Understanding Chavez by Understanding Alinsky?

IMG_5749Rock Creek   I don’t know how many books I have now read about Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers over the years.  Maybe a dozen?  Maybe two dozen? In the early ones fresh from the footsteps of the marches with the banners waving, the adulation was almost so thick that it was hard for an organizer to really piece together what made the UFW tick.  The heroic stage was hard to miss, and of course the boycott was a surprising and somewhat amazing tactic certainly.

            I had first seen Chavez up close at a small press conference with George Wiley in early 1970 when I was visiting Washington, D.C. for the first time as an adult, to negotiate my wages and an agreement to organize ACORN in Arkansas with George, then the executive director of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), where I was then head organizer of Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization based in Boston.   George told me to come along, and we walked over somewhere near the Capitol where we joined Chavez.  I think the press conference or whatever it might have been was supposed to be a showcase for Chavez and the UFW to endorse the NWRO campaign for Adequate Income Now.  There were perhaps twenty people around.  I was introduced to Cesar by George in blushing terms for a 21-year old organizer, standing among legends.  I was struck by several things.  How small a man he was,  how quietly, almost inaudibly he spoke during his remarks, and how uncharismatic and plain he seemed in person.  Years later we invited Chavez to speak in St. Louis at the ACORN’s Platform Conference in 1979 at Washington University there, and he spoke quietly and simply as he endorsed ACORN’s fight then, and we were honored to have him.  I still have the picture in my office of Chavez sitting next to ACORN’s first president Steve McDonald on the dais. 

            Only recently now more than 30 years on, have books started penetrating the myths of the man and looking more soberly, and with perhaps even great interest to organizers, at what really happened inside the UFW that took the union from the peaks down into the valleys.  Some more recent books are still reserved (Ganz), others focus on specific themes like recruitment and impact on future organizers (Shaw), some on particular strikes like lettuce (Neuberger), or pick heroes and villains in dismantling the myths and starting to revise the story of both rise and fall (Pawel) making us gradually feel we are starting to get closer to the real story that we both need to know and in some ways don’t want to know about life within the organization. 

            Josh Miller, professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and an ACORN staffer many decades ago, tipped me off to a new book that thus far intriguingly seems to be getting closer and closer to the bone.  While coming back to the grid, I got an email from him asking me what I thought about what Frank Bardacke was saying about community organizing in Trampling Out the Vintage:  Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers.  I wasn’t familiar with the book, but promised Josh I would check it out, and downloaded to the Kindle before going back off-the-grid.  The book is long, and I’m not a quarter through, so the jury is still out.  The work is detailed, so much so that in the early going, I wondered what Josh might have gotten me into here.  I was fascinated, literally, about the pros and cons of celery knives, but was coming to the conclusion that I might learn way more about farmwork from Bardacke, than I ever would about either about the UFW or organizing, until I came to chapter 4 on his penetrating and brilliant critique and analysis of Alinsky, and perhaps as importantly, Fred Ross and his impact on Chavez and Chavez’s decade of experience with the Community Service Organization.  Now this was great stuff and going deep.

            The United Farm Workers are still alive though no more well than any other unions, perhaps less so, but they are a long way from being finished, just as I’m a long way from finishing this book, but Trampling through the Vintage may finally get us closer to the ground where the UFW grew and to the people and problems that plagued it later.

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