Chavez and the Farm Workers
Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa
Back in 1939 Carey McWilliams, then an official in a liberal California state government, asked a Senate committee under Robert LaFollette, Jr. for national legislation that would “substitute democratic processes for shotgun tactics in California agriculture.” McWilliams’s language on this occasion was controlled, neutral, almost chaste. For the LaFollette subcommittee was slowly putting together—and meticulously documenting—a terrifying tale of the industrialization of agriculture in California, of the domination of the fields by a handful of giant companies linked to other industrial and banking giants. These, “growers,” as the owners are called in California, sweated their field labor and mistreated them with contemptuous savagery, denied them even the most rudimentary forms of labor organization, and turned loose their hireling police, judges, and prosecutors on any who dared to protest or to demand a voice for the despised and wretched workers. McWilliams had already described this system memorably in Factories in the Field. There he called it “fascism.” In Grapes of Wrath and his earlier In Dubious Battle, John Steinbeck wrote his searing though not exaggerated popular accounts of the misery and powerlessness of migratory field laborers in California.
Cesar Chavez sometimes like to say that nothing has changed in California agriculture since those desperate times. But it has all changed, mostly because of his work. It has been a long and physically painful road for him, often frustrating and at times humiliating. But there have been victories, too, and gathering energy, changes coming faster and faster in the lives and working conditions of the field laborers. Now Chavez and the union he and his old companions have founded, the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, stand at the edge of success. They are not over that edge; all of California agribusiness is still anxious to beat him, and the growers are, in this struggle against Chavez, allied with the nation’s most powerful labor union, the Teamsters. It is a climactic time for California agriculture, for Chavez and the struggling union, and for the farm workers.
This moment has been brought about by the passage this year of the State Agricultural Labor Relations Act, easily the major achievement of Governor Jerry Brown and a major achievement in itself. The act essentially does for the California farm workers what the Wagner Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act did forty years ago for the nation’s industrial workers: it grants them the right to meet and organize freely, to choose by secret ballot a union to represent them, and to bargain collectively with the owners; and it seeks to define the conditions that will make it possible for the workers to use their new rights. While Brown has rightly gotten much credit for passing the act, it was forced into being by the labors of Chavez and his lieutenants and their growing army of organizers, volunteers, marchers, and supporters.
Even before the act was passed early last summer, the three parties to agricultural labor strife—growers, Teamsters, and Chavezistas—were getting ready to deal with their new situation. By the time the first elections for representatives were held just after Labor Day, all of the fertile valleys of the state were heavy with an atmosphere of tension, of showdown, of make-or-break time. The Teamsters could lose every farm worker election and their power in America would scarcely be touched. The growers, who used to complain that supplying clean drinking water or installing one or two outdoor privies for the workers would be the death knell for agriculture in California, will survive and grow richer and richer even if the UFW wins every election. But if the grower-Teamster alliance prevails generally, what then? Cesar Chavez will doubtless go on doing what he has not stopped doing since the early 1950s—trudging up and down the unknown back roads of the valley counties and towns, standing alongside the dusty rows to talk to small knots of farm workers, meeting with even smaller groups in worn barrio homes, helping an aggrieved family here, an ailing worker there, organizing for La Causa. This shy man will go on listening and talking softly—but the union would probably be finished and La Causa would waste away.
So it is useful that the two solid books under review should now appear. Each author is a respected news-paperman familiar with the farm labor scene and with Chavez and his union. Each admires Chavez and is sympathetic to his cause. Yet the two books differ, though they are also complementary. Ronald B. Taylor, author of Chavez and the Farm Workers, is mainly a reporter. He doesn’t hide his sympathies but at the same time he strives for a measure of distance, an unblinkered vision. It is fair to say, I think, that Taylor has adopted McWilliams’s Factories in the Field as his standard and that he does not disgrace it.
Using the earlier work of McWilliams and others, as well as by now compendious congressional hearings and reports, Taylor provides a good description of the structure of California agriculture and a more detailed account of the farm workers, especially the migratory workers, and their place in that structure. It should surprise no one to learn that the farm worker is the mudsill of the entire system and that everyone—growers, Chavezistas, politicians, scholars and experts—has always known that the workers would be a wretched mass until they were able to have unions and to bargain with the owners.
In a surprisingly dispassionate tone, Taylor explores the historic, unified, and relentless refusal of the growers to yield even a bit on this question before the equally relentless Chavez arrived on the scene. California growers have always behaved badly to the people who have worked their rich lands. It is easy to think of racism here because the workers have included Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Hindus, and a few blacks, and, mainly, Mexicans or Chicanos. About each of these peoples in turn the growers have had their dehumanizing folklore, e.g., “the Mexican is built close to the ground” and hence is ideally suited for stoop labor, he can wield the murderous short hoe all day long with no bad effects, though, “by God, it’d kill a white man to do it.”
The short hoe is a hoe with a sawed-off handle maybe two feet long. You have to bend low to use it. It is used for cultivating and for thinning row crops. Workers detest it and have protested against it. The growers’ customary response was, “Take away the short hoe and it’s all over for California agriculture. You’ll see lettuce at a buck a head.” This year the Brown administration outlawed the short hoe. Bud Antle, one of the biggest growers and shippers of lettuce in the Salinas Valley, watched his workers wielding the regular long hoe and declared he was amazed to see them working about as efficiently as they had always done with the short hoe.
But racism is too facile an explanation for the intransigence of the growers. They are not WASPs. They are Italians, Portuguese, and Greek and Armenian—themselves once despised by Anglo-Saxons as greasers and foreigners. In any case, as McWilliams, the LaFollette committee, and Steinbeck have told us, the Okies were not treated any better than the Chinese or the Mexicans, and the sandy-haired, blue-eyed, lean-shanked Okies were nearly all Scots-Irish or English of the purest blood. There are 65,000 growers in California, down from about 150,000 in the 1930s. A lot of them appear to be people of refinement and generosity. Among them there may be more gentlemen than ruffians. Yet their record as a class is as I have described it.
Why should this be so? No doubt greed and racism explain a great deal. Agriculture in California is, as Taylor reminds us, an $8 billion a year business. One quarter of all the fruit and vegetables consumed in this country are grown here. Yet much of California, including the great croplands, is semiarid. Prodigious labors by man have been required to make the land so fertile, which in turn demands farming on a gigantic scale. Taylor notes that the huge investment in chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery also leads to giantism. Technologically and financially, California agriculture is an advanced industry. But its industrial relations have, until today, been frozen at an early capitalist stage. The entire system, for example, has always rested on the foundation of an endless supply of cheap and docile field labor. It has been the growers’ achievement to cajole the electorate and bully the government into treating them as farmers, not as industrialists. Whatever the current representation elections may hold for the UFW, it has been Chavez’s achievement to force modern industrial labor patterns on a reluctant agricultural industry.
Taylor gives a careful account, often as an eyewitness, of this struggle, which began in 1962 when Chavez, then thirty-five, quit his job with a social service organization and, along with Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla, and Chavez’s old mentor, Fred Ross, set out to build a farm workers union in California. To do it, they had to devise their own model, invent their own tactics. They needed plenty of help and got it from the AFL-CIO and particularly from the United Auto Workers. Chavez, whose formal education ended at the eighth grade, turned out to be an organizing genius and a remarkably intuitive tactician. Above all, he was not simply a union organizer or chairman. He was the leader of La Causa. The cause was the union, yes, but also the broader cause of social justice, especially for the people of Mexican descent and language. Chavez’s Mexican identity is deep, deeper, I suspect, than his identity with the union, and more personal.
The central fact to be grasped, and Taylor grasps it surely, is that the union, the broad emotional cause of the Mexican-Americans, and the life of Cesar Chavez are inextricably linked. Chavez’s goals and his tactics were formed out of the materials of his life. For example, Chavez was committed to nonviolence long before he read Louis Fischer’s biography of Gandhi, but that book helped to provide a language for what was already there, his legacy, so to speak, from his mother. Nonviolence in turn became one of the most effective of his methods. Nonviolence not only drew influential figures to Chavez’s side, it gave him an attractive “image” in the press, and this in turn helped to make his boycotts of grapes and lettuce such striking successes in cities a continent away. It was the boycott, not the strike, that was chiefly responsible for the first cracks in the resistance of the growers, leading to the first contracts with grape growers in the late 1960s.
Taylor, as I have noted, understands all of these connections. He vividly describes how the UFW grew into a full-fledged union by 1967 and how, shortly thereafter, it nearly collapsed when several of the biggest growers began to sign up with the Teamsters, including many who had UFW contracts which were about to run out.