Michael Yates reviews Randy Shaw on César Chávez

by Michael Yates

Randy Shaw, Beyond the Fields: César Chávez, the UFW, and Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 347 pp., $24.95.

michaelyatesThe thesis of this book is simple. Randy Shaw argues that most of the social movements of the contemporary U.S.—labor, immigrant rights, antiwar, worker and consumer health and safety, anti-sweatshop—are fundamentally the progeny of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) union. Shaw attempts to prove this by showing that UFW alumni have been critical leaders of these movements, and these causes have employed tactics pioneered by Chávez and the farm workers. Shaw’s argument is deeply flawed.

It is certainly true that thousands of young people, radical activists, trade unionists, clergy, and assorted other actors, politicians, writers, and artists worked for or with the UFW during its heyday from the mid-1960s until about 1980. I did, in the winter of 1977, when I worked at La Paz, the union’s headquarters in Keene, California. For most of us, our UFW experiences were exciting and meaningful. We carried them with us, and they informed our lives and actions.

But the same things could be said about the IWW before the First World War; the CIO or the Communist Party during the 1930s; or the SDS, the SWP, and the antiwar and the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Of course, there were historical continuities in all of these movements—a problem for Shaw’s arguments. The UFW didn’t spring full-blown from the body and mind of César Chávez and his mentor Fred Ross. There is history here, and Shaw, by and large, ignores it. Would the UFW have been possible without the radical Filipino farm workers who started the organizing? The Filipinos drew strength from struggles in their homeland and from the CIO upheavals of the Great Depression. The union used the boycott to good effect, at least in the beginning, and its use of volunteers to staff boycott offices in every major city in the United States and some in Canada was innovative. But the boycott built the AFL in the 1880s and 1890s. Similarly, the civil rights movement used boycotts, nonviolent demonstrations, and volunteers by the thousands, the sorts of tactics that Shaw attributes to Chávez’s genius. Certainly, someone could write a similar book using this movement as its template. The UFW was not unique.

Flaws up close

Consider three points, two small and one large.

First, Shaw says that, “During the 1950s, Chávez met Father Donald McDonnell, who introduced him …to a recent encyclical from Pope Leo XIII on the church’s support for workers who protested unfair labor conditions.” The encyclical, Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), was written in 1891, which hardly made it recent. But Shaw doesn’t say that the Pope wrote it in response to the growing popularity of left-wing unions and politics among working people. It is an anti-socialist screed, aimed at Catholic workers. It is very much a defense of capitalism, and only goes so far as to suggest that capitalists must treat workers fairly.

Shaw makes much of the UFW’s alliance with religious groups and clergy, and there is no doubt that church support for the farmworkers’ struggles helped the union immensely. However, the close relationship the UFW and Chávez had with churches was a mixed blessing. The Catholic Church is a hierarchical, dogmatic, and sexist organization. The Church view is, at best, that the poor are worthy sinners who have to be looked after by the priests, who, like Christ, sacrifice for them.

Chávez imbibed this paternalistic ethic, and the ministers, who flocked to the union and were powerful within it, encouraged him. Chávez said that to sacrifice is to be a man. With the union’s successes, Chávez began to think of himself as a holy person, Christ-like and above reproach. Once in a community meeting at La Paz, César was criticized by some of us for making an incredibly sexist remark. He became enraged and said, “I work eighteen fucking hours a day for the union. Who of you can say the same?”

How do you challenge Christ?

Is it any wonder that when Chávez showed his disdain for rank-and-file power in the union, almost none of the clergy challenged him? Or many of his staff or board members either? Is it surprising that Chávez was a staunch anti-communist and engaged in vicious and mindless purges and red-baiting of those who challenged his authority?

Chávez had a history, and the social doctrines of the Catholic church were part of it. Unfortunately, Shaw ignores the seamier side of these. You would never know from this book that the Church did some evil deeds during the great CIO movement of the 1930s, even informing about left-wing labor leaders to the FBI.

The Game

The final chapter in the book contains a long list of UFW alumni who have continued to fight the good fight. It is a kind of “shout out” to these often unrecognized models of courage and social solidarity and an attempted empirical validation of Shaw’s thesis. There are some curious inclusions and omissions, and these raise a second point of criticism. Under the heading “Labor Organizer/Union Staff,” we find the name, Fred Hirsch. Fred is a communist plumber, and he was one of the first researchers to uncover the close relationship between certain unions and the CIA. He worked diligently in support of the UFW, beginning in the 1960s. Fred did not owe his politics or dedication to labor to Chávez or the UFW but to the communist movement.

Fred’s daughter, Liza, who is not on Shaw’s list, began working with (and then for) the union from age twelve. I helped her develop a piece rate proposal for tomato pickers at a ranch near Oxnard, California. We shared a friendship with a volunteer at La Paz, a man who did carpentry and maintenance work for the union.

In the winter of 1977, Chávez hooked up with Charles Dederich, who ran a drug rehabilitation center called Synanon. (To his credit, Shaw discusses this in a chapter on the UFW’s decline). Dederich had concocted a psychological warfare scheme called the “Game,” in which addicts were subjected to relentless group attacks, the idea being to break down their psyches so they could start over again, without drugs. At the time of Chávez’s fascination with Synanon and the “Game,” Dederich was a megalomaniacal cult leader, abusing his clientele. A reporter who exposed the organization found a rattlesnake in his mailbox.

César took to the “game” like Stalin to the secret police, and he used it for the same purpose—to consolidate his power in the union. He took some trusted members of his inner circle to Synanon for training and began immediately to force the game upon the staff. On April 4, 1977, he incited a screaming mob of “Game” initiates to purge the union of “troublemakers.” All sorts of ridiculous charges were made against “enemies of the union,” including our carpenter friend. When our friend confronted Caesar and demanded to face his accusers in a hearing, as the union’s constitution stated was his right, Chávez called the Mojave police and had him arrested for trespassing.

The last time I saw him was at Fred Hirsch’s house in San Jose, after we bailed him out of jail. A few weeks later, Liza went to La Paz to attend the wedding of a friend. César, with whom she had been very close and in whose house she had once lived, summarily threw her off the property and expelled her from the union.

Wreckage

If the UFW positively changed some peoples’ lives, it harmed and wrecked others. Shaw certainly knows this; he just chose not to mention it. He devotes considerable space to the admirable parts of the life and work of famed UFW leader Dolores Huerta, who is also on his list. He uses her as a prime example of the importance of the UFW in training and nurturing social change activists. She has won every imaginable award given to women leaders and been in the forefront of many struggles.

But Huerta has never repudiated Chávez’s dictatorial, hateful, and ruinous behavior. She could have, and it might have made a difference. Instead, she was and still is a Chávez apologist. Shaw reports that she was unhappy with the treatment of women in the union. She says that women need to have power. She doesn’t say for what. Had she been union president, I doubt things would have turned out much different.

Also absent from Shaw’s list of UFW luminaries is Chávez’s son, Paul. The younger Chávez still lives at La Paz, from where he runs a group of interlinked union enterprises, including radio stations and housing companies. The union raises money from these and many other sources: mass mailing fund-raising, marketing the Chávez name to sell union trinkets and win public grants, political consulting, and managing union trust funds. The union has precious few members; a handful of members collect pensions or get health care from the trust funds (though they sit on tens of millions of dollars); and the union leadership seems little concerned about any of this. Paul Chávez is paid more than $125,000 for his “services” to farm workers.

A charitable description of today’s UFW is that it has become a quasi-racket. Another UFW legacy Shaw neglects to discuss. Chávez created an undemocratic union of migrant workers. He ran it as if it were his property. History tells us that such an organization is ripe for corruption. And so it was.

Legacy

The final and most serious flaw of Shaw’s analysis shows itself in the opening pages, where he says, “This legacy should not be based on the size of the UFW’s current membership rolls. Rather, it should be evaluated by the impact of its ideas and alumni on current social justice struggles.”

Let’s see now. The UFW managed, despite long odds, to organize farm workers, attract thousands of talented volunteers to its banner, build a feared grassroots political action machine, defeat the Teamsters and the sweetheart contracts it had signed with growers, and win passage of a farm workers’ labor law unmatched by any other such statute in the country. By 1977, the union was poised to achieve a mass membership that would have made it a power to be reckoned with in California, and maybe in the entire nation.

But then, under Chávez’s autocratic leadership, the union dissolved the boycott staff, firing its leader and accusing him of being a communist; purged its staff, using the most disgusting means imaginable; refused to entertain any local union autonomy and democracy; denied the election of actual farm workers to the union board; ruined the careers, and in some cases, the jobs, of rank-and-file union dissidents; lost almost all of its collective bargaining agreements, and began a long and ugly descent into corruption.

Today, farm workers in California are no better off than they were before the union came on the scene. They still don’t often live past fifty; they still suffer the same job-related injuries and illnesses; they still don’t have unions; they are still at the bottom of the labor market barrel. How is all of this not an important, indeed critical, legacy of the UFW? If we judge the union and Chávez in terms of the well-being of the workers they set out to organize, both must be judged utter failures. If we compare the UFW to any number of the CIO’s left-led unions, for example, the United Packinghouse Workers of America, the Farmworkers pale by comparison. The UPWA was not only a multiracial and democratic union. It also led the struggle to end segregation at work and in the workers’ communities, and it put the pay of the black and immigrant laborers who did the unenviable work of slaughtering the animals we eat on a par with those of steel and auto workers.

A union is supposed to organize workers and improve their lives. Chávez and the UFW had their chances, and they threw them away. Imagine that Martin Luther King had sought and taken advice from Chuck Dederich after his “I Have a Dream” speech. And after that, imagine that he had forced the Memphis garbagemen to play the “Game.” Surely historians would count that as a major part of his legacy.

Alumni

And if we follow Shaw’s lead and look to the “impact of ideas and alumni on current social justice struggles,” we are still left with serious problems. Consider two outstanding alumni, Marshall Ganz and Eliseo Medina.

Ganz was a master organizer, of both union and political campaigns, and he has put this skill, which he learned in the UFW, to use after he left the union. He has led election campaigns for former U.S. senator Alan Cranston, and he was a key organizer in getting Nancy Pelosi elected to Congress. He now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Shaw makes much of the get-out-the-vote techniques Ganz has mastered. However, these were not new when he used them. The AFL-CIO employed them, and most of the tactics Shaw traces to the UFW, in a 1977 campaign to defeat a right-to-work ballot measure in Missouri. I don’t find Ganz’s work for the Democratic Party to be particularly progressive either. Nancy Pelosi? An old-line political hack trained in the art of politics by the king of pork, John Murtha?

With Medina, we can make a similar criticism. He did many good things with the UFW and after he left. But he was the one person who could have mounted a challenge to Chávez. He chose not to, and he has, to my knowledge, never repudiated the reprehensible tactics Chávez used with the “Game.”

There may be good reason for this. Today, Medina is a senior vice-president of SEIU, a union that has used somewhat similar tactics, but in a situation where the union is loaded with money. The SEIU hires scads of young nonmember organizers, puts them though a cult-like training (the same seems to be true of another union, HERE, which also has many former UFW people on it staff, and which even uses a variant of the “Game” to train new staffers), works them to death, gives them no power inside the union, brooks no criticism, and confines their education to the technocratic mechanics of organizing. They learn little about the labor movement, economics, and the many other things that would help them develop a radical, worker-centered ideology.

The same was true in the UFW; César even sent a spy to monitor a labor history class I had begun to teach interested staff. The SEIU is completely staff-dominated—and staff make a great deal of money—Medina is a long way from his UFW penury. His total compensation in 2006: $194,336. SEIU leadership is as fearful and intolerant of union democracy and rank-and-file power as the UFW. If local workers assert themselves, there is a good chance that their local will be put in trusteeship by the national union—exactly what happened recently to a large local of healthcare workers in California. It has been trusteed, and Medina is at the center of the whole sordid episode. [Randy Shaw himself, on the civil war within SEIU, is here; a more radical view, from Steve Early, here.]

SEIU is not above threatening to sue its critics, just like the UFW threatened to sue The Nation magazine in 1977 after it published an article I wrote critical of the union. Also, like the UFW, the SEIU has witnessed serious incidents of corruption, involving theft of money and shady dealings with third parties. There is a separate heading for SEIU in Shaw’s table of UFW notables. It is certainly debatable whether this legacy of the UFW is a positive one.

The problem with Shaw is that he simply assumes that the various movements and causes UFW alumni have either led or worked in are good. He doesn’t ask whether what they are doing is what needs to be done to build a better society. Get out the vote for what? Boycott for what? Organize workers for what? Teach people to organize for what?

I enjoyed the parts of Shaw’s book that recount the UFW’s epic battles. But I did not find the rest of it credible or penetrating. An objective history of César Chávez, the UFW, and the union’s legacy has yet to be written.

(c) Copyright 2009, Michael Yates. All rights reserved.


Michael D. Yates is Associate Editor of Monthly Review magazine. He is the author of Cheap Motels and Hot Plates: an Economist’s Travelogue and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy. A new edition of his book, Why Unions Matter, is just out. His blog is here. Yates can be reached at mikedjyates@msn.com

This review first appeared on the Left Business Observer website. It appears here with the permission of the author.

For a different take on Shaw’s book, see Chris Tiedemann’s review here.

One Response

  1. This review by Michael Yates includes some extensive trashing of the Chavez legacy. Clearly that is important to the writer. In general, I learn from the writings of Michael Yates and respect his writing. This piece, however, is over the top.
    From internal comments in the review, I see that Mr. Yates worked for the UFW during the winter of 1977. This was indeed a difficult time. The charges of the Game, and redbaiting among others, have their tale to be told. Randy Shaw covers the Game in his book. These events had their strongest effect in La Paz where Michael Yates, according to his report, was a staffer. A new book presently in preparation will go further on this.
    Having worked with the UFW for over 7 years, and supported it for more, I think this review by Yates over states the case against Chavez. You can read the first hand accounts of hundreds who worked with the UFW at
    http://www.farmworkermovement.org .
    Yates makes an assault on the role of Chavez and the Catholic church, but in part he is wrong. While he is correct about the role of the Catholic hierarchy, it was not the hierarchy that supported Chavez. Indeed working with the UFW was a form of exile for many. There were a long series of priests and brothers who were influenced by (early) liberation theology and who devoted years to La Causa, as well as a number of activists protestant clergy and laity. Recall these were some of the same movements who gave their lives in support of the Central American revolutions. I knew 3-5 of these folks very well. They were not a part of the Catholic anti communist alliances referenced by Yates.
    From my own personal , direct experiences I have found the tale of Fred Hirsch and his daughter to be essentially correct as told by Yates. You can find records of these struggles in the Farmworker Movement documentation center.
    One item missing from both the review by Michael Yates, and the book by Randy Shaw is the major contributions of the Chavez, Huerta and the UFW in building the Chicano Movement in the Southwest. In the 60’s Chávez became the pre-eminent civil rights leader for the Mexican and Chicano workers, helping with local union struggles throughout the nation. He worked tirelessly to make people aware of the struggles of farm workers for better pay and safer working conditions. It is a testament to Cesar Chavez’s skills and courage that the UFW even survived. They were opposed by major interests in corporate agriculture including the Bruce Church and Gallo Corporations as well as the leadership of the Republican Party then led by Ronald Reagan. Workers were fired, beaten, threatened and even killed in pursuit of union benefits . Non union farm workers today continue to live on sub-poverty wages while producing the abundant crops in the richest valley, in the richest state in the richest nation in the world.
    Randy Shaw’s book covers the later development of Latinos and Labor in his chapter 7, but Yates ignores this major contribution. Chicano politics and Chicano Latino history were made. Several of today’s Latino elected officials got their start working for a few months with the UFW. I do not know why this significant contribution is largely ignored in the Yates review. Perhaps it says some things about the perspectives of the writer.
    Yates offers some brief historical context of labor history, but each of these examples are themselves full of contradictions, for example Yates has a great deal of praise for the United Packinghouse Workers. Well, there are two or more sides to that story also.
    Bottom line, there are many who denounce Chavez as Yates has done and more to come. Yates also sharply criticizes Eliseo Medina and Dolores Huerta – among others. While I disagree with some of the positions taken by each of these two leaders, note that it was Eliseo Medina who apparently helped to bring the AFL-CIO and Change to Win together in the direction of a joint immigration policy. See the recent posts on this topic. And, full disclosure, Dolores Huerta is a friend of mine.
    As Shaw argues, hundreds of activists in labor, Chicano, and community organizations owe their skills to UFW training and experience. Along with improved working conditions, salaries, and benefits, training this cadre of organizers remains a major legacy of the UFW–as noted by Shaw.
    The UFW experience taught us that all organizations have problems, that all organizations are imperfect. But, if you wait for the perfect organization, nothing gets done. Building popular organizations builds people’s power, and democracy requires long, hard, disciplined work. And, for doing this work you will be assaulted, defamed, and attacked – as were both Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez.
    From long and extensive personal experience, I do not find Cesar Chavez to have been a saint, nor was he as destructive as Michael Yates review alleges. You will have to figure out where you stand on this for yourself. My own view is closer to the views of Randy Shaw in Beyond the Fields. See
    http://choosingdemocracy.blogspot.com/2009/03/cesar-chavez-lives-on-struggle-of.html

    In Yates’s view, the current weakness of the UFW is a consequence of the failures of authoritarianism in the union and the peculiar period of the Game.
    This overstates the case against Chavez. Certainly the current weaknesses of the UFW are primarily a consequence of the assault on the union by corporate agriculture and the Republican Party. This was the era of Ronald Reagan. Many unions were weakened in this period. Should we not expect a new, struggling union to be impacted by corporate power? If the decline in organizing victories was a consequence of leadership failures, then why have farmworkers been unable to organize more successfully in Ohio/Indiana and Florida and Texas?

    On May 16, 2008, Maria Isabel Vasquez Jiminez, 17 years old and pregnant, another undocumented worker in the U.S., died of heat stroke. Maria and her husband were working in the fields near Stockton, California when she collapsed in the 105 degree heat. She was one of at least 13 workers to die that summer from heat stroke in California’s fields.
    Who is it that can fight back and defend these workers ? It is a union. A few people denouncing atrocious working conditions is not enough. Defense of workers rights requires organized power and institutions – a union. The UFW is doing its share of this defense. See http://www.ufw.org.

    I agree with Yates conclusion that a definitive history of the UFW and its leadership has yet to be written. The information for research is available. An important question is what can we learn from these experiences. For example, two UFW veterans Jerry Cohen and Leroy Chatfield have organized a group to advocate for inclusion of farmworkers and domestic workers within the N.L.R.A. closely related to the campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: