[Marxism] Re: [PEN-L] UFW

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jan 15 10:14:13 MST 2006

Michael Yates wrote:
>The articles by Miriam Pawel in last weeks LA Times have the definite ring
>of truth to them.  As did the previous series in the Bakersfield (CA)
>newspaper.  Many years ago there was a series in the Village Voice perhaps
>even more devastating to the UFW.  But all tell the same story: a union
>turned into a kind of racket run by the Chavez  family and their close
>associates. I think similar things have happened in Martin Luther King's
>Chavez was a great organizer and an extraordinarily charismatic man.  But he
>was a ruthless ruler, chauvinist and megalomaniacal.  There was not a shred
>of democarcy inside the union.  Cesar feared  other Chicano leaders in the
>union and holed up in the Tehachapi mountains far from where farmworkers
>lived, surrounded buy white volunteers and sycophants.  I was there when the
>"game" was instituted and Cesar hooked up with the crackpots at Synanon.
>Ugly purges took place and lives were ruined.  Chavez must bear a lot of
>responsibility for what happened subsequently.  He wasted the talents of
>some of the best union leaders in the country. He helped run the union into
>the ground.  External circumstances might have done this anyway, but we'll
>never know for sure.
>I wrote a little about this in the Nation in Nov. 1977, in an article titled
>"A Union is Not a Movement," as well as in an unpublished story.  No one
>would touch the story, probably because of Cesar's iconic status.  I think
>the Nation piece is still worth reading.
>Michael Yates

Nation Magazine, November 17, 1977
The trouble with Chavez: a union is not a 'movement1
By Michael Yates

On a Saturday afternoon last March, fifty or so United Farm Workers 
volunteers, myself among them, stood in circles around Cesar Chavez in the 
garden at La Paz, the Farm Workers headquarters in Keene, Calif. We had 
been at work that morning preparing the ground for planting, digging up 
rocks, spreading manure, listening to Cesar's advice on using a shovel, 
driving a tractor, planting by the moon. Now, after lunch, he was telling 
us about the long struggle against the Teamsters union, how low he had felt 
when the union had'lost its contracts, how the workers had vowed to fight 
back, how he had promised a group of women in Coachella that, if the UFW 
won back its contracts, he would make a pilgrimage to a shrine in Mexico. 
As he spoke, his voice cracked and he began to cry. I looked around; his 
daughter was crying and so were many others. I began to cry myself. As the 
meeting concluded, we all cheered and clapped; we returned to our work 
uplifted and renewed. That evening, driving into Bakersfield, I vowed to 
work even harder to help the union.

Within a month of that meeting in the garden, I had left the union. 
Virtually all of my friends had been fired by Chavez or had quit; the 
union's central staff had been reduced by more than a third. I was 
disappointed, even disillusioned. What follows here is an analysis of what 
I believe are serious problems now confronting the UFW.

In The New York Times Magazine of September 15, 1974, Winthrop Griffith 
wondered if the UFW could survive the Teamster invasion of its territory. 
Through "sweetheart" deals with growers, the Teamsters had stolen most of 
the 200 or so contracts won by the UFW in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 
Along with the contracts had gone members and dues and the UFW, always 
strapped, now appeared too poor and too demoralized to confront the 
powerful Teamsters.

The doomsayers, however, underestimated the tenacity and skill of Cesar 
Chavez and his small but fanatically zealous staff, as well as the fierce 
allegiance of the workers to Chavez and the UFW. Knowing that, given the 
chance, farm workers would vote for his union, Chavez set about giving them 
that chance through what developed in time into a tripartite strategy. 
First, offices were established in every major city to promote a boycott of 
all crops, but especially grapes and lettuce, grown with nonunion or 
Teamster labor. Second, the union stepped up its agitation for a state law 
in California that would guarantee to farm workers election and bargaining 
rights similar to those granted most other workers by the NLRA. Third, a 
direct counterattack was staged against the Teamsters. Several 
multimillion-dollar legal suits were filed against them and various 
employers, and effective anti-Teamster propaganda was produced and 
disseminated­most notably the film, Fighting for Our Lives.

Chavez's strategy gradually began to bring results: the boycott cut into 
the profits of grape and lettuce growers; the sympathetic Brown 
administration helped to lobby a remarkably liberal labor law through the 
California legislature; the battle with the Teamsters produced nationwide 
support for the UFW and a black eye for the already tarnished Teamsters. 
After the enactment of the new law, the UFW began winning representation 
elections throughout the state, losing only when Teamster-grower collusion 
and intimidation prevented it from getting its message to the workers. 
Frightened, the growers and their Teamster allies got the state legislature 
to refuse to vote a supplemental appropriation for the Agricultural Labor 
Relations Board' (ALRB), the agency charged with enforcing the law. Chavez 
countered this move with a public initiative (Proposition 14) that would 
incorporate the labor law into the state Constitution, thereby insuring 
yearly appropriations for the ALRB. The initiative failed, but it forced' 
the growers to defend the existing law, making it unlikely that they will 
be able to amend it or prohibit adequate funding for the ALRB, at least for 
the next few years. Meanwhile, the UFW continued to win elections and to 
press its lawsuits, finally compelling the Teamsters last March to agree to 
abandon agricultural organizing throughout the West' and to relinquish most 
of its existing contracts when they expire.

These events make the UFW's future prospects brighter than ever before. 
There is no doubt that it will attract thousands of new members, that 
thousands of campesinos will get their first union contracts, and that 
large sums of money will flow into the UFW treasury, providing support for 
further organizing in California and other states. Increased UFW strength 
and power might in turn help to liberalize and invigorate the entire labor 
movement as other workers are moved by its example.

All of this sounds encouraging, but after spending a few months working at 
La Paz, I am not particularly optimistic. Chavez has performed a miracle, 
but the union is still beset by a host of serious problems. I think many of 
them stem from the personality and leadership of Chavez.

The prospect of a powerful Farm Workers Union frightens growers, who have 
always depended for their profits oh low wages and the exploitation of 
racial minorities, and it is now unlikely that they can prevent elections 
from being held or the UFW from winning them. However, neither elections 
nor UFW victories will render employers helpless; they still have available 
many tactics to combat and harass a union, even, if it does legally 
represent workers. They can refuse to bargain seriously, offering-contract 
proposals. that no union could accept. They can refuse to negotiate, items 
that might in any way restrict their "managerial prerogatives." Should they 
eventually sign a contract, they can interpret it narrowly, or simply not 
abide by it at all. Finally, these short-term strategies can be 
complemented by a longer-range program of increased mechanization to 
undermine the very basis of the union's existence, its membership.

These practices are in fact being employed. In many instances, growers have 
'successfully stalled negotiations more than a year, and violations of 
contracts are common. A quick run through the agricultural journals will 
convince a reader of the rapid pace of mechanization:

To contest any such actions by the employers, the union must obviously 
preserve its militance; it must have workers ready to picket and to strike. 
But, now that labor relations in California agriculture are legally 
regulated, it is not always possible to enforce a contract with what would* 
be illegal job action. In addition, since the work force consists in large 
part of migrant workers performing seasonal work, there are often no 
workers to picket and strike. Therefore, to buttress the organized 
collective force of farm workers, it is necessary that the union establish 
and maintain a skilled administrative staff. Contract negotiations, for 
example, require staff persons with many kinds of expertise: the ability to 
do economic research, to keep adequate records^ to stay ...abreast of 
developments in other areas, to train workers to participate in 
negotiations, to take good notes of meetings, to write well. Similar skills 
are needed for contract administration and enforcement. A union today must 
have accountants, experts in management, lawyers, personnel officers, 
"researchers. Inevitably, once a union is securely established, many of its 
important activities take place in courtrooms, in meeting rooms, at desks, 
in offices.

The UFW is not well administered, during my stay I observed that research 
projects were generally superficial and haphazard. Records were either not 
kept or strewn about, stuffed in boxes, stored at random in basements and 
cubbyholes. Negotiators often took no notes of their meetings, or took 
notes so poor as to be useless. Repeatedly, negotiators in one part of the 
state were unaware of agreements reached elsewhere;, generally speaking, 
communications throughout the union were woefully slipshod. More seriously, 
the union seldom allowed one negotiator to see a contract through from 
start to finish, thus delaying negotiations for days and, months. Also, 
with few exceptions, negotiators could not make binding agreements on even 
routine matters without personal approval by President Chavez. The 
contracts themselves were often poorly worded or badly translated; 
translators received no training in the rudiments of contract analysis and 
frequently did not know what their translations meant. I remember talking 
with a co-worker in charge of translations who had not realized in a whole1 
year of work that many of the articles in a majority of the contracts had 
exactly the same wording.

To compound these difficulties, chronic turnover plagues the administrative 
staff; two years with the union qualifies one as a veteran. This means that 
few people remain with the union long enough to master their jobs, to 
become experts. It was always sad when a skilled volunteer left, to be 
replaced by a greenhorn who would-make the mistakes inevitable for newcomers.

Observers of the union have offered various explanations for the UFW's 
administrative deficiencies. The UFW is young, and has been forced to 
expend its limited resource's against formidable odds just to organize farm 
workers. Administration presents new problems and requires new capabilities 
which take time to understand and to acquire. The high turnover might be 
attributed to the fatiguing work schedules, low pay and Spartan living 
conditions that have been the lot of UFW volunteers. But as organizing 
becomes easier and the union's treasury grows, working conditions for staff 
will improve and turnover will decline. There is talk within the union of 
paying volunteer* a regular salary; at present, only union doctors and 
attorneys receive salaries.

Such explanations skirt the main point. The primary reasons for 
administrative chaos within the UFW are to be found in the personality and 
the social philosophy of Cesar Chavez. He is magnetic, autocratic and at 
bottom more concerned to build a social and political movement than a trade 

Chavez's dynamic and imaginative leadership has given him nearly absolute 
control of the union. The UFW constitution allows considerable 
rank-and-file participation in union affairs, but in fact Chavez's word is 
law. Authority is seldom delegated; members of the executive committee are 
not free to act without his permission. In addition, he has complete 
control over the volunteers, who comprise the bulk of the union's 
organizing, administrative and boycott personnel. These people, especially 
the ones at La Paz, are Chavez's personal retinue. They perform invaluable 
work for. the union, but they also owe allegiance, to Chavez. He selected 
them; he can dismiss them at will and frequently does. Those who criticize 
him are perceived as threats to himself and to the union (indeed, in his 
mind there is little separation . between the two). In the past year there 
have been at least two, mass firings: one just following the Proposition 14 
campaign, and another during the first weeks of April 1977. Dedicated, 
hard-working men and women,, essential to the smooth functioning of the 
union, were accused, on little or no evidence, of being radicals, spies for 
the employers, troublemakers, complainers. They were told to leave the 
union, or were pressured into quitting. One man, a talented plumber and a 
friend of mine, was physically removed from a meeting at La Paz because he 
had demanded that the union support its charges that he was a company spy. 
He was turned over to police in Mojave, Calif., charged with trespassing.

Much of the poor administration of the union stems from the climate of 
unrest that these periodic dismissals create. And they in turn are the 
direct result of Chavez's need to have absolute control over the union and 
the unquestioning loyalty of its members. Since personal loyalty is 
ultimately more important than ability and independent judgment, it is not 
uncommon for those of slight talent or maturity to rise to prominent 
positions in Chavez's "inner circle." Many persons close to Chavez at La 
Paz are relatives of his or other UFW leaders.

This is not to say that Cesar Chavez is simply a Latin "caudillo"; he is 
also a social visionary. That is another reason for Chavez's purges, his 
distrust of "experts," his seeming unwillingness to let the union's 
administration operate normally. Chavez does not want the UFW to become 
just another trade union, dominated by bureaucrats. The UFW must be a 
social movement, encompassing wider goals than bargaining collectively for 
higher wages and better working conditions. Chavez realizes that 
mechanization is going to decimate the ranks of his farm workers. What will 
become of them when no trade union can represent them? There must be a 
social movement to embrace them and through which they can struggle for 
fundamental social change. Chavez is vague about the platform of his 
movement, but he seems to favor some type of cooperative farming (he has 
extensive knowledge of cooperative movements throughout the world), 
workers' control and a communal life style. However, he is certain about 
the people who will make up the movement: they will be single-minded, 
totally committed, willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the 
whole. Chavez believes that a movement must always be in a state of 
tension; persons in it must feel that they are under siege, at war with the 
larger society. Those who lack these qualities will be ruthlessly weeded 
out, recurrent purges serving as "purifying rituals" by which the movement 
reconstitutes itself and reaffirms its basic principles.

Unfortunately, conducting the affairs of a trade union as if it were a 
social movement risks making the union dysfunctional. An argument can be 
made that the United States much more desperately needs a social movement 
than it does another trade union, though a better case can be made that 
both are necessary prerequisites for social change. In any case, it must be 
understood that unions and movements are not the same; they must coexist 
and cooperate, but they also must have considerable autonomy. By their 
nature, unions have to be more narrowly defined than movements; they serve 
basically as defensive agents in the fight against employers. Movements, on 
the other hand, must be more broadly based, offensive organizations, trying 
to forge a new society. It would seem impossible for either to function 
effectively if both are controlled by the same person, and neither 'will 
last very long if founded upon personal rule of a charismatic leader. The 
UFW suffers as a trade union not only because it is run by an autocrat but 
because it is being forced to be what it cannot possibly be.

Perhaps, then, it would be better for Cesar Chavez to relinquish control of 
the union and concentrate his energy upon building a social movement. Yet 
Chavez's movement philosophy may not appeal very widely in' the United 
States. It is as I have indicated above, essentially authoritarian. Time 
and again, during community meetings at La Paz, Chavez expressed admiration 
for totalitarian groups, especially religious communities like the 
Trappists. Recently, he has been much enamored of Synanon, a 
California-based community founded to cure drug addicts, and extremely 

I am pessimistic about the future of the UFW and the movement for which it 
has been the vehicle to date. I fear that at present neither could survive 
without Chavez; they are too much dominated by his overwhelming per-' 
sonality, much as the United Mine Workers once was dominated by John L. 
Lewis. And I doubt that mass support can be won for any organization or 
movement in the United States that is not founded upon participatory 
democracy and a depersonalized power structure. Needless to say, Cesar 
Chavez has proven his critics wrong before. I am not eager to be proven right.

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