Cesar Chavez
Cesar Chavez; drawing by David Levine

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.

It is precisely Chavez’s drive for social justice, for “community,” for dignity and participation for the farm workers that to this day infuriates the growers and drives them into the arms of the Teamsters. In contract negotiations, Chavez always insists on three things. (1) The grower must deal with the “ranch committee,” the basic unit of organization on every ranch with which the union has a contract. (2) The grower must hire his workers through the union regional hiring hall rather than through the old labor contractor system. (3) The grower must accept the fact that the hiring hall operates with a strict seniority principle.

Taylor gives us a useful analysis of these bedrock UFW principles. He knows their sources in Chavez’s own experiences. Above all he tells us why they provide a dilemma for Chavez, raising, as we shall see, the possibility that he may have to sacrifice principle for a more smoothly functioning union.

Jacques Levy’s Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa is an important book if only because it is based mainly on Chavez’s own words, spoken into Levy’s tape recorder. The hundreds of hours of interviews took place over six years. Naturally Levy has had to select what to include, but beyond this, he tells us, the words are as Chavez spoke them. Levy has added some notes of his own and the reminiscences of members of Chavez’s family, including Cesar’s wife, Helen, of Dolores Huerta and Jerry Cohen, the UFW counsel, and, principally, of Fred Ross, a gabacho who has given most of his life to La Causa and who long ago plucked young Cesar Chavez out of the San Jose barrio and made an organizer of him. But the book is Cesar’s. There is a haunting, touching quality to it.

Perhaps a dozen times during the past seven or eight years I have watched and listened to Chavez fairly close up, though I’ve always been an observer, never in direct contact with him. Along with others, of course, I have seen much more of him on television. At least to me, Chavez has a distinct though otherwise not definable quality of melancholy. I have seen it when he was laughing, clapping his hands and trying to sing along with a surrounding throng of adoring young Anglo volunteers, or when he was talking in a relaxed way about tactics to a small group of organizers who were about to fan out across Fresno County, or having a meal in the back of storefront headquarters after a morning of organizing in the blistering summer vineyards of the Coachella Valley. The sadness never seems to leave him. But clearly others do not see him that way. Taylor tells us that the growers think of him as hard in manner and rough in speech. One grower’s agent I talked with about Chavez said, “Melancholy my ass! He’s a tough, mean bastard and he hates growers.” But the Cesar Chavez speaking in Levy’s pages seems to me authentic, all the more so because the book catches the gloomy undercurrents in his speech.

Although Levy’s book is based on tape-recorded interviews, it is very different from Oscar Lewis’s books on the Sanchez family. Lewis’s subjects spoke in their native Spanish, which Lewis translated. Sometimes the Sanchezes sound a little like Pilar and Pablo, or like the old one, the one who lost the great fish and yet bore it well, and truly. But Chavez speaks in English, which is not his first language. His speech is plain, unadorned, low-keyed. He describes a day of agony in the fields as “just terrible,” or as “horrible”; a brutish cop is “very mean.” Similarly, at a press conference in Livingston a few weeks ago, sensing that the UFW was about to lose the representation election at E. and J. Gallo ranch, he angrily made one charge after another, concluding that the new labor law, and the apparatus of supposedly free elections under it, had gone down in smoking ruins, the victims of grower-Teamster collusion. Chavez said it was “messed-up.”

But Chavez’s plain speech has a greater effect than would any flights of rhetoric. In Levy’s book he talks of everything from his earliest happy memories of his father’s farm in Arizona to the night this past July when he told the assembled barons of California government and agribusiness that he liked and would adhere to the new labor relations law. If there is a melancholy about Chavez, it is doubtless because his life is a sad one. The lives of his people in this country are sad. When Chavez was ten years old, in 1937 in the middle of the Depression, his father lost his farm and the family had to move to California. There, mostly, they followed the crops in order to survive, until 1952, when Chavez went to work for Fred Ross at the Community Service Organization. No one could doubt that Chavez suffered from that uprooting, from being declassed, so to speak, and that afterward he had to endure the endless pain and humiliation of the Mexicans who followed the crops in California.

It was not the tutelage of Fred Ross, not the books the young organizer later read, not socialist doctrine, not even the social teachings of the Catholic Church, to which he remains devoted, that turned Chavez into a radical union leader and social visionary, but his experience in the croplands and a closeness with his own people. Frustration and humiliation over his own powerlessness are at the heart of his insistence on the ranch committees. Anger at the exploitation of the labor contractor system leads him to insist on the inviolability of the hiring hall; a hunger for order and roots makes him believe in the seniority system.

The growers hate these demands. They don’t want to talk to a ranch committee made up of their field hands, half of whom probably can’t even speak English. The Teamsters, the growers say, don’t have any damned ranch committees. If you’ve got a problem with them you can get on the horn to Frisco or LA and talk with someone who makes some sense. The Chavezistas can’t even run a hiring hall. I need 500 people right now and they haven’t even got 500 people on their “good standing” list. The labor contractors deliver people when you want them, whole families together, plenty of young people instead of arthritic old-timers. Chavez’s vision of a decent life for the farm workers is what has driven the Teamsters and the growers into their alliance.

All but the most committed servants of La Causa agree that there is some substance to grower complaints about the hiring hall, seniority, and ranch committees. Growers believe that the ranch committees and regional hiring halls are too quick to fine workers, or even to drop them from the goodstanding list, for being insufficiently militant, not devoted enough to purely union duties such as trekking to Sacramento to pack a legislative hearing room or driving to Brawley to attend a meeting for Chavez or some liberal Democratic senator. Some workers have complained that they get fined or kept out of work for “not having a good attitude.” Portuguese, Arab, and Filipino workers fear that the union is too much directed to the specific cause of Mexican-Americans, who, they say, are favored over all others. The UFW charges that the grower-Teamster agreements are “sweetheart contracts.” But I have examined several of the agreements and they are not sweetheart contracts; in all traditional ways they are as good for the workers as the UFW contracts are. The Teamsters offer the workers old fashioned bread and butter unionism. Chavez wants to offer them much more, including a sense of community and dignity, but if he can’t provide more bread and butter as well, La Causa will go down the drain.

The Teamster-grower alliance is not simply a specter floated by the UFW to explain away the victories of the Teamsters in winning bargaining unit elections. I have seen and heard them work together at Gallo and around Delano. Of the more than 100 bargaining elections that have been held so far, the UFW has won somewhat more than half and the Teamsters somewhat less. The “no union” option is going nowhere and the growers are not even pushing it. They urge, apparently even demand, that their workers vote Teamster. The UFW has more votes than the Teamsters but the big union has cleared the way now for contracts covering more workers than the UFW does.

In other words, the new law has so far produced a standoff between the unions. The UFW has not driven the Teamsters out of the fields, as the devoted followers of Chavez had hoped they would once elections were held. But the UFW is not doing badly. On the day the labor law went into effect, the UFW had fewer than seven contracts in the entire state. The Teamsters had over 150. Chavez has won quite a few of those away, including some of the big ones.

What is more important than the box scores after a short time under the new law is the simple fact that the farm workers are voting to choose their unions themselves. A lot of them still can’t believe that this is happening, and many are still easily intimidated by shows of muscle and threats to their jobs if the UFW wins. Visiting Gallo I saw plenty of muscular Teamsters, growers, and police all around. The miracle was that they were wielding cameras instead of billyclubs and brass knuckles—photographing everybody seen talking to anyone who looked like a UFW organizer, photographing the UFW organizers for perhaps the hundredth time. The Gallo workers did not like being photographed. They were being intimidated. Tough young Teamsters stood by, grinning, while nuns and other Chavez organizers tried to talk with the Gallo workers. It didn’t seem fair.

Old habits, stretching back ninety years, die hard for the police and the local judges. They are still inclined to look upon the growers as the symbol of legitimacy, upon the union cadres as rude peasants in revolt. The Agriculture Labor Relations Board ruled that union organizers must have access to workers on the ranch property at specified times during the work day. “Private Property! Trespass!” cried the growers and their friends—who can be found in all too many sheriff’s departments and in at least one courtroom. But the Supreme Court of California held that the board’s rule could stand and that the growers and sheriffs must comply. Most of the growers have accepted that. Down in Tulare County, though, the sheriff is still arresting for trespass any UFW organizer who sets foot on a grower’s property. One would think when this happens that we were back in the days of the LaFollette committee.

The governor of California, however, has begun to move against his own Agricultural Labor Relations Board, demanding that they process the UFW complaints more rapidly and demanding also that the general counsel of the ALRB take action against the sheriff of Tulare County. This kind of struggle is going to go on for a long time. In the euphoria surrounding the enactment of the farm labor law a lot of people, including the governor, Cesar Chavez himself, and editorial writers for the big dailies, seemed to believe that peace and stability had come to the fields. That they were wrong does not mean that there has been no change.

This Issue

November 13, 1975