Cesar Chavez and His Many-Layered Union

The United Farm Workers face another showdown with agribusiness on the California ballot

Cesar Chavez Credit: Bob Olsen/Toronto Star/Getty

Unlike most of the famous, even sensational, movement leaders who have flipped out or over or under, Cesar Chavez continues. At 49, he has spent 25 years trying to organize farm workers. He started with nothing but a car and a large family to feed. For 100 years the farm workers of California's Central Valley had suffered, but never had been organized successfully into unions. In the Sixties, under Chavez' leadership, success finally came.

The various strikes and boycotts, which 17 million Americans supported, according to pollster Lou Harris, resulted in contracts, economic gains and a birth of contagious spirit. Then in the Nixon years there were setbacks as the Teamsters took up "sweetheart" contracts with. the grape and lettuce growers who wanted to eliminate Chavez at all costs.

Many observers thought the United Farm Workers union was dead, another victim of efficiency (the Teamsters) over romanticism. The New York Times Magazine even gave a cover story to the passing. But only the surface of things had changed. Tom Hayden is working with some of his Senate campaign staff for local candidates and Prop. 14.

When Jerry Brown campaigned for governor in 1974, his last stop was Fresno in the heart of the Valley where he held an emotional rally heavily attended by farm workers. His most important and one of his earliest acts as governor was to steer through the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, ensuring workers the right to choose their union for the first time.

The new law was too effective. When the elections were finally begun, the Farm Workers' black eagle was flying high. The UFW put its victories at 205, or 30,804 workers, to the Teamsters' 102, or 11,179 workers.

Agribusiness lobbyists quickly went to work, using their influence in the state Senate to bloc funding of the new legislation. In February 1976, the ALRB came to a halt, penniless, with many elections uncertified and worker complaints unanswered.

The UFW mobilized on two new fronts. First, in April they collected an amazing 729,000 signatures in only 29 days to qualify an initiative petition—Proposition 14—for the November ballot. Second, they threw themselves into Jerry Brown's primaries in Maryland, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Oregon, climaxing with Chavez nominating Brown at the Democratic National Convention.

Threatened by the possibility of Proposition 14 passing, the growers and legislators quickly changed their mood and funded the dormant ALRB in July.

But it was too late. The UFW wanted its rights to organize and join unions through secret ballot elections written into law as a permanent proposition, rather than face perpetual legislative squabbles over funding whenever they were too successful in the fields. They went ahead with Proposition 14, after a 1200-delegate convention in early September in Fresno. They have the endorsement of Brown, Alan Cranston, John Tunney and even the big grower from Plains, Jimmy Carter.

As with everything, Cesar Chavez works harder than any politician on the Prop 14 campaign. We left a fund-raiser in Malibu at 11:30 one night to drive two and one-half hours to the UFW headquarters in Kern County's Tehachapi Mountains. The union occupies a huge reconverted sanatorium there, named for La Senora de la Paz and called simply La Paz (peace). Two hundred UFW staff live and work here, plugged into the union's far-flung operations around the world.

The interview began next morning at dawn as we drove north up the San Joaquin Valley, that arid and empty land made rich by so much labor in the last century. It is here that enormous invisible power is centered in California.

We drove on and on, past Delano, until we arrived in what seemed to be an empty field in Del Rey, a tiny hamlet between Fresno and Visalia. Suddenly there were 200 people sitting in the sun before an outdoor stage with an altar. They were singing.

It was 10 a.m. and Cesar's day had begun. It would end 12 hours later at a rally in the East San Jose barrio.

We talked for two hours on the road.

What will Prop. 14 mean for the United Farm Workers if it passes?
The proposition goes a step further than federal labor law. It very plainly states that the law is there to protect the rights of workers to organize. But we also added another clause which says that not only should the law "protect" but also "encourage." The law should encourage the rights of workers to organization. If we can get Proposition 14 passed and enforced very vigorously, I would not be at all surprised if we organized 100,000 workers in California in the next 18 months.

What brought about passage of the farm labor law in 1975, before it was killed?
A combination of things. Ten years of very direct confrontation with the growers. The long, long strikes and the pretty effective boycott. A governor who was sympathetic to the idea of workers having legislation.

How much do you credit Jerry Brown?
Quite a bit. His leadership and his influence made it possible. We, I think, created the climate through the pressure and the boycotts, and we educated the public about our needs. But it had to take Jerry Brown to come in and put it all together.

You've had plenty of experience with nonenforcement of laws? How will it be any different if Prop. 14 passes?
Prop. 14 has a built-in enforcement, through us. We need to have the law enforced, because if it's not enforced we can't organize. We'll be right here with the growers. We'll spend an awful lot of energy but the enforcement will be better. If we can reach the point where it's aggressive enforcement, like there is against bank robbers or people on welfare, it will be a holiday for us.

The growers' theme in the election is going to be "property rights." They claim that Prop. 14 will permit an invasion of their ranches by union organizers and set a dangerous precedent.
It's a phony issue. The ranches can be anywhere from 300 to 30,000 acres. It's impossible for us to know where the workers are because, unlike a factory, they move around all the time. And they also live there where they work. In most cases, the worker doesn't have to leave the grower's property to go to work, and in some cases they even have a store inside the ranch.

So we argued, and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board agreed, for a regulation granting limited access for our organizers. No more than two or three weeks before an election, letting the organizers go into the fields before work, after work, and during lunch hour to be able to inform workers of our side of the story. The California Supreme Court agreed that it's an issue of workers being able to be informed. Proposition 14 would make that regulation the law. And the growers are trying to raise a phony issue by saying when you grant access to the unions they're going to come in and invade our living rooms. You know they don't raise the issue of access when the Teamsters are in the fields, only when it's our people.

What's your concept of the best way agribusiness could be reorganized in the long run?
The best and most lasting alternative would be cooperatives, where the workers would farm the farms cooperatively. It's also the most difficult one. Some farm workers are becoming growers these days, more and more, you know. And we're finding they're acting more and more like the other growers act.

But what's the quality, the attitude, that farm workers have which brings them to the cause?
I was talking to a farm worker family in Florida who had been migrating for about 20 years. The year before, they said, there were no jobs as they'd been promised, but then they got a job which only paid half of what they were promised. There were no homes and they wound up living under a bridge. The baby got ill and they had to spend all their money. Their car broke down. So I said, with all of that, why do you go?

And the father looked at me and said, "If we don't go, who's going to harvest the crops?" And then he added, "and if we don't harvest the crops, what are the people going to eat?"

It's like a natural pull to the soil, an understanding of the role that they play. You can't help admiring someone like him and then wonder, what is this that he's so concerned about other people when he's so downtrodden? But there's a special understanding there, and I think this is the key for our organization. Because when we ask workers to organize and sacrifice, it's not that hard for them to accept.

Is there something about the basic act of producing food which creates public support for farm workers?
Yes, every time we sit at the table to partake of food, we are partaking of the sacrifice of the farm workers. And there has to be, it seems to me, a kind of unconscious knowledge that the food we eat got here because of a lot of sacrifices. And then that reverts back in public support. How else do you explain the support that we've had from the public for all these many years? Groups have come and groups have gone, but we just keep plodding and working.

Many observers have been saying that the farm workers' cause has been weakening in recent years, supposedly because you can only continue so long as a social movement and then you need to become an efficient organization. The fact that you've beaten the Teamsters in the elections even though the Teamsters had the contracts makes this analysis a little ridiculous.
Those analysts completely forgot the workers in their analysis. They made their comparisons of us and the Teamsters based on traditional things like money, resources, power. But they forgot the loyalty of the workers, the human element. The Teamsters had the contracts but we had the workers.

What do you think happened historically that made other unions start as a movement and become bogged down, bureaucratic?
It's a very natural development. At the point where the needs of the workers are met, then they cease to be a movement and become an organization. It's a lot harder to keep workers involved when their needs are really dealt with than when they're not.

The other thing that takes place is that the founders of a movement are very idealistic because they had nothing but ideals to begin with. But when the leadership changes hands and the second wave comes in, that really is when the first big decision is made to become less a movement and more an organization. In our movement as long as the founders are active, we are going to have to try to keep the movement a movement. Once we leave, we'll see one of two things. We'll either become a stronger movement or just a run-of-the-mill organization.

What do you do to ensure the first?
I don't know of anyone who's been able to do anything about it.

Do you foresee meeting your initial goals and will that begin to slow the movement down?
No, no, because if we get the law passed in California, then there's Arizona, Texas, Florida and the rest of the states. And the more we organize the United States, the more pressure we get from other workers who want help. We're getting more and more requests for help from Latin America. As the growers go into Mexico and other continents to expand their companies, there's a natural tie.

What's made the United Farm Workers last and grow for over a decade when so many other movements or leaders collapsed, became irrational or were torn apart?
The whole question of nonviolence has been extremely helpful to us in keeping together internally and externally. Also, I think the openness of the movement has prevented reactionary forces from splitting us because there aren't any secrets. And because we don't pay any wages and people who come to work for us must really believe it. Then there's a work habit, a clear understanding that we're here to work and produce and serve farm workers. And we have a very solid, dedicated leadership, keeping an internal unity which has been almost unbelievable all these years.

The other thing we have that other movements didn't have is a very identifiable constituency. It keeps our feet on the ground. If we're getting out of line, we hear right away. If there's slowing down, we push them. There's constant interaction, every single day, so it keeps the leadership from becoming out of touch or reckless in what we do. But it also helps us when things are going bad, because you can always touch base with the workers and you get reality back.

How do you stay in touch with the workers and not become an administrator tied to a desk?
The problem is that administration is not the most important thing, but it's the most pressing thing. And then you start creating a world of your own detached from the reality of the workers. All of the bad decisions that I've made were because I didn't touch base with people.

Have you turned to people for ideas when you're at a loss?
Yes, especially in the beginning. We were trying to organize DiGiorgio Ranch in 1966 in Delano. Let me give you the setting. They've got all the workers fenced in. They've got about 2000 workers and they don't have anyplace to go. They can go all day, work all day, without leaving the farm, and they can eat and sleep and have a store and post office there. We're trying to organize them for an election. The Teamsters are in there and they've got one organizer for every crew, they must have about 50 organizers out in the fields. We can't talk to the workers. And so we have a meeting, and people began to get very frustrated and they blamed our inability to talk to them and the many arrests we were getting on the whole question of nonviolence.

About three hours later three women, all of them over 50, came by. They had been in the picket line for a long time, almost a year. The kind who don't show any leadership but are very loyal. They came to the office and wanted to talk to me, privately.

They said, "We were just thinking what would happen if we were to get a pickup truck and make an altar by the main gate of the ranch and invite. . ." That's as far as they got. Man, my head went ... I just took off. I said, "That's a fantastic idea."

What they were really saying was if you can't go in, then let's get the workers out. And, man, we set up a little altar in my station wagon and we publicized it everywhere. We had hundreds, of people from the outside that came to the masses, but there were so many people and so much confusion that most of our organizers found themselves in the DiGiorgio camp. Forty guards weren't enough to guard maybe 5000 people that came out for the mass. That was the beginning of a long vigil that caught the attention of the workers on the inside and gave them the strength that they needed. We did the job and we beat the Teamsters three to one in the election.

How is give-and-take between leaders and members structured?
This year we restructured the union so that the leaders have jobs that cut across the whole union. They're not isolated.

In our case, the relations are structured by tradition too. When we started organizing we had to live with the workers to get them to lose the fear they had of the growers. We had to. Once we did that, that's what they still want and expect. The formal decision-making is good and useful, but where you can talk to individuals and get them really thinking is in small groups. That's where the ideas come from.

Does nonviolence lead to a greater reliance on mass participation and internal democratic process too?
Yes, it forces you to be creative and not to get trapped into thinking that violence is a shortcut to meeting your goals.

Nonviolence deals with the whole question of patience. Not patience with the injustice against workers but it's a way of saying, really, it can be done regardless of the obstacles. There has to be some training for nonviolence, training in not striking back, in fasting, in dealing with frustration, in not harboring resentment and hatred. There are built-in disciplines that have to take place. And those disciplines also help you understand that the only thing we have, our stock in trade, is time. Not money, not material resources, but time more than anything else. Understanding that time will work for you if you make good use of it brings what we call work discipline.

Would you say other movements have failed because they lacked this focus and discipline?
Violence can't be contained. To be violent to your opponent you have to be violent among yourselves. Pretty soon organizations are messed up inside. Also when leadership gets involved in violence, they wind up having to defend themselves instead of aiming for their real goals. But people don't get anything out of defending a leader. You can't have followers unless the followers are getting something out of the movement. You've gotta produce, produce, produce.

How much do you think religious consciousness keeps you going, as opposed to political doctrine?
I'm convinced that it does. For instance, early in the movement we very consciously said we needed to have a movement that sang songs and was happy, and the best example we had were those small Pentecostal groups. So we adopted that to create spirit. But it can't be forced. If it's needed, it's done, then. The more in trouble we are, the more we sing. It just relaxes us.