Waiting For Chavez: The Farm Workers Union and the Future of Labor Organizing

By Tom GallagherApril 21, 2013

Waiting For Chavez: The Farm Workers Union and the Future of Labor Organizing

Trampling Out the Vintage by Frank Bardacke

IN TRAMPLING OUT THE VINTAGE, Frank Bardacke has written the kind of history the professionals call “magisterial,” but hopefully its size won’t scare off potential readers. If you’re one of the millions who supported the United Farm Workers’ (UFW) grape or lettuce boycotts and, as Bardacke writes, “came to recognize huelga before most of them knew what an enchilada was,” this book will be of interest to you. No matter when or where you interacted with the union, you’ll find something about it here, along with the larger picture. For those born more recently, this is essential history.

I not only found my own Boston boycott coordinators Nick and Virginia Jones (and Marcos Munoz before them), I learned how they met. No matter how much you know about the UFW, you can be fairly certain that you’re going to learn something new about one of the most interesting chapters in American labor history. Reading about the 1979 lettuce strike that Bardacke calls “the most successful farm worker strike in US history,” I realized I knew very little about the most intense labor upsurge in the country since the sit-down strike wave of the 1930s.  

The “two souls” of the book’s title were the actual union of farm workers in the California fields and the volunteer boycott organization that represented that union to the supporters around the nation. The book does more than justice to both, but it is the author’s direct knowledge of farm labor itself that is most revealing. Bardacke worked six seasons as a lechugero in the lettuce fields of Salinas and Watsonville, California, and although that ended in the 1970s, the experience developed into the lifelong obsession — and I only mean that in the best way — with the UFW. This book is the result of nearly two decades spent asking, “[h]ow it got beat and to what extent it was responsible for its own demise.”

Taking up farm work in his 30s was an exotic turn for someone of Bardacke’s background — a new leftist college graduate from a somewhat bohemian family — but it meant that farm work would no longer be the mysterious, exotic thing that it was for so many of the union’s urban supporters. Farm work, he learned, could be quite skilled and was not always a life-of-poverty proposition. In 1961, for instance, in the Salinas Valley, the “locals often worked at a piece rate that could earn a good lettuce cutter on a good day as much as $4 an hour, $1.70 more than the average factory worker made.” Above all, while his empathy for farm workers runs deep, he is adamant that they be seen as the subjects of a struggle to improve their working conditions through the UFW rather than as objects of charity. 

One of the book’s numerous strengths is its history of California farm labor organizing, pre–Cesar Chavez. Bardacke criticizes prior UFW histories both of the sort where “the union is essentially a story of Cesar Chavez and his staff” and its decline seen as the result of Chavez’s “personal demons,” as well as those he considers “hagiography.” Still, he acknowledges right that Chavez’s story is central. Chavez knew farm work intimately from personal and family experience — he told a biographer that he joined the Navy “mostly to get away from farm labor.” By the time he threw himself into farm labor organizing in 1962, he had broadened his worldview considerably, absorbing the sociopolitical ideas drawn from Pope Leo XIII’s efforts to counter secular socialism (which Bardacke characterizes as “Catholic Social Action”) and the organizing model of the quintessential community organizer Saul Alinsky, whose Community Service Organization (CSO) employed him.   

This background, based neither in traditional unionism nor the ideas of socialism, would distinguish him from all other figures that attained comparable stature in the history of the American labor movement. The Catholic aspect would always be upfront in the UFW, visible in such episodes as workers swearing on a crucifix to support the first strike of the union’s predecessor organization in 1965, a 1966 march to Sacramento behind the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or farm workers kneeling in Chavez’s presence when he was in the midst of a highly publicized fast in 1968. Bardacke’s analysis of the Alinskyite ideas Chavez picked up from his CSO mentor Fred Ross may be less familiar, though. Chavez’s role would be that of the classic outside “organizer” bringing farm workers a perspective from the world beyond their daily experience. In the Alinsky framework, this role was to be distinct from that of the local “leader”; one of Bardacke’s critiques of Chavez is that his developing position in the UFW blurred the lines between the two roles considerably. 

His lack of traditional union background certainly did make Chavez more open to nontraditional tactics, however. In the midst of that first grape strike, Jim Drake, a former Protestant seminarian from the California Migrant Ministry, told him the story of the 19th-century Irish Catholic peasants who won a great victory over the British government by shunning an Anglo-Irish tax collector by the name of Captain Charles Boycott. We might say that this information transfer breathed life into the union’s second soul. 

On the morning of November 17, 1965, the year’s grape harvest was pretty much over, yet the union’s grape strike was still on. No one exactly knew what that meant but the fact was that there were grapes to be unloaded off ships in San Francisco, and, at the suggestion of an International Longshoreman Workers Union official, four farm workers showed up at the docks with signs proclaiming their strike. As the union leader had assumed, the longshoremen’s response was to refuse to unload the grapes. With these dockworkers taking, in Bardacke’s words, “a first step in reversing the historical separation between California’s rural and urban workers,” the UFW boycott was born.   

Numerous factors would conspire to make it a national sensation. One, ironically, was the exclusion of farm laborers from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA had created procedures under which most other workers could petition to unionize, but when the Taft-Hartley Act later took away the legal right to conduct a secondary boycott, which the NLRA had allowed, farm workers were unaffected. The UFW could legally organize boycotts of stores selling non-union grapes, a tactic denied to other unions. Bardacke also sees one of the UFW’s strengths as having provided neutral ground “in the ongoing battle between liberals and radicals,” who were then often unable to find common ground on the Vietnam War or the activities of more militant organizations like the Black Panthers.  

By 1969, the union had about 300 staffers (generally paid room and board and $5 a week), about half of them former field workers, with boycott offices in 28 United States and three Canadian cities, usually headed by a farm worker. The growers countered by recruiting the corrupt leadership of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to provide them with a union they could work with. California Governor Ronald Reagan called the strikers “barbarians,” and Bardacke writes that Richard Nixon “ate grapes at the California announcement of his run for the presidency and was at least indirectly responsible for the increased Department of Defense purchase of grapes after he became president.” But Department of Agriculture figures showed grape sales declining 22 percent from their 1966 level, and in 1970 the growers capitulated and signed union contracts. These contracts were won not primarily by the workers in the field but by the boycotters in the cities. 

By 1971, the union had 40,000 members working under 150 contracts and was operating its own hiring halls. In 1972 the union received its official charter from the American Federation of Labor and actually became known as the United Farm Workers. Although now accepted in the “house of labor,” the UFW still represented, to most of its supporters, a lively alternative to the stodgy, perhaps even undemocratic, mainstream unions of the AFL-CIO, an organization headed by Vietnam War supporter George Meany. Bardacke sees a great irony here, though, in the fact that the UFW never actually set up any union locals, leaving “what was supposedly a radical alternative to the old-time AFL-CIO unions” with “less structural democracy than most of its famously bureaucratic sister affiliates, whose workers could at least vote for their local officials.”   

Of course, by 1973 the lack of locals was less glaring, since after losing a grape strike, the union’s membership dropped to under 6,000. And while it would rise again, the UFW would never again be much of a force in the grape fields where it first rose to prominence. But whatever its shortcomings might have been, the UFW was undeniably at the center of a mass movement, and as many as 10,000 California farm workers went out on strike in 1974, mostly “starting on their own but quickly looking to the UFW for help.” The union’s high point may have come in 1975 when California both banned the infamous short-handled hoe that needlessly required farm workers to spend the day working bent over and passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) that Bardacke considers “one of the best labor laws in the world.”

In the first month of the ALRA’s existence, more than 25,000 farm workers cast votes. The UFW won 87 elections with 52 percent of the overall vote; the Teamsters won 73 with 31 percent, and No Union prevailed in 19 with 16 percent of overall ballots. Among the reasons that the UFW did not garner the overwhelming votes that many in the outside world might have expected was the fact that some growers had previously signed contracts with the Teamsters — whom they knew would never contest control of working conditions the way the UFW would — and these contracts were good enough to convince the workers that the Teamsters might not be just a company union. The UFW had also hurt itself by campaigning against growers’ use of undocumented workers, or “illegals,” as they were then generally called, and continually suffered from failure to bridge a divide with Filipino farm workers. It was beaten handily in the grape fields in Delano. As the field office director would later note, “we told the world we were going to win the elections, but we forgot to tell the workers.”

Turning its victories into contracts would also prove difficult. A year after the first elections, an unnamed UFW official reported that they had signed only 35 out of 113 certified wins. Grower intransigence was certainly a large factor in this, but some thought there had been inadequate UFW follow-up, with its attention perhaps being diverted into electoral politics. The union had always been involved in this arena, but the question of who would be enforcing and interpreting the ALRA in Sacramento raised the stakes considerably. In a few years the UFW would become the second largest financial contributor to statewide elections and a major factor in Governor Jerry Brown’s 1976 presidential run — Chavez nominated him at the convention. 

Eventually Republicans took over the governorship, and California agribusiness reorganized — companies with union contracts would transfer work to non-union companies or simply go out of business and be replaced. At this point the union’s failures to work its base in the fields — and the internal divisions that went along with this — simply did not allow it to keep up the fight on this ever-shifting ground. In 1981, a union representative would tell The Salinas Californian, “Organizing is not top priority right now.” Estimates of the decline of California farm worker wages in the 1980s run from 20 to 40 percent. 

After Chavez’s death in 1993, the union, now headed by his son-in-law, Artie Rodriguez, made what Bardacke considers “a genuine effort to return to the fields and regain its identity as a union,” but with only modest success. It has about 6,000 workers under contract “with wages and benefits not much different from the current low standards in the California fields,” and the union continues to advocate for farm workers and proposes legislation. But the revival of farm worker organizing still awaits its day. 


LARB Contributor

Tom Gallagher is a writer and activist living in San Francisco. He is the author of Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools and The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes On the Military Industrial Complex. He is a past member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.


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