The Contested Legacy of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta



By Duane Campbell

On March 31, Eleven  states will hold holidays celebrating  labor and Latino leader Cesar Chavez.  Progressives and democratic socialists should join in the celebrations.  A new film Cesar Chavez: History is Made One Step at a Time,  starring  Michael Peña   as Cesar Chavez and  Rosario Dawson   as Dolores Huerta opens 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, the 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 Chavez and Huerta did accomplish, along with Philip Vera Cruz, Marshall Ganz, LeRoy Chatfield, Gil Padilla 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.  With Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, and others Chávez and Huerta  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.

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 United Farm Workers (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 textbooks in Texas and Arizona as too radical.  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), writing with an individualistic, personality-based approach, asserts that Chavez himself organized “witch hunts” to expel union staff who disagreed with his leadership.  And, she argues that UFW support organizations “parlayed the memory of Cesar Chavez into millions of dollars of public and private donations.” (p.329).   These charges are well refuted in a review of the book by LeRoy Chatfield of the Farmworker Movement Documentation Project.

Yet they continue to be repeated as factual in other labor sources.  See:

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.  They have schools, scholarships, foundations, organizing institutes and political organizations named after them.  Few labor or Latino leaders have achieved such positive recognition.   

What the left critics allege

Frank Bardacke’s Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (2011) and Bruce Neuberger’s Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of Work and Struggle in the Fields of California (2012) provide well-informed views of the struggle in the lettuce fields in Salinas Valley.  Reviews of these books have been published on Talking Union.

But these books, along with Pawel’s The Union of Their Dreams, argue a peculiar point of view:  They strongly imply that current problems of exploitation of farm workers were caused by the destructive behavior of Cesar Chavez, his instability, and his ego rather than by corporate agriculture and the racist state in rural California.

I, for one, wonder why these authors and some other left writers see the major problem as the growth of a legend and myths about Cesar Chavez rather than 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.

It doesn’t require a theory of emotional instability and personal character failings   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 underplay 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 and the forces that came to be called neo-liberalism organized.  It was also a time of consolidation of racial power in agriculture. 

This isn’t to say that Chavez, Huerta and many on the UFW Executive Board did not have shortcomings.  They did. 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).

Ganz describes several of the issues in his book and in interviews he participated in for a new book, From the Jaws of Victory by Matt Garcia (2012).  Ganz provides insightful observations on the dynamics of a union trying to transition from a movement to a union – or to something else. 

There were conflicts and internal contradictions.  Not many movements last for even 10 years, let alone 30.  In addition to the assault from corporate agriculture, the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan, neoliberalism and racism, the UFW confronted internal struggles for democracy, an intra-union assault by the Teamsters, and 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.  As a consequence, these critics significantly failed to see the dynamics of the struggle for  Chicano/Mexican American self-determination within the UFW.

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; Anglo, Mexican, Mexican-American, etc.  The authors do not sufficiently acknowledge the struggle of the UFW and the Chicano Movement in breaking the colonial legacy of oppression in the fields and in the Southwest.

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

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.  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.  (p. 247)

The critics who blame two individuals for the union’s decline also miss the important rise of Latino politics in the Southwest.   The UFW and Chavez played an important role in organizing and training generations of future leaders, as 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 of current union leaders and politicians learned organizing skills, politics, discipline, and how to work in union and movement politics. 

The current situation

The movement led by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and others created a union that reduced the oppression of farm workers – for a time.  Workers learned to not accept poor jobs, poor pay, and unsafe working conditions as natural or inevitable.  Then the corporations and the rightwing forces adapted their strategies of oppression and regained control in the fields.  As the union was weakened by the rightwing corporate assault, the conditions in the fields returned almost to their prior level of exploitation.  Workers do continue to have a few health, safety and wage protections under California labor laws, along with the right to collective bargaining elections for farm workers and binding arbitration, established significantly by the political activity of the current UFW – more than farm workers have in any other state. 

I recommend the movie, and well-informed consideration of these complex events.

ChavezDuane350.jpgDuane Campbell and Cesar Chávez. 1972




Duane Campbell is a professor emeritus of bilingual multicultural education at California State University Sacramento, a union activist, and chair of Sacramento DSA.  He was a volunteer for the UFW from 1972 to 1977. He is the Director of the Mexican American Digital History project.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership