Farm Workers in a Box

9781596914605Orange Beach It’s not a happy experience reading Miriam Pawel’s book on the United Farm Workers Union, The Union of their Dreams, but for those of us in the work, it’s worth the climb no matter how unsettling the view.  I reached out for her through Google triangulation in order to seek permission to excerpt the book in a coming issue of Social Policy, so I’ll leave the real discussion of issues raised in the book for the magazine.

My old comrade, Gary Delgado, had recommended the book and given me a come-on line about Cesar Chavez’s vision of building a Poor People’s Union, which piqued my interest and sent me to Amazon, but that was a tease.  The power of this book is the picture it paints of the unraveling of the United Farm Workers from the inside with Cesar Chavez as the primary string puller of the demise.  Marshall Ganz in his book on the farm workers opened the window a crack sufficiently to confirm some of the stories one had heard over the years.  Reading Pawel, I suspect he had no choice, especially given the multi-part series in the Los Angeles Times a couple of years before which opened the box on the Game, Synanon, and Chavez adaptation of the tool as an internal disciplinary device within the union.  Other recent writers took different angles on the story, but Pawel’s book will reshape the debate for professionals and impact the discussion on Chavez’s legacy for everyone else.

Perhaps its tangential but I couldn’t believe how much of Pawel’s book was inarguable because it came directly from tapes of National Executive Board and other meetings and conferences, hidden conveniently right out in the open at the Wayne State University labor archives in Detroit.  Chavez is clearly on record questioning the work and loyalty of long time staff and even organizers and leaders working at the time of the meetings themselves.  It’s almost a Richard Nixon – Rosemary Woods repeat.  What were they thinking ?  How could the vaunted UFW Legal Department have allowed them to have those tapes?  How did they prevent these tapes from being regurgitated in the hundreds of lawsuits and injunctions filed to stop the union?

The other major sources are the private papers of Chris Hartmire, former head of the ministry supporting the farm workers, and Eliseo Medina, all of which included letters back and forth with Chavez and each other, as well as the kind of self-serving notes and unsent letters and memos that most would have lost or destroyed over the last 30 to 40 years.  Undoubtedly they kept what they had because they knew they were playing a small part in something historic, but…gee?

The Farm Worker culture was to keep the union business inside the union, which makes good sense for institutions under constant attack.  I wonder now if many of the principals didn’t have one eye on history, including their own role, and the other on the grape.  There’s more to come before we find a real balance to this important story and the role of everyone who played a part in both the dream, the history, and its real tale telling the best we can be and the most human we often are.

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