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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Power and Paradox of Cloward & Piven “Breaking the Bank” Strategy

Toronto Fran Piven is a brilliant scholar and political theorist, still vitally engaged

Glenn Beck crazy about Fran Piven
Glenn Beck crazy about Fran Piven

at the cutting edges of her work while still affiliated with CUNY’s Graduate Center, and someone I count as colleague and friend over our 40 years.  We spoke months ago.  She called for advice about how to handle the sudden interest in her work by Glenn Beck and sneak artist video bloggers who had tricked their way into her home pretending to be students engaged in the same pursuit of truth and justice.

My advice:  water off a duck’s back – ignore it.  The old Huey Long axiom, as quoted by the great LSU historian, T. Harry Williams:  “there is no adequate defense for a public attack.”  In essence let it go.

Fine advice that was!  It now develops some of the whacks have been threatening enough to require Professor Piven to report them to the FBI, which knowing Fran, she would not have done lightly. My rule of thumb for the Beck crowd had been “delete” and “ignore.”  God knows where to draw the line these days.

The irony of all of this is that we are dealing with the power of an article that Fran wrote with her partner Dick Cloward in The Nation in the 1960’s which argued famously for a so-called “break the bank” strategy to achieve what I now call “maximum eligible participation” and in this case that mean the very basic achievement of the full benefits in the welfare system of the time that eligible families were entitled to receive.  “Breaking the bank” was a rhetorical flourish essentially arguing within both a kinder liberalism of that time, hard as it may be to believe now, and a more palpable fear, particularly of race and riots in the urban core, that government policy makers would inevitably be forced to attempt to calm and co-opt the poor and therefore raise the grossly inadequate benefits to something more humane.  Is that radical?  Hardly!  It was a fine piece of strategic thinking coupled with the kind of phrasing that attempted to force policy change and organizers into action.   Fran should be proud of the power of that piece, no matter how mangled and misunderstood by Glenn Beck and his followers.

The irony obviously is that at the time Fran and Dick were both fierce and patient advocates of such a strategy in the face of their disappointment that in fact the leadership and organizers of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) under Dr. George Wiley though sympathetic to the aims and paying lip service to the advice would neither adopt nor implement the strategy.  This led to long, fascinating, and bitter debates.  As a young organizer with NWRO being a part of these late night discussions at places like Bucky’s Town, Maryland and elsewhere was exciting and dramatic as organizers picked sides and struggled with the issues and devastating arguments that Fran would make or the passionate positions that Dick would take.  In the end of the day they were critical of both NWRO and organizers in general in many of their subsequent works for having been “distracted” into building organization, rather than following the arc of movement and protest to the maximum levels of pressure for change.

So now paradoxically, Beck is essentially blaming Fran Piven for a strategy that was brilliantly articulated, yet left her sometimes seemingly bitter because it was a strategy that was  effectively discarded.  Fran has written that in fact NWRO and its organizers were less useful in increasing welfare rolls than the waves of VISTA volunteers assigned to Community Action Programs around the country who signed up many eligible families for welfare not for any political or policy reasons, but simply because it was what they thought they were supposed to do in the War on Poverty.   There is a clear record of this in Fran’s lectures, remarks, and writings for decades, such that many of us as organizers have often chafed at the arguments and been equally passionate in the rebuttal that we were not simply chasing members and dues rather than creating change and power, as she and Dick sometimes seems to argue.  Being interviewed by a conservative writer for a piece published last year, he was astounded to find that Cloward and Piven were not the St. James version of the Bible that guided us in the work at that time.

All of this would require Beck and the right wing zealots to actually read more of Cloward and Piven than an article in The Nation. It is probably easier to ask for civility as many are doing now in the wake of these threats to Fran Piven than to actually ask people to read her work and face reality both then and now.

Of course conservatives should be very careful what they are asking by once again raising Fran’s ideas and advocacy to the forefront of discussion in these times.  This time around it might be different.  Organizers might take a hard look and debate anew some of these old arguments and find there are some blueprints worth adopting and finally putting into practice.

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