Chavez, Alinsky, the UFW, and the Modern Labor Movement

Labor Organizing Organizing

ClickHandler.ashxNew Orleans   Frank Bardacke’s Trampling Out the Vintage:  Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers is a mountain of a book at 800 pages.   Reportedly, it took Bardacke fifteen years to write and was edited down from twice that length. A friend said to me recently that he believed it might be the “best book about organizing” he had ever read.  Another said he had read the book twice already.  Clearly, we have an emerging classic here, and a book that may stand out in the shelf of treatments of the UFW as authoritative.   Having just finished it, it’s worth the climb.

            Not long after I began the book, I wrote about the fascinating argument that Bardacke made in the early going about the impact of Chavez’s work with Saul Alinsky while he was a primary organizer for the legendary Community Service Organization (CSO) with Fred Ross in California.  His analysis of Alinsky, his theory, and work, particularly Alinsky’s view of the role of the organizer should be mandatory reading for all community and labor organizers.  Whether you agree or disagree, it is a cautionary tale that warrants midcourse corrections if you see dangerous tendencies that might distort your own work in building organizations and power. 

Miriam Pawel, the author of another excellent book on the UFW several years ago and another on Chavez coming out next year, shared with me a piece of a transcription of a debate in 2012 at the ILWU hall in San Francisco between Mike Miller and Bardacke about the role of Alinsky as a theoretical or practical factor in what later went wrong with Chavez and the UFW. My friend Mike’s case was really his case for Alinsky’s value and commitment to building power.  Bardacke’s argument in Trampling is really the classic one about the role of ends and means.  Both of them are talking past each other and looking for a hook to hang onto.  When it comes to Trampling itself, what Bardacke really writes on Alinsky’s impact on Chavez is a brief on the indictment without ever tying his argument to the evidence on the ground.  I kept waiting for a chapter before the book’s conclusion in this exhaustively researched volume where Bardacke might have some quotes from organizers or others where Chavez was referencing Alinsky or sharing a story of their interactions or whatever.  For Chavez it seems his time with Alinsky was “been there, done that” and “don’t look back.”

Bardacke is also not a big fan of Fred Ross, who I suspect had a much larger influence on Chavez and remained close to him as an organizer and go-to-guy throughout much of their history.  I wonder if there was more about Ross on the cutting room floor.  He slams Ross as a “red baiter” and anti-communist, not atypical of the time, and generally sees him as a hard ass, but pretty much leaves it at that.  I would have liked to have known much more about this, and certainly when Bardacke writes about the major funding source for Alinsky, Ross, and the CSO through the Emil Schwarzhaupt Foundation, the director CarlTjerandsen’s book, Education for Citizenship (1980) is still one of the definitive sources on the way their organizing model really worked, and even with the caveat that he was a funder, it does not fit with Bardacke’s argument given how close they were to the ground.

Bardacke’s real argument on the “two souls” of the UFW is not really about Chavez or Alinsky and their view of organizers as tricksters versus power builders, but essentially whether Chavez believed in workers or the artifice of organization, tactics, and strategy to achieve victory and power.  Bardacke concedes the “brilliance” of Chavez’s tactic in using the grape boycott when the UFW did not have the strength in the fields among the workers to beat the growers, but his heart is in his case on mistakes after the boycott victory and later in lost opportunities where workers were winning strikes in lettuce, lemons, and vegetables around Salinas.  And, then the deluge, as the organization was racked by purges, fad fixes, internal conflict and power struggles, and conflicted leadership challenges for Chavez in his role as leader, organizer, and administrator serving multiple constituencies.   Bardacke sees what was left as less a union than a “farmworker advocacy” organization after that.

            No question there was lost opportunities.   No question the internal staff and leadership dynamics sucked, but there really were few heroes in any of those stories no matter how the deck is stacked for or against Chavez.   I’m also conflicted because I know way too many of the people in the story including Marshall Ganz, Eliseo Medina, Chava Bustamente, Liza Hirsch, George Bailis, Jim Drake, and the list goes on and on.  I don’t have a horse in the blaming race.

            Stepping back, I think Bardacke is nostalgic for the old days of union building as he imagines them, when from time to time workers could face off against bosses, strike, and win.  The classic period of the UFW from 1965 to 1970, also marked the top of the hill for organized labor’s membership as well as a period where Chavez, his colleagues and members were working and fighting in the caldron and glow of great social change and movements throughout the country.   Chavez was brilliantly riding the wave at its crest.   Could the UFW have sustained their growth and membership if they had paid more attention to servicing, bargaining, and the nuts and bolts of day to day union work?   We certainly cannot know, but we do know that other unions that excelled at those functions have shrunk precipitously as well, and we do know that employers have enjoyed a generation of disproportionate strength over workers since the 1970’s.  The strikes later in the 1970s where workers won almost in spite of the union and Chavez, at least in Bardacke’s view, are situational rather than scalable.  Worker victories in the US and around the world still occur obviously, but they are too often situations where workers and their unions catch lightning in the bottle, and rarely replicable.  And, in the last generation they have more often occurred because of skilled utilization of exactly the things that Bardacke disdains.

            He criticizes the UFW’s increased reliance on being a political organization, which is also his critique of Fred Ross’ CSO strategy, but in many ways the UFW’s work in that area is also arguably what makes them a modern union, regardless of their current size.  The labor organizing success from 1970 forward almost always include huge political leverage, certainly in the growth of public employee unions, teachers’ unions, and the ability of unions to organize huge numbers of home health and home day care workers using political leverage to define employers and extract wage and benefit increases. 

            Bardacke is also a romantic if he believes that organizing can be separated from resources.   No amount of dues alone would have made the UFW secure, certainly there was a limit to the subsidies that were going to come from the AFL-CIO and other friendly unions like the UAW.   There is still something brilliant in Chavez’s commitment to trying to build a movement in addition to a union and his ability to create resources within the family of UFW organizations that could support the organizing, the farmworkes, and their families.  Contrary to Bardacke’s critique, a farmworkers union should be a farmworker advocacy organization, just as other unions should also be worker advocacy organizations and are failing their members when they are not.   In fact looking at current strategies around fast food workers and Walmart workers, it seems that a dominant current organizing tendency in the 21st Century at the nadir of organized labor’s strength is to reconnect with our historic tendencies to advocate for better conditions for workers whether the 8 hour day then or a higher minimum wage now

            As an example of what one reviewer saw as the evolution of the union into “non-profit portfolio management” quoting Marshall Ganz in 2009, the farmworkers movement:

…the UFW by 2009 had declined from its peak of 60–70,000 to 5,000 members. It has fourteen non-profits with $42 million in assets, run by the Chavez family. These assets developed out of the capitalization of funds from 1970s and 1980s labor contracts, direct mail marketing, and an investment portfolio. The related National Farm Work Service Center Inc. has assets of $24.6 million and nine radio stations, and builds affordable housing in four states. The Juan de la Cruz Pension Fund in 2004 held $102.7 million in assets, and makes pension payments to only 2,411 retirees. The RFK Medical Plan has $7.9 million in assets, and insures less than 3,000 workers. The UFW has an annual income of $6 million, of which 60 percent comes from fundraising. Union dues in 1992, just before Chavez’s death, were only 27 percent of total income.

Perhaps it is controversial to say so, but in organizing the maxim continues to be that the “organization, not the issue, comes first.”   Unfortunately, these days there are many unions that have more assets in various directions than they have members, what a friend wrote of some years ago as the “edifice complex.”  Part of an organizing strategy has to be a survival strategy as well in order for the organization to be able to continue to fight. 

Farm work and farm workers are a diminishing part of the entire workforce.  Regardless of his various aberrations and errors, it is hard not to wonder if Chavez in his own idiosyncratic way didn’t always understand that their fight always had to be bigger than the fields and all of them to have a chance of winning coupled with a sober analysis that a union was only one of many vehicles in that struggle and possibly the hardest one to keep alive.

As organizers we have to be careful of even great books with great biases like Barnacke’s Trampling, especially when the UFW may have been the last of the old unions and the first of the modern unions, and we’re still stuck with a hundred million workers who are unorganized and declining resources to do the job.