A dissident’s view of the rise and the fall of the United Farm Workers union.
By Duane Campbell
Frank Bardacke’s Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. (2011, Verso). is the view of a well- informed observer who worked in the lettuce fields near Salinas for six seasons, then spent another 25 years teaching English to farm workers in the Watsonville, Cal. area. His views on the growth and decline of the United Farm Workers union – some of which I do not share– offer important points of history and reflection for unionists today, particularly those working with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Trampling Out the Vintage, provides several insights not previously developed in well informed books on the UFW including important differences between grape workers and workers in row crops such as lettuce; the length of time workers were in the UFW, the more settled family nature of grape workers, the strength of each type of ranch committees, the leadership of ranch crews ( and thus the potential differences in creating democratic accountability), and the differing histories of worker militancy in different crops. The author correctly argues that each of these led to somewhat different organizing environment in building the union. He also details problems of administrative mismanagement in the hiring halls in the grape areas and alleged mismanagement of organizing within the union sponsored health care insurance and clinic systems .
Based upon his own experiences and the histories of workers in the Salinas valley, Bardacke makes the case that farm workers- not Cesar Chavez – created the union. They built their union on a long history of previous collective work stoppages and strikes. The union was created on the ground in Delano, Salinas, Watsonville, and surrounding towns- not in the union headquarters of La Paz. The author reveals his strong viewpoint in the title apparently referring to Chavez “Trampling out the Vintage” where a union had been created.
In 1962 Cesar Chavez made the decision to organize the settled mostly Mexican American workforce in and around Delano - a grape growing region in California’s Central Valley. Based upon his prior work with Community Services Organization (CSO) [U1] and his training by Fred Ross in the Saul Alinksy tradition, Chavez decided to organize entire families into an association, not just the workers into a union. This required, for example, organizing women as family members and as workers. Most of the working families had settled in the area; they had roots, they stayed year- around rather than migrating from place to place. Chavez saw this population as a base for building a permanent organization. The decision to focus on Delano and its semi-permanent grape workers was a choice to not focusing on recently arrived Mexican workers – those whom Bardacke worked among in the Salinas valley. Bardacke criticizes the decision by Chavez and Dolores Huerta to organize the more family-established Mexican Americans rather than the more migrant Mexican workers in the vegetable and row crops.
Several of Bakrdacke’s central arguments are well established. Labor writer Steve Early, for one, reviewing Randy Shaw’s book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st. Century, writes:
Chávez was not accountable to anyone within the UFW. Rank-and-file critics of his charismatic leadership were purged, then black-listed, and driven from the fields in truly disgraceful fashion.
Over time, Chávez further stifled "creative internal deliberation" by replacing "experienced UFW leaders with a new, younger cadre, for whom loyalty was the essential qualification,” Shaw reports. The result was a dysfunctional personality cult.” (Steve Early, http://talkingunion.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/a-union-of-their-dreams-becomes-a-nightmarehas-ufw-history-been-replayed-in-seiu/)
Part of the problem in responding to Trampling Out the Vintage, is that supporters of the Farmworkers Movement have spent so much time and energy defending the UFW and its members from growers, from capitalists, and from politicians. Recall that the UFW’s major growth occurred while Ronald Reagan was governor of California. In this troubling times it was difficult to step back and examine internal union development. Bardacke describes important union issues of the UFW failing to develop worker control over their own union, the lack of democratic leadership, and the failure to develop new worker leadership. He does not deal with the highly contentious and controversial relevant issue of how the Teamsters maintained control of the racially stratified and anti democratic unions of mostly Mexican American workers in the canneries and packing sheds at the same time.
Berdacke does provide details of authoritarian control of the union and the executive board, explaining them as a result of individual psychological manifestations of Cesar Chavez’ power. For evidence of this abuse and failure Bardacke , like Miriam Pawell in A Union of Their Dreams, uses the board’s own recorded meeting minutes.
Bardacke claims of authoritarian control are supported by other sources. Marshall Ganz in his excellent book, Why David Sometimes Wins; Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement, (2009) says, “Between 1977 and 1981, Chavez undid the UFW’s strategic capacity. The changes irrevocably altered the character of the UFW leadership. Instead of a diverse team with both strong and weak ties to multiple constituencies, it became a narrow circle of people with strong ties, often Chavez family members or dependents.” ( p.247.)
We can agree that a consolidation of power occurred and that it led to a weakening of the union and harm to its members. We need not agree to the psychological interpretation Bardacke gives for why this consolidation was successful. It’s here I think Bardacke’s case is weak.
The author tells the story of centralizing recognition and power in the person of Cesar Chavez . Like all authors, Bardacke selects what to tell to develop his narrative. His selections in deciding what to report about in 1962 lead to his conclusions about what happened in 1984. If you are going to create a historical record to argue your viewpoint, you need to present your evidence in the context of the historical period
In most cases Bardacke does this. At others, times, however, he argues for what could have been rather than what actually existed. For example, he tells the story of Henry Anderson’s focus in the 1962 on building local leadership and union locals. He uses this to claim that centralized power got out of hand in the nascent farm worker movement. That is he is telling the story backward after arriving at his conclusions. There is nothing wrong with reasoning from history, but it does make the issue of union democracy or lack of democracy seem more determined that it necessarily was.
The author could have told other stories of other events to emphasize a different conclusion. For example the author makes the case that Chavez and Huerta, among others, had a strong critique of the method other unions used, such as focusing only on the worker and not on the family, or of Mexican American workers always led by Anglo leaders, etc. That is an alternative and valid perspective on worker participation that is not developed in Trampling Out the Vintage.
Among the more contested issues raised by Barnacke is his view of the UFW’s relationships with undocumented workers in 1975 period, the so called “Wet Line”. Bardacke makes the case that the UFW used violence and terror against “Wet Backs.” This is the same argument being made today by various militia groups , Tea Party advocates and posted on Wikipedia .
In truth we don’t know what actually happened in the dessert near Yuma, Arizona in 1975. Was there violence? How much violence? Who was hurt? Barnacke takes one side, and the official UFW histories take the other, saying the union was stopping strike breakers who happened to be undocumented.
Having worked up close with the issue of immigration for decades I have a different view. The one memo cited by Barnacke as evidence, a confidential one, is not definitive proof that violence was union policy. ( P. 492) Note, the other memo on the same page takes the opposite position. We can agree that Chavez made some high handed, perhaps opportunistic mistakes, but where Bardacke cites the worst case reports of violence, knifings, even murder in Arizona, he admits these charges could not be independently verified.
Rather than take Bardacke’s view on the role of the Wet Line, I prefer Bert Corona’s. Bert was a leading voice on immigration issues and organized undocumented workers in the organization Hemandad Mexicana. He was also a friend of mine, and we worked together on immigration issues. Although critical of the UFW policy, Bert never took the highly destructive view that Bardack promotes. There were disputes over issues, and errors were made but remember the context, which Bert for one did. The UFW was losing the strike as strikers were replaced by with undocumented workers crossing a border and a picket line to work in struck fields. These undocumented workers, who knew little or nothing about the UFW or the long, violent, bitter and costly strike they were breaking, were nonetheless breaking a strike on a movement for justice and equality.
Ultimately in 1975 the UFW convention took a formal position to organize the undocumented and to allow them to vote in elections as a part of the California Agricultural Relations Act. That is the official UFW position on the undocumented. Bardacke uses the records of who won union representation elections and where to argue that the pro undocumented position was the better position, and that strike breakers should have been reasoned with and treated with respect . UFW lost elections to Teamsters in the grape fields of Delano but split the vote in Salinas. Bardacke argues that UFW won elections in the Salinas Valley because they had supported successful strikes in Salinas, had not imposed troublesome hiring halls, and had not campaigned against undocumented workers.
In addition to pages of fascinating local histories on various campaigns and strikes, Trampling Out the Vintage makes a major contribution in arguing that the issues that defeated the UFW in elections and in the fields included the antidemocratic structures of the UFW created and honed by Cesar Chavez himself, along with no established locals and the divisions that grew up between the staff, veteran union members and new workers.
In the midst of several life and death struggles over power against corporate agriculture and the political power of the state, the UFW executive committee did not develop democratic union structures . They often responded to conspiracies with conspiracies weakening the union and preventing it from organizing.
The author also spends a great deal of time on the purges of UFW activists, organizers, and volunteers in 1977 -1981 period. While often presented as anticommunist decisions by Chavez, many of the dismissals were for lack of loyalty to Chavez and his decisions as the final arbiter of all issues in the union. Some of the “purges” were based upon left politics, and some of the dismissals were based upon other differences, including differing views of the best direction for the union. There were dismissals and staff leavings for a variety of reasons. Some of the most significant dismissals were not about left nor right, but were about issues of both policy differences and personal loyalties.
In my view Bardacke underanalyzes the nature of the racial state and the interaction of racial and economic oppression in the fields of California and in the U.S. .While he makes some brief references to a role of Chicano or Mexican nationalism within the UFW, these are not analyzed in depth. Specific incidents of police and political repression are treated as abuses of power rather than a racially constructed system of oppression. After all, the previous attempts to organize farm workers were broken with violence along racial lines.
The role of racism, and the individual reactions to systemic structural racial oppression are complex and vary in part based upon the differences in experiences of the participants. As the Chicano movement argued at its core- the experiences of U.S. born and reared Mexican Americans and Chicanos were different than the experiences and the perceptions of racism of Mexican immigrants, both documented and undocumented. There are a diversity of racisms and a diversity in the manner in which workers learn to respond to oppression. Chicanos and Mexican Americans grew up, were educated, and worked in an internal colony. Their schools, their unions, and their political experiences were structured along racial lines. They learned colonized structures. Bardacke recognizes this structural oppression in the lives of several UFW leaders including specific descriptions of the early lives of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta , though he does not sufficiently acknowledge the struggle of the UFW and the Chicano Movement in breaking this colonial legacy.
Mexican migrants had a difficult life under an oppressive one-party state at home, but usually did not suffer this internalized colonialism. Bardacke reports on these differences in his descriptions of the early lives of rank and file leaders Mario Bustamante, Hermilo Mojica, Marcos Munoz and others. Their struggle in the fields was initially primarily a workers struggle for economic justice.
As an example of the importance of this issue, Bardacke reports on the sharp differences in views those who thought that the struggles in Salinas could be won by strikes and work stoppages (paros) and the Chavez, Huerta, Executive Board position to depend more upon building a boycott. These differences led to sharp divisions in the union. The two groups had learned different lessons from their different experiences in the fields. The Chavez, Huerta group insisted upon the strength of the boycott. That is what their experiences had taught them. The Mario Bustamante, Mojica, side, and author Bardacke, wanted to push for extensive strikes and work stoppages, perhaps a general strike, including preventing strikebreakers from harvesting enough crops. This direct workplace action approach is what their experience had taught them. The two groups of union activists had learned different lessons from their different experiences of confronting corporate –grower and racist power.
Marshall Ganz in Why David Sometimes Wins, does a better job than does Bardacke in describing some of the racial fault lines of farm worker organizing. Ganz was director of organizing for the UFW in Salinas and a long time member of the UFW executive board. He notes, the unions were organized along ethnic lines- as were the growers and the political power of dominant Anglo political forces. ( Ganz P.161) Since the organizations were structured along racial and ethnic lines, it is peculiar then to have Bardacke describe conflicts between the UFW and its opponents as if they were primarily economic in nature. Barnacke discusses the volatile issues of racism as primarily about Chavez’s liberal supporters – by which he means largely white or Anglo supporters.
As the author chronicles, Chavez knew well some of the failings of unions in the 1960’s, including the problems of a growing internal bureaucracy, but the UFW was not able to create a viable democratic alternative. Chavez’ own history and personality structure, and his manipulation and dismissal of activists occurred in part because the executive board was unable to free itself from the dynamics of a group under constant siege.
Marshall Ganz also argues that Chavez deconstructed the organizational strength of the UFW in the 1979 -1981 period in an effort to keep personal control of the union. (Ganz, p. 247 ) Today the UFW has about 5,000 members and few contracts. The lack of unions in the fields and the declining strengths of unions nationwide indicate that we do not yet know how to build a progressive union movement. These problems are overwhelming- even more so when added to the problems of trying to build a union for poor people in a racialized state such as rural California in the 1970’s- 1990’s.
The UFW was overwhelmed by the negative forces against it, including capitalists, growers, racist cops and politicians, liberal Democrats, union bureaucrats and more. Union democracy did not grow and antidemocratic forces flourished. The UFW leadership failed to build a competent administrative structure to deal with union contracts, and failed to expand the organizing structure and union culture rapidly enough to bring in the thousands of new farm worker members to create an active, democratic union life.
The failure to gain strength is not surprising. Compare the period of decline of 1977-1986 in the UFW to the complex battles of the Reuther Brothers to gain control and to keep control of the United Auto Workers, including the UAW’s relationship with the AFL-CIO . (1949- 1970). The UAW went from 1.5 million members in 1979 to 390,000 in 2010, and the United Steelworkers and other unions suffered similar declines. Is it any wonder that the smaller, less established, less well funded UFW suffered dramatic declines from racial oppression and the brutal assault on the union in the fields of Texas, Arizona and California?
A shorthand for this debate is: how do working people combine the strengths of civil rights movements with the institutionalization of unions? How do organizing social movements differ from organizing in a union? What can organizers in each learn from one another ?
Did the UFW decline? Yes. Did farm workers lose the substantial gains in wages and working conditions they had won in the 1970’s? Absolutely. How do unions build a movement when undocumented workers can replace strikers ? This issue has continued to divide and defeat unions in the U.S.
We know that social movements emerge, are organized, grow and then are institutionalized – or they decline. Few unions have been able to create democratic internal culture. Few social movements have been able to maintain their momentum for more than a decade and they leave behind little of institutional power except small advocacy groups. Where are the examples of unions building a democratic process which fights for their jobs? Certainly not the rival Teamsters union in the canneries and packing houses of California.
How do we build an activist, democratic union with democratic leadership and locals ? How do we build a union that contributes to the liberation of a people? How do we build a union that educates its members on the politics of their own struggle and develops and promotes its members to become its future leaders ?
Trampling out the Vintage gives one view of how the UFW effort failed, but we have yet to learn how to create a powerful democratic organizational vehicle. Bardacke, and other left critics of the UFW experience argue that the destruction of the UFW was a result of the personal control of Chavez and his allies and their failure to build a democratic union. Well, Cesar Chavez has now been dead for over 17 years. Why has no vital, democratic union grown up in the fields to continue the effort to build a union for some of the most exploited workers in the U.S.?
There are numerous other important issues raised in this history including the role of Catholicism and Catholic symbols, the importance of non violence, the problems of working with Jerry Brown and the Democratic Party, including Bardacke’s sub title for the book, Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. These issues are beyond the scope of this review.
I recommend the book for serious students of the Farmworker Movement who wish to learn of the diverse perspectives of the struggles in the fields. I do not recommend it as a sole or primary source on UFW history or the history of Cesar Chavez. Rather it should be read in conjunction with other sources on the UFW including Marshal Ganz’s Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement, Randy Shaw’s Beyond the Fields; Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st. Century and the extensive sources available on the Farmworker Movement Documentation Project http://www.farmworkermovement.us/
1. Duane Campbell, “Bert Corona, Labor Radical.” Socialist Review. 1989, p. 51. , See also. Randy Shaw, Beyond the Fields; Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st. Century, p. 196.
Duane Campbell , professor emeritus of Bilingual/Multicultural Education at California State University-Sacramento, worked with the UFW as a volunteer from 1972-1976. He then collaborated with Bert Corona on immigrants-rights efforts.
His most recent book is Choosing Democracy: a practical guide to multicultural education. (2010) He is currently chair of Sacramento Democratic Socialists of America and chair of the Chicano/Mexican American Digital History Project for the Sacramento region For information on the projects, go HERE [
I want to thank Mike Hirsch for his comments on this review.
This is the 50th Anniversary of the UFW. http://www.ufw.org/_page.php?menu=news&inc=_page.php?menu=news&inc=/50/anniversary.html