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The Rise and Fall of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers

In his new book "Trampling Out the Vintage," Frank Bardacke traces the magnificent and tragic history of that groundbreaking union.

This story is part of  Dissent magazine's special issue on Workers in the Age of Austerity. Look out for more in the coming week. For more great coverage from Dissent, check out their website.  

Most people think that farm work in the vineyards and fields of California is unskilled labor, largely undifferentiated work in which an army of Mexican-born migrants follow the harvest northward from the border as the fruits and vegetables ripen with the season. The pay is low, the housing transient, and the work life full of humiliations petty and grand. 

A lot of this rings true, before, during, and after the appearance of the United Farm Workers in the great agricultural valleys of the Golden State. But Frank Bardacke, in Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (Verso, 2011), does not begin his magnificent and tragic history of that union and its leader with a tale of debased and impoverished farm labor broiling in the California sun. He starts instead with a detailed description of the skill and cunning necessary to make effective use of the celery-cutting knife in the cool and fertile Salinas Valley. There, in the 1970s, well-paid, closely knit piece-rate crews of a dozen or more workers harvested an enormous proportion of all the vegetables consumed in the United States. In pages reminiscent of John McPhee’s celebrated books probing the world of orange growers and truck drivers, Bardacke describes each of the three strokes necessary to sever the root, trim the loose strands and tendrils, and then size the celery stalks into a neat fourteen-inch bundle that can be packed for shipment in the field. For an experienced apiero all this takes just three to five seconds. Because celery and other vegetables are fragile and variegated, the work is craft-like, combining brain, brawn and much cooperation throughout the entire crew, not unlike a professional athletic team, notes Bardacke, who “closely coordinate difficult physical maneuvers in a contest that lasts an entire season.” No machine has been invented to do the work. Instead of mechanization, California agriculture has been transformed by “Mexicanization.” 

Bardacke’s enormously insightful and nuanced book thus radically reconfigures the social, political, and moral narrative with which most Americans have understood the history of the farm worker movement and its leadership. Cesar Chavez remains a preeminent figure, and the grape boycott a brilliant and successful innovation that mobilized millions on behalf of a struggling union, but Bardacke highlights the experience of an increasingly self-confident and sophisticated cadre of agricultural workers who had a work life agenda that ultimately proved incompatible with the “movement” Chavez sought to construct and dominate. His history of the United Farm Workers therefore shifts much of our attention from the fasts, marches, and boycotts that made Chavez and the farm workers so iconic in the late 1960s. Instead, he refocuses the narrative onto the next decade, when Chavez became an increasingly selfdestructive leader even as an enormously hopeful wave of farm worker militancy exploded across the state, not in the Delanoarea vineyards, where the UFW never actually won the allegiance of most farm workers, but among the vastly larger work-force that labored in the Oxnard lemon orchards; the Salinas lettuce fields; and in the garlic-, tomato-, and melon-producing areas of the state. 

Farm worker strikes had long been a feature of the California agricultural landscape, but they also waxed and waned withthe season. It was not uncommon for workers to win a higher piece rate as the harvest reached its hectic climax. Such militancy needed an organizational structure, a set of leaders, and a stream of income that could hold growers to account from one year to the next. Chavez understood this imperative, but as Bardacke makes clear, he was a most ambivalent trade unionist even when the UFW had achieved real power and worldwide renown in 1970s. He had honed his organizing skills both as a Catholic activist in the 1950s, where his sense of social commitment had been framed by the theologically orthodox, Latino-oriented cursillo movement, and during his decade-long work for Saul Alinsky’s Community Service Organization, where he learned that the successful organizer had to put people into social motion without forfeiting his own autonomy or becoming entirely linked to their sometimes prosaic interests. Organizers, he said in 1969, were “the heroes of the farm worker movement.” And without such direction and management, rank-and-file leaders would be forever trapped in a competitive individualism, incapable of building their own movement or fulfilling their moral destiny. Indeed, Chavez was a Catholic ascetic who found distasteful the bourgeois aspirations of so many farm workers. And as union success came to fulfill these materialist desires, Chavez became estranged from his own constituents.

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