And the Farmworkers are Still Poor

A Book Review by Michael Yates

Friday, 30 December 2011

Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (Verso, 2011)

Frank Bardacke labored over this book for fifteen years. We can be grateful that he didn’t give up. This is the best history ever written of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Cesar Chavez. Trampling out the Vintage explains better than any other book how the UFW under Chavez’s leadership became in the 1960s and 1970s one of the most remarkable and successful unions in U.S. history but then crashed and burned so breathtakingly fast that by the end of the 1980s it had pretty much disappeared from the fields. Bardacke relies on primary sources—letters, interviews, personal papers, archives, newspaper accounts, court and police records, his own considerable experiences as a farm laborer (He spent six seasons in the fields between 1971 and 1979. A minor political conflict with the union during the 1979 lettuce strike led to his blacklisting by both the growers and the union, and this forced him to take up other employment). In the main, he lets the record speak for itself, avoiding the apologetics or the rancor we typically find in books, articles, and reviews about the UFW and Chavez.

Several things set Bardacke’s history apart from everything that preceded it. First, he pays attention to the farm workers themselves, to their organizing history, the nature of their work, and the changes that have taken place in their industry. His descriptions of the skilled, difficult, and body-destroying work of harvesting lettuce, celery, broccoli, asparagus, and lemons are among the most moving and beautifully written parts of the book. They help to foreground the author’s demonstration that the organization of farm workers did not spring suddenly from the will of Cesar Chavez. As Bardacke shows with scores of examples, agricultural workers have been doing battle with their employers for nearly one hundred years. Their skills, the short time the growers have to get crops harvested, and the self-organization of the workers, especially those who toiled as part of tightly-knit teams, all combined to create a sense of potential power, power that became reality when conditions were propitious.

Second, Bardacke delves into Cesar Chavez’s life in more depth than anyone ever has, giving him insights that are critical to an explanation of the historical trajectory of the UFW. Unlike most of the union’s members, Chavez’s parents owned a small farm and suffered sharp downward social and economic mobility when they lost it in 1939 and had to work in the fields. The anger he felt because of this was not the same as that experienced by another UFW stalwart and founder, Gilbert Padilla, who was born into a farmworker family, worked in the fields as a young child, and learned class consciousness as he lived his life. Padilla had a natural affinity with the workers that Chavez never had, and he was not nearly as anticommunist as was Cesar. Chavez also identified more as a Mexican-American (a Chicano) than as a Mexican. The first workers in the UFW were settled vineyard laborers and not migrants. Chavez had a lifelong antipathy for the unsettled Mexicans who soon enough comprised the majority of California’s farmworkers.

Cesar Chavez was also a devout and conservative Catholic. He embraced both the “social action” philosophy of Pope Leo XIII, which recognized certain rights of working people, and the strictly hierarchical structure of the Church. Under the tutelage of Saul Alinsky and Fred Ross, Chavez was able to blend his Catholicism with Alinsky’s community organizing techniques to become a master organizer, first in community action groups and then in his union. He came to believe with Alinsky and Ross that organizing could be taught and that the organizer was the critical actor in all efforts to build political power. At first, he also accepted the Alinsky position that the organizer had to be a disinterested outsider, who, once an organizational structure had been built, moved on to the next assignment. However, when his superior organizing skills helped build a core farm labor organization, he decided to remain as both the organizer and the leader. He thought that he could be both the disinterested organizing outsider and the insider running the union. As might be expected, this proved untenable. An outsider might be able to assess a situation objectively and offer useful advice and criticism to the insider. But when the two roles are combined in the same person, problems are bound to arise. Chavez, as an insider, could run the union, and Chavez, as an outsider, could criticize too. But when he began to identify the union with himself, who else inside the union could criticize him?

Most writers and commentators who have attempted to explicate the UFW’s history have argued that there was a sharp change in Chavez’s behavior after the union’s failure to win a referendum that would have built funding for the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act into the state’s constitution. Bardacke’s analysis of Chavez’s life, however, shows that there was a consistency to what Chavez did throughout his tenure as UFW president.

Third, Bardacke situates the union in the social, economic, and political flux of the period, from the first astounding union victories of the 1960s and 1970s, to the national and state shift to the right in the 1980s, when the union began its precipitous decline. The main factors here were the War in Vietnam and the crisis of liberalism this engendered, and the attack by mainstream unions on both the antiwar left and their own dissident rank-and-file. Chavez was the last great hope of the liberals who saw themselves as champions of the poor but who could not tolerate war protesters, militant and radical Black and Chicano civil rights activists, or workers who chafed at the boundaries enforced by liberal but autocratic union leaders. Chavez used his charisma, his leadership skills, and his Catholicism to build a fanatically dedicated band of volunteers (including hundreds of farmworkers who traveled thousands of miles to tell the nation their stories of misery and exploitation) and staffpersons that took liberal America by storm. People boycotted grapes; they gave money; they came to California to volunteer for La Causa. It wasn’t only the workers to whom Cesar Chavez gave hope. Continue reading