Taking a More Realistic Look at the Farmworkers Union
by David Bacon
DELANO (7/31/93) - Nowhere does the lack of historical memory which is the peculiar weakness of Americans, or of our tendency to view social movements as the creation of strong leaders, afflict us more than when we look at unions. And nowhere is this more evident than in our view of the United Farm Workers.
It wasn't a surprise, therefore, to hear the media discussion following the death of Cesar Chavez, since it was like so many in the past. Would the union survive Cesar's death? Was he a hero or a villain? Did he make terrible mistakes which cost the life of the union he led? While these are interesting questions, it's no wonder that we come away from it all with no idea of where the union is headed, or why, or how successful it will be.
The questions don't enlighten us because Cesar was not the author of the boycotts or the strategic ideas which the union used in fighting for its survival. No single person could be, because they evolved as the responses of thousands of people to the age-old problems, faced by farmworker unions for a century, of strikebreaking and grower violence.
The conditions which ignited the burning desire to organize and fight are still present in the fields. In fact, they've gotten worse. Workers have toilets and drinking water, and where they know their rights, they don't have to use the short-handled hoe. But labor contractors, who were once replaced by union hiring halls, have retaken control of the fields. And as contractors compete to sell the labor of farmworkers to the growers, wages and piece-rates are falling. Medical insurance, once guaranteed by UFW contracts, has again become a dream for most workers.
The response which led to the creation of the union is still the answer farmworkers themselves give to those conditions - to organize and strike. While thirty five thousand people following Cesar's casket in Delano was eloquent evidence of the respect farmworkers have for their own union and history, even more significant demonstrations occured during the past year.
Five thousand workers struck in the grape fields in Coachella during the 1992 harvest, winning the first general wage increase in almost a decade. In traditional farmworker style, they organized their committees, walked off the job themselves, and only then called up the union for help. That year also saw a general strike in the chile fields in New Mexico, and a major strike among mushroom harvesters in Pennsylvania.
In the years since the first grape strike in Coachella and Delano in 1965, farmworker unions have grown from two to over a dozen, in Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Texas, Ohio, Connecticut, Florida, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, in addition to California. No single man's death can or should stop this movement.
But the pressure of rank-and-file workers points up the unions dilemma. Workers want a union. They're tired of the deteriorating conditions that have marked the twelve years of grower-backed Republican administrations in Sacramento. And they're not content to wait it out, either for a change in the governor's mansion, or for the boycott to force growers to negotiate union contracts a decade after they broke them.
The boycott has been a powerful tactic for farmworkers. It levelled the playing field in the fight with the growers over the right to form a union, and it led to the most powerful and important alliance between unions and communities in modern labor history. Moreover, workers used it to resolve a problem which still exists.
Farmworker strikes have traditionally been broken by strikebreakers and, all too often, drowned in blood. No country has done more than the U.S. to enshrine the right of employers to use strikebreakers, and no workers have been as devastated by the effect of strikebreaking as farmworkers.
From the first Delano grape strike, UFW members watched in anger and agony as growers brought in crews of strikebreakers to take their jobs. When necessary to break a strike, as it was during the lemon strike in Yuma in 1974, the Border Patrol opened the border, and trucks hauling strikebreakers roared up through the Sonora desert every night. Local police and sheriffs provided armed protection.
Non-violence is a basic principle of the UFW because violence in the fields has such a long history. Growers killed strikers in Wheatland at the turn of the century, and Pixley and El Centro in the 30s. Nagi Daifullah and Juan de la Cruz lost their lives in the grapes in the 1973 strike. Rufino Contreras was shot picketing a lettuce field in the Imperial Valley in 1979.
The boycott couldn't end that, but after farmworkers crossed that enormous gulf between the fields and the big cities, they didn't have to fight by themselves. And they gave a gift which has been helping to revitalize the rest of the union movement in the U.S. ever since - the model of the community/union alliance, or community-based union organizing. Today, the idea of alliances between unions and communities has become the bedrock of progressive tactics among union activists across the country. Together, the strikes and boycotts gave the UFW its character as a social movement.
The passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975 was a tribute to their power. Farmworkers won it - it was not a gift or a private del between Cesar Chavez and Governor Jerry Brown. Even as legislators debated it, the capitol in Sacramento was surrounded by a strike of thousands of tomato pickers. After ten years of class war in fields and supermarkets, growers and legislators decided to recognize legally, for the first time, the right of farmworkers to organize unions.
But farmworkers also found out what other unions and workers have known since the 1950s - the law is really no protection. It was broken before the ink was dry. Although tens of thousands of farmworkers voted for the union in hundreds of elections, the law had no teeth to force the negotiation of contracts. And after accepting huge contributions from agricultural interests, Governors Deukmejian and Wilson put growers in charge of enforcing it.
The UFW poured all its resources into the current grape boycott to try to recreate the success of the first boycott, which won its original contracts. Building on its first contracts, which banned the use of DDT and other pesticides years before government action, the union made pesticide abuse the boycott's key issue. The union exposed the existence of cancer clusters among farmworker children in McFarland and Earlimart, small towns surrounded by the pesticide-laden grape fields of the San Joaquin Valley.
But the boycott has always had a high price. Concentrating resources in the boycott leaves the union fewer resources to organize activity in the fields, and the pressure is on the union from workers who are tired of moving backwards. With tens of thousands of new immigrants pouring into the fields of California and Arizona every year, fewer and fewer workers remain who went through the titanic struggles which swept through the valleys of California and Arizona like whirlwinds, and which created the UFW.
When falling conditions and wages begin provoking spontaneous strikes in the fields, as they did last year, the union has to lead and organize that movement or it becomes irrelevant to workers. Survival in any union is ultimately dependent on the ability to organize new members, especially when they want action. The survival question for the UFW is whether it can take the existing desire and need for the union by thousands of rank-and-file farmworkers, and once again mobilize it as an economic weapon for social justice.
The UFW's new leadership will not have any easier time solving these dilemmas than the union did under Chavez. Arturo Rodriguez, who helped organize the strikes in Coachella last year, is widely respected as an experienced and capable organizer. But the problem of the UFW is its limited resources, and the hard decisions on where they should be allocated.
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