[Marxism] How the UFW crushed dissent
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jan 10 06:57:35 MST 2006
(This is rather long but well worth reading.)
From the Los Angeles Times
UFW: A BROKEN CONTRACT
Decisions of Long Ago Shape the Union Today
In the late 1970s Cesar Chavez grew intent on keeping control. He crushed
dissent, turned against friends, purged staff and sought a new course.
By Miriam Pawel
Times Staff Writer
January 10, 2006
In the winter of 1977, at the height of his union's power, Cesar Chavez
summoned the leaders of the United Farm Workers to a mountain retreat in
the Sierra foothills. They found themselves in an ultra-clean compound
where recovering drug addicts with shaved heads wandered the grounds
dressed in uniform overalls.
The purpose soon became clear: Charles Dederich, the flamboyant founder of
Synanon, welcomed his guests to the rehabilitation facility and explained
the rules of the Game, a therapy designed for drug addicts. A dozen players
would gang up on each other, "indicting" a participant for bad behavior by
hurling abusive and often profane invective.
The UFW board members had arrived expecting to hash out a new strategic
plan after a string of victories, including a pact to keep the rival
Teamsters union out of the fields. Instead, they found themselves in the
Game room, where some observed from elevated seats as others accepted a
challenge to play in the recessed pit.
In retrospect, some UFW leaders came to view the Synanon meeting as a
watershed, the first clear signal that Chavez had veered off course and
shifted his focus away from organizing farmworkers.
"We were so close," said Eliseo Medina, one of the UFW's top organizers and
a board member until 1978. "And then it began to fall apart
. At the time
we were having our greatest success, Cesar got sidetracked. Cesar was more
interested in leading a social movement than a union per se."
The story of Chavez's erratic leadership during a pivotal period emerged in
bits and pieces at the time but has not been fully told before. Many who
left the UFW were for a long time reluctant to discuss the union for fear
of harming an institution and cause they still believe in deeply. Today, an
extensive review of historical letters, minutes, memos and tapes of
meetings, along with scores of interviews with participants, paints the
first detailed portrait of a critical and turbulent time.
The decisions Chavez made a quarter of a century ago shaped the union and
Farm Worker Movement today, turning it away from the core mission of
organizing farmworkers. His actions drove out a generation of talented
labor leaders; he replaced them with handpicked loyalists including many
of the people now running the organization. He quashed dissent and
increased his control just as the union's growth made that more problematic.
He became increasingly concerned with traitors, spoke of malignant forces
and publicly purged the young and old. He turned on proteges, some of his
earliest supporters and close friends. His actions so baffled them that
many years later they still seek explanations.
For a decade, he had been an internationally acclaimed, visionary leader, a
brilliant strategist who inspired dozens of talented people to follow him.
He had built a volunteer movement that galvanized public support to change
the lives of farmworkers, bringing them dignity as well as higher wages. In
California, he had pushed through the only law in the country that gives
farmworkers the right to vote for union representation establishing a
legal framework that the UFW had been quick to exploit, winning dozens of
elections and contracts.
As the UFW board gathered in February 1977 at the Synanon campus, there was
a moment of opportunity to solidify those gains. Instead, Chavez became
focused on building a community at the UFW's rambling headquarters in the
Tehachapi Mountains. He railed about inefficiency, obsessing about the cost
of telephone bills or questioning a $7.20 brake repair bill. He led
committees that discussed celebrating movement anniversaries instead of
birthdays. He studied mind healing and practiced curing illness by laying
For more than a year, Chavez required staff members to drive as much as
five hours every weekend to La Paz, the union's headquarters, to play the Game.
"Cesar was struggling with disloyalty within the ranks. Dederich says:
'This is how you deal with it.' The Game came to La Paz for control," said
Chris Hartmire, a close Chavez aide who became the "game master" at La Paz,
setting up the encounters.
Disciples said Chavez's eclectic interests and commitment to a movement
were fundamental to his vision. "When people would accuse him of not being
a union guy, he kind of took pride in that," said his son, Paul Chavez, who
has carried on the social entrepreneur legacy by building affordable housing.
Said Marc Grossman, a Chavez public relations aide for many years and still
the UFW spokesman: "He took as much personal satisfaction in converting
someone to vegetarianism as to trade unionism. He really did."
Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the UFW, said in an interview that Chavez's
brilliance was often misunderstood, and that during the turbulent years of
the late 1970s he acted to defend the movement he built when it was under
attack from insiders who thought they could run the union better. "It's
very hard to build an organization, but it's very easy to unravel," she said.
Whether Chavez initiated the changes or responded defensively, the net
result was the same. By 1982, he had driven out dissenting voices on the
board, among the staff and in the fields. Key staff and architects of the
union's early success were gone, along with the next generation of leaders
in the fields. The UFW never regained the same momentum as a labor union
1977: The Purges
In December 1976, Nick Jones, a longtime left-leaning volunteer who had
been directing the UFW boycott, was accused by Chavez of masterminding a
communist conspiracy to bring down the union. "I was flabbergasted," said
Jones. "It demoralized me more than anything else in my whole life."
Jones quit, his abrupt departure triggering protests from around the
country. The boycott had been a powerful weapon for the union, publicizing
the harsh conditions for farmworkers and exerting pressure on companies to
sign contracts. A mix of volunteers, students and farmworkers, the
boycotters were a close-knit group. Many moved from city to city, and Jones
was a well-known and liked leader.
"An atmosphere of suspicion has developed, in which preposterous
accusations can be made and acted upon indiscriminately. People have been
fired on the basis of flimsy charges against them," the Seattle boycott
staff wrote to Chavez, one of many letters that demanded either an
explanation or an apology.
The response was one that would be offered repeatedly in the coming years:
Cesar knows things you don't, and he is protecting the union. Hartmire, a
much beloved Chavez confidant and Presbyterian minister, became the
official apologist, and his reassurances kept many staff members in the fold.
"People would go to Chris and say, 'I don't know about this,' and he would
say, 'I know it seems that way, but you don't see the whole picture; Cesar
does,' " said Ellen Eggers, who worked as a lawyer for the UFW.
In meetings and memos, Chavez stressed the need to foster community at La
Paz, the isolated former tuberculosis sanatorium east of Bakersfield where
he had moved the union in 1971. Chavez urged a greater role for children
who had grown up in the movement and understood its values. He criticized
board members for tolerating bad and subversive behavior because they were
desperate for staff. He brought in management consultants and tried to find
the ideal structure.
"The big problem we face is we haven't made up our minds what kind of union
we want to be. Or if we're going to be a union," he told a group of staff
after they had played the Game.
At a community meeting on April 4, 1977, that became known as the "Monday
night massacre," volunteers were viciously attacked and expelled for sins
ranging from smoking pot to betraying the union. "It was planned, and it
was brutal," said Larry Tramutola, then a high-ranking union leader who
participated in the denunciations.
Deirdre Godfrey was one of those expelled; she described in a letter to the
executive board how security guards followed and threatened her that
evening when she made a call to find a place to live: "I have never spent
such a fearful night
. I shall never forget the frenzied, hate-filled faces
and voices of people who had been warm and friendly with me right through
to the hour of the meeting."
Over the next year, Chavez continued to denounce popular workers as
communist infiltrators. A volunteer in her 70s was turned out with no place
to live. In the middle of a wedding reception, Chavez vilified a young
woman who had lived in his house as a teenager, ordering her thrown off the
grounds just weeks after she had successfully negotiated a contract.
Huerta said it was a time when security had become a major concern in the
loose-knit organization, after Chavez received death threats. "If Cesar was
a little paranoid, there's a reason for it," she said.
Some former UFW leaders now say they had qualms about the purges, but
justified or ignored them. They were winning elections. Some of the threats
"You could see you were making a difference. You could put up, rationalize,
accept, maybe even believe in it, as long as something bigger was
happening," Tramutola said.
"I hoped it would go away," said Medina, then a vice president on the
board. "It never did."
For many years, Jones, the onetime UFW boycott director, blamed Medina and
other board members for not standing up to Chavez. "But no, it was all of
us," Jones said recently. "All of those people who used to roll out the
carpet and lay it at his feet he cut their throats."
1978: Turmoil on the Board
Marshall Ganz, the son of a Bakersfield rabbi, had dropped out of Harvard
and joined the UFW after a stint in the civil rights movement in the South.
Passionate, fluent in Spanish, more popular among workers than staff, Ganz
was a shrewd and relentless organizer who exuded brash confidence and
backed it up with results. He was close to Chavez in an almost father-son
way that caused resentment and occasional antipathy even among allies.
Ganz had helped oust Jones, but by 1978 he had grown troubled by Chavez's
reluctance to tackle key issues: Should the union focus on the vineyards,
its symbolic heart, or on the vegetable fields, where it had built a strong
base of support? Should organizers try to win more elections and add
members, or consolidate and work on administering contracts effectively?
Ganz laid out his criticism in a private letter; Chavez shared it with the
board. At a March 25 meeting, Ganz explained to board members what prompted
his scathing letter:
"We had all these problems out there that we had to deal with that were
crucial. It was very frustrating to me, what I felt was the lack of
planning, the lack of direction, just sort of going from here to there, and
frittering resources and time," Ganz is heard saying on a tape of the board
meeting. "And in the meantime, a lot of Cesar's attention seemed to be on
the Game and on Synanon and on La Paz."
Ganz warned the board that he saw another looming problem: The union was
not giving real power or responsibility to workers or involving them in
decisions: "We just seem to assume that whatever way we decide to go is
automatically OK. It's not automatically OK."
Ganz's base was Steinbeck country, the rich fields of Salinas, where the
UFW had 17 contracts covering 7,200 farmworkers (about the size of the
entire union today), including many of the most ardent and militant union
Salinas was also home to the UFW's legal department, 18 lawyers who bailed
out picketers and battled growers under the direction of Jerry Cohen, a
young lawyer recruited by Chavez. Cohen relished a fight, and he excelled
at using irreverent tactics to push the envelope and score victories.
"He was my idol," said Salvador Bustamante, a farmworker who wrote a poem
about Cohen after watching him negotiate with growers. "I loved seeing him
deal with them, avenging every affront they ever did to me."
Cohen had helped craft many of the union's early victories, from the law
protecting union activity in the fields to the pact keeping Teamsters out.
The legal department was in Salinas because he refused to live in La Paz.
Cohen had thought Chavez was comfortable with that decision, which placed
the lawyers closer to many courts, though distant from union headquarters.
But at the Synanon meeting, Cohen discovered otherwise: The lawyer got
"Gamed" about why he abandoned his friend Cesar and moved to Salinas.
In an organization where most staff were volunteers, paid $5 a week plus
free room and board, UFW lawyers had special status: They earned about $600
a month. In the spring of 1978, each lawyer asked for a $400-a-month raise.
Chavez seized on the requests and turned them into a referendum on the
larger issue of whether the union would have paid staff. He painted the
lawyers as greedy and unwilling to sacrifice like everyone else and said
acceding to their demand would be a prelude to destroying the volunteer
organization. He asked the board to vote in support of the status quo,
effectively dismantling the legal operation.
Cohen and Ganz countered that a stable of professionals who could afford to
stick with the union was critical, particularly as the contracts in Salinas
were expiring. The debate was so heated the executive board adjourned for
10 days. Chavez eventually won by one vote, and most of the lawyers left
soon after, replaced by a smaller operation at La Paz.
"It wasn't about money; it was about control," said Cohen, who resigned as
chief counsel but stayed during a transition.
To Medina, the vote was one more sign the UFW was headed in the wrong
direction. A farmworker who had risen quickly to a leadership position,
Medina was widely viewed in the fields and among staff as the logical
successor to Chavez. But Medina had been unhappy for months. "We sort of
had become focused on everything except going out and organizing
farmworkers," he said.
Organizing was what he excelled at: In the three months he had run the
department, Medina reported at the June board meeting, the UFW had won 13
elections and gained 3,030 members.
Just three months later, Arturo Rodriguez, who has since become UFW
president, gave a very different report: He told the board that organizing
prospects were grim.
Asked what it would take to win elections, according to minutes from the
meeting: "Brother Artie responded that he wasn't really sure
Cesar said he doesn't think we can do very much about organizing right now."
The last item on the September agenda was Medina's resignation. Ganz,
though more a competitor than a friend, argued that the board should not
accept it. Chavez made no attempt to sway Medina.
"That removed the one credible alternative to Cesar," Ganz said. "It
changed the dynamic."
1979: The Strike
Salvador Bustamante, known as Chava, had followed his older brother, Mario,
who had followed their father from Mexico into the fields of Southern
California and then into the union hall. In the winter and early spring,
they picked lettuce in the Imperial Valley, the southeast corner of
California along the Mexican border, then followed the harvest north to
Salinas when the weather turned too hot in the desert.
Mario the firebrand and Chava the poet became union leaders, each elected
to represent workers at his company.
"The union taught us not to be afraid," Mario Bustamante said. "Before we
became part of the union, we were afraid of the law, the police, the growers."
The early successes were basic: an eight-hour day instead of harvest hours
that began by the lights of trucks at 4:30 a.m. and ended when darkness
fell at 9 p.m.
"That was one of the main advantages of having a union, to be able to put a
limit on what the grower demanded," Chava Bustamante said.
Such victories helped them win converts. "We were really able to instill
faith in people. Not just hope: faith," he said. "Our faith in the union."
When the UFW launched what would be its last major strike in early 1979,
the Bustamante brothers were part of the core group that helped Ganz run
At first the strike was successful. Then, on Feb. 10, a striker named
Rufino Contreras went into the fields to chase out strikebreakers and was
shot and killed. Amid mourning and recrimination, acrimony escalated among
By March, Chavez called a special meeting because executive board members
were barely speaking to one another. He had only one suggestion: "We have
to play the Game, clean ourselves up."
Others, including his brother Richard, denounced the Game as destructive
and doubted it would solve anything.
"I know it can," Chavez responded. "I don't know of any other thing; I don't."
Those who badmouthed the Game, especially Ganz, were undermining an
unpleasant but useful tool, Chavez said: "Some people are afraid of being
told things they're guilty of. Some are willing to take it for the goddamn
cause and some are not."
The strike moved north into the Salinas Valley, following the harvest.
Ganz was stalling workers who wanted to expand the strike and stalling
Chavez, who was pushing to end it. Workers devised slowdowns that varied
from day to day: Plan Tortuga (turtle), go extra slow; Plan Canguro
(kangaroo), skip over rows.
On the eve of the UFW's convention in Salinas on Aug. 11, more than 6,000
farmworkers and supporters marching from two directions converged at a
rally where Chavez and Gov. Jerry Brown gave fiery speeches and talked
about a general strike.
In fact, Chavez had come to Salinas intent on shifting the union's
resources into a national boycott. At a secret meeting that night, he
explained to the workers' leaders that the UFW could not afford a strike.
"The union is broke. We've spent $2.8 million on this strike," Chavez said.
A boycott would increase pressure. "It takes more time, but it is easier to
win. It is a sure win. In a general strike you aren't as sure you will win."
The farmworkers didn't buy it. One by one, for more than 90 minutes, they
articulated reasons to strike. If they were sent to boycott, they would
lose their jobs and seniority. Workers had been eager to strike for months.
If there was money to support a boycott, why not for the strike that
workers were demanding?
"If we don't do it, the high morale and all the desire they have had for so
long to go on strike
that morale will fall to the ground," Chava
Bustamante told Chavez. "We have to make a decision that we will have to
live with forever."
Workers who had been on strike for seven months would feel abandoned, his
brother Mario said: "And with that, the faith and spirit that everyone had
in us will be lost."
Ganz ended the meeting after midnight, saying everyone was tired. The
convention would endorse a boycott and a strike, concealing the dissension,
and the group would reconvene. They never met with Chavez again.
"I think it was the worst thing you could do to a leader like him," said
Sabino Lopez, another farmworker who attended the meeting. "
'Sorry, boss, we're not going to boycott.' "
Within days, more workers went out on strike, without benefits. Chavez
called a meeting at La Paz to plan the boycott; Ganz was running the strike
and refused to go. The two did not speak for weeks.
"I didn't feel I was part of the union leadership," Ganz said.
Unusually hot weather accelerated the harvest and increased the pressure on
growers, who began to settle on terms union leaders had only dreamt about:
wages starting at $5 per hour, significant medical benefits and paid union
Chavez hailed the victories but shunned the celebration at a Salinas hotel.
"We had the growers lined up at the Towne House, waiting to sign, and Cesar
wouldn't come," recalled Cohen, the lawyer who handled negotiations.
Back in La Paz, there was a different celebration around the same time. A
class of farmworkers had completed a 10-week English course. More than a
hundred friends, family and residents of La Paz gathered for graduation and
applauded a student slide show that concluded: "The union is not Cesar
Chavez. The union is the workers."
Minutes later, graduates and guests sat down to a celebratory lunch.
Dolores Huerta rose and attacked the teacher, demanding to know who had put
the students up to voicing such heresy.
The lunch was over before it began. Chavez fired two teachers later that day.
1980: The Paid Reps
The farmworker leaders had gathered at La Paz in May to discuss their new
jobs when a jubilant young lawyer burst into the classroom to tell Cesar
Chavez her good news: She had passed the bar.
Like many, Ellen Eggers had become hooked on the UFW after working as a
boycott volunteer during college. By the time she graduated from law
school, the legal department she knew had been dismantled. Sorry to miss
working for Cohen, Eggers was nonetheless happy to move to La Paz and work
for the usual $5 per week.
Chavez interrupted the meeting and introduced Eggers to the farmworkers who
had recently been elected as paid representatives. They gave her a round of
Mario Bustamante and Sabino Lopez were among the dozen elected by their
peers to work as full-time union representatives, paid by the growers to
work for the UFW in effect, the only UFW staff who earned salaries.
"They were the future," Eliseo Medina said. "They were outstanding leaders."
The paid reps, as they were known, worked closely with Ganz, who had
nurtured their leadership through the strike. They tackled grievances
against the companies and the union bureaucracy. They struggled to explain
to workers that they had responsibilities as well as rights. They harassed
La Paz about medical claims paid so slowly that workers were getting dunned
by collection agencies. And they helped organize other workers, believing
that was essential to protect the financial stability of companies that
paid union wages.
After wildcat strikes began in the garlic fields of Gilroy, the paid reps
won an unlikely ally.
Tramutola had worked for the UFW for 11 years and considered himself a
loyalist. He knew others viewed him that way, some with suspicion because
of his role in carrying out purges. He was wary of the paid reps, with
their penchant for independence and their Salinas power base, until he saw
them organize elections that summer.
"Knowing it worked totally changed my perspective," he said. "They were the
real deal. Their loyalty to Cesar was as great as anyone. It was working
the way we had always hoped."
When Tramutola was summoned to La Paz at the end of the season, he drove
confidently in the union's trademark Valiant, expecting to be quizzed about
the election victories.
"In a second, I realized my time had come," Tramutola said. "Cesar had a
way of pursing his lips when he was angry. He looked at me and said, 'Who
are you working for?' He said, 'Are you taking your orders from Moscow?
Only I will call elections.' I said, 'With all due respect, workers have
the right to call for elections.' "
Tramutola resigned. He told others he did not want to be caught between
Chavez and Ganz.
As questions about loyalty increased, so did forced resignations.
Gilbert Padilla had worked with Chavez and Huerta even before they formed
the first farmworkers association back in 1962. A diplomat dubbed the
Silver Fox, he had a gift for mimicry and making people laugh that served
him well in negotiating compromises between workers and employers.
For some time, Padilla had found the changes in his longtime friend and
mentor so puzzling that he asked others if they thought Chavez had gone
crazy. Padilla was particularly outraged when Chavez scrapped plans for a
clinic and service center in the Central Valley city of Parlier and turned
the site over to a builder to make money jointly by selling houses.
"I knew Cesar was the man, el jefe, but I didn't think the movement
belonged to him," said Padilla, who resigned as secretary/treasurer. "I
thought it belonged to the workers."
1981: The Confrontation
The farmworker leaders in Salinas who had faced off politely against Chavez
two years earlier when he tried to curtail the strike no longer trusted the
leadership in La Paz. The feeling was mutual.
As the UFW convention approached, the challenge became more direct: The
Salinas leaders decided to run candidates for the board. "There were no
farmworkers on the board," Mario Bustamante said. "There was a need for
someone to be on the board who understood the problems in the field."
They turned to Rosario Pelayo, a proud and fiercely determined farmworker
with a warm smile and shy manner. Born in Mexico, she had worked in the
fields since she was 8 and had followed her husband to California. She gave
birth to 13 children, eight of whom survived, and began to volunteer with
the UFW after the last was born in 1970. By 1973 she was getting arrested,
by 1975 she was hosting Chavez at her home in the Imperial Valley, by 1977
she was president of the workers at her ranch.
"You always thought about the future of your children," she said, recalling
days that began at 2 a.m. with leafleting buses that workers took to the
fields and ended with late-night organizing sessions. "You didn't want what
happened to you to happen to them."
The campaign for the UFW board was as fierce and ugly as the elections
between the union and the growers. Chavez dispatched board members, who
spent almost $5,000 campaigning against the insurgents, painting them as
dangerous radicals trying to depose Chavez at the behest of Ganz and Cohen.
Both had left the union months before.
Huerta had often found fault with Ganz but had been unable earlier to shake
Chavez's confidence in his trusted aide. Then and now, she accused him of
masterminding the Salinas insurgents' campaign, a charge Ganz and the
workers reject as patronizing and untrue.
"They were good organizers," Huerta said about the paid reps, arguing they
were manipulated by Ganz, who thought he should run the union.
On Sept. 5, Chavez opened the Fresno convention with a speech about
"malignant forces" and then pulled off a parliamentary maneuver that
effectively precluded a contested election for the board seats.
About 50 of the Salinas delegates walked out in protest. Chavez allies
passed out leaflets calling the insurgents communists. Mario Bustamante
broke the staff of his union flag in two.
The next day, Doug Adair, a grape picker and delegate from Coachella, rose
to speak when Chavez asked for nominations.
Adair was working in the fields when he joined the UFW the day before the
1965 Delano grape strike began. He was a striker, a picketer, an aide in
the legal office and an editor of the newspaper before returning to work at
a Coachella vineyard. Pelayo had worked there, as had her sister. Adair
liked her, and he thought the board needed someone who understood the
workers' problems and was willing to challenge Chavez.
"At that point, there was nobody on the board to disagree with him," Adair
said. "There was no connection between La Paz and the members in the field."
Adair nominated Pelayo, but was ruled out of order because she had walked
out the day before.
After the convention came the repercussions.
Adair's wife was fired from her job as a nurse at the union-run health
clinic. She was told, she said, that she was fired for "being married to
In Hollister, Cesar's son Paul led picketing of the office of a legal
assistance agency where Chava Bustamante worked.
"They'd come out to the fields and attack me and my friends," Pelayo said.
She returned to the Imperial Valley, never worked in the fields again and
tried to shut out news of the union. "I didn't want to know anything. It
was great pain."
In Salinas, Huerta led a campaign to unseat Mario Bustamante, who had
served as president of the union workers at his company for seven years,
and the other dissident leaders. When the workers stood by their elected
representatives, Chavez fired them.
"They accused me of being a spy, being with the growers," said Sabino
Lopez. "I refused jobs with growers. I didn't want to allow them to make
the point. At the end, nobody wanted me. The union didn't want me, the
growers didn't want me."
Bustamante, Lopez and seven others sued, charging Chavez had fired them
illegally because they were elected by the workers. Chavez countered with a
$25-million libel suit.
The task of defending the UFW and its president fell to Ellen Eggers. She
agonized. She convinced herself that Ganz was masterminding the plot,
though she had doubts.
"I felt horrible," Eggers said. "Here were these farmworkers who had
assumed leadership positions, paid by the growers. Everyone had high hopes
for them. And I was defending the guy who fired them."
A decade later, Eggers would seek out Bustamante to apologize.
In 1982, a judge concluded that Chavez had acted illegally, because the
reps were elected and not appointed. The victory was pyrrhic, since the
contracts were expiring and many had lost their jobs.
Today Mario Bustamante runs a small taxi company in Calexico. He and Pelayo
were recently denied UFW pensions because they fell short the necessary
hours in their final year, after the fight occurred.
Chava Bustamante is a union leader again, the 1st vice president of a
Service Employees International Union local representing California
janitors and security guards.
Lopez still helps farmworkers in Salinas, as deputy at a nonprofit agency
that finds housing solutions; he recently became the first farmworker on
the board of the John Steinbeck Center.
"I'm part of the union. We did great things together," Lopez said. The UFW
experience, he said, transformed him from a shy immigrant with an
elementary school education into a community leader. "No matter what
happened, we're part of the movement. We're part of history. The union
missed a really great opportunity to have farmworker leadership on top.
There were really good people."
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