News & Politics

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.

The story of the 1965 Delano grape strike and subsequent boycott rightly frames the early history of the farm worker movement that Chavez and his extended family led. After a five-year battle, the growers raised wages and signed a set of collective bargaining contracts that promised something close to a revolution in the status of those who worked in California’s largest industry. In this struggle Chavez commanded the loyalty of several hundred Delano area families who participated in the marches and picket lines, packed the Friday night meetings, and often traveled to distant cities to staff the union’s far-flung boycott operation. But the Farm Workers Association, as it was then called, could never truly stop production in the fields. Although the Delano grape strike began as a harvest job action when the Mexican Americans, who made up the bulk of the vineyard workforce, joined a Filipino walkout, that inspiring alliance fell apart once the strike dragged on, with traditional hostilities between the two ethnic groups coming to the fore once again. Indeed, throughout the Delano grape struggle, most strikes called by the farm workers’ union were nominal in character, designed to legitimize the FWA’s boycott and build support among liberal and labor allies. 

And it was on this larger political and symbolic front that Chavez proved himself “as wise as the serpent and as gentle as the dove.” Indeed, the strategic innovations deployed by the FWA in the late 1960s have more relevance for the entire labor movement today than they did even half a century ago. The farm workers then faced a shape-shifting set of employers who sub-contracted production and distribution, rebranded and obscured the origins of their products, recruited from a vast underemployed population—many undocumented—an ethnically diverse set of strikebreakers, and relied on law enforcement and conservative office holders to help thwart organizing and break strikes. Sound familiar?

At a time when most unions were hostile or indifferent to students, clergy, and do-good liberals, Chavez made ample use of their talents; he emphasized the incorporation of whole families into the farm worker union, he relied on unpaid volunteers, and he turned the exclusion of farm workers from coverage by the national labor law, as well as the failed strikes, into a brilliant strategic counteroffensive, largely through a national boycott of California table grapes. The Taft-Hartley amendments to the Wagner Act banned most unions from deploying the secondary boycott, but the FWA could legally picket an entire grocery store to force its corporate parent to get rid of the grapes; and the union had plenty of Mexican-American strikers and Anglo volunteers to send to distant cities because they were no longer needed on the Delano picket lines once the fields were idle in the post harvest months.

Most important, Chavez was a keen strategist when it came to leveraging the still considerable strength of American liberalism on behalf of the farm workers, even as labor, the Democrats, and the New Left entered the sunset days of their influence. As Bardacke makes clear in one of his most intriguing chapters, the FWA burst upon the national consciousness just as the urban riots, the Vietnam War, and the rise of black-power militancy within the civil rights movement had begun to turn the sixties sour. But farm unionism embodied the one social movement upon which a rapidly fragmenting liberallabor-Democratic Party coalition could still coalesce. It was interracial, it was interdenominational, it espoused nonviolence. For the boycott one could still find New Left students and AFL-CIO officials on the same picket line; indeed, support for the FWA gave to an increasingly stolid set of union officials and to tens of thousands of Anglo boycott supporters a cause that might valorize their affluent liberalism. Instead of asking what all these forces did for Chavez and his downtrodden farm workers, it might be more illuminating to calculate the ideological and organizational dividends that their support for Chavez earned for them. 

Take for example Walter Reuther’s dramatic visit to Delano in December 1965, where the president of a still powerful United Automobile Workers shouted “Huelga” as he accompanied Chavez on a march through a city whose council had banned such demonstrations and Spanish-language strike calls. Helping to organize this well-publicized event, during which Reuther pledged $5,000 a month to the union, was Marshall Ganz, then a youthful Harvard dropout but already a veteran of the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, which had sought to replace segregationist Democrats with an interracial delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City that same summer. There Reuther had incurred the wrath of a generation of young radicals like Ganz when he served as the onsite muscle for President Lyndon Johnson, who wanted the Mississippi challenge squashed in the service of his electoral calculations that fall. 

Reuther and other establishment liberals won that skirmish, but they quickly realized that their identification with LBJ’s brand of realpolitik was sapping their authority within their own organizations and costing them support within the larger liberal-Democratic Party universe. So Reuther, like his AFL-CIO rivals as well as ambitious Democrats such as Robert Kennedy, scrambled for connection to this new social movement. New Leftists like Ganz were bemused but in no position to object as Chavez skillfully accommodated such divergent interests. The farm workers’ union, writes Bardacke, became during the boycott years “neutral territory” in the ongoing battle between American liberals and radicals. 

The grape boycott proved an enormous success: it generated the economic leverage that finally brought the growers to the bargaining table in 1970, it gave Chavez and his union a potent, far-flung organization that could be deployed in politics and elsewhere; and it set up a funding structure that almost always depended on outsiders for a larger proportion of the union budget than it did on dues from the membership. Chavez therefore saw the boycott rather than the strike as the union’s most effective weapon. The farm workers were fractious and unreliable; strikes were often embarrassing failures that subverted the union claim to speak on behalf of its constituency, and when they did succeed the workers might well take too many matters into their own hands. The boycott on the other hand facilitated the hyper centralization of the renamed United Farm Workers in La Paz, the Tehachapi foothill town Chavez had chosen for UFW headquarters in 1970. It would be staffed by a seemingly endless stream of Anglo volunteers who could never challenge Chavez for real influence in the union; and the boycott required that the UFW define for the liberal public a farm worker population that was far more downtrodden victim than empowered and prosperous worker, even when the latter became the more accurate embodiment of farm worker dreams and realities. 

The irony here is considerable. A tactical innovation necessary to sustain farm union influence in the vineyards during the late 1960s would now become the organizing principle around which the entire organization was reshaped and an actual obstacle to the rebirth of the union when farm worker militancy had a genuine renaissance late in the 1970s. Bardacke offers a revealing story exemplifying this dynamic in his chapter recounting the union’s 1974 “Campaign Against Illegals.” Then the UFW both drew up lists of undocumented workers for deportation by the Migra (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and established its own Minutemanlike border patrol in the Arizona desert, the latter run by Cesar’s cousin Manuel, whom Ganz called “the evil twin in a Shakespearean drama.” The UFW claimed that it was trying to get Mexican strike breakers out of the fields, but with at least a hundred thousand undocumented workers in California agriculture— and many more to come—this was an impossible task, even if it were not so politically and socially divisive, breeding hostility to the union among thousands of potential recruits. 

Why this disastrous gambit? Bardacke argues that after the Teamsters and the growers had conspired to push a badly disorganized UFW out of many vineyards in 1973, Chavez wanted to restart the grape boycott. Blaming the undocumented provided both an excuse for UFW strike failures and a fresh rationale for UFW fund-raising appeals throughout the country. Many within the union objected to this disastrous program, and the UFW would eventually come to champion the rights of undocumented immigrants, but in the fields and migrant Mexican communities, the whole affair bred distrust and dissention. 

Chavez hardly noticed. By the mid 1970s he had just about given up on organizing farm workers. He thought California’s new Agricultural Labor Relations Act, a signal accomplishment in the dreary history of postwar industrial relations law, would soon deprive the UFW of its communal character; and Chavez became ever more obsessed with Democratic Party politics, staff loyalty, potential enemies, and the construction of a cult-like union culture that combined some of the very worst aspects of the sixties’ counterculture with Maoist-style self-criticism. Some close associates thought Chavez “crazy” in the late 1970s, but Bardacke holds that whatever the leader’s mental peculiarities, it was the staff-driven hypercentralizaton of the union that allowed these personal debilities to become so organizationally self-destructive. 

Out in the fields an unexpected burst of militancy might still herald a regeneration, not in the grape-growing regions, where the UFW had been so often defeated and discredited, but in Salinas, Oxnard, Ventura, Stockton, and the Imperial Valley, where tens of thousands who worked in vegetables and orchards could now take advantage of the new labor law to organize, strike, and extend the reach of the UFW into regions and crops that Chavez and the staff at La Paz hadn’t anticipated.

So while Chavez gave speeches denouncing illegal immigrants and seeking support for a new boycott, thousands of Salinas lechugueros and Oxnard limoneros were organizing themselves, conducting the most successful strikes in UFW history, and with the help of Marshall Ganz, winning a set of contracts that put first class economic citizenship within their grasp. “They drove good cars; they ate well,” observed Bardacke who knew many of these politically astute men and women. They did not want to wear old work clothes when they went to press conferences—as was standard UFW practice—or to appeal for support as downtrodden victims. “They were workers, not beggars. They sought justice, not charity.” 

And they demanded of La Paz a measure of power and autonomy. Salinas now accounted for about 80 percent of the union’s dues income, and the vegetable contracts provided for at least twenty-two company paid union representatives, not unlike the shop stewards mandated in UAW and Steelworker collective bargaining contracts. Not unexpectedly, Chavez saw these “reps” as a challenge not only to his leadership but to his whole ascetic, Alinskyite vision of an organizer-driven farm worker movement. He therefore insisted that the union continue to be staffed by $5-a-week volunteers, he pushed out all those, like Ganz and Jerry Cohen, the union’s brilliantly effective lawyer, who wanted to build a CIOstyle union, and he went to war against the Salinas reps, calling them traitors and worse when some ran for seats on the UFW executive board at the union’s 1981 convention.

“Farm workers kept on calling the UFW ‘la union del Chavez,’” remembered Hemilo Mojica, one of the reps Chavez purged from his post. “And you know what? It turned out that they understood the union better than we did.” La Paz had smothered the farm worker soul of the union, concludes Bardacke. “The body would wither and die. Only the head would live on.” 

Chavez embodied the pitfalls of charismatic leadership, but the entire UFW experience also demonstrates that social movement unionism, even when most triumphant and inspiring, requires participatory mechanisms that can give effective voice to all those who join such a sprawling and multifaceted insurgency. Victory cannot be truly consolidatedunless it is rooted in a set of democratic institutions. 

Nelson Lichtenstein is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy.