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13 Cesar Chavez and the Unionization of California Farmworkers
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Cesar Chavez and the Unionization of California Farmworkers

Cletus E. Daniel

Editor's Introduction

As the seemingly inexorable expansion of California agriculture progressed, its labor needs were met during World War II by the bracero program and after World War II by the program's successor, Public Law 78. In its peak year, 1957, the bracero program imported 192,000 Mexican workers. Along with Chicanos, the braceros soon became the most important component of the California agricultural work force after World War II.

Theoretically, the bracero program, at the insistence of the Mexican government, provided standard contracts covering wages, hours, transportation, housing, and working conditions. The American government guaranteed the provision of emergency medical care, workmen's compensation, and disability and death benefits. In reality, many of these provisions were never enforced, and it soon became clear that the bracero system perpetuated the tragic poverty of California's migratory laborers. Hispanic labor was used mainly on large farms, where growers regarded the workers as cheap and docile laborers, born to the hardship of agricultural work. The unlimited pool of labor available to the growers enabled them to keep wages down. Thus, between 1950 and 1960, the earnings of three million Mexican nationals employed in 275 important crop areas were effectively frozen; average annual wages in fact declined slightly, from $1,680 in 1950 to $1,666 in 1959.

In the 1930s and the 1940s, the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU), the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), and the National Farm Labor Union had all valiantly attempted to organize California's farmworkers. For many reasons—not the least of which was the bracero program itself,

EDITOR'S NOTE : This essay is reprinted as it appeared in Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine, eds., Labor Leaders in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987). In a bibliographic note at the end of the article Cletus Daniel lists important sources containing biographical material on Cesar Chavez. Some of the secondary sources he lists may be found in the further reading section at the end of this chapter. Daniel draws the reader's attention particularly to Jacques Levy's Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa (1975), which he describes as "an important and readily accessible source of personal recollections contributed by Chavez, and by many other individuals who participated in or otherwise influenced the union's [the United Farm Workers] development."

Daniel also points the reader to important primary sources on Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW), particularly the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University. Various periodicals also provided good coverage of the life of Cesar Chavez and the struggles of the UFW. Among those he lists are the Nation , the New Republic, Ramparts, Dissent , as well as liberal religious periodicals such as Christian Century, Christianity in Crisis, America , and Sojourners . The attitudes of California farm employers toward Chavez and the UFW are reflected in the California Farm Bureau Federation Monthly , the California Farmer , and the Farm Quarterly . Newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times , the Fresno Bee , the San Francisco Chronicle , and People's World are another useful source of information for researchers, as is the UFW's newspaper, El Macriado .


which was often used to import strikebreakers—these efforts eventually failed. In 1959, the AFL-CIO made another effort to organize farm-workers when it launched the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC).

The movement to organize California farmworkers during the 1960s came from more grassroots sources. No one played a more integral role than Cesar Chavez. In this article, Cletus Daniel evaluates the crucial role played by Chavez in the eventual founding of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and the struggle of the UFW to gain recognition and a strong foothold in California.

Daniel provides an interesting account of Chavez's social background, early influences, and political involvement before he began organizing farmworkers. Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, he and the UFW engaged in a bitter struggle with California agribusiness and the Teamsters. Chavez's nonviolent tactics and skillful political lobbying paid off when California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act was passed in 1975. Daniel concludes by noting the decline of the UFW in the late 1980s, attributing this in part to flaws in Chavez's leadership. Wherever the blame lies, when Cesar Chavez died in 1993, a union that once had had perhaps fifty thousand members had been severely reduced in numbers, in the face of a decline in the wages and working conditions of most farmworkers during the 1980s and early 1990s.

It was, Cesar Chavez later wrote, "the strangest meeting in the history of California agriculture." Speaking by telephone from his cluttered headquarters in La Paz to Jerry Brown, the new governor of California, Chavez had been asked to repeat for the benefit of farm employers crowded into Brown's Sacramento office the farmworker leader's acceptance of a farm labor bill to which they had already assented. And as the employers heard Chavez's voice repeating the statement of acceptance he had just made to the governor, they broke into wide smiles and spontaneous applause.

That representatives of the most powerful special interest group in California history should have thus expressed their delight at the prospect of realizing still another of their legislative goals does not account for Chavez's assertion of the meeting's strange character. These were, after


all, men long accustomed to having their way in matters of farm labor legislation. What was strange about that meeting on May 5, 1975, was that the state's leading farm employers should have derived such apparent relief and satisfaction from hearing the president of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, agree to a legislative proposal designed to afford farmworkers an opportunity to escape their historic powerlessness through unionism and collective bargaining.

Beyond investing the state's farmworkers with rights that those who labored for wages on the land had always been denied, the passage of California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) was a seismic event, one that shattered the foundation upon which rural class relations had rested for a century and more. For the state's agribusinessmen, whose tradition it had been to rule the bounteous fields and orchards of California with a degree of authority and control more appropriate to potentates than mere employers, supporting the ALRA was less an act of culpable treason against their collective heritage than one of grudging resignation in the face of a suddenly irrelevant past and an apparently inescapable future. For the state's farmworkers, whose involuntary custom it had always been to surrender themselves to a system of industrialized farming that made a captive peasantry of them, the new law made possible what only the boldest among them had dared to imagine: a role equal to the employer's in determining terms and conditions of employment. Yet if the ALRA's enactment was a victory of unprecedented dimensions for California farm-workers as a class, it was a still greater personal triumph for Cesar Chavez.

More than any other labor leader of his time, and perhaps in the whole history of American labor, Cesar Chavez leads a union that is an extension of his own values, experience, and personality. This singular unity of man and movement has found its most forceful and enduring expression in the unprecedented economic and political power that has accrued to the membership of the United Farm Workers (UFW) under Chavez's intense and unrelenting tutelage. Indeed, since 1965, when Chavez led his then small following into a bitter struggle against grape growers around the lower San Joaquin valley town of Delano, the UFW has, despite the many crises that have punctuated its brief but turbulent career, compiled a record of achievement that rivals the accomplishments of the most formidable industrial unions of the 1930s.

While this personal domination may well be the essential source of the UFW's extraordinary success, it has also posed risks for the union. For just as Chavez's strengths manifest themselves in the character of his leadership, so, too, must his weaknesses. Certainly the UFW's somewhat confused


sense of its transcending mission—whether to be a trade union or a social movement; whether to focus on narrow economic gains or to pursue broader political goals—reflects in some degree Chavez's personal ambivalence toward both the ultimate purpose of worker organization and the fundamental objective of his own prolonged activism.

Had his adult life followed the pattern of his early youth, Cesar Chavez need not have concerned himself with the task of liberating California farmworkers from an exploitive labor system that had entombed a succession of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Mexican, and other non-Anglo immigrants for more than a hundred years. Born on March 31, 1927, the second child of Librado and Juana Chavez, Cesar Estrada Chavez started his life sharing little beyond language and a diffuse ethnic heritage with the Chicano—Mexican and Mexican-American—workers who constitute nearly the entire membership of the United Farm Workers of America. Named after his paternal grandfather Cesario, who had homesteaded the family's small farm in the north Gila River valley near Yuma three years before Arizona attained statehood, Chavez enjoyed during his youth the kind of close and stable family life that farmworkers caught in the relentless currents of the western migrant stream longed for but rarely attained. And although farming on a small scale afforded few material rewards even as it demanded hard and unending physical labor, it fostered in Chavez an appreciation of independence and personal sovereignty that helps to account for the special force and steadfastness of his later rebellion against the oppressive dependence into which workers descended when they joined the ranks of California's agricultural labor force.

It is more than a little ironic that until 1939, when unpaid taxes put the family's farm on the auction block, Chavez could have more reasonably aspired to a future as a landowner than as a farmworker. "If we had stayed there," he later said of the family's farm, "possibly I would have been a grower. God writes in exceedingly crooked lines."

The full significance of the family's eviction from the rambling adobe ranch house that had provided not only shelter but also a sense of place and social perspective was not at once apparent to an eleven-year-old. The deeper meaning of the family's loss was something that accumulated in Chavez's mind only as his subsequent personal experience in the migrant stream disclosed the full spectrum of emotional and material hardship attending a life set adrift from the roots that had nurtured it. At age eleven the sight of a bulldozer effortlessly destroying in a few minutes what the family had struggled over nearly three generations to build was meaning enough. The land's new owner, an Anglo grower impatient to


claim his prize, dispatched the bulldozer that became for Chavez a graphic and enduring symbol of the power that the "haves" employ against the "have-nots" in industrialized agriculture. "It was a monstrous thing," he recalled: "Its motor blotted out the sound of crickets and bullfrogs and the buzzing of the flies. As the tractor moved along, it tore up the soil, leveling it, and destroyed the trees, pushing them over like they were nothing. . .. And each tree, of course, means quite a bit to you when you're young. They are a part of you. We grew up there, saw them every day, and they were alive, they were friends. When we saw the bulldozer just uprooting those trees, it was tearing at us too."

The experience of the Chavez family fell into that category of minor tragedy whose cumulative influence lent an aura of catastrophe to the greater part of the depression decade. The scene became sickeningly familiar in the 1930s: a beleaguered farm family bidding a poignant farewell to a failed past; setting out for California with little enthusiasm and even less money toward a future that usually had nothing but desperation to commend it.

"When we were pushed off our land," Chavez said, "all we could take with us was what we could jam into the old Studebaker or pile on its roof and fenders, mostly clothes and bedding. . .. I realized something was happening because my mother was crying, but I didn't realize the import of it at the time. When we left the farm, our whole life was upset, turned upside down. We had been part of a very stable community, and we were about to become migratory workers."

Yet if Chavez's experience was in some ways similar to that of the dispossessed dustbowl migrant whose pilgrimage to California was also less an act of hope than of despair, it was fundamentally unlike that of even the most destitute Anglo—John Steinbeck's generic "Okie"—because of virulent racial attitudes among the state's white majority that tended to define all persons "of color" as unequal. For the Chavez family, whose standing as landowners in a region populated by people mainly like themselves had insulated them from many of the meanest forms of racism, following the crops in California as undifferentiated members of a brown-skinned peasantry afforded an unwelcome education. To the familiar varieties of racial humiliation and mistreatment—being physically punished by an Anglo teacher for lapsing into your native tongue; being in the presence of Anglos who talked about you as if you were an inanimate object—were added some new and more abrasive forms: being rousted by border patrolmen who automatically regarded you as a "wetback" until you proved otherwise; being denied service at a restaurant or made to sit in the "Mexican


only" seats at the local movie house; being stopped and searched by the police for no reason other than that your skin color announced your powerlessness to resist; being cheated by an employer who smugly assumed that you probably wouldn't object because Mexicans were naturally docile.

But, if because of such treatment Chavez came to fear and dislike Anglos—gringos or gabachos in the pejorative lexicon of the barrio—he also came to understand that while considerations of race and ethnicity compounded the plight of farmworkers, their mistreatment was rooted ultimately in the economics of industrialized agriculture. As the family traveled the state from one crop to the next, one hovel to the next, trying desperately to survive on the meager earnings of parents and children alike, Chavez quickly learned that Chicano labor contractors and Japanese growers exploited migrants as readily as did Anglo employers. And, although the complex dynamics of California's rural political economy might still have eluded him, Chavez instinctively understood that farmworkers would cease to be victims only when they discovered the means to take control of their own lives.

The realization that unionism must be that means came later. Unlike the typical Chicano family in the migrant stream, however, the Chavez family included among its otherwise meager possessions a powerful legacy of the independent life it had earlier known, one that revealed itself in a stubborn disinclination to tolerate conspicuous injustices. "I don't want to suggest we were that radical," Chavez later said, "but I know we were probably one of the strikingest families in California, the first ones to leave the fields if anyone shouted 'Huelga!'—which is Spanish for 'Strike!' . . . If any family felt something was wrong and stopped working, we immediately joined them even if we didn't know them. And if the grower didn't correct what was wrong, then they would leave, and we'd leave."

Chavez had no trouble identifying the source of the family's instinctive militancy. "We were," he insisted, "constantly fighting against things that most people would probably accept because they didn't have that kind of life we had in the beginning, that strong family life and family ties which we would not let anyone break." When confronted by an injustice, there "was no question. Our dignity meant more than money."

Although the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America, a CIO-affiliated union, was conducting sporadic organizing drives among California farmworkers when Chavez and his family joined the state's farm labor force at the end of the 1930s, he was too young and untutored to appreciate "anything of the real guts of unions." Yet because his father harbored a strong, if unstudied, conviction that unionism was a


manly act of resistance to the employers' authority, Chavez's attitude toward unions quickly progressed from vague approval to ardent endorsement. His earliest participation in a union-led struggle did not occur until the late 1940s, when the AFL's National Farm Labor Union conducted a series of ultimately futile strikes in the San Joaquin valley. This experience, which left Chavez with an acute sense of frustration and disappointment as the strike inevitably withered in the face of overwhelming employer power, also produced a brief but equally keen feeling of exhilaration because it afforded an opportunity to vent the rebelliousness that an expanding consciousness of his own social and occupational captivity awakened within him. Yet to the extent that unionism demands the subordination of individual aspirations to a depersonalized common denomination of the group's desires, Chavez was not in his youth the stuff of which confirmed trade unionists are made. More than most young migrant workers, whose ineluctable discontent was not heightened further by the memory of an idealized past, Chavez hoped to escape his socioeconomic predicament rather than simply moderate the harsh forces that governed it.

To be a migrant worker, however, was to learn the hard way that avenues of escape were more readily imagined than traveled. As ardently as the Chavez family sought a way out of the migrant orbit, they spent the early 1940s moving from valley to valley, from harvest to harvest, powerless to fend off the corrosive effects of their involuntary transiency. Beyond denying them the elementary amenities of a humane existence—a decent home, sufficient food, adequate clothing—the demands of migrant life also conspired to deny the Chavez children the educations that their parents valiantly struggled to ensure. For Cesar school became a "nightmare," a dispiriting succession of inhospitable places ruled by Anglo teachers and administrators whose often undisguised contempt for migrant children prompted him to drop out after the eighth grade.

Chavez's inevitable confrontation with the fact of his personal powerlessness fostered a sense of anger and frustration that revealed itself in a tendency to reject many of the most visible symbols of his cultural heritage. This brief episode of open rebellion against the culture of his parents, which dates from the family's decision to settle down in Delano in late 1943 until he reluctantly joined the navy a year later, was generally benign: mariachis were rejected in favor of Duke Ellington; his mother's dichos and consejos —the bits of Mexican folk wisdom passed from one generation to the next—lost out to less culture-bound values; religious customs rooted in the rigid doctrines of the Catholic church gave way to a fuzzy existentialism. In its most extreme form, this rebelliousness led


Chavez to affect the distinctive style of a pachuco , although he never really ventured beyond dress into the more antisocial ways in which that phenomenon of youthful rebellion manifested itself in the activities of Mexican gangs in urban areas like Los Angeles and San Jose. In the end, Chavez reacted most decisively against the debilitating circumstances of his life by joining the navy, a reluctant decision whose redeeming value was that it offered a means of escape, a way "to get away from farm labor."

The two years he spent in the navy ("the worst of my life") proved to be no more than a respite from farm labor. If Chavez had hoped to acquire a trade while in the service, he soon discovered that the same considerations of race and ethnicity that placed strict limits on what non-Anglos could reasonably aspire to achieve at home operated with equal efficiency in the navy to keep them in the least desirable jobs. Without the training that might have allowed him to break out of the cycle of poverty and oppression that the labor system of industrialized agriculture fueled, Chavez returned to Delano in 1946 to the only work he knew.

Finding work had always been a problem for farmworkers because of the chronic oversupply of agricultural labor in California. The problem became even more acute for migrant families after the war because agribusiness interests succeeded in their political campaign to extend the so-called Bracero program, [1] a treaty arrangement dating from 1942 that permitted farm employers in California and the Southwest to import Mexican nationals under contract to alleviate real and imagined wartime labor shortages.

For Chavez, the struggle to earn a living took on special urgency following his marriage in 1948 to Helen Fabela, a Delano girl whom he had first met when his family made one of its periodic migrations through the area in search of work. Being the daughter of farmworkers, and thus knowing all too well the hardships that attended a family life predicated upon the irregular earnings of agricultural work, did nothing to cushion the hard times that lay ahead for Helen Chavez and her new husband, a twenty-one-year-old disaffected farm laborer without discernable prospects.

Chavez met the challenge of making a living, which multiplied with the arrival of a new baby during each of the first three years of marriage, in the only way he knew: he took any job available, wherever it was available. Not until 1952, when he finally landed a job in a San Jose lumberyard, was Chavez able to have the settled life that he and Helen craved. The Mexican barrio in San Jose, known to its impoverished inhabitants as Sal Si Puedes—literally "get out if you can"—was a few square blocks of ramshackle


houses occupied by discouraged parents and angry children who, in their desperation to do just what the neighborhood's morbid nickname advised, too often sought ways out that led to prison rather than to opportunity. Long before it became home to Chavez and his family, Sal Si Puedes had earned a reputation among the sociologists who regularly scouted its mean streets as a virtual laboratory of urban social pathology. In the early 1950s, however, the area also attracted two men determined in their separate ways to alleviate the powerlessness of its residents rather than to document or measure it. More than any others, these two activists, one a young Catholic priest, the other a veteran community organizer, assumed unwitting responsibility for the education of Cesar Chavez.

When Father Donald McDonnell established his small mission church in Sal Si Puedes, he resolved to attend to both the spiritual need of his destitute parishioners and their education in those doctrines of the Catholic church relating to the inherent rights of labor. To Cesar Chavez, the teachings of the church, the rituals and catechism that he absorbed as an obligation of culture rather than a voluntary and knowing act of religious faith, had never seemed to have more than tangential relevance to the hard-edged world that poor people confronted in their daily lives. But in the militant example and activist pedagogy of Father McDonnell, Chavez discovered a new dimension of Catholicism that excited him precisely because it was relevant to his immediate circumstances. "Actually," he later said, "my education started when I met Father Donald McDonnell. . . . We had long talks about farm workers. I knew a lot about the work, but I didn't know anything about economics, and I learned quite a bit from him. He had a picture of a worker's shanty and a picture of a grower's mansion; a picture of a labor camp and a picture of a high-priced building in San Francisco owned by the same grower. When things were pointed out to me, I began to see. . . . Everything he said was aimed at ways to solve the injustice." Chavez's appetite for the social gospel that McDonnell espoused was insatiable: "[He] sat with me past midnight telling me about social justice and the Church's stand on farm labor and reading from the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII in which he upheld labor unions. I would do anything to get the Father to tell me more about labor history. I began going to the bracero camps with him to help with Mass, to the city jail with him to talk to prisoners, anything to be with him so that he could tell me more about the farm labor movement."

More than anyone else, Father McDonnell awoke Chavez to a world of pertinent ideas that would become the essential source of his personal


philosophy; introduced him to a pantheon of crusaders for social justice (Gandhi among them) whose heroic exertions would supply the inspiration for his own crusade to empower farmworkers. Yet the crucial task of instructing Chavez in the practical means by which his nascent idealism might achieve concrete expression was brilliantly discharged by Fred Ross, an indefatigable organizer who had spent the better part of his adult life roaming California trying to show the victims of economic, racial, and ethnic discrimination how they might resist further abuse and degradation through organization.

Drawn to Sal Si Puedes by the palpable misery of its Chicano inhabitants, Ross began to conduct the series of informal house meetings through which he hoped to establish a local chapter of the Community Service Organization (CSO), a self-help group that operated under the sponsorship of radical activist Saul Alinsky's Chicago-based Industrial Areas Foundation. Always on the lookout for the natural leaders in the communities he sought to organize, Ross at once saw in Chavez, despite his outwardly shy and self-conscious demeanor, the telltale signs of a born organizer. "At the very first meeting," Ross recalled, "I was very much impressed with Cesar. I could tell he was intensely interested, a kind of burning interest rather than one of those inflammatory things that lasts one night and is then forgotten. He asked many questions, part of it to see if I really knew, putting me to the test. But it was much more than that." Ross also discovered that Chavez was an exceedingly quick study: "He understood it almost immediately, as soon as I drew the picture. He got the point—the whole question of power and the development of power within the group. He made the connections very quickly between the civic weakness of the group and the social neglect in the barrio, and also conversely, what could be done about that social neglect once the power was developed." "I kept a diary in those days," Ross said later. "And the first night I met Cesar, I wrote in it, 'I think I've found the guy I'm looking for.' It was obvious even then."

The confidence that Ross expressed in Chavez's leadership potential was immediately confirmed. Assigned to the CSO voter registration project in San Jose, Chavez displayed a natural aptitude for the work; so much in fact that Ross turned over control of the entire drive to him. And if his style of leadership proved somewhat unconventional, his tactical sense was unerring. While Ross had relied upon local college students to serve as registrars for the campaign, Chavez felt more could be gained by using people from the barrio. "Instead of recruiting college guys," he said, "I got all my


friends, my beer-drinking friends. With them it wasn't a question of civic duty, they helped me because of friendship, and because it was fun." With nearly six thousand new voters registered by the time the campaign ended, Chavez's reputation as an organizer was established.

As exhilarated as he was by the challenge of organizing, Chavez was also sobered by the personal attacks that the local political establishment unleashed against anyone who presumed to alter the balance of power in the ghetto. Since it was the heyday of McCarthyism, the charge most frequently lodged against him was that he was a Communist. It seemed not to matter that such charges were preposterous. Even the vaguest suggestion of radicalism was enough to cause the more cautious members of the Chicano community to regard Chavez with growing suspicion. "The Chicanos," he said, "wouldn't talk to me. They were afraid. The newspaper had a lot of influence during those McCarthy days. Anyone who organized or worked for civil rights was called a Communist. Anyone who talked about police brutality was called a Communist."

Everywhere I went to organize they would bluntly ask, "Are you a Communist?"

I would answer, "No."

"How do we know?"

"You don't know. You know because I tell you."

And we would go around and around on that. If it was somebody who was being smart, I'd tell them to go to hell, but if it was somebody that I wanted to organize, I would have to go through an explanation.

Before long, however, Chavez became an expert in turning the cultural tendencies of his Chicano neighbors to his own advantage. When his detractors wrapped themselves in the flag, Chavez countered, with the help of Father McDonnell and other sympathetic priests, by cloaking himself in the respectability of the Catholic church. "I found out," he recalled with apparent satisfaction, "that when they learned I was close to the church, they wouldn't question me so much. So I'd get the priests to come out and give me their blessing. In those days, if a priest said something to the Mexicans, they would say fine. It's different now."

In the course of raising the civic consciousness of others, Chavez broadened and deepened his own previously neglected education. "I began to grow and to see a lot of things that I hadn't seen before," he said. "My eyes opened, and I paid more attention to political and social events." And though his emergence as a trade union activist was still years away, Chavez the community organizer felt a sufficient affinity with his counterparts in the labor


field that he adopted as texts for his self-education "biographies of labor organizers like John L. Lewis and Eugene Debs and the Knights of Labor."

After watching his protégé in action for only a few months, Fred Ross persuaded Saul Alinsky that the CSO should employ the talents of so able an organizer on a full-time basis. Becoming a professional organizer, however, was a prospect that frightened Chavez nearly as much as it excited him. Helping Fred Ross was one thing, organizing on his own among strangers was quite another. Yet in the end, his desire to oppose what seemed unjust outweighed his fears.

From the end of 1952 until he quit the organization ten years later to build a union among farmworkers, the CSO was Chavez's life. He approached the work of helping the poor to help themselves in the only way his nature allowed, with a single-mindedness that made everything else in his life—home, family, personal gain—secondary. For Chavez, nothing short of total immersion in the work of forcing change was enough. If his wife inherited virtually the entire responsibility for raising their children (who were to number eight in all), if his children became resentful at being left to grow up without a father who was readily accessible to them, if he was himself forced to abandon any semblance of personal life, Chavez remained unshaken in his belief that the promotion of the greater good made every such sacrifice necessary and worthwhile.

The years he spent as an organizer for the CSO brought Chavez into contact, and usually conflict, with the whole range of public and private authorities to which the poor were accountable and by which they were controlled. The problems he handled were seldom other than mundane, yet each in its own way confirmed the collective impotence of those who populated the Chicano ghettos that became his special province. "They'd bring their personal problems," Chavez said of his CSO clients. "They were many. They might need a letter written or someone to interpret for them at the welfare department, the doctor's office, or the police. Maybe they were not getting enough welfare aid, or their check was taken away, or their kids were thrown out of school. Maybe they had been taken by a crooked salesman selling fences, aluminum siding, or freezers that hold food for a month."

In the beginning, helping people to deal with problems they felt otherwise powerless to resolve was an end in itself. In time, however, Chavez saw that if his service work was going to produce a legacy of activist sentiment in Chicano neighborhoods, it was necessary to recast what had typically been an act of unconditional assistance into a mutually beneficial transaction. And, when he discovered that those whom he was serving


were not just willing, but eager, to return the favor, Chavez made that volition the basis upon which he helped to build the CSO into the most formidable Mexican-American political organization in the state. "Once I realized helping people was an organizing technique," he said, "I increased that work. I was willing to work day and night and to go to hell and back for people—provided they also did something for the CSO in return. I never felt bad asking for that . . . because I wasn't asking for something for myself. For a long time we didn't know how to put that work together into an organization. But we learned after a while—we learned how to help people by making them responsible."

Because agricultural labor constituted a main source of economic opportunity in most Chicano communities, many of those whom Chavez recruited into the CSO were farmworkers. Not until 1958, however, did Chavez take his first halting steps toward making work and its discontents the essential focus of his organizing activities. This gradual shift from community to labor organization occurred over a period of several months as Chavez struggled to establish a CSO chapter in Oxnard, a leading citrus-growing region north of Los Angeles. Asked by Saul Alinsky to organize the local Chicano community in order that it might support the flagging efforts of the United Packinghouse Workers to win labor contracts covering the region's citrus-packing sheds, Chavez embarked upon his task intending to exploit the same assortment of grievances that festered in barrios throughout the state.

His new clients, however, had other ideas. From the beginning, whenever he sought to impress his agenda upon local citizens, they interrupted with their own: a concern that they were being denied jobs because growers in the region relied almost entirely on braceros to meet their needs for farm labor. It proved to be an issue that simply would not go away. "At every house meeting," Chavez recalled, "they hit me with the bracero problem, but I would dodge it. I just didn't fathom how big that problem was. I would say, 'Well, you know, we really can't do anything about that, but it's a bad problem. Something should be done.'" An apparently artless dodger, he was, in the end, forced to make the bracero problem the focus of his campaign. "Finally," he admitted, "I decided this was the issue I had to tackle. The fact that braceros were also farmworkers didn't bother me. . . . The jobs belonged to local workers. The braceros were brought only for exploitation. They were just instruments for the growers. Braceros didn't make any money, and they were exploited viciously, forced to work under conditions the local people wouldn't tolerate. If the braceros spoke up, if they made the minimal complaints, they'd be shipped back to Mexico."


In attacking Oxnard's bracero problem, Chavez and his followers confronted the integrated power of the agribusiness establishment in its most forceful and resilient aspect. While farm employers around Oxnard and throughout the state were permitted under federal regulations to employ braceros only when they had exhausted the available pool of local farm-workers, they had long operated on the basis of a collusive arrangement with the California Farm Placement Service that allowed them to import Mexican nationals without regard to labor market conditions in the region.

Although Chavez and the large CSO membership he rallied behind him sought nothing more than compliance with existing rules regarding the employment of braceros, the thirteen-month struggle that followed brought them into bitter conflicts with politically influential employers, state farm placement bureaucrats, and federal labor department officials. Yet through the use of picket lines, marches, rallies, and a variety of innovative agitational techniques that reduced the Farm Placement Service to almost total paralysis, Chavez and his militant following had by the end of 1959 won a victory so complete that farm employers in the region were recruiting their labor through a local CSO headquarters that operated as a hiring hall.

Chavez emerged from the Oxnard campaign convinced that work-related issues had greater potential as a basis for organizing Chicanos than any that he had earlier stressed. The response to his organizing drive in Oxnard was overwhelming, and he saw at once that "the difference between that CSO chapter and any other CSO up to that point was that jobs were the main issue." And at the same juncture, he said, "I began to see the potential of organizing the Union."

What Chavez saw with such clarity, however, the elected leadership of the CSO, drawn almost exclusively from the small but influential ranks of middle-class Chicanos, was unwilling even to imagine. Determined that the CSO would remain a civic organization, the leadership decisively rejected Chavez's proposal to transform the Oxnard chapter into a farm-workers' union. "We had won a victory," Chavez bitterly recalled, "but I didn't realize how short-lived it would be. We could have built a union there, but the CSO wouldn't approve. In fact, the whole project soon fell apart. I wanted to go for a strike and get some contracts, but the CSO wouldn't let me. . . . If I had had the support of the CSO, I would have built a union there. If anyone from labor had come, we could have had a union. I think if the Union of Organized Devils of America had come, I would have joined them, I was so frustrated."

Even though he remained with the CSO for two years following his defeat over the issue of unionism, Chavez's devotion to the organization


waned as his determination to organize farmworkers increased. Finally, when the CSO once again rejected the idea of unionism at its annual convention in 1962, Chavez decided that he had had enough. He resigned as the convention ended and left the organization on his thirty-fifth birthday. "I've heard people say," he later explained, "that because I was thirty-five, I was getting worried, as I hadn't done too much with my life. But I wasn't worried. I didn't even consider thirty-five to be old. I didn't care about that. I just knew we needed a union. . . . What I didn't know was that we would go through hell because it was an all but impossible task."

Based on the often heroic, but inevitably futile, efforts of those who had earlier dared to challenge the monolithic power of industrialized agriculture in California—the Industrial Workers of the World before World War I; the Communist-led Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union during the early 1930s; the CIO in the late thirties; the AFL in the 1940s; and a rich variety of independent ethnic unions over the better part of a century—Chavez's assertion that organizing the state's farm-workers was "an all but impossible task" hardly overstated the case. Farm employers, assisted by a supporting cast representing nearly every form of public and private power in the state, had beaten back every attempt by workers to gain power while assiduously cultivating a public image of themselves as beleaguered yeomen valiantly struggling against the erosive forces of modernity, including unionism, to preserve the nation's Jeffersonian heritage.

To the task of contesting the immense power and redoubtable prestige of the agribusiness nexus, Chavez brought nothing more or less than an intensity of purpose that bordered on fanaticism. And while he would have rejected the disdain that the remark reflected, Chavez was in essential agreement with the cynical AFL official who declared in 1935: "Only fanatics are willing to live in shacks or tents and get their heads broken in the interest of migratory labor." In Chavez's view, nothing less than fanaticism would suffice if farmworkers were to be emancipated from a system of wage slavery that had endured for a century. When a reporter observed during one of the UFW's later struggles that he "sounded like a fanatic," Chavez readily admitted the charge. "I am," he confessed. "There's nothing wrong with being a fanatic. Those are the only ones that get things done."

In many ways, Chavez's supreme accomplishment as an organizer came long before he signed up his first farmworker. Attracting disciples willing to embrace the idea of a farmworkers' movement with a passion, single-mindedness, and spirit of sacrifice equal to his own was at once Chavez's


greatest challenge and his finest achievement. By the fall of 1962, when he formally established the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in a derelict Fresno theater, Chavez had rallied to "La Causa"—the iconographic designation soon adopted by the faithful—an impressive roster of "co-fanatics": Dolores Huerta, a small, youthful-looking mother of six (she would have ten in all) whose willingness to do battle with Chavez over union tactics was exceeded only by her fierce loyalty to him; Gilbert Padilla, like Huerta another CSO veteran, whose activism was rooted in a hatred for the migrant system that derived from personal experience; Wayne Hartimire and Jim Drake, two young Anglo ministers who were to make the California Migrant Ministry a virtual subsidiary of the union; Manuel Chavez, an especially resourceful organizer who reluctantly gave up a well-paying job to join the union when the guilt his cousin Cesar heaped upon him for not joining became unbearable. Most important, there was Helen Chavez, whose willingness to sacrifice so much of what mattered most to her, including first claim on her husband's devotion, revealed the depth of her own commitment to farmworker organization.

Working out of Delano, which became the union's first headquarters, Chavez began the slow and often discouraging process of organizing farm laborers whose strong belief in the rightness of his union-building mission was tempered by an even deeper conviction that "it couldn't be done, that the growers were too powerful." With financial resources consisting of a small savings account, gifts and loans from relatives, and the modest wages Helen earned by returning to the fields, the cost of Chavez's stubborn idealism to himself and his family was measured in material deprivation and emotional tumult. Had he been willing to accept financial assistance from such sources as the United Packinghouse Workers or the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), a would-be farm-workers' union established in 1959 by the AFL-CIO, the worst hardships that awaited Chavez and his loyalists might have been eased or eliminated. Yet, following a line of reasoning that was in some ways reminiscent of the voluntarist logic of earlier trade unionists, Chavez insisted that a farm-workers' union capable of forging the will and stamina required to breach the awesome power of agribusiness could only be built on the sacrifice and suffering of its own membership.

During the NFWA's formative years there was more than enough sacrifice and suffering to go around. But as a result of the services it provided to farmworkers and the promise of a better life it embodied, the union slowly won the allegiance of a small but dedicated membership scattered through the San Joaquin valley. By the spring of 1965, when the


union called its first strike, a brief walkout by rose grafters in Kern County that won higher wages but no contract, Chavez's obsession was on its way to becoming a functioning reality.

Despite the studied deliberateness of its leaders, however, the struggle that catapulted the union to national attention, and invested its mission with the same moral authority that liberal and left-wing activists of the 1960s attributed to the decade's stormy civil rights, antipoverty, and antiwar movements, began in the fall of 1965 as a reluctant gesture of solidarity with an AWOC local whose mainly Filipino membership was on strike against grape growers around Delano. Given the demonstrated ineptitude of the old-time trade unionists who directed the AFL-CIO's organizing efforts among California farmworkers, Chavez had reason to hesitate before committing his still small and untested membership to the support of an AWOC strike. But the strike was being led by Larry Itliong, a Filipino veteran of earlier agricultural strikes and the ablest of the AWOC organizers, and Chavez did not have it in him to ignore a just cause. "At the time," he recalled, "we had about twelve hundred members, but only about two hundred were paying dues. I didn't feel we were ready for a strike—I figured it would be a couple more years before we would be—but I also knew we weren't going to break a strike." The formal decision to support AWOC, made at a boisterous mass meeting held in Delano's Catholic church on September 16 (the day Mexicans celebrate the end of Spanish colonial rule), produced twenty-seven hundred workers willing to sign union cards authorizing the NFWA to represent them in dealing with area grape growers.

The Delano strike, which soon widened beyond the table grape growers who were its initial targets to include the state's major wineries, was a painful five-year struggle destined to test not only the durability of agricultural unionism in California but also the wisdom and resourcefulness of Chavez's leadership. Because growers had little difficulty in recruiting scabs to take the place of strikers, Chavez recognized immediately that a strike could not deny employers the labor they required to cultivate and harvest their crops. Even so, picket lines went up on the first day of the strike and were maintained with unfailing devotion week after week, month after month. Chavez emphasized the need for picketing because he believed that no experience promoted a keener sense of solidarity or afforded strikers a more graphic and compelling illustration of the struggle's essential character. "Unless you have been on a picket line," he said, "you just can't understand the feeling you get there, seeing the conflict at its two most acid ends. It's a confrontation that's vivid. It's a real education."


It was an education, however, for which pickets often paid a high price: threats, physical intimidation, and outright violence at the hands of growers and their agents and arbitrary arrests and harassment by local lawmen who made no effort to mask their pro-employer sympathies. Yet, no matter how great the provocation, no matter how extreme the violence directed against them, strikers were sworn by Chavez not to use violence. Chavez's unwavering commitment to nonviolence was compounded from equal measures of his mother's teachings, the affecting example of St. Francis of Assisi, and the moral philosophy of Gandhi. In the end, though, it was the power of nonviolence as a tactical method that appealed to him. Convinced that the farmworkers' greatest asset was the inherent justice of their cause, Chavez believed that the task of communicating the essential virtue of the union's struggle to potential supporters, and to the general public, would be subverted if strikers resorted to violence. "If someone commits violence against us," Chavez argued, "it is much better—if we can—not to react against the violence, but to react in such a way as to get closer to our goal. People don't like to see a nonviolent movement subjected to violence. . . . That's the key point we have going for us. . . . By some strange chemistry, every time the opposition commits an unjust act against our hopes and aspirations, we get tenfold paid back in benefits."

Winning and sustaining public sympathy, as well as the active support of labor, church, student, civic, and political organizations, was indispensable to the success of the Delano struggles because the inefficacy of conventional strike tactics led Chavez to adopt the economic boycott as the union's primary weapon in fighting employers. Newly sensitized to issues of social justice by the civil rights struggles that reverberated across the country, liberals and leftists enthusiastically embraced the union's cause, endorsing its successive boycotts and not infrequently showing up in Delano to bear personal witness to the unfolding drama of the grape strike. Many unions—from dockworkers who refused to handle scab grapes to autoworkers, whose president, Waiter Reuther, not only pledged generous financial assistance to the strikers but also traveled to Delano to join their picket lines—also supported the NFWA. Even the AFL-CIO, which had been sponsoring the rival Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, ended up embracing the NFWA when Bill Kircher, the federation's national organizing director, concluded that the future of farmworker unionism lay with Chavez and his ragtag following rather than with the more fastidious, but less effective, AWOC. Kircher's assessment of the situation also led him to urge a merger of the UFWA and AWOC. And although their long-standing suspicion of "Big Labor" impelled many of the Anglo


volunteers who had joined his movement to oppose the idea, Chavez and the union's farmworker membership recognized that the respectability and financial strength to be gained from such a merger outweighed any loss of independence that AFL-CIO affiliation might entail. With Chavez at its helm and Larry Itliong as its second-in-command, the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) was formally chartered by the AFL-CIO in August 1966.

The public backing the farmworkers attracted, including that of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who became an outspoken supporter of the union when the Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor held its highly publicized hearings in Delano during the spring of 1966, indicated that large segments of the American people believed that grape strikers occupied the moral "high ground" in their dispute with farm employers. To an important degree, however, public support for the farmworkers' cause also reflected a willingness among many Americans to believe and trust in Cesar Chavez personally; to see in the style and content of his public "persona" those qualities of integrity, selflessness, and moral rectitude that made his cause theirs whether or not they truly understood it. And if Chavez was more embarrassed than flattered by such adoration, he was also enough of an opportunist to see that when liberals from New York to Hollywood made him the human repository of their own unrequited idealism or proclaimed his sainthood, it benefited farmworkers.

"Alone, the farm workers have no economic power," Chavez once observed, "but with the help of the public they can develop the economic power to counter that of the growers." The truth of that maxim was first revealed in April 1966, when a national boycott campaign against its product line of wines and spirits caused Schenley Industries, which had 5,000 acres of vineyards in the San Joaquin valley, to recognize the farmworkers' union and enter into contract negotiations. For Chavez, who received the news as he and a small band of union loyalists were nearing the end of an arduous, but exceedingly well-publicized, 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, Schenley's capitulation was "the first major proof of the power of the boycott."

Chavez's tactical genius, and the power of a national (and later international) boycott apparatus that transformed an otherwise local dispute into a topic of keen interest and passionate debate in communities across the country, prompted one winery after another to choose accommodation over further conflict. For two of the biggest wine grape growers, however, the prospect of acquiescing to UFWOC's brand of militant unionism was so loathsome that they resolved to court a more palatable alternative: the


giant International Brotherhood of Teamsters. And although they had no apparent support among farmworkers in the region, the Teamsters, under the cynical and opportunistic leadership of William Grami, organizing director of the union's western conference, eagerly sought to prove that theirs was indeed the type of "businesslike" labor organization which anti-union farm employers could tolerate. Yet as good as the idea first seemed to the DiGiorgio Fruit Corporation and then to Perelli-Minetti Vineyards, consummating such a mischievous liaison with the Teamsters proved impossible. In the end, neither the companies nor the Teamsters had the will to persist in the face of intensified UFWOC boycotts, angry condemnations by the labor movement, and a rising tide of public disapproval. The controversy was finally resolved through secret ballot elections, which resulted in expressions of overwhelming support for Chavez and UFWOC.

The victories won during the first two years of the Delano struggle, while they propelled the cause of farmworker organization far beyond the boundaries of any previous advance, left Chavez and his followers still needing to overcome table grape growers in the San Joaquin and Coachella valleys before the union could claim real institutional durability. The state's table grape industry, composed for the most part of family farms whose hardworking owners typically viewed unionism as an assault on their personal independence as well as a threat to their prerogatives as employers, remained unalterably opposed to UFWOC's demands long after California's largest wineries had acceded to them. Thus when Chavez made them the main targets of the union's campaign toward the end of 1967, table grape growers fought back with a ferocity and tactical ingenuity that announced their determination to resist unionism at whatever cost.

While the boycott continued to serve as the union's most effective weapon, especially after employers persuaded compliant local judges to issue injunctions severely restricting picketing and other direct action in the strike region, the slowness with which it operated to prod recalcitrant growers toward the bargaining table produced in farmworkers and volunteers alike an impatience that reduced both morale and discipline. It also undermined La Causa's commitment to nonviolence. "There came a point in 1968," Chavez recalled, "when we were in danger of losing. . . . Because of a sudden increase in violence against us, and an apparent lack of progress after more than two years of striking, there were those who felt that the time had come to overcome violence by violence. . . . There was demoralization in the ranks, people becoming desperate, more and more talk about violence. People meant it, even when they talked to me. They


would say, 'Hey, we've got to burn these sons of bitches down. We've got to kill a few of them.'"

In responding to the crisis, Chavez chose a method of restoring discipline and morale that was as risky and unusual as it was revealing of the singular character of his leadership. He decided to fast. The fast, which continued for twenty-five painful days before it was finally broken at a moving outdoor mass in Delano that included Robert Kennedy among its celebrants, was more than an act of personal penance. "I thought I had to bring the Movement to a halt," Chavez explained, "do something that would force them and me to deal with the whole question of violence and ourselves. We had to stop long enough to take account of what we were doing." Although the fast's religious overtones offended the secular sensibilities of many of his followers, it was more a political than a devotional act; an intrepid and dramatic, if manipulative, device by which Chavez established a compelling standard of personal sacrifice against which his supporters might measure their own commitment and dedication to La Causa, and thus their allegiance to its leader. The power of guilt as a disciplinary tool was something Chavez well understood from his study of the life and philosophy of Gandhi, and he was never reluctant to use it himself. "One of his little techniques," Fred Ross said of Chavez's style of leadership, "has always been to shame people into doing something by letting them know how hard he and others were working, and how it was going to hurt other people if they didn't help too."

Those in the union who were closest to Chavez, whatever their initial reservations, found the fast's effect undeniably therapeutic. Jerry Cohen, the union's able young attorney, while convinced that it had been "a fantastic gamble," was deeply impressed by "what a great organizing tool the fast was." "Before the fast," Cohen noted, "there were nine ranch committees [the rough equivalent of locals within the UFW's structure], one for each winery. The fast, for the first time, made a union out of those ranch committees. . . . Everybody worked together." Dolores Huerta also recognized the curative power of Chavez's ordeal. "Prior to that fast," she insisted, "there had been a lot of bickering and backbiting and fighting and little attempts at violence. But Cesar brought everybody together and really established himself as a leader of the farm workers."

While a chronic back ailment, apparently exacerbated by his fast and a schedule that often required him to work twenty hours a day, slowed Chavez's pace during much of 1968 and 1969, the steadily more punishing economic effects of the grape boycott finally began to erode the confidence


and weaken the resistance of growers. With the assistance of a committee of strongly pro-union Catholic bishops who had volunteered to mediate the conflict, negotiations between the union and the first defectors from the growers' ranks finally began in the spring of 1970. And by the end of July, when the most obdurate growers in the Delano area collapsed under the combined weight of a continuing boycott and their own mounting weariness, Chavez and his tenacious followers had finally accomplished what five years before seemed impossible to all but the most sanguine forecasters.

The union's victory, which extended to eighty-five percent of the state's table grape industry, resulted in contracts that provided for substantial wage increases and employer contributions to UFWOC's health and welfare and economic development funds. Even more important, however, were the noneconomic provisions: union-run hiring halls that gave UFWOC control over the distribution of available work; grievance machinery that rescued the individual farmworker from the arbitrary authority of the boss; restrictions on the use of pesticides that endangered the health of workers; in short, provisions for the emancipation of workers from the century-old dictatorship of California agribusiness.

After five years of struggle and sacrifice, of anguish and uncertainty, Chavez and his followers wanted nothing so much as an opportunity to recuperate from their ordeal and to savor their victory. It was not to be. On the day before the union concluded its negotiations with Delano grape growers, Chavez received the distressing news that lettuce growers in the Salinas and Santa Maria valleys, knowing that they would be the next targets of UFWOC's organizing campaign, had signed contracts providing for the Teamsters' union to represent their field workers. In keeping with the pattern of the Teamsters' involvement with agricultural field labor, no one bothered to consult the Chicano workers whose incessant stooping and bending, whose painful contortions in the service of the hated short-handle hoe, made possible the growers' proud boast that the Salinas valley was the "salad bowl of the nation."

Except for one contract, which the union acquired in 1961 through a collusive agreement with a lettuce grower scheming to break a strike by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, the Teamsters had been content to limit their interest to the truck drivers, boxmakers, and packing-shed workers of the vegetable industry. The Teamsters' decision to expand their jurisdiction to include field labor was a frontal assault on UFWOC. Still weary from the Delano struggle and confronting the


complex job of implementing the union's newly won contracts, Chavez and his staff rushed to Salinas in order to meet the challenge.

If William Grami and his Teamsters cohorts discovered that the specter of a UFWOC organizing drive put Anglo lettuce growers in an unusually accommodating frame of mind, they found that Chicano farmworkers in the Salinas and Santa Maria valleys were unwilling to accept a union other than of their own choosing, especially after Chavez launched his boisterous counterattack. As thousands of defiant workers walked off their jobs rather than join a union of the employers' choice, the Teamsters' hierarchy, inundated by a rising tide of liberal and labor criticism, decided that Grami's tactics were inopportune from a public relations standpoint, and therefore ordered him to undo his now inexpedient handiwork. Grami dutifully, if reluctantly, invited Chavez to meet with him, and the two men quickly worked out an agreement providing that the UFWOC would have exclusive jurisdiction over field labor, and that the Teamsters would renounce their contracts with lettuce growers and defer to the workers' true preference in bargaining agents. For a few of the largest growers in the Salinas valley, those who felt most vulnerable to the boycott Chavez had threatened, abandoning Teamsters' contracts in favor of agreements with UFWOC provided a welcome escape from a misadventure. Yet when the Teamsters asserted that they were "honor bound" to respect the wishes of 170 growers who refused to void their contracts, Chavez had no choice but to resume hostilities.

Although the more than five thousand workers who responded to UFWOC's renewed strike call brought great enthusiasm and energy to the union's rallies, marches, and picket lines, their capacity to disrupt the fall lettuce harvest declined as the influence exerted by a ready supply of job-hungry "green carders" (Mexican nationals with work permits) combined with aggressive strikebreaking by violence-prone Teamsters "guards," hostile police, politically influential employers, and injunction-happy local judges. As strike activities diminished and boycott operations intensified, employers obtained a court order declaring both types of union pressure illegal under a state law banning jurisdictional strikes. [2] Chavez later spent three weeks in jail for instructing his followers to ignore the order, but the publicity and additional support his brief imprisonment generated made it one of the few positive developments in an otherwise discouraging slide into adversity.

The challenge presented by the Teamsters-grower alliance in the lettuce industry forced UFWOC to divert precious resources into the reconstruction of its far-flung boycott network. It also distracted Chavez and his


most competent aides at a time when the union was in the process of transforming itself from an organization expert in agitation into one equipped to administer contracts covering thousands of workers in the grape industry. Meeting the demands of the hiring hall and the grievance process, which were the union's greatest potential sources of institutional strength, also became its most worrisome and debilitating problem as ranch committees composed of rank-and-file members struggled against their own inexperience, and sometimes powerful tendencies toward vindictiveness, favoritism, and a residual servility, to satisfy the labor requirements of employers and to protect the contractual rights of their fellow workers.

Although Chavez instituted an administrative training program designed by his old mentor Fred Ross, he rejected an AFL-CIO offer of assistance because of his stubborn conviction that a genuinely democratic union must entrust its operation to its own members even at the risk of organizational inefficiency and incompetence. And when he shifted the union's headquarters fifty miles southeast of Delano to an abandoned tuberculosis sanitorium in the Tehachapi Mountains that he called La Paz—short for Nuestra Señora de la Paz (Our Lady of Peace)—Chavez claimed the move was prompted by a concern that his easy accessibility to members of the union's ranch committees discouraged self-reliance. "It was my idea to leave for La Paz," he explained, "because I wanted to remove my presence from Delano, so they could develop their own leadership, because if I am there, they wouldn't make the decisions themselves. They'd come to me." But the move intensified suspicions of internal critics like Larry Itliong, who left the union partly because Chavez's physical isolation from the membership seemed to enhance the influence of the Anglo "intellectuals" while diminishing that of the rank and file. The greatest barrier to broadening the union's leadership and administrative operation, however, was posed by neither geography nor the influence of Anglo volunteers, but by Chavez himself, whose devotion to the ideal of decentralization was seldom matched by an equal disposition to delegate authority to others. Journalist Ron Taylor, who observed Chavez's style of leadership at close range, wrote: "He conceptually saw a union run in the most democratic terms, but in practice he had a difficult time trying to maintain his own distance; his tendencies were to step in and make decisions. . . . Even though he had removed himself from Delano, he maintained a close supervision over it, and all of the other field offices. Through frequent staff meetings and meetings of the executive board, he developed his own personal involvement with the tiniest of union details."


If Chavez's deficiencies as an administrator troubled sympathetic AFL-CIO officials like Bill Kircher, they tended to reinforce the suspicion privately harbored by such trade union traditionalists as federation president George Meany that viable organization was probably beyond the compass of farmworkers, no matter how driven and charismatic their leader. Indeed, what appeared to be at the root of Meany's personal skepticism was Chavez's eccentric style of leadership and somewhat alien trade union philosophy: his well-advertised idealism, which uncharitably rendered was a species of mere self-righteousness; his overweening presence, which seemingly engendered an unhealthy cult of personality; his extravagant sense of mission, which left outsiders wondering whether his was a labor or a social movement; his apparently congenital aversion to compromise, which, in Meany's view, negated the AFL-CIO's repeated efforts to negotiate a settlement of UFWOC's jurisdictional dispute with the Teamsters. None of these reservations was enough to keep the AFL-CIO in early 1972 from changing the union's status from that of organizing committee to full-fledged affiliate—the United Farm Workers of America—but in combination they were apparently enough to persuade Meany that Chavez was no longer deserving of the same levels of financial and organizational support previously contributed by the federation.

Yet if trade union administration of an appropriately conventional style was not his forte, Chavez demonstrated during the course of several legislative battles in 1971 and 1972 that his talents as a political organizer and tactician were exceptional. When the Oregon legislature passed an anti-union bill sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation, Chavez and his followers, in only a week's time, persuaded the governor to veto it. Shortly thereafter, Chavez initiated a far more ambitious campaign to recall the governor of Arizona for signing a similar grower-backed bill into law. And while the recall drive ultimately bogged down in a tangle of legal disputes, Chavez's success in registering nearly one hundred thousand mostly poor, mostly Chicano voters fostered fundamental changes in the political balance of power in Arizona.

It was in California, however, that the UFW afforded its opponents the most impressive demonstration of La Causa's political sophistication and clout, and Chavez revealed to friends and foes alike that his ability to influence public debate extended well beyond the normal boundaries of trade union leadership. With the backing of the state's agribusiness establishment, the California Farm Bureau launched during 1972 a well-financed initiative drive—popularly known as Proposition 22—designed


to eliminate the threat of unionism by banning nearly every effective weapon available to the UFW, including the boycott. Having failed the year before to win legislative approval for an equally tough anti-union measure, farm employers were confident that they could persuade the citizens of California, as they had so often before, that protecting the state's highly profitable agricultural industry was in the public interest. Aware that the UFW could not survive under the restrictive conditions that Proposition 22 contemplated, but without the financial resources needed to counter the growers' expensive media campaign, Chavez and his aides masterfully deployed what they did have: an aroused and resourceful membership. In the end, the growers' financial power proved to be no match for the UFW's people power. In defeating Proposition 22 by a decisive margin—58 percent to 42 percent—the UFW not only eliminated the immediate threat facing the union, but also announced to growers in terms too emphatic to ignore that the time was past when farm employers could rely upon their political power to keep farmworkers in their place.

The political battles that occupied Chavez and the UFW during much of 1972 involved issues so central to the union's existence that they could not be avoided. But even in the course of winning its political fights with agribusiness, the union lost ground on other equally crucial fronts. Organizing activities all but ceased as the UFW turned its attention to political action, and further efforts aimed at alleviating the administrative problems that plagued the union's operation in the grape industry and increasing the pressures on Salinas valley lettuce growers were neglected. At the beginning of 1973 the UFW was in the paradoxical situation of being at the height of its political strength while its vulnerability as a union was increasing.

Just how vulnerable the union was became apparent as the contracts it had negotiated in 1970 with Coachella valley grape growers came up for renewal. Chavez had heard rumors that the Teamsters were planning to challenge the UFW in the region, but not until growers made plain their intention to reclaim complete control over the hiring, dispatching, and disciplining of workers did he suspect that a deal was already in the making. The UFW retained the allegiance of a vast majority of the industry's workers, but neither the growers nor the Teamsters seemed to care. As soon as the UFW contracts expired, all but two growers announced that they had signed new four-year agreements with the Teamsters. Hiring halls, grievance procedures, and protections against dangerous pesticides disappeared along with the workers' right to a union of their own choice.


Unlike their earlier forays into agriculture, which reflected the opportunism of lower level functionaries interested in advancing their own careers, the Teamsters' move into the grape industry was only the leading edge of a grandiose new strategy by the union's top leadership to rescue farm employers from the UFW in return for the exclusive right to represent farmworkers. Teamsters president Frank Fitzsimmons, with the strong encouragement of the Nixon administration, had suggested such an arrangement late in 1972 when he appeared as the featured speaker at the annual convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation. The Teamsters provided further evidence of their revived interest in agriculture by announcing a few weeks later that the union had renegotiated contracts with 170 growers operating in the Salinas, Santa Maria, and Imperial valleys even though the existing five-year agreement still had nearly three years to run.

The Teamsters' special appeal to California's agribusiness community was obvious: while the UFW insisted that farm employers share power with their workers, Teamsters contracts required only a sharing of the industry's wealth in the form of higher wages and other economic benefits. That the Teamsters never contemplated a kind of unionism that would permit Chicano farmworkers to gain a measure of control over their own lives was confirmed by Einar Mohn, director of the Western Conference of Teamsters, who said shortly after the union announced its coup in the grape industry: "We have to have them in the union for a while. It will be a couple of years before they can start having membership meetings, before we can use the farm workers' ideas in the union. I'm not sure how effective a union can be when it is composed of Mexican-Americans and Mexican nationals with temporary visas. Maybe as agriculture becomes more sophisticated, more mechanized, with fewer transients, fewer green carders, and as jobs become more attractive to whites, then we can build a union that can have structures and that can negotiate from strength and have membership participation."

In the face of the Teamsters' onslaught, the UFW, reinforced by a familiar coalition of religious, student, liberal, and labor volunteers, resorted to its customary arsenal: picket lines, rallies, marches, boycotts, and appeals to the public's sense of justice. Yet with hundreds of beefy Teamster goons conducting a reign of terror through the region, and UFW activists being jailed by the hundreds for violating court orders prohibiting virtually every form of resistance and protest the union employed, the Chavez forces never had a chance of winning back what they had lost in the


Coachella valley, or of stopping the Teamsters when they later moved in on the UFW's remaining contracts with Delano-area table grape growers and the state's major wineries. George Meany, who described the Teamsters' raids as "the most vicious strikebreaking, union-busting effort I've seen in my lifetime," persuaded the AFL-CIO executive council to contribute $1.6 million to the UFW's support. But the money could only ease the union's predicament, not solve it. After five months of bitter struggle, more than thirty-five hundred arrests, innumerable assaults, and the violent deaths of two members—one at the hands of a deputy sheriff who claimed that his victim was "resisting arrest," the other at the hands of a gun-toting young strikebreaker who said he felt menaced by pickets—Chavez, his union in ruins, called off any further direct action in favor of the UFW's most effective weapon: the boycott. The UFW, which only a year before had more than one hundred fifty contracts and nearly forty thousand members, was reduced by September 1973 to a mere handful of contracts and perhaps one-quarter of its earlier membership.

In the wake of the UFW's stunning defeat in the grape industry, writing the union's obituary became a favorite pastime not only of its longtime adversaries but of some of its traditional sympathizers as well. Most acknowledged the irresistible pressures that a Teamsters-grower alliance unleashed against the union, but many also found fault with the leadership of Cesar Chavez, especially his real or imagined failure to progress from unruly visionary to orderly trade unionist. Chavez's "charisma," said one sympathizer, was no longer "as marketable a commodity as it once was." Another observer concluded that "the charisma and the cause are wearing thin." The "priests and nuns" were losing interest; "the radchics from New York's Sutton Place to San Francisco's Nob Hill are bored with it all." "I admire him," George Meany said of Chavez. "He's consistent, and I think he's dedicated. I think he's an idealist. I think he's a bit of a dreamer. But the thing that I'm disappointed about Cesar is that he never got to the point that he could develop a real viable union in the sense of what we think of as a viable union."

Yet if Chavez left something to be desired as a union administrator, his alleged deficiencies scarcely explained the UFW's precipitous descent. The union's battered condition was not a product of its failure to behave conventionally, or of Chavez's disinclination to abandon his assertedly quixotic proclivities in favor of the pure and simple ethic that informed the thinking and demeanor of the more typical trade union leader. Rather, the UFW's sudden decline was, for the most part, not of its own making:


grape growers had never resigned themselves to sharing power with their workers, and when the Teamsters proffered an alternative brand of unionism that did not impinge upon their essential prerogatives they happily embraced it.

It was precisely because Chavez was "a bit of a dreamer" that the idea of farmworker organization gathered the initial force necessary to overcome the previously insurmountable opposition of employers, and it was because he remained stubbornly devoted to his dream even in the face of the UFW's disheartening setbacks that those who had rushed to speak eulogies over the momentarily prostrated union were ultimately proven wrong. The resources available to him after the debacle of 1973 were only a fraction of what they had been, but Chavez retained both the loyalty of his most able assistants and his own exceptional talents as an organizer and agitator. As the nationwide boycotts he revived against grape and lettuce growers and the country's largest wine producers, the E. and J. Gallo Wineries, slowly gained momentum during 1974, Chavez reminded his Teamsters-employer adversaries in the only language they seemed to understand that the UFW was not going away no matter how diligently they conspired to that end.

The same message was communicated through the union's greatly intensified political activity in 1974. The union relentlessly lobbied the state assembly to win passage of a farm labor bill providing for secret-ballot union-representation elections. Although it later died in the agribusiness-dominated senate, Chavez still demonstrated that the UFW had lost none of its political prowess. The union also brought considerable pressures to bear on Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jerry Brown to win a promise that, if elected, he would make the passage of an acceptable farm labor bill one of his top legislative priorities. The UFW had no real hope of achieving its legislative aim as long as the anti-union administration of Governor Ronald Reagan dominated the state government, but in the youthful Brown, who had actively supported the UFW's grape boycotts while he was a seminary student, Chavez recognized a potential ally.

Because they could not have the kind of explicitly anti-union law they had promoted through their unavailing campaign in support of Proposition 22, the state's farm employers, in a significant reversal of their longstanding position, sought to undermine the UFW by joining with both the Teamsters and AFL-CIO in support of federal legislation extending the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to include farmworkers. Chavez, who had years before supported such an extension, strongly opposed


NLRA coverage for farmworkers both because of its diminished effectiveness in guaranteeing workers' rights and because it banned the secondary boycotts upon which the UFW had become so dependent.

With Brown's election in November 1974, a legislative solution to the conflict that had convulsed the state's agricultural labor relations for nearly a decade appeared to be at hand. But given the mutual rancor and distrust that existed between farm employers and Teamsters on the one hand and Chavez and his followers on the other, drafting legislation compelling enough in its composition to induce compromises required both unfailing patience and an uncommon talent for legerdemain. Brown, however, was persuaded that a combination of good will and resolve could produce such a "vehicle for compromise." The new governor recognized that almost ten years of constant hostilities had not only rendered the combatants less intransigent, but had also created public enthusiasm for legislation that might restore labor peace to California's fields and vineyards.

Though none of the parties affected by Brown's compromise bill was fully satisfied in the end, each found reasons to support it. For the Teamsters' union, whose reputation as labor's pariah was reinforced by its anti-UFW machinations, supporting the Agricultural Labor Relations bill was a belated act of image polishing. For the state's agribusinessmen, who were finally discovering that preemptive arrangements with the Teamsters would not protect them from the UFW's seemingly inexhaustible boycott organizers, accepting Brown's proposal promised to restore order to their long unsettled industry. For the UFW, whose leaders were hopeful that legislation might do for La Causa what it had earlier done for the civil rights movement, going along with the governor's bill was a calculated risk that had to be taken.

The Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which went into effect during the fall harvest season of 1975, established a five-member Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) to implement the law, the most important provisions of which guaranteed the right of farmworkers to organize and bargain collectively through representatives chosen by secret-ballot elections. The ALRB, which faced problems not unlike those confronted by the National Labor Relations Board forty years earlier, was forced to operate under exceedingly difficult circumstances, particularly after disgruntled growers provoked a bitter year-long political confrontation with the UFW by blocking the special appropriations the agency needed to support its heavier than expected workload. Yet despite attacks from all sides, an inexperienced staff, and the administrative miscarriages that inevitably


attended the discharging of so controversial and exceptional a mandate, the ALRB doggedly pursued the law's essential intention of ensuring that farmworkers were free to decide questions of union affiliation without undue interference.

Whereas Chavez was often frustrated by the ALRB's plodding pace and periodic bungling, and at times criticized its operation in language as caustic and intemperate as that used by the most aggrieved farm employer, he considered the law a "godsend . . . without question the best law for workers—any workers—in the entire country." Chavez and the UFW, notwithstanding their sporadic fulminations, had good reasons to consider the ALRA in providential terms. Within two years of its passage, the UFW, with a membership approaching forty thousand, had regained its position as the dominant union in California agriculture. Even more important, the union's success persuaded the Teamsters, who had faltered badly in the heated competition for the allegiance of farmworkers, to sign a five-year pact that effectively ceded jurisdiction over agricultural labor to the UFW. [3] The ALRA became, in short, the means by which the UFW accomplished its own resurrection, the instrument by which Cesar Chavez redeemed his stewardship of La Causa.

But for the tenacious idealism and organizational virtuosity of Cesar Chavez, there is no reason to believe that the circumstances which fostered the ALRA's enactment would have arisen. Before he arrived on the scene, agribusinessmen in California were as secure in their power and authority as any employers in the country. Yet only ten years after Chavez and his followers first challenged their supremacy, farm employers were acquiescing to a law that augured the demolition of their one-hundred-year-old dominion over labor.

The law, however, imposed obligations as great as the benefits it promised. Beyond forcing the UFW to prove that the support it had always claimed to enjoy among farmworkers was actual rather than imagined, the ALRA had also challenged the capacity of Chavez and his lieutenants to take their organization into a new and different phase, one that rewarded abilities more closely associated with conventional trade union leadership than with the boycotting, marching, and other forms of social proselytism that the UFW had emphasized up to that time. Once the ALRA created the machinery whereby farmworkers might secure their rights to organize and bargain collectively, the conflicts that remained between themselves and employers had much less to do with elemental questions of justice than with arguable issues of economic equity and job control. The law


enabled the UFW to make its presence felt in California's industrialized agriculture; it did not ensure that the union would either prevail in the short run or endure in the long run.

As from the beginning, the UFW's future as an organization is inextricably linked to Cesar Chavez's success as a leader. And since 1975 the union's record testifies to a mixed performance on Chavez's part. After reaching a membership of approximately fifty thousand by the late 1970s, the union has slowly dwindled in size, comprising roughly forty thousand members by the early 1980s, nearly all of whom, except for isolated outposts in Florida, Arizona, and a couple of other states, are confined to California. The union's continuing failure to make greater headway among the 200,000 farmworkers who are potential members in California alone is attributable, in part, to the growing sophistication of employers in countering the UFW's appeal to workers through voluntary improvements in wages and conditions; to the entry into the farm labor force of workers without strong emotional ties to or knowledge of the heroic struggles of the past; and to the inability of an increasingly politicized ALRB to enforce the letter and the spirit of its mandate in a timely fashion, especially following the election in 1984 of a governor allied with the union's fiercest opponents.

It is also the case, however, that the UFW's drift from vitality toward apparent stagnation is partially rooted in a web of complex factors related to the sometimes contradictory leadership of Cesar Chavez: a sincere devotion to democratic unionism that is undermined by a tendency to regard all internal dissidents as traitors at best and anti-union conspirators at worst; a professed desire to make the UFW a rank-and-file union governed from the bottom up that is contradicted by a strong inclination to concentrate authority in his own hands and those of close family members; a commitment to professionalize the administration of the UFW that is impeded by a reliance on volunteerism so unyielding as to have caused many of the union's most loyal and efficient staff members to quit.

In fairness, however, Chavez's performance must be assessed on a basis that encompasses far more than the normal categories of trade union leadership. For unlike most American labor leaders, who had stood apart from the traditions of their European counterparts by insisting that unionism is an end in itself, Chavez has, in his own somewhat idiosyncratic way, remained determined to use the UFW and the heightened political consciousness of his Chicano loyalists as a means for promoting changes more fundamental than those attainable through collective bargaining and other conventional avenues of trade union activism. In defining the UFW's


singular mission, Chavez once declared: "As a continuation of our struggle, I think that we can develop economic power and put it in the hands of the people so they can have more control of their own lives, and then begin to change the system. We want radical change. Nothing short of radical change is going to have any impact on our lives or our problems. We want sufficient power to control our own destinies. This is our struggle. It's a lifetime job. The work for social change and against social injustice is never ended."

When measured against the magnitude of his proposed enterprise, and against his extraordinary achievements on behalf of workers who were among the most powerless and degraded in America prior to his emergence, Chavez's real and alleged deficiencies in guiding the UFW across the hostile terrain of California's industrialized agriculture in no way detract from his standing as the most accomplished and far-sighted labor leader of his generation. Whether or not he has it in him to be more than a labor leader, to turn the UFW into an instrument of changes still more profound and far-reaching than it has already brought about, remains to be proven.

The history of American labor is littered with the wreckage of workers' organizations—the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World among them—that tried and failed to combine the immediate purposes of trade unionism with an ultimate ambition to alter the fundamental structure of American society. Indeed, in an era when many labor leaders are preoccupied with nothing so much as the survival of their organizations, Chavez's pledge before the UFW's 1983 convention to lead the union in new and even bolder assaults against the economic and political status quo seems distinctly unrealistic. Unrealistic, that is, until one recalls the implausibility of what he has already accomplished.

Further Reading

Dunne, John G. Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike . 1971.

Fodell, Beverly, ed. Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers: A Selected Bibliography . 1974.

Fogel, Walter, ed. California Farm Labor Relations and Law . 1985.

Garcia, Richard A. "Dolores Huerta: Woman, Organizer, Symbol." California History 72 (Spring 1993): 56-71.

Garcia, Richard A., and Richard Griswold del Castillo. Cesar Chavez: His Life and Times . Forthcoming.

Jenkins, J. Craig. The Politics of Insurgency: The Farm Workers Movement in the 1960s . 1985.

Levy, Jacques. Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa . 1975.

Loftis, Anne, and Dick Meister. A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America's Farm Workers . 1977.

Majka, Linda C., and Theo J. Majka. Farm Workers, Agribusiness, and the State . 1982.

Matthiessen, Peter. Sal Si Puedes . 1969.

Rose, Margaret. "'From the Field to the Picket Line: Huelga Women and the Boycott,' 1965-1975." Labor History 31 (Summer 1990): 271-293.

Taylor, Ronald. Chavez and the Farm Workers . 1975.


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