Steve Early on the history of the UFW

March 16, 2011

Vital history for those who want to rebuild the labor movement today. --PG

Beyond the Fields

by Steve Early, Spring 2011

No modern American union has a larger alumni association or a bigger shelf of books about itself than the United Farm Workers (UFW). Even at its membership peak thirty years ago, this relatively small labor organization never represented more than 100,000 workers. Yet, in the 1960s and '70s, the UFW commanded the loyalty of many hundreds of thousands of strike and boycott supporters throughout the U.S. and Canada. While the union is now a shell of its former self, the UFW diaspora — from young organizers who flocked to its banner to key farm worker activists shaped by its struggles — remain an influential generational cohort in many other fields: public interest law, liberal academia, California politics, labor and community organizing, social change philanthropy and the ministry. Like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) several decades later, with its "Justice for Janitors" campaigns, the UFW generated widespread public sympathy and support because it championed low-paid, much-exploited workers — people of color courageously struggling for dignity and respect on the job. Its original multi-racial campaigns were inspiring and their legacy is lasting.

Most other late 20th century labor organizations had an inadequate social justice orientation and a far more insular approach; at best, they tried to improve workplace conditions for their own members, in a single occupation or industrial sector, and helped secure protective labor legislation for everyone else. Their appeals for solidarity from non-labor groups tended to be few in number and transactional in nature. Few unions, except during the 1930s, ever became such an important training ground for future organizers of all kinds or built as many lasting ties with far-flung community allies. As San Francisco lawyer, journalist, and housing activist Randy Shaw documents in Beyond The Fields, there is a strong historical link between the UFW in its heyday and myriad forms of progressive activism today. UFW alumni, ideas, and strategies have influenced Latino political empowerment, the immigrant rights movement, union membership growth, and on-going coalitions between labor, community, campus, and religious groups. During the 2008 presidential race, the union's old rallying cry--“Yes, we can!”-- even became the campaign theme of a former community organizer from Chicago who now resides in the White House. The same determined chant can still be heard, in its original Spanish, at marches, rallies, and union events involving Latino workers throughout the country.

Shaw’s book, and those by Miriam Pawel and Marshall Ganz, are not in the cheerleading tradition of earlier volumes written during the UFW’s glory days. Other writers about the union, including John Gregory Dunne, Jacques Levy, and Peter Matthiessen tended to be ardent admirers of its founder and president, César Chávez. The latest literature about farm worker unionism in California tries to explain, in more complex ways, how the union achieved its remarkable early success but then, ended up in a 30-year downward spiral. Such questions are not just a matter of historical interest to academics and journalists. And they’re not just the personal concern of the many people, once connected to the union, who have contributed their own vivid memories and postmortems to Leroy Chatfield’s unusual online archive, the Farmworker Movement Documentation Project. In California and elsewhere over the last several years, Farm Worker veterans have found themselves on opposite sides of the barricades in the biggest inter and intra-union conflicts since the UFW squared off against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, when it became an agribusiness-ally four decades ago. These high-profile fights have, ironically, involved the two unions—SEIU and UNITE-HERE—which have the most UFW alumni in their leadership and staff. The deep disagreements about union structure and strategy that triggered recent civil warfare, within labor’s progressive wing, contain a distinct echo of the internal tensions and struggles within the UFW recounted by Shaw, Ganz, and Pawel. Controversy over the role of union democracy, membership dissent, and charismatic leadership is very much alive and still unresolved in the labor movement today,

Even for authors less focused on the UFW’s founding father, it’s hard to separate the UFW saga from the compelling personal story of César Chávez. All the books under review here recount, in different ways, his legendary career as a trade unionist. No novice as an organizer, Chávez spent nearly a decade knocking on doors in urban and rural barrios to build community organization throughout California. Before that, he had been a rebellious teenager, working in the fields alongside his family and chafing at “Whites Only” signs in restaurants and the “colored sections” in movie theaters, where Mexican-Americans and Filipinos were consigned, along with Blacks. In the 1940s and 50s, Chicanos faced a humiliating system of discrimination in jobs, schools, housing, and public accommodations that would have been very familiar to African-Americans in the segregationist South. Chávez responded to these conditions by becoming a voting rights activist. Under the tutelage of Fred Ross, an apostle of Saul Alinsky-style grassroots organizing, Chávez succeeded in mobilizing tens of thousands of Mexican-Americans to register to vote and use their newly acquired political clout to deal with issues ranging from potholes to police brutality. In 1962, he set aside voter registration and political agitation to organize farm workers. His fledgling National Farm Workers Association (later to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee and then the UFW) faced competition from several other groups; at the time, none seemed capable of breaking with California’s long history of failed unionization efforts in agriculture throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Agribusiness didn’t come to the bargaining table quickly or easily. Powerful growers of fruits and vegetables had every reason to believe they would never have to negotiate with Chávez's organization, or any other. Farm workers lacked any rights under the National Labor Relations Act, which covers most non-agricultural workers in the private sector. Before 1975, this left them with no mechanism for securing union recognition, other than conducting strikes and consumer boycotts. Workers had no legal recourse if they were fired for union activity, a penalty which also included eviction and black-listing of entire families from grower-owned migrant labor camps. When grape or lettuce pickers walked off the job to join UFW picket lines, they faced court injunctions, damage suits, mass arrests, deadly physical attacks by hired guards, and the widespread hostility of racist local cops. How Chávez, his union, and their diverse allies overcame such formidable obstacles was not only inspirational. As Shaw and Ganz both note, the UFW provided useable models for later campaigning by other unions, which have focused on sectors of the economy where Spanish-speaking immigrants migrated, in large numbers, when their employment options were no longer limited to back-breaking agricultural labor. More than any other union in the past half-century, the UFW creatively employed recognition walk-outs, consumer boycotts, hunger strikes, long distance marches, vigils, and creative disruptions of all kinds to win its first contracts.

Chávez's own public persona contributed much to the union's appeal. Deeply religious, the UFW president was, like Martin Luther King, Jr., a home-grown Ghandian frequently criticized, as King was, for opposing the war in Vietnam. In 1968, as strike-related confrontations swirled around him, Chávez embarked on the first of many widely-publicized fasts to demonstrate the power of moral witness and non-violent action. California farm workers became a national cause célèbre that attracted college students, civil rights activists, liberal clergy, and political figures like Robert Kennedy, who conducted U. S. Senate hearings on working conditions in the vineyards of Delano and visited Chávez when he ended his fast. Among the cross-over talents drawn to the union from a background in campus and civil rights organizing was the author of Why David Sometimes Wins. A Bakersfield native and son of a local rabbi, Marshall Ganz participated in the “Freedom Summer” campaign in Mississippi in 1964. He dropped out of Harvard to work full-time for the civil rights movement and had his first contact with unions during a Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) training session at the Highlander Center in Tennessee. When he returned home to California, Ganz observed, in Shaw’s words, “that the plight of California’s rural farm workers involved many of the same injustices he had witnessed being perpetrated against black people in the South.” Ganz played a major role in building the UFW over the next sixteen years, becoming its organizing director and an executive board member before leaving in 1981.

Within the ranks of the UFW, many indigenous militants emerged under the tutelage of Chávez, his co-worker Dolores Huerta, and recruits from the outside like Ganz. Some, like Eliseo Medina who is profiled in Pawel’s book, went on to careers in labor lasting far longer than Ganz’s. When Medina first showed up at a UFW hiring hall in 1966, he was only 19-years old and seeking work as a grape picker. Instead, he was recruited by Huerta to help win a hotly-contested union representation vote at DiGiorgio Corporation, an agricultural conglomerate then the largest grape grower in the Delano area. As the target of a UFW strike and boycott, DiGiorgio favored the management-friendly Teamsters. IBT goons surrounded Medina in a UFW sound-truck, smashing his face and sending him to the hospital to get four stitches in his lip. Nevertheless, the UFW beat the Teamsters by a margin of 528 to 328, in what proved to be a crucial victory for the smaller union. It also helped propel Medina into a multifaceted 44 year organizing career. After his departure from the UFW leadership in 1978, Medina spent time working for the Communications Workers of America in Texas and then SEIU in California. He later became an executive vice-president of SEIU, its chief public advocate for immigration reform, and, in the fall of 2010, national secretary-treasurer of the union.

The UFW's initial gains were nearly swept away when growers signed sweetheart contracts with the Teamsters to freeze out the dreaded "Chavistas.” Today, the 1.4 million IBT and the 6,000-member UFW are, ironically, fellow members of Change To Win, the dwindling band of unions that broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2005, under the leadership of SEIU. Back in the 1960s and '70s, the Teamster bureaucracy was corrupt, gangster-ridden, and very prone to the use of violence and intimidation for a variety of purposes (including keeping its own members in line). The conservative, Richard Nixon-endorsing IBT was the personification of top-down “business unionism” and thus, a handy, if brutal, foil for the UFW. As Pawel, a former reporter for The Los Angeles Times, writes:

The Teamsters were about money, not empowerment. As the leader of the Western conference of Teamsters [Einar Mohn] explained in an interview, he saw no point in having membership meetings for farmworkers. ‘I’m not sure how effective a union can be when it is composed of Mexican-Americans and Mexican nationals with temporary visas … As jobs become more attractive to whites, then we can build a union that can have structure and that can negotiate from strength and have membership participation.

The inter-union mayhem, between the UFW and IBT, finally ended when California legislators were forced to act. After UFW-backed Democrat Jerry Brown became governor (the first time) in 1974, he created an Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) to referee farm labor disputes. Before the ALRB was eventually subverted by Brown's Republican successors, UFW victories in government-run elections drove the Teamsters out of the fields, while briefly stabilizing job conditions in California's central valley. At long last, some farm workers were finally getting a living wage, health benefits, better housing, and protection against dangerous pesticide use. Unfortunately, the UFW fared worse than most unions during the ensuing Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush era. The steady erosion of its membership and influence has stemmed from never-ending grower opposition, the massive influx of undocumented workers from Mexico, over-reliance on appeals to consumers, and a related failure to link boycott activity to ongoing organizing in the fields. The UFW also suffered, in rather fatal fashion, from its own deeply flawed internal structure. Virtually all power was concentrated in Chávez's hands, leaving rank-and-file members with little ability to curb his increasingly autocratic behavior when it began to tarnish the union's reputation and make future gains impossible.

This painful but important detail has been airbrushed out of many glowing official portraits of Chávez. Since his death at age 66 in 1995, the UFW founder has, as Shaw notes, been posthumously transformed into "a national icon," while his darker side has "been minimized or ignored." The aura of secular sainthood that surrounds him obscures one major reason for the terminal decay of a union once so dynamic and respected. As Shaw, Pawel, and Ganz all confirm, Chávez was not accountable to anyone within the UFW. Rank-and-file critics of his charismatic leadership were purged, then black-listed, and driven from the fields in truly disgraceful fashion. In The Union of Their Dreams, Pawels recounts this story most poignantly by profiling Mario Bustamante, a lettuce strike leader from Salinas. Bustamante bravely challenged Chávez over the issue of elected ranch committee leaders, whose role the union president wanted to curtail, lest they defy his authority in their day-to-day dealings with employers. Bustamante also sought to expand rank-and-file representation on the staff-dominated UFW executive board. His opposition slate, composed of working members, was ruled ineligible to run at the UFW's 1981 convention. Bustamante, his brother Chava, and their supporters walked out forever to shouts of "Bajao los traidores" ("Down with the traitors") and "Muerte a lost Bustamantes" ("Death to the Bustamontes"). Chávez made sure his critics were unemployable in the fields; he even sued nine of them for libel and slander, seeking $25 million in damages. Mario became a taxi driver and, later, was even denied a small UFW pension.

Other potential rivals like Medina, a UFW vice-president, and key staffers, like Ganz, had already left the union in dismay (although neither aided the UFW rebels in 1981). Medina’s differences with Chávez prefigured disagreements, thirty years later, about union priorities within Medina’s new home, SEIU. Just as the UFW was gaining greater traction under the state’s new farm labor law, Chávez began pushing the idea that UFW should become a broader (but more amorphous) “Poor Peoples Union.” He was not happy, Pawel reports, that UFW was now focusing on “issues he considered more mundane—contracts, wages, benefits, and grievances.” If UFW organizers “did not embrace poor people in the cities, Chávez warned, the movement would wither.” Medina, on the other hand, took the more pragmatic and sensible view that fragile contract gains had to be consolidated first. “Our business is take care of home base—our members, “ he wrote in a strategy memo. He argued that the union could not “run off to do crusades, instead of service the membership,” because UFW activists faced continuing opposition from their employers and needed stronger backing at the local-level.

Over time, rational debate about such policy differences became difficult, if not, impossible at La Paz, the union’s headquarters. Both Medina and Ganz were there when Chávez began to consolidate his rule by employing a bizarre and destructive group therapy exercise known as "the Game." Chávez borrowed this tool of control from Synanon, a cultish drug treatment program already controversial in California. "The Game" required participants to "clear the air" by launching personal attacks against one another, an experience that created much anger, bitterness, and emotional trauma. As former UFW research director Michael Yates describes, with great vividness, in his recent memoir, In and Out of the Working Class, these exercises were manipulated by Chávez personally to humiliate, isolate, and then cast out staff members he disliked or distrusted. In 1977, Yates saw "a screaming mob of 'Game' initiates" purge 'enemies of the union'" at La Paz. When one victim had the audacity to ask for a formal hearing on the trumped-up charges against him, Chávez called the police, had the volunteer arrested for trespassing, and taken to jail. Over time, Chávez further stifled "creative internal deliberation" by replacing "experienced UFW leaders with a new, younger cadre, for whom loyalty was the essential qualification,” Shaw reports. The result was a dysfunctional personality cult. Since its founder’s death, the UFW has been tightly controlled by Chávez family members, in the same nepotistic North Korean fashion as some local affiliates of the Teamsters or various building trade unions.

In Why David Sometimes Wins, Ganz describes how Chávez also used union centralization, quite systematically, to crowd out constructive criticism and political pluralism. "Control over resources at the top and the absence of any intermediate levels of political accountability — districts, locals, or regions — meant that potential challengers could never organize, build a base, or mount a real challenge to incumbents,” Ganz writes. In an interview with Shaw for Beyond The Fields, he recalls that "[T]he UFW was not giving workers any real power or responsibilities in setting the union's direction ... Chávez's decision that the UFW would not have geographically distinct 'locals' left the union without the vehicles traditionally used by organized labor to obtain worker input. [As early as 1978] the UFW's executive board had no farm worker representation, leaving those working in the fields with no way to influence the UFW's direction."

As Chávez critic Frank Bardacke points out in his forthcoming book from Verso, Trampling Out The Vintage, UFW leaders and staff were even more detached from the membership than in other, more labor organizations because UFW “had its own source of income, separate from union dues.” Between 1970 and 1985, payments from workers represented less than 50 percent of UFW income; the rest of the union’s money was generated by boycott-related direct mail activity or from donations by wealthy individuals, other unions, and church groups. The UFW established and continues to operate, in the name of its dead founder, “a network of organizations which receive money form private foundations and government grants.” The UFW was always a combination of farm worker advocacy group and collective bargaining organization. According to Bardacke, initial (but hard to reproduce) UFW success with wine, table grape, and lettuce boycotts convinced Chávez “that the essential power of the union was among its supporters in the cities rather than among workers in the fields.”

As Pawel notes, a new generation of workers now toils in those fields, under terrible conditions with little or no UFW contract protection, and few active urban supporters. Many are undocumented, indigenous Mexicans who arrive not even speaking Spanish. They earn the minimum wage, lack health care coverage, and “desperately need the kind of help the union once offered.” How UFW veterans have processed this sad history and its present-day consequences varies widely. Reconciling proud memories with the profound sadness and political disillusionment that sometimes followed Farm Worker duty is not easy, particularly amid contemporary union conflicts that contain distinct echoes of the UFW’s troubled past. Between 2008 and early 2010, the charismatic leader of SEIU, Andy Stern, used his similarly unchecked powers as national union president to unleash a series of Chávez-like attacks on internal adversaries. The result was widespread turmoil among SEIU-represented health care workers in California, accompanied by 18 months of open warfare with UNITE HERE, the garment and hotel workers union that was once Stern’s closest ally in Change to Win.

Both conflicts were triggered, in part, by major disagreements about union structure, organizing and bargaining strategy. These were eerily similar to the differences that emerged within the UFW over its leadership, staff roles, and functioning. Under Stern, who retired as president last year (and has since joined the board of directors of a drug company), SEIU turned away from strong contract enforcement for the benefit of existing members. Smaller SEIU affiliates were consolidated into multi-state “mega-locals,” often under the direction of national union officials who were appointed by Stern, rather than elected by the membership. The role of union stewards — the equivalent of elected UFW ranch committee leaders — was increasingly undermined and replaced by the use of corporate-style “customer service centers” to handle member problems and complaints — an experiment that has been a disaster. Greater union centralization and top-down control was necessary in SEIU, Stern argued, so more resources could be shifted to large-scale, staff-run campaigns for membership growth and political influence. Until recently — and the attacks on public workers in Wisconsin, including SEIU members there — the union tended to downplay battles over existing contract standards and benefits, as a selfish defense of “just us,” instead of a broader fight for “justice for all” (as if the two were mutually exclusive).

Like the dissident Chavistas who raised the banner of democracy and membership control in the UFW long ago — only to be crushed and expelled — some west coast SEIU activists organized a reform movement in 2008 that challenged Andy Stern’s autocratic rule and flawed political vision. Led by Sal Rosselli, a longtime SEIU vice-president (and one-time UFW grape boycott volunteer), these dissidents sought greater membership participation in the union and a strong rank-and-file voice in bargaining and new organizing. In response, Stern spent tens of millions of dollars on a military-style take-over of Rosselli’s 150,000-member local, the second largest in California. Since this January, 2009 SEIU “trusteeship” over United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), hundreds of elected stewards have been purged for "disloyalty;” 16 ousted elected leaders (including Rosselli) were sued by SEIU for $1.5 million in damages. A rival health care union has been formed, and most organizing of the unorganized in California health care has ground to a halt while the new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and SEIU battle it out, David & Goliath-style, for the right to represent tens of thousands of already unionized workers at Kaiser Permanente and other hospital chains.

This SEIU family feud is replete with ironic role reversals from the old days. When Rosselli was removed as UHW president, he was replaced by a team of Stern loyalists that included Eliseo Medina. Mario Bustamante's brother Chava, is now a SEIU trusteeship staffer and personally removes stewards who favor the rival NUHW. Legal work aimed at crushing the rebellion has been handled by a California law firm headed by Glenn Rothner, a one-time UFW lawyer. Among other prominent UFW alumni on the SEIU side are Scott Washburn and Stephen Lerner, architect of SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaigns. Meanwhile, Dolores Huerta, the still formidable 80-year old founding mother of UFW, has become an outspoken champion of worker dissent within SEIU — even though she sided with Chávez when he pushed out the Bustamantes and drove away Ganz and Medina. At a recent NUHW press conference, Huerta accused SEIU staffers of Teamster-style bullying when she tried to meet with health care workers at Kaiser in Los Angles. Her fellow campaigners for NUHW include former UFW staffers Gary Guthman, Fred Ross, Jr. (the son of Chávez’s old mentor), and Mike Casey, from UNITE HERE, whose union has pumped several million dollars and many organizers into NUHW campaigning against SEIU in 2009 and 2010.

Mike Wilzoch, is one of many former UFW staffers, caught up in the carnage. He spent 23 years working as an SEIU organizer. In a May, 2008 to Stern, Wilzoch urged the then-SEIU president to end his "destructive conflict with UHW" before it tarnished his personal legacy and SEIU’s own future prospects. "I remember all too well what happened to the UFW in the 1970s after it devolved into loyalty oaths and vicious personal attacks on anyone asking pesky questions," Wilzoch wrote. "They burned their culture and so many top flight organizers that it did permanent internal and external damage to the union and the dreams of the workers." Nine months, later Stern went ahead with his take-over of UHW, ousting all of its elected leaders and staffers, including Wilzoch. In his letter to the SEIU president, Wilzoch noted that "history is replete with tales of radicals and reformers who became what they once despised. Even the smartest and bravest fuck up sometimes. Tragically, few had the raw courage to pull back in time, find the best in themselves that had gotten sidetracked somehow, and repair the damage." As Shaw, Ganz, and Powell reveal in their important new books, that course correction never occurred in the United Farm Workers of César Chávez. With the UFW experience in mind, many labor observers now wonder what it will take, in the wake of Stern’s departure last year, to repair the latest union dreams shattered so badly in California and elsewhere.

Steve Early was a Boston-based organizer for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years. He is the author of two books, Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home, from Monthly Review Press, 2009, and The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor from Haymarket Books in 2010.