“The Crusades of Cesar Chavez” is the first comprehensive biography of the spectacular rise and messy decline of the United Farm Workers union and the man who struck the sparks that made the epic American social movement.
Beginning with his first appearance in the public eye during the 1965 Delano grape strike, Chavez exercised rigorous control over his public image as the humble, idealistic, incorruptible champion of farmworkers, for whom he had created the first effective union. Missing from that picture is the man in full: ambitious, inflexible, overbearing and no admirer of organized labor. The portrait of Chavez that emerges roughs up his saintly image.
Chavez was a 37-year-old organizer with the Community Service Organization in San Jose when he quit that job and moved to the San Joaquin Valley town of Delano in April 1962 – with his wife, Helen, their eight children and $1,200 in the bank – to organize farmworkers. She worked thinning onions. He organized. Five months later, the National Farm Workers Association, precursor of the United Farm Workers, was launched in Fresno. Its symbol was the black eagle flag, its battle cry “Viva La Causa.”
With its first strike, against Delano-area table grape growers, Chavez’s fledgling union served notice that a new, high-energy force with a charismatic leader had emerged to spearhead the struggle to improve working conditions and raise wages for California farmworkers.
What followed for the next 15 years was an explosion of intense union activity that brought the UFW 30,000 dues-paying members working under dozens of grower contracts with higher wages and improved working conditions – and a reputation for tough negotiation and hardball, albeit nonviolent tactics.
The consumer grape boycott that forced Delano growers to the bargaining table, the union’s Delano-to-Sacramento long march, Chavez’s “penitential” fasts and the enactment of California’s groundbreaking Agricultural Labor Relations Act became landmarks along the road to a position of power and prominence.
But even as the union was racking up a string of victories, internal problems exerted a negative pull on its efforts and eventually turned into a psychodrama that became an endgame.
Miriam Pawel, a Harvard-educated journalist who edited Pulitzer Prize-winning series for Newsday in 1997 and the Los Angeles Times in 2003, mined the archives of the UFW, including tapes of executive board meetings, to illuminate the union’s dark side and internal trials.
Chavez’s decision in 1970 to relocate UFW headquarters from Delano to La Paz, an abandoned tuberculosis sanatorium in the Tehachapi Mountains, provoked controversy in the union ranks. Chavez envisioned it as a laboratory where he could work out “a national union of the poor … serving the needs of all who suffer.” Critics said that cloistering the leadership in a mountain retreat was bound to alienate the farmworkers the UFW was created to serve.
Pawel explains how Chavez, ensconced at La Paz, struggled with his leadership role and endeavored to tighten his control over all aspects of union life. He instituted “The Game,” an encounter-group technique employed by the since-discredited cult Synanon, as well as frequent critique sessions in which discontented volunteers were bombarded with criticism and denounced as “traitors” or “infiltrators” until they agreed to leave.
Chavez also became exasperated by disagreement with his ideas and prerogatives and strident in their defense. Too much democracy can cripple a union, he said, and the problem with some staffers is that “you won’t obey my orders.”
Caught in the relentless purging of “traitors” and compelled to resign were some of the union’s most effective organizers, including executive board members Eliseo Medina, Marshall Ganz, Jessica Govea and Gilbert Padilla, Chavez’s longtime confidant and comrade-in-arms.
Debilitated by internal infighting and dissatisfaction among workers and growers with the inefficiency of union offices in handling essential business, like servicing contracts, UFW’s decline was accelerated by the election of Republican Gov. George Deukmejian in 1983. He cut the Agricultural Labor Relations Board’s budget and pulled its enforcement teeth. By 1986, the union had just 75 contracts and had stopped organizing.
Such was the abiding power of Chavez’s heroic image that his stature seems to have grown as the presence of UFW as a force in agriculture declines. He holds a place of power throughout the Latino community, and schools, boulevards, plazas and libraries are named in his honor. His birthday, March 31, is an official state holiday in California, Colorado and Arizona.
Pawel notes that well before his death in 1993, Chavez “had become a marketable commodity” and a money-raiser for several entrepreneurial ventures spun off by the union, including commercial home building using non-union labor.
A decade before his death, Chavez delivered what may stand as his own eulogy in an address to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.
“Regardless of what the future holds for the union, regardless of what the future holds for farmworkers, our accomplishments cannot be undone. La Causa, our cause, doesn’t have to be experienced twice. The consciousness and pride that were raised by our union are alive and thriving inside millions of young Hispanics who will never work on a farm.”
Eric Brazil is a former newspaper editor and reporter who lives in Sacramento.