Robert Kennedy passing a piece of bread to Cesar Chavez at the end of Chavez’s fast during the farm workers’ strike against grape growers, Delano, California, March 1968

The civil rights movement of the 1960s gets a much better press than the labor movement. Yet the two causes were intertwined. Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, stood beside Martin Luther King while he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. King spent the last day of his life speaking to sanitation workers who were trying to affiliate with Jerry Wurf’s American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. Civil rights, it was understood, were tangled up with economic rights. Today we’ve wrenched them apart, to the detriment of both, and especially of organized labor.

Cesar Chavez is the one labor figure from the 1960s who remains a household name. That’s mostly because he’s remembered as a champion for Latinos generally and Mexican-Americans specifically. Chavez himself disdained union leaders. He saw his cause as much larger than a labor movement. But it was as president and cofounder of the United Farm Workers (UFW) that Chavez made his mark, and it’s as a union leader that the film director Diego Luna and the scriptwriters Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton portray him in their underappreciated 2014 film, Cesar Chavez.

American movies about labor unions are rare—the last decent one was John Sayles’s Matewan (1987)—and upbeat movies about unions rarer still. Cesar Chavez is both. It tells the story of Chavez’s 1970 victory over California grape growers with more dramatic restraint than is often the case with biopics, and with closer adherence to the facts. It’s a shame the film received scant attention on its theatrical release; as popular art and as history it’s superior to the much-praised Selma. Drawn from a similarly inspirational story, Selma struck me as a pretty good movie marred by its melodramatic and inaccurate portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson.1 Cesar Chavez contains its own somewhat melodramatic portrayal of a president—Ronald Reagan in his days as California governor. But where Selma has Tom Wilkinson as Johnson, Cesar Chavez shows the Gipper himself in archival news footage hammily popping grapes into his mouth and telling reporters that Chavez’s movement is “immoral.”

The end titles of Cesar Chavez inform viewers that five years after Chavez’s victory in 1970 the UFW successfully lobbied the California state government for a law—still the only one in the nation—providing regulatory protection to farmworkers who seek to join a union. That’s a suitably triumphant coda, and a truthful one. But it’s also incomplete. After the grape boycott Chavez’s story grew stranger and darker—dramatic in its own way, but closer in tone to Citizen Kane.

As Miriam Pawel relates in her authoritative biography—the second of two books she has written about the UFW’s rise and fall—Chavez’s personal obsessions, combined with his sudden fame and power, and some of the more malign elements of America’s culture in the 1970s, gradually caused him to turn narcissistic and to encourage a cult built around him. That might not have proved consequential had Chavez relinquished control of his organization to more practical-minded workers, as charismatic leaders often do. But Chavez was a control freak, ever more suspicious of even his closest associates, and he wouldn’t let go. The result was that he failed to enforce and build on union contracts that he had fought for with tactical brilliance. The tragedy of Cesar Chavez’s life was that, having achieved the task of creating a union in an industry uniquely able to resist one, he botched the much less difficult challenge of sustaining it. The California farmworkers ended up only somewhat better off than they were when the Joads journeyed west from the Dust Bowl.

There has never been a time when California agriculture conformed to the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer. The journalist Carey McWilliams observed in his muckraking 1939 history, Factories in the Field:

Travelers along the highways pass through orchards that seem literally measureless and gaze upon vast tracts of farm land stretching away on either side of the road to the distant foothills, yet, curiously enough, there seem to be no farms in the accepted sense. One looks in vain for the incidents of rural life: the schoolhouse on the hilltop, the comfortable homes, the compact and easy indolence of the countryside. Where are the farmers? Where are the farmhouses?

Under Spanish and Mexican rule wealthy families had dominated land ownership. Their giant parcels, few of them surveyed, remained intact after the US acquired California in 1848. Many of them, McWilliams reports, were based on fraudulent land grants hastily drawn up before the transfer to US sovereignty. Congress and the California state government then compounded the monopolization by granting the railroads much of what remained.2


This vast acreage constituted, through the happy accident of California’s particular climate and geological history, the richest farmland in the United States, although much of it had to be irrigated. When the gold rush ended, speculators shifted their attention from the mountains to the valleys and started growing wheat, which could travel by schooner to distant ports without spoiling. When the wheat market collapsed in the 1870s the growers converted the fields to vineyards and orchards. Dried and canned fruit and wine became California’s favored commodities. With the advent of railroad refrigerator cars in 1888 even fresh produce could be shipped east.

From the start, the work of cultivating these outsize tracts was assigned to low-wage migrant laborers. The Spaniards used Native Americans to tend mission fields. American landowners turned to a succession of mostly foreign “tramps”: the Chinese (who also built the levees for water control that made much of the farming possible); then the Japanese and South Asians; then Mexicans and Filipinos. The labor shortages created by the two world wars increased reliance on Mexicans. When the surplus of Okies and African-Americans created during the Great Depression disappeared with the advent of World War II, Washington created a program to bring in guest workers, or braceros (“strong arms”), from Mexico. The wartime measure proved so popular with growers that Congress couldn’t muster the votes to shut it down until 1964. In 1965 the Immigration and Nationality Act created a boom in Mexican immigration, both documented and not, that lasted until the great recession of 2007–2009.

Even as Donald Trump threatens to expel undocumented immigrants, evidence has mounted that the post-1965 migration wave from Mexico, which accounts for the vast majority of the undocumented, is ending. According to Jens Manuel Krogstad and Jeffrey S. Passel of the Pew Research Center, 2014 was the first year in more than six decades in which more non-Mexicans than Mexicans were apprehended at the US border. The decline began in 2000, and so can’t plausibly be attributed to the recession; a likelier cause is Mexico’s improving economy.3

Cesar Chavez, the son of Mexican immigrants, was born in 1927 on a small Arizona homestead built by his grandfather. The family lost the farm near the end of the Depression and moved to California to work in the fields. Cesar stayed in school there for three years—long enough to complete eighth grade—then joined his family in the fields, tending sugar beets and onions in winter, cauliflower, carrots, broccoli, and cabbage in spring, plums, walnuts, and grapes in summer, and lima beans, chilis, corn, peaches, plums, and tomatoes in the fall.

Chavez served two years in the navy and advanced to a better-paid job stacking and sorting lumber when his quick intelligence and astonishing capacity for hard work caught the attention of an Anglo community organizer named Fred Ross. In no time Chavez was running the San Jose office of Ross’s Community Service Organization (CSO), a grassroots group set up to register Mexican-Americans to vote. Eventually Ross persuaded the Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky to fund the CSO through his Industrial Areas Foundation, enabling Ross to hire Chavez full-time at $400 a week. Like migrant farming, the work was itinerant, requiring Chavez to move constantly throughout the state.

Ross had a rare gift for community organizing. His protégé Chavez became Ross’s equal and then surpassed him. But two aspects of the CSO frustrated Chavez. One was that the local organizations he built up so assiduously tended to fall apart after he left. The other was that they tended, over time, to be taken over by Mexican-Americans with middle-class aspirations that Chavez held in contempt. Chavez had become inspired by the examples of Saint Francis and Gandhi. He longed to create and control his own organization that would aid the poor through nonviolent protest. These impulses served Chavez well when, in 1962, he left the CSO to organize farm workers. With his wife Helen and their eight children he resettled in Delano, a small railroad town at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley that was the center of the nation’s grape industry.

Starting a union for California farmworkers was a uniquely difficult task. There were no factory gates where an organizer could hand out leaflets; workers were scattered across vast outdoor spaces, and usually were around for only part of the year. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the New Deal law that provided some protections to employees and unions during organizing drives, didn’t cover agricultural workers. Previous attempts at unionization had repeatedly been crushed by the growers and by local law enforcement, often violently, with eager cooperation from the courts.


But vineyards had certain advantages. “Vines were not like lettuce or tomatoes,” Pawel writes. Seasonal crops were “planted in one field this year and in a different place the next.” Grapes were year-round crops that stayed put, which meant the workers stayed put, too.

Chavez began by joining forces with Filipino farmworkers in a strike near Palm Springs. Other strikes followed. From the start Chavez rejected the idea that he and Dolores Huerta, a former CSO coworker who became his partner in the new effort, were running a union. Partly this was tactical, because winning support from influential labor leaders like Walter Reuther depended on not treading too obviously on the turf of the Filipinos’ fledgling union, which was chartered by the AFLCIO. (Eventually Chavez’s and Huerta’s group would merge with it to form the United Farm Workers.) But Chavez also meant it. “When you read of labor organizing in this country, you can say there is a point where labor is ‘organized,’” he said. “But in community organizing, there is never a point where you can say, ‘It is organized.’”

Chavez knew that strikes and boycotts couldn’t be won without getting some support from national public opinion. The local sheriff, Leroy Galyen, helped out by warning that any picketer who shouted huelga (Spanish for “strike”) to farmworkers would be in violation of the law. Chavez quickly arranged for forty-eight women, including Helen, to get arrested shouting huelga. (The Chavez biopic injects a note of feminist defiance here by having Helen do this against Chavez’s wishes.) The arrests drew the attention of a Senate subcommittee on migratory labor, which in March 1966 traveled to Delano to hold a hearing. Senator Robert Kennedy rose splendidly to the occasion when he questioned Galyen. The scene in the movie follows the transcript almost verbatim:


Magnum Photos

An immigrant couple on a farm labor bus, Fresno, California, 2004; photograph by Matt Black. An exhibition of his work, ‘The Geography of Poverty,’ is on view at Anastasia Photo, New York City, until November 1, 2015.

RFK: Who told you that they’re going to riot?

Galyen: The men right out in the field that they were talking to said, “If you don’t get them out of here, we’re going to cut their hearts out.” So rather than let them get cut, we removed the cause.

RFK: This is the most interesting concept, I think, that you suddenly hear or you talk about the fact that somebody makes a report about somebody going to get out of order, perhaps violate the law, and you go and arrest them, and they haven’t done anything wrong. How can you go arrest somebody if they haven’t violated the law?

According to Pawel, it was Reuther who had the wit to press Kennedy to attend the hearings; according to John Gregory Dunne, who wrote a lively contemporary account, it was Kennedy’s aide Peter Edelman. Maybe both did. In any event, “it was Robert Kennedy who legitimized Chavez,” Dunne wrote. The partnership that developed was, in the manner of most political alliances, mutually beneficial: “Kennedy’s real concern for the farm workers helped soften his image as a self-serving keeper of his brother’s flame,” Dunne wrote, “and in turn plugged Chavez into the power outlets of Washington and New York.”4

The two men’s shared Catholicism was part of the drama at their second joint appearance when Chavez broke the first of many lengthy public fasts. These were intended to turn public opinion against the grape growers. Six days before Kennedy announced his candidacy for president, he flew to Delano to pass Chavez a piece of bread while news cameras rolled. Kennedy couldn’t escape resembling a priest giving Holy Communion. Three months later, Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles and the scene acquired a second meaning as the passing of a torch.

By the summer of 1967 Chavez had achieved modest success, winning half a dozen contracts. But he hadn’t won any from the growers of table grapes; the previous targets had been makers of wines and canned goods. The largest table grape grower in California—and the largest grape grower of any kind in the San Joaquin Valley—was the family-owned Giumarra company.5 To take on Giumarra, Chavez ingeniously turned his union’s greatest weakness—its lack of federal protection under the NLRA—into its greatest asset.

One of the most potent weapons a union can use against management is a secondary boycott—a boycott, that is, not against a product, but against an independent business (say, a store) that sells that product. The maker of the product will fight a boycott with all his force, because it imperils his entire business. But a seller probably won’t, because he has far less at stake. If the product becomes a costly nuisance he’ll just take it down from the shelves. Create a costly nuisance for enough sellers and you can bring a producer to his knees.

Secondary boycotts are so powerful a tactic that Congress outlawed them in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which scaled back labor protections generally in reaction to a wave of postwar strikes. But because Taft-Hartley was a series of amendments to the NLRA, and because the NLRA exempted farmworkers, farmworkers remained free to engage in secondary boycotts. So Chavez launched them, targeting distributors for the big grocery chains, concentrating efforts in New York, Giumarra’s biggest market.

Chavez used his newfound celebrity to go on TV and tell people not to buy Giumarra grapes. Table grapes were an especially shrewd boycott target, Pawel notes, because they weren’t a staple. Grapes were a “luxury item”—a tasty snack food, low in calories but not particularly rich in nutrients. Nobody needed grapes. After Giumarra started disguising its product by borrowing labels from other growers, Chavez expanded the boycott to all California grapes. “This is simple blackmail,” Reagan fumed, and, in a way, it was. By the summer of 1970 Giumarra gave up and signed a contract with the UFW.

The Crusades of Caesar Chavez is a wobbly read for the first third, skimping on historical background, including the stories of central figures like Ross and Huerta, in order to drown readers in trivia about Chavez. (We don’t have to know that, on his induction into the navy, Chavez’s chest “measured thirty-three inches at expiration and thirty-six inches at inspiration.”) The narrative becomes clearer with the grape strike, then hits its stride telling the rest of Chavez’s story. But the rest, alas, is an unhappy tale.

The end of the grape boycott left the UFW with hundreds of contracts with growers. These required attention that Chavez was unwilling to provide. Hiring halls were mismanaged. Seniority rules concerning the treatment of long-standing workers required adjustments. Half the loans in a credit union the UFW started were delinquent, and the state was threatening to shut it down. Chavez’s brother Richard warned him that the union risked being voted out by the rank and file when the contracts came up for renewal. But Chavez refused to provide the resources needed to run the union, and wouldn’t hear the complaints. By 1973 the UFW was down to ten grape contracts, one vegetable contract, and one strawberry contract. A September 1974 New York Times Magazine piece noted that the union had “only a few fragments of the collective bargaining power it won in 1970,” and asked, “Is Chavez Beaten?”

Chavez moved the UFW’s headquarters from Delano, near the farmworkers, to an abandoned tuberculosis sanitarium isolated high in the Tehachapi Mountains that he called La Paz. Chavez relocated his family there and insisted that the other UFW officials do the same; disgruntled UFW employees called it “Magic Mountain.” The organization Chavez wanted to be more than a union was turning into a cult. There were frequent purges, with Chavez abruptly accusing aides of being Communists or in cahoots with the growers.

Eventually Chavez fell in with Charles Dederich, a recovering alcoholic who had founded a drug rehabilitation organization called Synanon and turned it into a religious cult. Synanon followers wore orange overalls, listened raptly to Dederich’s mumbo-jumbo, and played something called the Synanon Game, a truth-seeking free-for-all in which participants were invited to abuse one another verbally. “I manipulate the environment,” Dederich told his new disciple, Chavez. “That’s my triangle job.” Eventually Dederich would be arrested for having a follower place a rattlesnake in the mailbox of a lawyer who’d successfully sued Synanon on behalf of a female abductee. But well before that happened Chavez was requiring UFW employees to attend regular sessions of the Synanon Game at La Paz.

The UFW’s policies toward undocumented workers turned ugly. Chavez had always regarded guest workers and undocumented immigrants as a reserve army of potential scabs—a threat to collective bargaining. That was the standard view unions took toward immigration generally. But when Huerta suggested to Chavez that they avoid the term “wetback,” Chavez replied angrily, “They’re wets, you know. They’re wets, and let’s go after them.” The UFW created its own private security patrol along the southern Arizona border—a “wet line”—to stop Mexicans who were trying to cross it illegally. Frequent reports surfaced of beatings by thugs whom the Mexican victims identified as cesarchavistas. An investigation by the Mexican state of Sonora concluded that the UFW was bribing local police to look the other way when it acted violently.

The UFW’s fortunes revived with the 1974 election as governor of California of Jerry Brown, a former seminarian who admired Chavez. Brown signed into law the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, a sort of NLRA just for farmworkers that expedited union elections and punished growers who declined to negotiate in good faith. By early 1976 the UFW had picked up 192 new contracts.

It was also under Brown that the California state government banned el cortito, the notorious short-handled hoe that required farmworkers to bend over as they moved across the fields. Growers had claimed the work couldn’t be done as well with a long-handled hoe, but the real reason they resisted banning el cortito was that foremen could instantly tell whether a worker was taking a break by standing upright. The tool was so potent a symbol of oppression that it now sits on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington.

Removing el cortito was largely the work of a young lawyer named Maurice Jourdane, who worked for California Rural Legal Assistance, an office created by Washington’s short-lived Office of Economic Opportunity as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. But Jourdane took on the work only after prodding from Chavez. For Chavez the issue was personal, because he’d suffered all his adult life from bouts of severe back pain, the likely result of his own childhood years of stoop labor in the fields.6

But through the 1970s and 1980s Chavez grew progressively less interested in running a union at all. “Repeatedly,” Pawel writes,

Chavez made clear that what excited him was not elections, contracts, or negotiations (which he called “non-missionary” work) but building a community so that everyone would love being in La Paz as much as he did. “If we don’t do that,” he said, “then we don’t have a movement.”

Chavez urged UFW officers to emulate not only Synanon but also Hare Krishna and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. When the UFW celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1987 it was losing more elections than it was winning. Farmworkers told reporters touring California’s agricultural valleys that they’d never seen a UFW organizer. Six years later, Chavez died abruptly from heart failure that seems likely to have been caused by one of his fasts.

In 2006 Pawel published in the Los Angeles Times a memorable series of reports on the UFW after Chavez.7 By then the union had no grape contracts, and represented fewer than seven thousand farmworkers. It was moving into industries other than farming, which meant that it fell under the NLRA and could no longer organize secondary boycotts. Dues, which during Chavez’s lifetime had made up about two thirds of the union’s budget, were down to a third. If the UFW has signed a farm contract within the past two years, I find no evidence on its website; the last posted, a wine grape contract with Papagni Fruit Company, is dated January 2013.

How do farmworkers fare today? They have bathrooms in the fields; when Chavez started out they often didn’t. They have long-handled hoes. But the average pay for a California farmworker, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $19,950, which puts him well below the federal poverty line for a family of four. “In the canyons of Carlsbad north of San Diego,” Pawel reported in her 2006 series,

hundreds of farmworkers burrow into the hills each year, covering their [plastic] shacks with leaves and branches to stay out of view of multimillion-dollar homes. They live without drinking water, toilets, refrigeration. Fireworks and music from nearby Legoland pierce the nighttime skies.

In a larger camp a dozen miles to the south in Del Mar, farmworkers wash their clothes in a stream, bathe in the soapy water, then catch crayfish that they boil for dinner.

It sounds like they need a union.