Tag Archives: George Wiley

Nick Kotz, left, greets Upton Sinclair at the White House in 1967 (Photo: AP)

A Passion for Equality

Pearl River     The other day I read a belated obituary on Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Nick Kotz.  He had passed away at 87 on his cattle farm in Virginia of a freak accident involving a vehicle.  The obit celebrated his work, while an investigative reporter based in Washington for the Des Moines Register and the Minneapolis Tribune, in winning the prize through his reporting on unregulated meatpacking plants, that were escaping inspection, because they were not involved in interstate commerce.  This reporting in the mid-1960s, led to the passage of the Federal Wholesome Meat Act of 1967, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson with Kotz, Ralph Nadar, and Upton Sinclair, the notorious muckraker who had exposed conditions in meatpacking a generation earlier, in the White House ceremony.

I knew Nick, and his wife, Mary Lynn, in another context as the authors of A Passion for Equality:  George A. Wiley and the Movement, published in 1977.  George Wiley was the founder and director of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) from 1966 to about 1972, and earlier had been deputy director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) I had met them when I was an organizer for the National Welfare Rights Organization in 1969 and 1970 in Massachusetts.  They were reporters obviously, and that meant that as organizers we were hardwired not to trust them, but it was hard to deny their support for welfare rights, which was never a highly populated crowd.

George Wiley died in a boating accident in August of 1973.  The Kotz book wasn’t published until 1977.  Nick interviewed me for the book, so a passing mention was included and some note of the Springfield riot in 1969 and my arrest.

I always wondered what George would have thought of Nick’s book, if he had had the opportunity to read it.  Like any biography of someone you knew personally and respected greatly, you underline the parts that seemed right and chafe at the parts that seem wrong.  Any inaccuracy rubs like a cocklebur in your shoe.

Nonetheless, I liked the fact that Nick and Mary Lynn had written the book and were serious people who took George and NWRO as seriously as those of us did who worked there or were leaders and members of NWRO. Their love for George matched that of so many of the rest of us, and it shone clearly throughout the book.  That counted for a lot.

The book’s title alone was a gift.  I always felt I owned Nick a debt, along with Mary Lynn, for doing their part in making sure that George Wiley, his life, and his work would not be forgotten.  They served his memory and legacy well.  It’s hard to ask more.  We all do our part, each in our own way.

Thanks again, Nick.

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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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