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The United Farm Workers Was More Than Cesar Chavez

Frank Bardacke

The United Farm Workers is often seen as a simple extension of labor giant Cesar Chavez. But the UFW’s rank-and-file workers were a militant, organized core that won inspiring strikes and formed the true heart of the union.

Protesters and supporters march during the United Farm Workers’ 1,000 Mile March in California, summer 1975. (Cathy Murphy / Getty Images)

Interview by
Sasha Lilley

Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) may seem synonymous. The charismatic leader headed up the union through strikes and boycotts that garnered nationwide attention and made him a labor icon.

But as former farmworker Frank Bardacke argues in his book, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, the history of the UFW needs to be understood from the bottom up. Rather than focusing solely on Chavez, Bardacke spotlights the UFW’s militant rank and file, who brought their own radical traditions to the union and clashed with union staff in ways that shaped the organization’s fate.

Radical journalist Sasha Lilley interviewed Bardacke on the California-based radio show Against the Grain about his book, life as a farmworker, and the rise and fall of the UFW.


SL

How did you become involved with the United Farm Workers and farm work in the Salinas Valley?

FB

I left Berkeley in 1970 to work at a GI coffeehouse. The idea was that the coffeehouse would support us financially while we did antiwar work with GIs at Fort Ord, but it didn’t. I went through various jobs, and eventually I picked up a hitchhiker in 1971 who said he had just worked in the field of the Salinas Valley, that there had been a big strike in 1970 and the UFW had won — there were contracts at four companies. He said that you could go into the UFW office, get a dispatch, and go out into the fields.

I did that with a friend of mine. We discovered in the fields a whole life that I found fascinating and that I was unprepared for. It was like coming to Detroit in 1938, right after the sit-down strike, and feeling the momentum and power of workers. The crews that we were on were very powerful people and had a sense of their own efficacy.

Within a couple of years, I worked myself onto a collective piece-rate crew picking celery, which in the mid-1970s made very good money. It was the Golden Age for California farmworkers. We made $14 an hour. We worked six months a year and got unemployment the other six months. It was physically difficult but not physically impossible. And I got very interested in Spanish and the life of the crews.

When I went into the fields, I was sort of washed out politically. It was the farmworkers, life on the crew, and the level of daily struggle that revived my political hope.

SL

What did you see when you arrived in those fields and saw workers who had a sense of their own power?

FB

It’s the essential thing somebody has to understand if they want to understand the history of the United Farm Workers.

Agriculture is a very special kind of industry because the product is not continuous. You have to invest money, to pay for the ground rent, to put money into weeding, and to apply the pesticides if you’re going to be that kind of farmer. And then the harvest is a very short duration.

If farmworkers strike during harvest time, it’s a disaster for the grower. So farmworkers, historically, have quite a bit of power — but periodic power during harvest time. And they were used to using it when I got there.

If workers smelled pesticides in the field, they’d stay in the bus and demand that someone come out and inspect the fields. People would work at their own pace. It was very difficult for the foreman to speed them up.

Agricultural production is not really mechanized. They tried to mechanize it, but in vegetables and fruits, where the UFW was strong, people still worked with tools in their hands and were not driven by any machines. When you tried to speed them up — this even happens today — they’d skip over plants or wouldn’t weed the plants right or wouldn’t harvest everything that needed to be harvested.

The student movement of the ’60s was pretty powerful. I lived through it. But I saw a level of daily struggle and collective action in the fields that was unknown to me.

The second thing that’s important is that on the piece-rate crews, people work collectively and are paid collectively. So a crew of lettuce cutters, or celery workers, are paid one price for every box they produce, and then they split it evenly among themselves. The jobs are distributed to be equally difficult.

The other thing is that these crews were made up of relatives — father and sons sometimes, brothers, cousins, or people from the same small towns in Michoacán or in Jalisco, Mexico. They stayed together over years and had a sense of solidarity and closeness and connectedness. The crews had leaders who people looked to for leadership.

All of that happened before the UFW got there. Now, as I said, their power was periodic. It was strongest at harvest time, and they had not been able to build a union. But they had power nonetheless.

SL

You write very beautifully about the labor process on the farms and the mistaken assumption that because it’s low paid, it’s low skilled. Can you explain that?

FB

Before World War II, farmworker wages were not that much behind industrial wages — David Runsten estimates about 85 to 90 percent. In some areas, farmworker wages were higher than industrial wages. The Bracero [guestworker] Program (1942–64) is when farmworkers fell way behind industrial wages: farmworker wages were about 60 percent of industrial wages.

The growers were extremely worried about losing their tens of thousands of contracted laborers through the Bracero Program. They dreamed of mechanizing the fields. But the problem they had — and they haven’t been able to solve it so far — is that nature matures unevenly.

When you harvest a broccoli field, for instance, you have to go through several times because the buds on the broccoli plant mature unevenly. Somebody has to come in and cut the ones that are ready and leave the ones that aren’t. They can’t devise a machine that’s as keen as human sight, nor a cutting machine that’s as cunning as the human hand.

SL

Histories of the United Farm Workers tend to place Cesar Chavez at the center of the story, whether they’re hagiographic or critical of him. You set out to write a book that instead focused on the rank and file. Why is that?

FB

First, if you think of the history of the United Farm Workers as an aspect of the biography of Cesar Chavez, you can’t understand the union’s decline. It is just a mystery. People get into all kinds of weird explanations like “Cesar went crazy.”

Second, I had certain ideological reasons. Clearly, I believe in the power of the rank and file.

Third, I wanted to write about these farmworker crews, and nobody else was ever going to write about them. They’re monolingual Spanish speakers. There are hardly any writers among them. Many are illiterate. They are marvelous storytellers because they live in an oral culture, and they’re smart and skilled. But nobody was going to tell their story because there was nobody from that group who would tell their story.

And you had to tell their story in relationship to the UFW staff and to the UFW as a boycott organization. Those stories alone don’t make sense. When you understand the trajectory of the UFW as a mix of successful periods when the staff and the farmworkers were working together and periods of failure when those two souls of the union were in conflict, then things become clear.

SL

With that in mind, how would you describe the origins of the United Farm Workers?

FB

After increasing strikes in the fields in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Cesar Chavez tried to get where he was working, the Community Service Organization (CSO), to put money and staff into organizing farmworkers. They wouldn’t, so he left the CSO and founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in 1962.

The NFWA wasn’t a union. It did things like take people to the labor commissioner if they had disputes on the job and help people with social service agencies. They had a service center, a funeral plan, a life insurance plan, and health clinics. They worked closely with liberals in the Democratic Party to try to make the law more favorable to farmworkers. (At the time farmworkers were completely left out of labor law: they didn’t have unemployment insurance or disability insurance.) There was maybe a hundred people in the NFWA and a couple hundred families.

Then the Bracero Program ended, and Filipino grape workers in the Central Valley struck for higher wages. Filipinos had the richest union history in the California fields. They had been involved in many strikes, and had built two successful unions in the 1930s. They were only 30 percent of the workforce, however. People could see that they were going to be defeated. People went to Chavez and asked, “What should we do”? He said, “Honor the Filipino picket lines” and eventually the NFWA called Mexican workers out on strike too.

There had been a tradition in the California fields of Mexicans scabbing on Filipino strikes and Filipinos scabbing on Mexican strikes. Chavez understood that an act of solidarity between Mexicans and Filipinos would be the basis for an organization in the Central Valley that could possibly be victorious. Even though he felt that he was going into a losing strike, he called folks out on strike.

He also had the vision that liberals and unions across the country could be mobilized to support the strike. It was incredibly insightful. After a couple of weeks the strike was defeated, but the UFW decided to keep the strike alive notionally. (What does it mean to be on strike when there’s no harvest going on?) For the next three or four years they had “legitimacy strikes,” where people went out on strike to support the grape boycott and give the boycott legitimacy. It became the most powerful boycott in American history.

The NFWA became the UFW during that period. Chavez put his misgivings about unions on the back burner and became a unionist.

SL

Who made up the rank and file of the United Farm Workers, and where did they come from, not just in terms of geography but politically and socially?

FB

People generally aren’t “farmworkers.” People are grape workers, or celery workers, or lettuce workers, or lemon or orange pickers, or strawberry workers. With all these different crops, there are different people who worked them. In 1965, the people who worked in the grapes were Mexican Americans, Tejanos (migrants from Texas), and Filipinos. The Mexican Americans were rooted in the area around Delano; they were no longer migrants.

The labor process in grapes is not as collective as the labor process in vegetables. People are organized into small groups, often family groups, and get paid by the family group. In the grapes, when the strike happened, some of those families would walk out, and some of them would stay on strike, whereas in the vegetables, that never happened. The crew either went out together, or stayed in together because the crew itself, the thirty-five or thirty-seven men and women (often just men), were so united that it was inconceivable that some would scab and some would strike. That gave the vegetable workers more power than the grape workers.

When you go to the vegetables, you meet a whole different group of people. These people had originally been braceros. Some of them became green carders and some of them, after the end of the Bracero Program, came back as people without papers. They came from Michoacán, Jalisco, Guanajuato [City], and were very often Cardenistas — followers of Lázaro Cárdenas, who was, to put it very crudely, the Franklin D. Roosevelt of Mexico. As president of Mexico in the 1930s, he partially fulfilled the promise of the Mexican Revolution and distributed land to the peasantry.

One of the heroes of my book is a guy named Hermilo Mojica. His great-uncle was Francisco Múgica, who was part of Cardenas’s cabinet and the person most responsible for the nationalization of “gringo” oil in the 1930s. His father was an Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) official when the PRI was still a left party.

Another hero of my book is Aristeo Zambrano, a leader in the UFW whose grandfather had walked from Chavinda, where he lived, to Mexico City to get the documents to become an ejido, or collective farm. Cardenas personally gave him a rifle and told him, “I gave you a piece of paper that says you own the land. Here’s a rifle that you’re going to need to protect it.”

The UFW’s power on the ground among Mexicans was built by highly political people, very much like the Europeans who had come to the US in previous generations and helped build the labor movement. Not only are these people skilled, highly paid, and collectively organized, but they have political ideas of their own that are somewhat different from the political ideas of the union staff as led by Cesar Chavez.

SL

How did those two differing perspectives come to clash in the United Farm Workers?

FB

The best way to put it is that there was a structural explanation for the conflict. Ordinarily in a union, there’s a local office that collects dues and where people are voted in as local officials. Then that local sends a proportion of the dues to the national office and keeps a proportion themselves. Within a lot of American unions, there’s a tremendous amount of autonomy.

In the UFW, nothing like that existed. Instead of local offices there were field offices, and the people in the field offices were appointed by the executive board and ultimately appointed by Cesar Chavez. The people who worked in the fields had no way to elect anybody onto the UFW staff. They had no way to express their power on the staff. In periods of mass upheaval, like during strikes, they worked in close cooperation with the union staff. But they had no formal power inside the union.

The staff itself also had other sources of income — they didn’t live entirely off of farmworker dues. For most of the life span of the UFW, they got more money from other unions, donations, and the reinvestments of their health plan and pension plan than they got from farmworker dues. So they were less accountable to the members in terms of their financial condition, and they were less accountable to the members because there was no way for the members to elect themselves to the staff.

In any union, there are going to be tensions, troubles, and mild contradictions between the rank and file and the staff. That’s just built into the situation. It’s a question of how you handle them. In the UFW, that contradiction was tremendously intensified.

The 1979 strike was the most successful strike in California history, and the UFW won it in the fields, not through the boycott. In the process of that victory, they won the right to elect people as full-time paid representatives. Chavez, during the middle of that strike, felt that it should be called off and that everybody should go on a boycott. But the workers were powerful enough in the midst of the strike that they could defy him and carry on the strike without his support.

After the strike victory, the people elected to these paid rep positions had been the leaders of the strike who had defied Cesar. That was the beginning of the problem. They had a whole different attitude about what was the most powerful farmworker weapon. Cesar continued to believe that it was the boycott. The workers continued to believe that it was the strike.

There was also disagreement over whether there should be continued organizing. The UFW, even though it was highly successful, still only had a third of the vegetable industry organized. Cesar didn’t want to expand it. He wanted to consolidate. The workers felt that they needed to expand.

Finally, there was a huge clash over the very meaning of the fields. The workers didn’t hate the fields. They considered themselves craftsmen. They were proud of being farmworkers. They were doing very well in life, largely because of the success of the UFW. To have that success, they needed cooperation with the UFW staff. They needed the cooperation of all these unions, and the liberals, and all that. But they weren’t poor, suffering farmworkers.

But Chavez and the staff won that fight, and in the process of winning that fight, they trampled the very best of the rank and file and destroyed the union.

SL

That differing vision really played out in the 1980s as the union became transformed into more of a worker-advocacy organization. It tried to appeal to people who might be concerned about the poor plight of these people rather than try to sustain and build a rank and file–driven, militant organization.

FB

By the mid-1980s, the union was basically finished. There were about five thousand union members who had contracts that were not really any better than the wages and conditions of anybody else in the fields. The union remained as a kind of farmworker advocacy group and a family business.

There’s nothing wrong with farmworker advocacy, but the UFW was no longer a living, strong, vital, union force in the fields. What happened was that right on the tail of this fight between the leaders of the rank and file in the vegetable industry and the union staff, George Deukmejian was elected as the Republican governor of California and on an anti-UFW platform. It was a grower counteroffensive.

California agriculture bided its time for when Deukmejian came in, and they knew about the UFW’s internal fight, so they fought the union in various ways. Lots of times they just changed the name of the company, and because there was no succession clause in the contracts, they got out of the union representation.

The UFW was in no position to fight back because the leadership on the ground had been politically emasculated. The attempts to renew the boycott was basically impossible — it was the ’80s, not the ’60s.

It would have been difficult for the UFW to hold on in the face of this grower offensive. But they didn’t even have a chance because they had internally self-destructed. If the unity between the staff and the farmworker leadership and those crews had continued, and if somehow Chavez had been able to incorporate farmworker power into the actual structural organization of the UFW, I think they would have had a fighting chance.