Why David Sometimes Wins: Marshall Ganz Looks at the UFW

Why David Sometimes Wins; Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement. Marshall Ganz. 2009. Oxford University Press.

reviewed by Duane Campbell

9780195162011

To most people, even to union activists, the struggle to create the United Farmworkers Union (now part of the Change to Win Federation) is a tale from long ago and far away. Even to those of us who participated in these events, the memories of the great battles of the 60’s and 70’s are passing in importance. Now, along comes the just published book, Why David Sometimes Wins, to offer new insights into some of the complex history of building this particular social movement.

Marshall Ganz retells the important story of the creation of the first successful farm workers union for important analysis. The author was Director of Organizing for the United Farmworkers and served in a variety of positions including Executive Board Member between 1973 and 1982; his writing is that of a well-informed insider of one of the critical battles in union and Chicano history. The questions considered are important and relevant to union building, movement building and the interaction of the two today.


In the first chapter Ganz develops a sophisticated theses that the early victories of the union that became the UFW was successful primarily due to three major causal factors: the diversity of their leadership (including the diversity of their ties to different networks), the great motivation of the early leaders, and their creative decision making in developing and adapting strategies or what he calls “strategic capacity.” The chapter is adapted from his Harvard thesis on the same subject.

Ganz is particularly good on strategy. He says,

“Strategy is how we turn what we have into what we need to get what we want. Strategy is intentional–a pathway that we shape by making a series of choices about how to use resources in the present to achieve goals in the future. ..Why do we have to strategize? In our world of competition and cooperation, achieving our goals usually requires power. To act on our interests successfully we must mobilize and deploy our own political, economic, or cultural resources to influence the interests of others who hold the resources we need. …Strategy is a verb–something you do, not something you have.” (p. 8)

In chapters 3-7, the heart of the book , the author looks at the three major attempts to organize farm workers in the period of 1962- 1972 to understand why one strategy was successful, while others, often better funded, failed.

Although Ganz was active in the UFW by the time of the 1966 March on Sacramento, the record is not solely retrospective or personal report. He undertook significant research to understand efforts in prior decades to organize farm workers . His recording of the role of the Migrant Ministry and of Chris Hartmire provides important examples and supports the thesis that diversity of leadership was a critical element in achieving victory. There is more to this story including the role of numerous Catholic priests, brothers, sisters, and ex-religious in developing the union. Many of these are listed in Randy Shaw’s Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (2008). These two books complement each other well; Ganz has focused on the early years, 1964-1982, while Shaw focuses much of his writing on the later contributions of ex-UFW organizers working in the 90’s and later.

The early history is vital and supports Ganz’s theses. The last chapter, “Epilogue,” is certainly the most controversial. Here Ganz uses his prior arguments to explain the decline of the UFW. after 1982. The chapter is a painful read; the story has been told before, but seldom from an insider perspective. Former Vice President Philip Vera Cruz had raised some of these issues in his own biography, but not in the sustained, strategic way that Ganz presents the forces at work and the events.  As Ganz describes it, “Chavez now introduced the national Executive Board to his new organizational model and, specifically to the Synanon game.”

In the Spring of 1978, Chavez required 200 staffers to travel as much as five hours to attend weekly sessions. As Ganz tells it the UFW leadership turned into a “community of unpaid cadres, loyal to a single leader, governed by groupthink rituals, and enjoying the apparent efficiency of unquestioning obedience.” Ganz continues, “It’s unclear how Chavez hoped to reconcile Dederich’s vision (Synanon) with that of a democratically accountable union organized to represent workers—especially when the UFW thrived on diversity, contentiousness and creativity. In fact, he could not.” (p. 244) Interested readers can develop their own conclusions on the issues raised if you are willing to do the reading on the causes of decline by going to the excellent and fascinating Farmworker Movement Documentation project.  Here key organizers and participants like Ganz and Leroy Chatfield as well as hundreds of former UFW volunteers have told their own stories of these turbulent decades as they remember them.

Unfortunately the story of the decline of the UFW is told more as a narrative without much of the structural analysis that provides the strength of the earlier part of the book. And, although Ganz may be correct in his assertions about the destructive role of the Synanon Game, the purges of the 1978-1982 era fail to explain a whole series of earlier cases when experienced organizers left or were asked to leave including Tony Orendain, Jim Drake and others. Personalized decision-making in the union was not a new development. It occurred while author Ganz himself was on the board. The period from 1977 until 1982 when Ganz left the board was itself a time of internal conflict, dissent, and mayhem even before the Game was introduced.

Ganz criticizes the AWOC, the Teamsters, and the late UFW for depending on outside funding rather than the dues of the membership. He argues that depending upon dues and members in the early years made the UFW ultimately democratic. The later UFW became a very profitable series of organizations and fundraisers, with less than 25% of the budget coming from farm workers themselves, and it became less democratic. Miriam Pawel of the Los Angeles Times described some of the problems of outside fundraising in the name of farm workers in detail in a series of reports in Jan. and Feb. of 2006. The union’s response is on their web site.

This difference on fundraising is important. Is it better to get $40,000 from your members than to get $4,000,000 from supporters that is used to help your members? Ganz argues that the $4 million is ultimately corrupting since it distracts you from building your organization, whether a union or nonprofit.

This issue is alive today. Major organizations such as Move On or People for the American Way and other e-mail based organizations and others are potent fund raising machines. They have relatively few staff and active organizers or members. This fund raising approach to “organizing” is now a dominant form of political work outside of labor. It is well worth analyzing if this form is always less productive than the labor/community organizing model described in all of its turbulence by Ganz.

If you build a union based upon members interests, participation and members funds, you create an organization at times capable of defending members interests. If you build a volunteer organization based upon direct mail to passive contributors and now based upon internet fundraising, you have a very small nucleus of activists, a very limited view of internal democracy, and a large e mail list and a web site. If you accept the view of Ganz in Why David Sometimes Wins, the union building grass roots model can be turned into a primarily fund raising model. But, these two are different.

In my classes with Mexican-American, Chicano and immigrant students, the story of the growth and decline of the United Farmworkers is a story of long ago, of past glory. The students have not experienced the great gains from organizing of a prior generation. Their contact with organized labor is distant.

The farm worker population itself has changed. Older Mexican workers have been replaced by younger Zapotec, Mixtec, and other indigenous immigrants . The current generation of workers knows little of the gains of the prior years; the UFW holds few contracts, workers’ wages have again fallen, and the conditions in the fields are only scantly improved. (For more on the diversity of immigration within the farm labor communities see Manuel Barajas, The Xaripu Community Across Borders; Labor, Community and Family, University of Notre Dame Press, 2009.)

Ganz does students of labor history a favor by describing the important and dynamic nature of the original organizing, the early role of the Teamsters and AWOC, and the choices which workers and organizers faced. In many cases there is an “official” story as well as the views of many participants in the struggles. There are also inevitably differences between the newly accepted view offered by Ganz and the complexity and the dynamics of the actual events including the development of the Chavez legend.

Even with a careful and excellent researcher like Ganz, writers on events and social movements develop a frame to explain their experiences. The frame is in part determined by when the writer entered the movement, their experiences, and when and why they left the movement; Why David Sometimes Wins is no exception. Writers who entered the movement from an organized labor perspective would have a different view than Ganz on some issues (and they do). At the same time, Ganz has provided excellent research and a careful analysis of how a small, struggling labor union/ movement learned to do battle on two or three fronts at the same time and to succeed.

I hope that in a future book, Ganz uses the same skills of structural analysis to examine the period from 1975- 1985 as he used to develop his thesis in Why David Sometimes Wins. These events were not only the reverse of the major theses from the founding years; they each have their own history.

The Ganz book is a valuable contribution to understanding the dynamics of building a movement and a union. He contributes to describing how organizing social movements differs from organizing unions; and he offers important thinking on what organizers from each tradition have to offer those from the other tradition. With Why David Sometimes Wins, each tradition can begin to comprehend not only the enemy but their potential allies from a union perspective. Ganz comments on but has not yet developed the ideas of how does a movement or a union develop and become staff driven and bureaucratized, certainly a vital issue for our times. Distinct from the characteristics and flaws of a particular leader, how do movement based unions become institutionalized–or decline. Are there some Iron Laws of bureaucracy for unions and organizations that grow out of social movements?

This important book is well worth a careful read and ongoing discussions.

Duane Campbell is Professor (Emeritus) of Bilingual/Multicultural Education at California State Univ.-Sacramento and is the author of Choosing Democracy: a Practical guide to Multicultural Education (4th ed., 2010).  He serves as chair of Sacramento DSA.

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2 Responses

  1. Nicely done review, Duane, of a book that deserves a wide reading.

  2. […] more complete story in his book, Why David Sometimes Wins. (2009) See the review in Talking Union https://talkingunion.wordpress.com/2009/10/16/why-david-sometimes-wins-marshall-ganz/ This isn’t to say that Chavez, Huerta and many on the UFW Executive Board did not have […]

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