Happy Birthday, Cesar Chavez!


Cesar Chavez Taught Us How

 Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and Strategic Racism.

 On March 31, 2019,  Eleven states will hold holidays celebrating labor and Latino Leader Cesar Chavez. A new film Cesar Chavez:An American Hero, starring Michael Peña  as Cesar Chavez and Rosario Dawson  as Dolores Huerta opened  in cities across the country on April 4, 2014. 

Let us be clear.  Chavez was religious, but he was not a saint. Neither were the growers, their  Teamster collaborators, nor corporate agribusiness saints.  Celebrations should not be about hero worship or uncritical praise, nor  should we ignore the present oppression of farm workers in the U.S.  

What they did accomplish along with Philip Vera Cruz , Marshall Ganz, LeRoy Chatfield, Gil Padilla, Eliseo Medina and  hundreds of others was to   organize in California the first successful farm worker union against overwhelming odds. 

Each of the prior attempts to organize a  farm worker union  had been destroyed by racism and corporate power.Chavez, Huerta, Philip Vera Cruz, and the  others deliberately created a multiracial union; Mexican, Mexican American, Filipino, African-American, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Arab workers, among others, have been part of the UFW.  This cross racial organizing  was necessary in order to combat the  prior divisions and exploitations of workers based upon race and language. Dividing the workers on racial and  language lines, as well as immigration status  always left the corporations the winners.

The violent  assaults on the farmworkers and UFW from 1960- 1980  along with the current reconquest of power in the fields  by corporate agriculture are examples of strategic racism, that is a system of racial oppression created and enforced because it benefits the over class- in this case corporate agriculture and farm owners.  Strategic racism as described by Ian Haney López  in Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class( 2014) is the development and implementation of racial practices because they benefit a group or a class.  

Chávez chose to build a union that incorporated the strategies of social movements and community organizing.  They allied the union   with churches, students,  and organized labor.  The successful creation of the UFW changed the nature of labor organizing  in the Southwest  and contributed significantly to the growth of Latino politics in the U.S.

The UFW and Chavez and Huerta have always had severe critics from the Right and  from corporate agriculture. Dolores Huerta  has  been  banned from the history text books in Texas and Arizona as too radical and because she belonged to DSA.  Both also have critics from the left.  

Miriam Pawel in The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement(2009)  uses individualist, personality driven reporting to assert that Chavez himself organized “Witch hunts” to expel union staff who disagreed with his leadership.  See Steve Early’s essay  on Talking Union.  

Frank Bardacke’s Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers.(2011)  is the view of a well- informed observer  who worked in the lettuce fields near Salinas. So is Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of  Work and Struggle in the Fields of California(2012)by Bruce Neuberger.  These books, along with Pawell’s have been reviewed in prior posts on DSA’s Talking Union

These books argue  a peculiar point of view:   they  strongly and persistently imply that the  current problems of exploitation of workers in farm labor was caused by the destructive behavior of  Cesar Chavez, his instability, and his ego  – not by corporate agriculture; not by the racist state in rural California

On the other hand Cesar Chavez was  given the U.S. Presidential  Medal of Freedom posthumously  in 1994, and Dolores Huerta ( A DSA Honorary Chair) was given the Medal of Freedom in 2012.  Teaching materials and videos have been made recording their work.  Schools, scholarships, foundations,  organizing institutes and political organizations  have been named after them.  Few  labor or Latino leaders  have achieved such positive recognition.   

I, for one, wonder why these authors and some  other left writers  see the major problem as the growth of  what they see as a legend and myths about Cesar Chavez ( and recognition of the UFW) rather than the major problem being the role of corporate agriculture, exploitation and racism.

When writers take this view, they then  need to explain why and how the parallel decline of the Teamsters, the ILGWU, the Auto Workers , the Steelworkers, the IAM, and other unions occurred during this  same era.   Compare the period of decline of 1977-1986 in the UFW to the complex battles of  the Reuther Brothers to gain control and to keep control of the  United Auto Workers, including the UAW’s relationship with the AFL-CIO . (1949-1970).  The UAW went from 1.5 million members in 1979 to 390,000 in 2010, and the United Steelworkers and other unions  suffered similar declines. 

It doesn’t require a theory of emotional instability and personal interventions  to explain that the smaller, less established, less well funded  union – the UFW-  suffered dramatic  declines from racial oppression and the brutal assault on the union  in the fields of  Texas, Arizona and California.

The above critics under play the role of the corporate assault on unions, and in particular the assault on a union led by  Mexican American leaders. This was, after all,  the era when  Ronald Reagan came to power in California along with the organization of the forces that came to be called neo-liberalism.  It was also a time of  consolidation of racial power in agriculture.  

Marshall Ganz, who was a leader in the union and a participant in the internal struggles, tells a more complex and more complete story in his book, Why David Sometimes Wins(2009).

This isn’t to say that Chavez, Huerta and many on the UFW Executive Board  did not have shortcomings.  They did.  Ganz describes  several of these in his  book and in interviews he participated in for the new book, From the Jaws of Victoryby   Matt Garcia (2012).  Ganz provide some well researched and insightful observations on the dynamics of a union trying to transition from a movement to a union- or to something else.   This analysis is helpful to organizers trying to build unions. 

There were conflicts and internal contradictions.  Not many movements last for even ten years let alone thirty.    In addition to the assault from corporate agriculture, the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan, neoliberalism and racism, the UFW was confronted  with internal union struggles for democracy,  an intra union assault by the Teamsters,  and with the tumultuous and disruptive  politics on the left in the 60’s and 70’s. 

In my opinion, Bardacke, Pawell, and Neuberger under analyze the nature of the racial state and  the interaction of racial and economic oppression in the fields.  And, these critics significantly  failed to see the they dynamics of  the struggle for  Chicano/Mexican American self determination within the UFW.  (For more, see  MexicanAmericanDigitalHistory.org.)

The role of racism, and the individual reactions to systemic structural racial oppression are complex and vary in part based upon the differences in experiences of the participants.  As the Chicano movement argued at its core- the experiences of U.S. born and reared  Mexican Americans and Chicanos were different than the experiences and the perceptions of racism of Mexican immigrants, both documented and undocumented.   There are a diversity of racisms and a diversity in the manner in which workers   learn to respond  to oppression.  Chicanos and Mexican Americans grew up, were educated, and worked in an internal colony. Their schools, their unions, and their political experiences were structured along racial  lines.  They learned colonized structures.  The authors do not sufficiently  acknowledge the struggle of the UFW and the Chicano Movement in breaking this colonial legacy. 

Marshall Ganz in Why David Sometimes Wins,  does a better job of describing the internal dynamics of UFW organizing- after all he was there.  He describes  some of the racial fault lines of  farm worker organizing.  Ganz was the director of organizing  for the UFW in Salinas and a long time member of the UFW executive board.

Chavez knew well some of the failings of unions  in the 1960’s, including  the problems of a growing internal bureaucracy, but the UFW in the 1980’s was not able to create a viable democratic union movement.  Marshall Ganz  argues that Chavez deconstructed the organizational strength of the UFW in the 1979 -1981 period in an effort to keep personal control of the union. (Ganz, p. 247 ) 

The critics  who blame individuals for the union’s decline  also miss the important rise of Latino politics in the Southwest today.   Chavez and the UFW played  a significant role by training  generations of future leaders as organizers as is well described  in Randy Shaw’s, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st. Century.   The UFW was a  place where hundreds learned organizing skills, politics, discipline, and how to work in multi racial  movement politics – skills needed by many on the left.  Today hundreds of union and community leaders, particularly in California are veterans, trained in for the long distance struggle of  the UFW. 

The Current Situation – Strategic Racism 

 The movement led by Cesar Chavez , Dolores Huerta  and others created a union and reduced the oppression of farm workers for a time.   Workers learned to not accept poor jobs, poor pay,  unsafe working conditions as natural or inevitable. Then the corporations and the Right Wing forces adapted their strategies of oppression.  

The assault on the UFW and the current reconquest of power in the fields are examples of strategic racism, that is a system of racial oppression created and enforced because it benefits the over class- in this case corporate agriculture and farm owners.  The current renewed oppression is a product  of strategic racism including  a complex structure of institutions and individuals from police and sheriffs, to immigration authorities and anti immigrant activists, and elected officials and their support networks.  These groups foster and promote inter racial conflict, job competition, and anti union organizing,  as strategies  to keep wages and benefits low and to promote their continuing white supremacy in rural California. 

 As the union was weakened by the Right Wing corporate assault, the conditions in the fields returned almost to their prior level of exploitation.  The Agricultural Labor Relations Act had it budget cut  by 30 % for years under Governor Deukmejian in 1982- 1986 along with other assaults on the law.   Now, thousands of new immigrants harvest the crops and only a small percent are protected by  union contracts.  Over 200,000 indigenous workers, mostly from Mexico, harvest the crops in the Southwest. They are Mixtec, Zapotec, Triqui and more.  They do have a few health, safety and wage protection by California labor laws,  along with the right to  farm worker collective bargaining elections and binding arbitration  established significantly by the political activity of the current UFW – more than farm workers have in any other state. For a record of this period see David Bacon’s, The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (2013). 

We thank longtime member Duane Campbell for today’s salute, which he began writing and publishing in 2013.  Our version also appears on his blog for DSA’s Anti-Racism Working Group.