberto, his 6-year-old daughter and I walked a short while on the march together, and when the other folks went into Asunción Church to pray, the three of us walked back into town. I had seen Roberto off and on since I left our celery crew after the 1979 strike, but we had avoided discussing farmworker politics. Roberto is a committed Chavista and always could be counted on to give the official U.F.W. line. He was currently working on one of the few union contracts in town–not with the U.F.W. but with a rival independent union, as the U.F.W. no longer has any celery workers under contract. I asked him what went wrong in the fields.

“The Republicans replaced the Democrats and ruined the law, and we no longer had any support in Sacramento.”

“That’s it? All the power we had, gone just because Deukmejian replaced Brown? ” “The people were too ignorant.”

“What do you mean?”

“We got swamped by people coming from small ranchos in Mexico who didn’t know anything about unions. When the companies were letting our contracts expire and bringing in the labor contractors, we would go out to the people in the fields and try to explain to them about the union. But they didn’t get it. They just wanted to work.”

“I don’t believe that. We had people from ranchos in Mexico on our U.F.W. crews. They were strong unionists; unions are not such a hard thing to understand.”

“Well, Frank, you aren’t ever going to believe that the workers were at fault, but I was there and I talked to them, and you weren’t.”

I never could beat Roberto in an argument, and although I like to think I would have had a better chance in English, probably not. Two days later I drove to Delano with another old friend, Cruz Gomez. Cruz’s father was a farmworker –a year-round employee on a good-size farm outside Santa Barbara. The family was relatively well off compared with the braceros and the other seasonals who worked on the ranch. Nevertheless, her father worked thirty-seven years without a paid vacation, his body slowly breaking down as he passed middle age. As we were driving, I asked Cruz about Chavez.

“For me, Chavez was it, that’s all, just it. He was the main man. I remember when I met him. It was 1967 or ’68, I was a college student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. I was divorced and had two small children, a kind of mother figure in the MEChA student organization. We went up to Delano as a group, and sat around and talked with him. It was very informal, but he was all there. He gave us his full attention.”

When Cruz returned to U.C.S.B. she, as they say, had been organized. She soon switched majors from biology to sociology, where a few influential teachers taught her that it was her obligation to “give back to the community.” In 1971 she found herself working in a local community organization. She has been doing the same kind of work ever since, moving to Watsonville in 1978, spending her days listening to the problems of migrant farmworkers.

Unlike so many others with similar backgrounds, Cruz had never gone to work in Delano or even spent much time working in a boycott organization. From her contact with farmworkers she was well aware that the U.F.W. had become pretty much a nonfactor in the Pajaro and Salinas valleys, but she had no idea why. She asked me what had happened.

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.

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.

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.

Philip Vera Cruz, onetime vice president of the union, who worked in the grapes for twenty years before Chavez came along, is the only staff member who put his criticism into print. Vera Cruz, who could not be guilt-tripped into silence, describes in an oral history, taken by Craig Scharlin and Lilia Villanueva, a U.F.W. staff where “power was held by Cesar alone.” His conclusion is straightforward:


One thing the union would never allow was for people to criticize Cesar. If a union leader is built up as a symbol and he talks like he was God, then there is no way you can have true democracy in the union because the members are just generally deprived of their right to reason for themselves. 

The most crucial U.F.W. purge was not against the union staff but against its own farmworker members–people who dared to give the union some alternative, middle-level leadership. The trouble began when the 1979 contracts provided for full-time union grievers, elected by the workers, to handle specific complaints from the work crews. Some of the people elected in Salinas, the first workers in the hierarchy to have any real power independent of Chavez, regularly criticized several internal union policies.

At the union’s 1981 convention in Fresno these men and women supported three independent candidates, not previously approved by Chavez, for election to the U.F.W.’s executive board. Afterward, they were fired from their jobs back in Salinas. Although they eventually won a nearly five-year court battle against Chavez and the union, the damage was done. No secondary leadership emerging from the ranks would be tolerated in the U.F.W.

I talked to one of the men, Aristeo Zambrano, a few weeks after the funeral. Aristeo was one of eleven children born to a farmworker family in Chavinda, Michoacán. His father worked as a bracero between 1945 and 1960, and after getting his papers fixed, he brought his son, then 14, to Hayward, California, in 1982. Aristeo moved to Salinas in 1974 and got a job cutting broccoli at a U.F.W.-organized company–Associated Produce. He was elected to the ranch committee in 1976; for the next six years he was an active unionist, re-elected to the committee every year and then to the position of paid representative, until he was fired by Chavez.

I asked him the same question I had asked Roberto Fernandez. What went wrong? How did the union fall so far so fast? His answer took several hours. Here are a few minutes of it.

“The problem developed way before we were fired in 1982. In the mid-seventies, when I became an activist, Chavez was making every decision in the union. If a car in Salinas needed a new tire, we had to check with Cesar in La Paz. He controlled every detail of union business. And nobody was allowed to say Chavez made a mistake, even when he had. And when you talked to him you had to humble yourself, as if he were a King or the Pope….

“I remember in particular a closed meeting during the strike, just before the Salinas convention in 1979. He called together about twenty of us–the elected picket captains and strike coordinators–and told us that he was going to call off the strike and send us on the boycott. We refused, and we told him so. We thought the strike should be extended, not called off. And we damn sure were not going on any boycott.

“Well, he couldn’t call off the strike without our support, and we did continue to fight and we won. Which made us stronger. That meeting, and its aftermath, was a political challenge to Cesar. It meant that the situation in the union had changed. He was going to have to deal with us–with the direct representatives of the workers–and, in some way or other, share power with us.

“And that was what he couldn’t do. He was incapable of sharing power. So after the 1982 convention-the first U.F.W. convention that was not simply a staged show, the first convention where true disagreements came to the floor–he fired us. First he tried to organize recall elections, so that farmworkers would replace us. But he couldn’t do it. We had too much support in the fields.

“We went back to the fields, and tried to continue organizing, but it was impossible. The damage had been done. People were scared or gave up on the union. They could see that the union did not belong to the workers, that it was Chavez’s own personal business, and that he would run his business as he pleased. Farmworkers were good for boycotting, or walking the picket lines, or paying union dues, but not for leading our union….

“Chavez built the union and then he destroyed it. The U.F.W. self-destructed. When the Republicans came back in the 1980s and the growers moved against the union, there wasn’t any farmworker movement left.”

What happens next? There was a feeling of optimism at the funeral. So many people together again, united by their respect for Chavez, pledging themselves to renewed effort. In her own fashion, Dolores Huerta, one of the founders of the union, expressed the hope of the crowd in her eulogy. “Cesar,” she said, “died in peace, in good health, with a serene look on his face. It was as if he had chosen to die at this time…at this Easter time…. He died so that we would wake up. He died so that the union might live.”

In the several weeks since the funeral, I have pondered Dolores’s image of Chavez as the U.F.W.’s Christ, dying so that we might live. In one way, it is perfect. All the talk of Alinsky and community organizing aside, Cesar Chavez was essentially a lay Catholic leader. His deepest origins were not in Alinsky’s radical Community Service Organization but in the cursillos de Cristiandad movement, the intense encounters of Catholic lay people, first developed by the clergy in Franco’s Spain and transplanted to the New World in the 1950s. The song they brought with them was “De Colores,” and their ideology was a combination of anticommunism and personal commitment of ordinary lay people to the Gospel’s version of social justice. Chavez, throughout his public life, remained true to that commitment. What many of the liberals and radicals on the staff of the union could newer understand was that all the fasts, the long marches, the insistence on personal sacrifice and the flirting with sainthood were not only publicity gimmicks, they were the essential Chavez.

Chavez died so that the union might live? What Dolores seems to have meant was that people, inspired by Chavez’s life, would now rejoin the cause and rebuild the union. That might happen, but rebuilding the union among farmworkers will require a complete break with the recent past by the people who now control the U.F.W.

The U.F.W. is no longer the only group trying to organize in the fields of California. Teamster Local 890 in Salinas, with more than 7,000 field workers under contract, recently has been taken over by reformers with long experience in the Chicano and Mexican cannery worker movement. They would like to begin a new organizing drive in the Salinas Valley. In Stockton, Luis Magaiia and the Organizacíon Laboral Agricola de California have established close contacts with the newest migrant stream in California agriculture, the Mixtec and Zapotec Indians from Oaxaca. In many areas small community groups have gone beyond simply providing services to farmworkers and have helped them organize to fight for better housing, better schooling for their kids, and against violations of labor laws by farmworker contractors.

Up until now, these small beginnings have had an uneasy relationship with the U.F.W. Viewing them as competitive organizations, Chavez often tried to block their activities, even when the U.F.W. was not organizing in the same areas. Now that Chavez is gone, could the U.F.W. learn to cooperate with these other groups? Could people who were originally inspired by the heroic example of Chavez’s life, and who now no longer have Cesar around to interfere with their work, make a hundred flowers bloom in the California fields?

Si se puede.

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