Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (3 page)

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
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Those weren’t just words for him. He called off a second
grape strike in 1973 after two strikers were killed and turned
to a boycott in 1979 after a lettuce striker was fatally shot.
Both cases were to the dismay of those who held to the romantic
notion that movements need martyrs to succeed. He
never gave up the fight, but he refused to risk people’s lives
when there were alternatives.

Also remember the times. The Vietnam War was raging.
The ghettos were ablaze with civil disorder. Cesar believed
that the American people yearned for an alternative to violence
and would respond to the poorest of the poor struggling
nonviolently in a just cause.

The second innovation was the boycott. No one before had
applied a boycott to a major dispute between labor and management.
Some national labor leaders scoffed. Nearly a shelf
of Cesar’s library holds the complete writings of Mahatma
Gandhi in dog-eared paperback volumes; Cesar read them
all, including the account of Gandhi’s 1930 salt boycott. Cesar
carefully followed Dr. King’s career, starting with the Montgomery
bus boycott. And Cesar read everything on California
farm labor history and spoke with everyone he met who had
lived through it.

From the beginning of the Delano walkouts in 1965, Cesar
knew he couldn’t win with strikes alone. Growers controlled
the courts, law enforcement, and all of rural California’s social,
political, and economic institutions. So he transferred the
scene of battle from the fields—where the odds were stacked
against farm workers—to the cities. There Cesar constructed
a grand alliance of students plus union, civil rights, and faith
activists, and millions of consumers. They rallied to
La Causa
by boycotting grapes and other products.

Hundreds of grape strikers and UFW staff fanned out to
cities across North America. Tens of thousands of supporters
picketed supermarkets. Millions of consumers boycotted
grapes, finally forcing most table-grape growers to sign their
first union contracts in 1970. Cesar had great faith that people
who spoke different languages and led different lives would
do what was right for farm workers if given the chance. The
triumph in the grapes firmly established the UFW as the country’s
first successful farm workers union. A 1975 nationwide
Louis Harris survey showed that seventeen million American
adults were boycotting grapes during a second grape boycott.
Cesar called the American people “our court of last resort,”
and they were.

Third was what he called volunteerism. Cesar used to distinguish
between being of service and being a servant. Many
decent people perform regular acts of charity or kindness.
But only a few dedicate themselves totally to helping others.

So Cesar, along with most everyone who worked for the
movement, survived on subsistence pay and, during the 1960s
grape strike, donated food and clothing. We all received five
dollars a week plus room and board; in the later 1970s this
doubled, to ten dollars a week. No one went hungry, and gas,
auto repairs, and in some cases minimal bills such as car payments
were covered. But no one had any money.

Cesar’s philosophy was that you couldn’t organize the poor
unless you were willing to share their plight. One of the benefits
of that philosophy appeared in 1973, when all but one of
the hard-won UFW table-grape contracts signed in 1970 expired
and growers turned them over to the Teamsters Union
without any elections, sparking a mass strike by grape workers.
The UFW was wiped out—on paper—as union contracts
expired and union dues dried up. Any other union, deprived
of revenue and unable to pay staff, would have folded. But no
one quit working for the UFW because they were not paid.
The union survived and made up for loss of dues money with
mostly small donations from supporters, which still help sustain


The fourth innovation might have been the most important.
Preparing to create the UFW in 1962, Cesar, Dolores Huerta,
Gilbert Padilla, and the other early organizers had a unique
vision of what a union could be. From studying why previous
organizing endeavors had failed, they were persuaded that
things had to be done differently.

Cesar recognized that workers are not just workers. Only a
union could remedy the economic abuses that they endured
at work. But he was convinced that it would take more than a
union to overcome the exploitation and prejudice that farm
workers confronted in the community; it would take a
movement. In that 1969 letter to the California Grape and Tree
Fruit League, Cesar wrote, “The color of our skins, the
languages of our cultural and native origins, the lack of formal
education, the exclusion from the democratic process, the
numbers of our slain in recent wars—all these burdens
generation after generation have sought to demoralize us, to
break our human spirit.”

He adopted the social unionism of the American labor
movement in the early twentieth century. He patterned the
UFW after unions from that time that had also comprised
impoverished immigrants, such as Italians, Irish, Poles, and
Russian Jews. These groups too had often encountered
discrimination, didn’t speak English, didn’t know much about
American civic or political systems, and faced many dilemmas
outside the workplace in their communities. So the
Amalgamated Clothing Workers, for instance, organized cooperative
housing, unemployment insurance, and a community bank.

Most industrial unions didn’t need to provide such benefits
by the 1960s because their union members were assimilated.
Cesar’s constituency more closely resembled immigrant
workers in the early part of the century. So, long before he thought
that farm workers would win union contracts, Cesar
organized people by providing services: a death benefit plan, a
credit union, a co-op gas station, and service centers to help
people with their problems.

Cesar was always a proud member of the labor movement,
but he couldn’t fathom the high pay and prosperous lifestyles
of some labor leaders. He occasionally parted ways with the
AFL-CIO and his labor colleagues by taking stands that were
unpopular even with his own people. Cesar strongly opposed
the Vietnam War in the 1960s. The UFW became the first
major union to oppose the employer sanction, the federal law
making it illegal to hire undocumented workers, in
1973—long before the AFL-CIO and other unions acted similarly.
Cesar backed gay rights in the 1970s; I was with him at
functions in San Francisco with Harvey Milk. The antiwar and gay
rights stances were not popular in the 1960s and 1970s with
many Latino farm workers. Cesar didn’t care. He believed
that leadership is about getting out in front of the crowd, not
following it.

His novel approach to organizing, specifically the
insistence on nonviolence, sparked dissent within union ranks.
This was particularly so among some young men who,
discouraged by the apparent lack of progress after nearly three
years of the first grape walkouts, yearned to retaliate against
the violence and disrespect that the growers visited upon
them. When he addressed farm workers, Cesar often spoke
directly to the men and boys about what it means to be a
man—it isn’t getting drunk on Saturday night and coming
home to push around your wife or kids. In his statement at the
end of his twenty-five-day 1968 fast for nonviolence, Cesar
said, “It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do
we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the
strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves for others in
a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. To be a man is to
suffer for others. God help us to be men.” Some union staff and
members left in disagreement with Cesar over nonviolence,
but most people’s hearts and minds changed after this fast.

An equally divisive internal political battle erupted on the
union’s executive board in the late 1970s after the passage of
the farm labor law, over the direction that the UFW would
take. There were legitimate differences of opinions. Some
board members wanted a traditional business union,
concentrating on wages, hours, and benefits for members. Cesar’s
vision for the UFW was more transformational. Of course he
knew that the union had to produce economic progress. But
he also envisioned the UFW as leading a universal movement
to take on problems confronting farm workers and a larger,
developing community of Latino working families and other
poor people. As in the fight over nonviolence in the 1960s,
Cesar’s vision prevailed then too, although critics still
condemn him for it. Most Americans today would probably take
Cesar’s side. If the UFW had been a conventional business
union, would seventeen million Americans have boycotted
grapes in 1975?

The UFW under Cesar also won many practical
breakthroughs for farm workers that were unimaginable a short
time before:

  • The first successful farm workers union.
  • The first real union contracts in farm labor.
  • Contracts guaranteeing rest periods, toilets, clean
    drinking water, and hand-washing facilities.
  • Protections against pesticide poisoning. The first time
    that DDT was outlawed in the United States was in a
    UFW contract with a grape grower in 1967, before the
    U.S. government’s ban in 1972.
  • The first family medical coverage—and later dental and
    vision benefits—for farm workers and their dependents,
    through a plan named for Robert Kennedy.
  • America’s first—and still only—working pension
    program for farm workers.
  • The outlawing of sexual harassment and discrimination
    based on race or ethnicity.
  • Seniority or other job security which ensures that
    workers no longer must beg the foreperson or crew boss for
    jobs with hat in hand—which too often means paying
    bribes or performing sexual favors. Instead they are
    hired, laid off, or promoted to better-paying jobs based
    solely on their years of service at the company and
    ability to do the work.
  • Add to these collective bargaining firsts legislative and
    regulatory victories: from the abolition of the hated
    short-handled hoe that debilitated generations of field
    laborers, through the coverage of California farm
    workers under disability and workers’ compensation and
    unemployment insurance, to the federal legalization of
    immigrants in 1986—and to the Agricultural Labor
    Relations Act of 1975, the first, and still the only, state law
    in the nation that lets farm workers organize, freely
    choose their union representatives, and bargain with
    their employers.

Transferring the movement’s headquarters from the Forty
Acres, a parcel west of Delano named for its size, to Nuestra
Señora Reina de La Paz (Our lady queen of peace) in 1971 let
Cesar strategize, plan, and run union operations amid 187
acres of oaks and spectacular rock outcroppings in California’s
Tehachapi Mountains. That was hard to accomplish in the
hustle and bustle of Delano, with its constant conflicts and
many farm workers now working under union contract,
making legitimate demands for services and bringing Cesar their
problems. He worried that as long as he and other union
leaders were available to resolve issues there, then the
development of indigenous local leadership would be impeded and
not enough attention would be paid to worker demands
elsewhere in the country.

La Paz was where the daily work happened, including the
planning and coordination of organizing, boycotting, contract
bargaining, and contract administration. Centrally located, it
was five hours from both the Imperial Valley in the south and
the Salinas Valley in the north.

But La Paz was more for Cesar. It was where he brought
generations of farm worker leaders away from their daily
struggles to plan, strategize, and be trained in how to run
their own union, to learn how “ordinary people can do
extraordinary things.”

It was also his chance to build a community where he could
live out the principles he cherished. For years his avocation
was studying societies and institutions that organized people
around something other than money. They included Catholic
religious orders living in community, Bruderhof Christian
communities on the East Coast and in the Midwest that were
similar to the Amish but committed to helping the poor (their
kids came to work summers at La Paz), Dorothy Day and her
Catholic Worker movement, and Hare Krishna communities.

Over the years I often heard Cesar denounce what he saw
as the narrowness and selfishness of materialism and
individualism. He embraced what could be defined by the Latin
, which for Cesar embodied the spirit of
community. The longtime journalist Ronald Taylor described
La Paz in the 1970s as “an unlikely setting for a trade union
headquarters. But it was a symbol of Chavez’s unique concept
[because] he  .  .  .  envisions a self-sufficiency and sense of
community that is disquieting to some of his followers.”

Roughly 250 people, mostly volunteer staff and their families,
lived and labored at La Paz at any one time from the early 1970s.
It boasted a fully equipped community kitchen and a dining
area where residents and visitors gathered to share meals. Cesar
believed in working hard and in celebrating life. He brought
people together to break bread, especially for union observances
and during Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas holidays, when
many volunteers couldn’t get home. Passover seders were held.
Residents gathered early in the morning outside Cesar’s home
to sing “Las Mañanitas” on his birthday, March 31, which the
movement celebrated as Founder’s Day, since it marked the day
in 1962 when he began building what would become the UFW.

There was a multiacre organic community garden that raised
much of the community’s produce. Cesar could get away from
the office and experiment with organic growing in the hopes
of offering alternatives to the craziness of pesticides.

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
3.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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