Do Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Deserve This?

ACORN International

cesar-chavezTegucigalpa The annual board meeting of ACORN International is being held next week and this year it will be held in Honduras to celebrate the two offices opened in this country last year.  While flying I read the paper and more than once a front page article entitled “Family Quarrel Imperils a Labor Hero’s Legacy.”

I found the article troubling, because it was hard for me to see what was supposed to be the “news” here?  What was of such weight that it found its way to the front page of the New York Times?

Was a family feud really that important?  Hardly.  The “news hook” was a lawsuit filed in March.  This is mid-May.  The allegations arise two years ago in 2009.  This is mid-2011!

Is there a sudden concern about Chavez’s “legacy?”  The article and its author, Jennifer Medina, belie that angle themselves in a later paragraph saying:  “Family members, without exception, talk about Cesar Chavez with deep reverence. They blanch at any criticism of the movement, as they refer to the broad work of the union under his watch.”

He’s been dead over 18 years since 1993 for goodness sakes, so exactly how his legacy might be “imperiled” as the headline blasts was also difficult to determine.

His role in modern culture is at this point secure and transcends the reality of his work and life, strengths, which were many, and weaknesses, which were also significant.  Like Martin Luther King, he speaks to the recognition and aspirations of a substantial people, the emerging Latin American majority, who have taken voice and dignity from his the way he lived and worked.  For Dr. King his speeches and position within the civil rights movement trump anything else.  With Chavez his humility, his fasts, and his dedication – not his success – in trying to give voice and organization to Latinos and the the invisible toilers of soil have secured his stature permanently, regardless of anything else.

All of this seems mean spirited.  Are we somehow to  believe that there is a sudden surge of care and concern for the plight of the farmer worker or the fact that the organization has lost membership in the last 35 to 40 years?  Certainly that his also not news, nor has anyone outside of the world of labor done much about this.  I found it ironic that Artie Rodriguez, the President of the UFW was not interviewed nor was their any commentary or reckoning with his struggles, small successes and failures over his tenure at the head of the union.  The revival of the farm workers union was a huge program under John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO, who directed millions and deployed great organizers like Stephen Lerner and Mark Splain for years to the task.

Frankly, I’m suspicious of the article for the quotes pulled in support of this strained slam at unions, farm workers, and their leaders.

This issue of Social Policy and an excerpt we are running on the front page of our website at covers perhaps the most controversial and devastating chapter in Miriam Pawel’s book, A Union of Their Dreams, which is the story of the purges of top leaders and organizers implemented by Chavez as he tried in misguided and sometimes bizarre ways to refocus the union on what he saw as its roots and values and retested loyalties and commitments to the union’s foundational principles.  Organizers may agree or disagree with Chavez’s ways and means, and these issues need to be surfaced and debated, but none of that imperils a legacy.   In corresponding with Pawel repeatedly I know how cautious she was in even allowing me permission to excerpt the piece because she did not want to be seen as defaming Chavez or that struggle.   Yet Medina has this quote in the piece justifying this curious story:

When Cesar Chavez was alive, he was a major force in California politics and agriculture. “The problem now is that the organization has simply drifted,” said Miriam Pawel, who has written a book about the union and is working on a biography of Mr. Chavez. “It has become a family-run organization that is sort of purposeless and does little or nothing to help farm workers.”

Normally, I would have believed that Pawel was misquoted, but since she personally forwarded the article to me, until I speak with her directly, I have to believe that she was not offended by the quote or she would have said so.

My friend the brilliant author of so many penetrating books, Mike Davis, who is also one of the most difficult guys in the world to track down, seems to have been right at hand for a call from the Times, and not surprisingly more reasonably hits the nail on the head at the end of this attack piece:

“In many ways, we’re back to square one for farm workers,” said Mike Davis, a California historian and a former union activist. “We have this wonderful myth and a model for kids to emulate in Cesar Chavez, but you could basically go to any field and rewrite ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ all over again.”

Now this is a story worth writing in America today.  In the 21st Century we have almost medieval conditions in the fields or certainly situations that hark back to the Great Depression and the stories of Steinbeck.  We have a union that has been beaten and broken since Chavez on time which cannot carry the weight and burden of solving these problems while we have an industry and government callous, indifferent, ineffectual, and uninterested in solving these issues.

As Davis and Pawel would surely agree, all men and women of history are as much myth as muscle, so when the job of defaming unions, workers, their families, their dreams, and their work is finished, the hard job still remains.

What about all of that?  When does the pissing start and the next parade begin?