Mean Things Happening Here: the Southern Tenant Farmers Union

by Stuart Elliott

In the summer of 1934, a remarkable interracial union of tenant farmers was founded. Mean Things Happening, a 1993 PBS documentary on the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (SFTU) and depression-era organizing of the steel industry, has been much praised and is presented here.

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Not the Cesar Chavez I Knew

Cesar Chavez (photo wikimedia)

Cesar Chavez (photo wikimedia)

The new biopic of Cesar Chavez makes me sad—and angry. To be sure, it draws needed attention to a key chapter in American Latino, labor and social movement history, as well as to the man whose leadership was central to it all. But it does so by reducing the man, the movement and its meaning to caricatures. The lessons the film teaches contradict the real lessons of Chavez’s work. And the “excuse” that “no movie can tell the whole story” doesn’t really wash. An earlier film in which director Diego Luna had an acting role, Milk, does the man, movement and meaning justice. There have been others—just not this one.

Cesar’s core leadership gifts were relational. He had an ability to engage widely diverse individuals, organizations and institutions with distinct talents, perspectives and skills in a common effort. The film, however, depicts him as a loner: driving alone (when in reality he had given up driving), traveling alone (which he never did) and deciding alone (when his strength was in building a team that could respond quickly, creatively and proactively to the daily crises of a long and intense effort).

Cesar was an organizer’s organizer, the craft in which he prided himself. This required a focus on people, their strengths and weaknesses, the dynamics of power and work behind the scenes. In the film, he gives speeches, which he avoided, and engages in shouting matches on the picket line, which he never did. A believer in the rhetoric of action for many years, he rarely held press conferences, speaking to the public instead from the scene of the action. Continue reading

Criticism of Cesar Chavez Film Misses Big Picture

OneStepataTimeWhen I saw a preview of the new Cesar Chavez film and wrote a positive review, I did not foresee that I would be the only author of a book on Chavez and the UFW that viewed it positively. And while I understand the critiques offered by Marshall Ganz, Matt Garcia and others, they missed the bigger picture.
Diego Luna’s new film, Cesar Chavez, has been criticized on two main grounds.

First, it failed to show that the farmworkers were a movement filled with key organizers and volunteers, not simply a showcase for a great man named Cesar Chavez. This is the chief criticism I made in my review. For those like Ganz whose own key roles in the movement the film excised from history, their anger is understandable.

Second, the film ends in 1970, ignoring how Chavez began dismantling the movement he launched by that decade’s end. I thought the film should have ended in 1975, when Governor Brown signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. But requiring the film to continue into the 1980’s would have required at least thirty minutes in additional running time, and its unlikely funds were available to create a two-hour film.

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Cesar Chavez, The UFW, and Strategic Racism

by Duane Campbell
Cesar Chavez

On March 31, Eleven states will hold holidays celebrating labor and Latino Leader Cesar Chavez. A new film Cesar Chavez: An American Hero, starring Michael Peña as Cesar Chavez and Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta opens in cities across the country on April 4, 2014. It is reviewed in a post by Randy Shaw.

Let us be clear. Chavez was religious, but he was not a saint. Neither were the growers, their Teamster collaborators, nor corporate agribusiness saints. Celebrations should not be about hero worship or uncritical praise, nor should we ignore the present oppression of farm workers in the U.S.

What they did accomplish along with Philip Vera Cruz , Marshall Ganz, LeRoy Chatfield, Gil Padilla, Eliseo Medina and hundreds of others was to organize in California the first successful farm worker union against overwhelming odds.

Each of the prior attempts to organize a farm worker union had been destroyed by racism and corporate power. Chavez, Huerta, Philip Vera Cruz, and the others deliberately created a multiracial union; Mexican, Mexican American, Filipino, African-American, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Arab workers, among others, have been part of the UFW. This cross racial organizing was necessary in order to combat the prior divisions and exploitations of workers based upon race and language. Dividing the workers on racial and language lines, as well as immigration status always left the corporations the winners.

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New Cesar Chavez Film Inspires Activism, Hope for Change

by Randy Shaw

Cesar Chavez, a feature film on the farmworker leader, was previewed in Berkeley on March 5 prior to its March 28 national release. Based on the audience response, the film will help inspire a new generation of young activists to push for social justice, and will particularly resonate with Dreamers and others pushing for immigration reform.

The atmosphere was electric in Berkeley’s California Theater as a full house waited in anticipation for Diego Luna’s new film, Cesar Chavez. A block long line of people were turned away, reflecting an interest in the movie that Luna hoped would return when the film is released in three weeks.

Having spent years researching and thinking about Cesar Chavez for my book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, I was intrigued by how a feature film would handle the long and complex story of the farmworkers movement. And I think it covered the story of Cesar Chavez himself remarkably well for the years covered in the movie.

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Boeing Blackmails Washington Workforce on 777X Production

In 2008 Boeing Machinists struck against outsourcing and concessions. It was the last time the union bargained a pact that wasn’t a mid-contract extension made under threat of shipping away jobs. Photo: Jim Levitt.

Thirty-one thousand Machinists in Washington state were stunned to learn last week that their union had been talking with Boeing for at least two months about opening their contract for concessions to ensure that the next generation 777X plane would be built in Washington.

The contract doesn’t expire until 2016, but the company is threatening to move production of the huge new 777X out of Washington to avoid the union.
The company’s proposal was not made public until last Wednesday. Union members were then told they would vote on Wednesday, November 13.

A website sprang up urging members to “vote no to corporate blackmail” and questioning how the proposed contract would guarantee that the work stayed in Washington. Sponsors planned a rally today. Continue reading

The IBT on Reality TV: Boston Union Teams Up With Mark Wahlberg

By Steve Early

A Teamsters entourage in the town near Mystic River?

Steve Early

BOSTON—From Jersey Shore to the short-lived All American Muslim to the much glitzier Shahs of Sunset, there seems to be no ethnic community left untouched by the national carnival show known as “Reality TV.”

Always dissed or ignored by the mass media—and thus hungry for more attention—the multi-ethnic enclave of organized labor might have been our last hold-out against letting it all hang-out in this shamelessly exhibitionist genre.
But that modest stance is about to change, quite possibly for the worse, on union turf that’s very familiar. A&E Television Networks is now filming a pilot called The Teamsters. Forget those flashy Persian immigrants, the scarf-wearing women of Dearborn, or the sacrilegious Italian stallions (and their tacky fillies) who populate the Garden State, this show is zeroing in on a local tribe that I know well, thanks to my great grandfather, who fled potato-less County Leitrim for Beantown more than 160 years ago.
According to The Boston Herald, A&E’s proposed new series will “focus on the lives and struggles of members of Teamsters Local 25,” a union with a long, colorful, and sometimes troubled history with the entertainment industry. Dorchester’s own Mark Wahlberg, the son of a Teamster, is collaborating on the project with Stephen Levinson. Continue reading
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