Farmworker Movement Documentation Project - Presented by the UC San Diego Library

“AS DECEIVERS YET TRUE” – ESSAY/BOOK REVIEW

 
 
“AS DECEIVERS YET TRUE”
An Essay-Review of
The Union of Their Dreams by Miriam Pawel (Bloomsbury Press 2009, 372 pages $28.00)
and
Why David Sometimes Wins by Marshall Ganz (Oxford University Press, 2009, 344 pages, $34.9

Richard Baldwin Cook
cookrb1@gmail.com
APRIL 2010

In the 1960s and early ‘70s, Cesar Chavez was a media figure on a national scale. The young, charismatic migrant worker, Navy veteran and community organizer was described in print and on television as the mythic leader of oppressed yet gallant field workers, whom the energetic Chavez was organizing into a union of their own. By the mid ‘70s, through deft use of the media, the UFW had established a national presence. This was not a smoke-and mirror TV strut. The UFW staff and supporters, working countless hours, devoted themselves to aggressive field organizing and consumer boycotts of high-profile agricultural labels and products. Success was marked by labor contracts with major farm corporations and the passage in California of a farm labor collective bargaining law. Remarkably (and uniquely) the state law offered prompt secret ballot elections in the fields at times of peak employment, compulsory negotiations, sanctions against employer intimidation and retention of the powerful mechanism of the consumer boycott.

What happened?

By the early ‘80s many of the talented and highly regarded key UFW staff members were gone and the union had shriveled in virtually every area of its endeavor. Most of the union’s contracts had expired and its considerable political influence in California had slipped; the union’s field organizing and consumer boycott activities had virtually
disappeared.

So, what happened to cause what did happen?

Miriam Pawel / "The Union Of Their Dreams" 2009

Miriam Pawel’s book  The Union of Their Dreams (Bloomsbury Press 2009, 372 pages $28.00) offers a chronology of internal union developments from the perspectives of several individuals, who experienced these events. The focus of Pawel’s biographical sketches is, in each case, the abrupt and unwilling end of a career with the UFW.

This book is not a definitive history of the UFW, nor is intended to be. Outside events, such as interference with UFW field organizing by the Teamsters Union, the impact of the union’s fortunes caused by heightened political agribusiness influence in Sacramento and Washington, and, in the 1980s, a succession of hostile Republican
governors in California and elsewhere, are given short shrift in this narrative. Despite its narrow focus, this book is an important collection of personal testimonies by several key UFW staff members, several of whom had participated in the union’s early successes and all of whom were present for the UFW’s rapid regression.

All of the career-ending events occurred in the late 1970s and 1980s. This gives Pawel’s book a belatedness, which the writer attempts to diffuse by suggesting that the incidents described from those years has had a determinative influence on the UFW of today. The book has an archival feel to it, like a compilation of raw data, to be used, perhaps, in the making of a more searching narrative.

Marshall Ganz at UFW La Paz Meeting 1972 / Photo by Glen Pearcy

A more nuanced narrative does exist in the form of Marshall Ganz’ Why David Sometimes Wins (Oxford University Press, 2009, 344 pages, $34.95). This volume has an analytical focus and no wonder; it is a revised 2000 Harvard PhD dissertation. Like Pawel, Ganz deals with the rise and decline of the UFW; however, Ganz’ well documented chronology concentrates on the union’s victories of the 1960s and ’70s. Ganz inserts this history into a thematic paradigm, which permits him to propose a compelling interpretation of the factors which account for UFW successes.

Ganz’ fundamental interpretative category is strategic capacity and how to account for it. He accounts (p. 14) for it in this way: “. . . I argue that the likelihood that a leadership team will devise effective strategy depends on the depth of its motivation, the breadth of its salient knowledge, and the robustness of its reflective practice – on the extent, that is, of its strategic capacity.” Throughout the book, Ganz inserts events into this three-part outline to show why the UFW won and its opponents lost. Ganz applies his strategic capacity paradigm with less rigor to the period of abrupt decline and so is less successful in accounting for the union’s failures than its earlier successes.

Ganz’ narrative-argument is not as dry as this may sound. He has written a rich history, which answers some fundamental questions. One of these is: how, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, did the powerful Teamsters Union lose the field representation race to the tiny UFW? Teamster staff lacked motivation; they wanted merely to get paid and do what they were told. The Teamsters also lacked salient knowledge; they enjoyed slight connection to field workers, church leaders or consumers. Ganz adds that the Teamsters suffered from a deficient capacity to reflect on unfolding events; this weakness resulted from the Teamsters’ top down strategy, rigidly implemented. Ganz’ analysis is sustained by a careful delineation of the facts, which sustain his interpretation of events.

Ganz’ narrative could offer helpful guidance to any membership-based organization – provided the deficiencies of UFW opponents are replaced by what Ganz identifies as UFW assets, which are mirror opposites of the deficiencies of the opposition: motivation (UFW staff were deeply inspired), salient knowledge (the UFW painstakingly established connections to potential union members and important community allies) and deep capacity to reflect (the UFW was open to insights from diverse perspectives introduced by collegial, shared leadership).

The narrower scope of Pawel’s book is the tracing of the careers of a handful of individuals, whose work with the UFW began auspiciously but ended disastrously. Each of Pawel’s subjects wound up being denounced as a betrayer of the vision of Cesar Chavez, the founder and universally acknowledged leader of the UFW, from the moment of its creation until Cesar’s death in 1993. Each of Pawel’s subjects was either fired or resigned. From the record Pawel has published, each was placed under suspicion of disloyalty, either by Chavez himself or by Chavez confidants. Just as she catalogues the deeds and some misdeeds of Cesar and a few beginning-to-end UFW loyalists, Pawel documents the shortcomings and even some bad behavior of the subjects who cooperated with her research.

Both Ganz and Pawel have taken effective advantage of much material available in several archives of UFW documents. From these sources, both books give to the reader a coherent time-line from a massive amount of data. Most importantly for Pawel is the assistance she received from the eight former UFW staff members, who are the subjects of her book and whose careers she has traced in detail. Several of these individuals were central to many of the events described and they have shared much information and their own perspectives with Pawel. Beyond the individuals, who are highlighted in her narrative, Pawel also obtained information from others, some of whom were on the union’s staff or otherwise were associated with the union. For all of these reasons, Pawel’s book, like Ganz’, is an important contribution to the history of the UFW.

Richard Cook & Family in St. Louis 1980 / Photo Terry Vasquez Scott

I was not one who shared with Pawel. Concluding that Pawel was into exposé and not historical research, I withheld my cooperation from her. I had worked for and on behalf of the UFW for more than ten years (Jan 1972 – Spring, 1982). During that time I had worked for the UFW Credit Union, as a union bus driver and on the union’s consumer boycott staff (St. Louis & then Missouri director). For the UFW, I had spent two years in Arizona and a year in Florida, away from my wife and three young children. On occasion, I had been assigned to Cesar Chavez’s office, translating documents and working on various projects. I had taught briefly in the farm worker school at UFW headquarters in the Tehachapi Mountains and with many others, had done guard duty there as well (in response to murky threats of violence against Cesar). Some of the highlights of my work included directing a grape strike in Arizona and working closely with Chavez confidante, Chris Hartmire. In 1981, when Chris and Jane Hartmire moved to La Paz, the semi-commune which was the union’s headquarters, I followed Chris as director of the National Farm Worker Ministry, an ecumenical agency affiliated with the National Council of Churches. Living in Salinas, California, I was Chris’s successor for little more than a year, when I resigned.

My refusal in 2008 to have anything to do with Pawel’s book was because of an editorial piece Pawel wrote for the Los Angeles Times (Dec 7, 2007), under the headline, “The withering of the UFW” and the subheading “A recent contract reveals the union’s inability to deliver for farmworkers.” The Times piece covered some details of a recent contract signed by the union and a California lettuce company, D’Arrigo Bros. Pawel’s article contains such statements as “the recent agreement with D’Arrigo Bros. stands as a testament to the union’s weakness, its inability to deliver for its shrinking membership and its willingness to abandon gains enshrined in a landmark law engineered by UFW founder Cesar Chavez.”

In her opinion piece, Pawel finds fault with contract provisions. But absent collusion, clauses in a collective bargaining agreement, that appear not to benefit the work force, ought to be laid to the account of the employer, not the union. Pawel’s editorial piece overlooks the fact that a labor contract is the product of negotiations and often enshrines strategies on both sides, which result in contract language, here, that may have made room for a concession or a benefit negotiated, there. (Ganz’ narrative points out (page 226) that in order to displace the Teamsters’ contract and sign its own contract with grape grower Perelli-Minetti in 1967, the UFW was able to modify upwards the wage rates but otherwise “was compelled to take the rest of it largely as is, which was a source of internal dissatisfaction.”) To me, Pawel’s newspaper article came across as an anti-UFW screed and made me suspicious of Pawel’s motives in writing her book – a project she was working on at the time the article appeared. Because of Pawel’s article, I concluded that she was not going to produce a balanced account.

In much of her narrative, Pawel is right on target. Tragically and inexcusably, union infighting lead to anti-Semitic accusations directed at two former staff members. One of these was our second author, Marshall Ganz, who at that time was the union’s recently resigned (dismissed?) organizing director. The other victim was the UFW’s former chief counsel, Jerry Cohen. In 1981, Ganz and Cohen were accused of having concocted a Jewish conspiracy to take over the union.

Anti-Semitism, no matter how ridiculously expressed, should have been denounced by Chavez and not excused. He did not denounce it; he did excuse it. When I called Cesar and told him he must do whatever needed to be done to separate himself from the racebased assaults on Marshall and Jerry, he told me to mind my own business. I told him that was not good enough for me, since I was responsible for the financial support of a dozen or so staff members who worked closely with the UFW. He hung up and I soon resigned. We never spoke to each other again.

Both Ganz and Pawel are commendably patient in gathering data and in sorting through a welter of events. Pawel’s patience is matched by her careful descriptions of the various reasons why so many individuals committed themselves to a workers’ organization, which invited their sacrifice and promised societal change. Pawel is a deft writer. A reporter by profession, her book is skillfully organized. She moves from the founding of the UFW in the early ‘60s on to the heady early contract victories, into the ‘70s and then the early ‘80s, by which time major organizing gains had been reversed. The book mentions Chavez’s death in 1993 but the narrative effectively ends with the show-trial dismissal from the union’s employ of Chris Hartmire in 1988. This is interesting reading, at least for some of us who stumbled through some of these events.

Pawels’ book is dependent upon the prism of memory, aided by journals, notes, letters and archival materials from back in the day. Her narrative stops far short of contemporary events. For this reason, Pawel’s chronology cannot be taken as the final word on a still vital organization.

Pawel should be credited for the tact and tenacity it must have taken to obtain the statements and the private records she has utilized, and also for the trouble and expense incurred in examining UFW materials in several far-flung labor history archives. Pawel has marshaled this material to create a coherent narrative of an organization’s stupendous public ascension and precipitate private contraction.

Most of the personal recollections Pawel repeats are valuable. Some add texture, context or sympathy to a personality or to an incident. Some of the personal data is redundant. (We are told twice by Pawel that the teenage Eliseo Medina broke open his piggy bank in order to pay his first UFW dues.) Speaking of Eliseo Medina is to speak of a truly brilliant individual, who emerged from Mexico, by way of the grape vineyards of Central California. Of great value are Pawel’s descriptions of Eliseo’s approach to organizing and his union-building strategies, which (as far as I know) have not otherwise appeared in print.

Another nuanced portrait by Pawel is that of the singular Jerry Cohen. He was not the first but certainly was the UFW’s most important lawyer. Cohen’s outsized presence andtenacity matched the UFW’s stubborn negotiation style and the union’s ascendant political objectives in Sacramento. Cohen apparently kept a journal during these years. Pawel’s citations from Cohen’s writings suggest there is much more to be shared, if he should take up pen or pencil some day and work his journal into a book of his own. (According to Pawel, Cohen does not use a computer.) In fact, Jerry has already shared; he has posted a 35-page memoir, “Gringo Justice” at an Amherst College website.
(https://www.amherst.edu/media/view/85629/original/Gringojustice.pdf) A poignant theme in Pawel’s later narrative is Cohen’s resort to sarcasm and unsigned elliptical notes, as Jerry’s way of dealing with his anguish at leaving the UFW after more than a decade.

Chris Hartmire / March To Sacramento Palm Sunday 1966 / Photo by Jon Lewis

I suspect that, after Pawel, hers is Chris Hartmire’s book. Approximately one quarter of the footnotes are citations to him or to documents in hispossession; there are a number of other references to documents Pawel plausibly obtained from Hartmire. (A citation to a letter of mine to Hartmire is assigned in a footnote to a “private collection.” I did not give Pawel this document and assume that Chris did; the casual reader would not know, one way or the other.)

Chris Hartmire, an apparent guiding presence between many of the lines of Pawel’s narrative, is described accurately by her as a dedicated Presbyterian minister, who decided not long after he met Cesar Chavez, that the charismatic, single-minded, devout Catholic laborer and community organizer merited Hartmire’s unwavering devotion. Many who know Chris would concur that he brought his own charisma to the task. Not least among Chris’ many gifts was an ability to mobilize middle class, church-affiliated young people to his own life’s cause. My wife Barbara and I were among those who signed up.

The illusive reasons why Chavez turned on Hartmire in the ‘80s are not plumbed satisfactorily in Pawel’s book. The supposed reason, in 1988, for denouncing Chris and evicting him and his wife Jane, from their home at the union’s community headquarters, was criminal, financial mismanagement by someone else, three years before – someone
whom Hartmire had hired. This surely was a pretext, a smoke screen for a deeper alienation. Pawel alludes to other issues. She cites Chris’ own later efforts, in a therapeutic process, to get at the sources of his single-minded devotion to Cesar. Cast aside after decades of effective loyalty, Chris asks in his diary, which Pawel quotes, “Did I bring it on myself?” This question remains unanswered, but the import of Pawel’s narrative suggests the answer is: no.

In an arresting phrase, the Apostle Paul has described himself and other missionary/organizers: as deceivers yet true. (II Cor 6:8) The paradoxical description is heavy with irony, so much so that many translations of Paul’s Greek eliminate the tension by adding words that are not part of Paul’s dictation. (Paul did not say: ‘We are treated as imposters and yet are true.’ Paul stated: “as deceivers yet true.”)

You can’t persuade if you are neutral about the facts. Ignoring everything that might discourage or distract your potential adherents, you, the organizer, must present salient points to make your argument. The Apostle knew this; so the rhetoric he used to win others to his cause required a degree of deception. In their reign of terror over restive,
occupied populations, Romans emperors killed thousands of people by crucifixion. But only one such execution occupied the mind of the Holy Apostle. All those other deaths were just as agonizing, just as factual. But Paul was not preoccupied with what we might think of today as the Roman policy of intimidation by terror: coercing cooperation by means of torture inflicted by an army of occupation upon representative civilians. By averting his adherents from the fact of wholesale executions and directing them to focus on only one, Paul was a self-acknowledged deceiver yet true.

Paul is not the only one. Kenneth Kaunda, devout Christian, led a non-violent liberation struggle, and in 1964, become the first democratically elected president of Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia). Kaunda admired Gandhi and summarized Gandhi’s tactics (not Gandhi’s philosophy) as follows: Gandhi “knew how to exploit human weakness for good purposes.” (Kaunda on Violence 1980, p. 18). Kaunda also said that “non-violence . . . is an exercise in public relations . . . as a tactic its success or failure hangs on whether the offending regime can be shamed or spurred by outraged public opinion into putting its house in order.” (Kaunda, p. 24-25). Although successfully directing a non-violent national liberation campaign in Northern Rhodesia, Kaunda concluded that the White minority regime of Southern Rhodesia could not be influenced by this strategy. So, Kaunda, as President of Zambia, supported the armed struggle for liberation of the Black Southern Rhodesian majority – whose successful campaign established the nation of Zimbabwe, presided over to this day by Robert Mugabe.

Was Kaunda a hypocrite for employing non-violence in one struggle for national liberation but facilitating horrific bloodshed in another? Kaunda was not unaware of the inconsistency. “. . . there are other scales than the eternal by which the worth of our actions must be measured. This is a very painful thing for me . . . I cannot make this absolute moral distinction and feel it would be madness not to decide what response is likely to be effective in the light of the nature of the problem.” (Kaunda, pp. 27-28). I suspect that both Saint Paul and Kenneth Kaunda would have found merit in Ganz’ summarizing suggestion (p. 237) that victories often turn out “to be moments when the next move mattered most – not a time to rest on one’s laurels, but a time to make something of one’s success.”

During the 1960s and into the ‘70s effective issue-interpretation was a vital component of the UFW’s explicit efforts to engage the institutional churches and their communicants. This was a significant aspect of the union’s efforts to win broad public support and recruit staff and volunteers. The Reverend Chris Hartmire was most skilled at this work. (An excellent reprise of Chris’ role in these activities may be found in Pat Hoffman’s book, Ministry of the Dispossessed, Wallace Press, 1987.)

One aspect of Chris Hartmire’s career, which deserves a fuller treatment, is the consequence of an open-ended commitment of time and energy to a single purpose: my experience is that such a commitment tends to enflame all other relationships.

In Pawel’s treatment of his career, Chris Hartmire has come to have regrets. Chris offered up much to Pawel in the way of apology. By opening his personal materials to Pawel, he has placed his contrition in print. No doubt, this sense of regret is genuine. Many of Chavez’ key associates, including Hartmire and our second writer, Marshall Ganz, had participated in purging others from the UFW before being subjected, in their turn, to a scorching denunciation.

In the 1970s, philosophers asked how individuals, guilty of many acts of bad behavior, could be judged and condemned, if they behaved in a context they did not create and could not change. This quandary has been called (with more than a hint of sarcasm) moral luck. None of us make decisions in the abstract. We all swim in a stream of events, a torrent that carries us out into the deep, beyond our personal powers of control.

Reinhold Niebuhr, who got there decades before the philosophers of the 1970s, has cautioned against pretentions to pure motives or magisterial wisdom. All we can hope to do, Niebuhr said, is keep in mind our 24/7 inclination to self-interested behavior and then, do the best we can. “There are situations,” Niebuhr wrote, “in which a choice must be made between equally valid loyalties and one value must be sacrificed to another. [. . .] All rational resolutions of such tragic dilemmas, which pretend that a higher loyalty is necessarily inclusive of a lower one, or that a prudent compromise between competing values can always be found, are false.” (The Irony of American History (Scribners, 1952, page 157).

Are apologies in order, when you do the best you can? An apology, featured by Pawel and made by Chris Hartmire to former UFW leader, Jessica Govea, may have helped to bring closure between estranged old friends. But a personal reconciliation is miscast when made into a metaphor for how wrong it was of Chris to sustain Cesar for decades,
how right Cesar’s internal critics were and how badly Cesar mistreated them. The only true error – if error it be – in Hartmire’s dedication to Cesar may have been in staying too long, after the church-based organization he had created, became redundant to the efforts of a firmly established labor organization to conduct its activities under the
direction of its own elected leadership.

Is there a better metaphor than personal apology as a summation of Chris Hartmire’s twenty-seven year career as a Christian Minister, on behalf of the UFW? I propose a compliment paid by Rubén Darío to Antonio Machado: “Fuera pastor de mil liones y de corderos a la vez” – he would be shepherd of a thousand lions and, at the same time, of sheep. Niebuhr might say: go ahead and give that a try, but don’t be surprised when lions start acting like lions. (For Darío’s comment, Oración Por Antonio Machado, Antonio Machado, Poesias Completas [Collección Austral, 1975, 1991, p. 71].)

Ganz precedes his analytical narrative by describing (p. viii) his sixteen years with the UFW as “a calling.” This means that both Ganz’ book and the contours of Hartmire’s career as described by Pawel, raise the same issue: isn’t a calling to be measured not by competence or results achieved but by fidelity to the call? If so, then the next question is: how is fidelity to be measured?

Cesar Chavez - UFW Meeting 1966 / Photo by Jon Lewis

Beginning in the late 1960s (apparently, not before), Cesar Chavez was made the object of hero worship – near veneration – by the UFW staff. This was no secret to anyone who was there in the ‘70s. What is now apparent, in Pawel’s narrative, is the impact on Cesar of all this adulation. Once you mount up on personalismo, you are on that horse until someone knocks you off. To confidants, Cesar talked in those terms. Pawel has the quotes, some of which come from eight or ten years before the union’s crash-and-burn of the late ‘70s. Pawel cites (p. 56) a tape recording from 1969, as follows: Chavez related [. . . ] a recent conversation with some of the early union leaders, who felt shut out. “They said that it was a one man union. I said ‘Yes, that’s true. If I leave, I bet you that most of the volunteers who work with me would leave.’ I said, ‘They’re here mostly because of me.’ [. . . ] In a confrontation I can beat them. I can beat them because they haven’t been around organizations, they don’t know how to stab each other. And I know how to do every fucking stab. But once you do that, so you do it to save the union, then every time there’s opposition developing, boom, you get them. Because, well, you want to save the union . . . In other words, I got to pull a Joseph Stalin, to really get it. And I don’t think I want to do that. By the time I do that, then I’ll be a different man. Then I’ll do it again for someother reason. More and more and more . . .”

There were indications from earlier, that the leader of the UFW was inclined to place himself in the role of martyr-in-chief. In 1966, the union undertook to publicize its efforts by conducting a march to Sacramento; the event was cast as a pilgrimage, which in Marshall Ganz’ telling, exemplifies the right combination of robust reflection upon salient facts, leading to an effective strategic maneuver. Another example: in 1967, Cesar undertook a five-day fast, so as to hasten the Perelli-Minetti company to the contract signing ceremony.

Pilgrimages and fasts are daring maneuvers when undertaken publicly and intended to provoke positive reactions in an adversary. These events were for the UFW – or became, after the fact – transformative events.

But what kind of effect does a resort to stratagems of personal sacrifice have on the leader, who is impelled to sacrifice the most, and in the most public way possible? (There has been posted on the internet more than one comment recalling Cesar Chavez, in the ‘60s as a cigarette smoker and not all that devout. For details, see http://www.farmworkermovement.us/ and the Discussion link.)

Ganz alludes to, but does not provide much in the way of detail, about the early administrative challenges which face a fledgling organization, that has promised to deliver a number of complex services to a far flung and mobile membership. In the case of the union, the goal was contracts – business partnerships – with its powerful opponents. But the opposition had to be brought to heel first. That was accomplished by a staff of organizers and others, who had been recruited for their willingness to work tirelessly to beat the bastards down into the ground. But after the bastards had been beaten, that same staff was supposed to shake the bastards’ hands and work together with them. Meanwhile, the growers (some of them) were going to do everything they could to see that the whole service delivery system collapsed.

Reinventing yourself is a staff challenge for a brand new successful union. That challenge extends upward, out of the trenches. The inspirational founder often is unwilling either to submit to reinvention or to relinquish power to the next, necessary leader, an effective administrator. How could the UFW move from the world of charisma to contract administration, with the same leader, who, as early as 1969, stated that the UFW was “a one man union?”

The UFW board of directors offered no check on Chavez’ authority but instead displayed unwavering deference to him. The Board, whose composition varied during the ascendant 1960s. achieved sameness from 1973 to 1981; at no point does the Board appear to have exercised restraint on the authority of the President. Several persons featured in Pawel’s narrative were members of the Board of the union during this period.

Marshall Ganz was a member of the Board of the UFW, from 1973 until he resigned in 1981. In strict fairness, his book is not designed to cover much internal detail during the period when Marshall served on the Board. But a reader wants details, in a book which seeks to explain how effective strategies evolve. Notably, Ganz has added an “Epilogue”
which argues that the UFW abruptly (beginning in 1977) retreated from those practices which had served so effectively in the earlier period. Factors which led to failure are especially wanted in a book which is otherwise compelling as a primer on how group leaders can foster organizational success.

Ganz mentions his Board service, but in a context which faults the structure of the UFW. To summarize (pages 232-33): “[the union’s constitution] . . . made no provision for local unions, districts or any intermediate level of representation . . . accountability rested with the only locus of political power in the union – the board.” Ganz’ announces
(p. 246) “In 1977, after suffering reverses in an ill-conceived campaign to reestablish a base in the grape industry, the UFW Board formally decided to stop organizing.” Unfortunately, a source for this important statement is hard to come by in Ganz’s book. There is no citation to Board minutes to support this conclusion. Instead, a footnote directs the reader to a 1986 Los Angeles Times piece, by former UFW general counsel Jerry Cohen. (See Ganz, page 246 and note 34, page 315.) But the Cohen newspaper piece makes no mention of a UFW Executive Board decision to stop organizing. https://www.amherst.edu/media/view/69456/original/UFW_Back_to_Organizing_1986.pdf

The obsequiousness shown to Cesar by his executive board is difficult to excuse but not hard to understand. Cesar was the relentlessly insistent leader. For years, he was in charge, being unanimously and repeatedly elected by UFW convention delegates. Having been there in the ‘70s, I cannot imagine how anyone on the inside could have had any doubts about who was the forever ringmaster of that circus.

In the UFW, Cesar was the undisputed visionary in charge. In the media, Cesar was portrayed as the penitent in charge. With decisive assistance from his lieutenants, the charismatic Chavez became not the Great Man on Horseback but the Humble Man on Pilgrimage, the modest yet brilliant laborer, emerging from the fields to do penance for all workers, so that they might enter into their reward. This familiar mythology is a variation of the Redeemer myth that is the blood and bone of Western religious tradition.

Cesar Chavez / 25-Day Fast for Nonviolence - 1968 / Photo by Jon Lewis

The portrayal of Cesario Estrada Chavez as a visionary penitent was developed for both external and internal consumption. This portrayal entailed a unique cultural unfolding. Very few prominent Americans of any period have adopted penitence as a public persona.

And here is the Chavez kicker. Because he came to believe in penance as no longer a stratagem (as in the 1960s) but as the fundamental ground of his leadership (as in the 1970s) Cesar seems to have reconfigured what was to be the reward of the field worker. Would the reward for union affiliation be a heftier paycheck? A medical plan? Job security? Better protection in the fields and in farm worker communities, against pesticide applications? Many union members and UFW staff would have settled for these practical employee benefits, but Cesar was not interested enough in these sorts of rewards to move heaven and earth for contract renewals or to implement competent service delivery systems for the membership. No. For Cesar, earthly reward would be to join him in a communal life marked by modesty in possessions and immodesty in selfsacrifice.

In practical terms, the dues-paying members of the union could not be asked to live the life of denial Cesar wanted to live. But the staff was a different matter. The staff did not have to be asked. They could be molded anew. This seemed logical, since the staff had signed up in large part to follow Cesar’s lead. The staff – many of us – felt called.

Since everyone was well intentioned, how could this go wrong?

As deceivers yet true: all of the deception and truth in this environment did not emanate from the diminutive Chavez. For anyone who sees vocation as a calling, self-deception as well as universal truth are individual confections. Among the UFW staff in the ‘70s were many of us who projected our own vision onto the Visionary whom we followed.
Many on staff saw ourselves secure in our private notions of heaven on this earth, with Cesar out in front. What we missed, though, was that Cesar believed that he belonged not merely out in front. Cesar saw himself on the altar, inviting one and all, as in the Mass, to sacrifice repeatedly and endlessly with him, as he himself was doing with himself.

Reinhold Neibuhr might counsel us to beware of a “screen of sanctity” which dangerously masks “the element of pretention in all human achievements.” (Irony pp. 166, 165.) When I challenged Cesar to denounce anti-Semitism within the union, it felt good! I knew he wouldn’t do it, which opened the way for my exit with a clean conscience – as if I had never encountered racism before or ever would do so later on.

Pawel summarizes and reiterates a fundamental UFW tactic: organize the workers to confront a dangerous threat. This stratagem is time-honored and has its place in unionbuilding. But Chavez directed the dangerous-threat stratagem against some of the union’s own staff. Beginning with lower level, recently hired individuals, in the mid-70s, Cesar announced that someone or other was deliberately undermining the union’s work. The alleged misconduct was denounced as a conspiracy; a person who has claimed to be one of us is conspiring with outside forces to destroy what we are trying to create. Before the dust settled (and it probably did not settle until Cesar’s death in 1993) dozens of skilled and principled individuals were forced to abandon what had become for many of them, their life’s work.

If people’s work is competent by every measure, then grave personal fault has to be found to get rid of them. Why? A straightforward difference of opinion is not acceptable between those who stay and those who have abandoned The Vision. Abandonment of the Vision entails disloyalty to the Visionary. From the earliest days, apparently, Cesar
and his lieutenants recruited people to a life of sacrifice under his unquestioned leadership, based on his charisma. Cesar could not subsequently come up with a way to separate from presumptive inside critics, without resorting to rituals of recrimination. Formulaic show-trials were applied in this context, as they have been applied in many
other contexts, where disloyalty is proclaimed but need not actually be demonstrated.

Did it make any sense to accuse the novice manager of the union’s newspaper of conspiring against the union, by printing not-always-flattering articles? Where is the logic of attacking the director of a successful elections campaign for allegedly taking orders from Moscow? What is the point of dismissing the newly installed and successful head of the union’s alternative school, because she does not invite a union officer, 20 years her senior, to a party? Pawel reports all of this nonsense.

As intended, denunciations that are irrational are difficult to counter, logically. Personal attacks are not an appeal to reason; they are an appeal to the loyalty of those who are not (yet) attacked. As Pawel suggests, some of the finger pointing may have been a Chavez stratagem to bind closer the inner circle. Cesar must be on to something . . . He has more information than I do . . . Back to work.

The union’s personnel crisis, as outlined by Pawel, appears to have been . . . inevitable. Maybe. In light of illusory pretentions to unmixed motives and the virus of self-delusion, there does seem to be a predetermined aspect to a slide into recrimination, which had been preceded by an ascent into saint-like devotion.

Whether remaining on the inside or cast into the outer darkness, we want to think well of ourselves and our motives; when things go badly, it feels better to conclude that the villains won a round and we, the virtuous, got the shaft. A dispassionate history of these events has yet to be written. In Pawel’s re-telling, innocence and good hearted allegiance to the field workers is on the side of the dissidents while vindictive, personal attacks are the tools of Chavez and his unblinking loyalists.

Ganz’ nuanced evaluation of UFW successes slips into generalizations in his Epilogue, when he turns to explaining the collapse. The UFW lost its strategic capacity, Marshall concludes, as it adopted the style of a “cult” and utilized “groupthink rituals” (pp. 243-244). Like an eye-shaded dealer in a smoky saloon in old-time Bakersfield, Marshall flips these aces down. Cult! Groupthink! Slipped without definition into a sociological analysis? Hmm.

In the late 1970s, militant lettuce crews selected their company representatives and these leaders began to agitate within the union, in order to influence the union’s strategy in their industry. This did not fit the style of the Visionary, who also happened to be in control of all of the union’s staff and resources, and who was a past master at neutralizing the opposition. Cesar out maneuvered the dissenters, who were denounced at the next union convention. Operatives were dispatched to Salinas, who crushed the dissidents by showing up at their companies and telling them they were fired. Simple as that. This worked because no one wanted to buck Cesar Chavez. Not really. People thought they could convince or cajole him to do things they wanted him to do. There never was the slightest chance of that.

The dissident lechugeros learned a harsh lesson, as Pawel points out. The disaffected, but credentialed and competent UFW staff moved on to other careers and endeavors. The mini-revolt of the dissident Salinas field workers, now abandoned and alone, wilted into personal recrimination and litigation.

Cesar Chavez / Founder of Farmworker Movement 1966 / Photo by Jon Lewis

Who was the leader of the farm workers in California? There was only one. There was always only one. No one has come along in California or any place else in the US, who has found a way to do what Cesar did. And it was also Cesar, who threw away the advances made under his generalship, who distracted himself from field organizing and contract re-negotiations, who insisted that the union’s staff join him in a semi-religious commune.

A notable absence from Pawel’s book is a more comprehensive explication of the role of our second writer, Marshall Ganz. Pawel frequently mentions Ganz, but her emphasis is on the end of Ganz’ UFW career. As the struggle between the lettuce workers and UFW staff escalated, in 1979, Marshall, reports Pawel, “defied Cesar” (p. 282) by failing to attend a 3-day meeting to plan a national boycott. Instead, Marshall remained in Salinas to help workers organize unsanctioned strikes. In 1981, Pawel states (p. 306), Marshall had left the union’s employ and was living on the Monterey Peninsula, “depressed.” He had “rebuffed” the lettuce workers’ appeal to him to help them further. Missing is a perspective on Marshall’s overall work and his relationship with Chavez during the victory years. Missing, too, is a citation to a source for the assertion that Marshall Ganz was depressed in 1981. Ganz himself makes no mention of his state of mind in 1981. Pawel credits Ganz with cooperating in her research, but his long relationship with
Chavez and his role in Salinas in the ‘70s and early ‘80s is not discussed in sufficient detail, either by Pawel or by Marshall himself.

Maybe another book from Marshall awaits publication. I hope so. Having worked on an organizing campaign in Salinas in 1975 and on a statewide campaign to pass a California constitutional amendment in 1976 – both directed by Marshall Ganz – I know first hand that Marshall was a master strategist, as tenacious and demanding as he was brilliant. Marshall was arguably the best of a very good set of organizers. Cesar certainly could inspire devotion; Marshall inspired a sense of confidence in his capacities as a strategist and campaigner.

Pawel is oddly circumspect about certain matters and passes over details that require inclusion. Pawel does not break down the roster of UFW Board members, who participated in crucial votes; one would suppose this information would have been readily available to her in the union’s archives, which she often cites. Nor does Pawel identify individuals, when specification would remove the nagging notion in this reader that something important has been left out. Frequently, her footnotes are impossible to decipher. Examples follow. Pawel records (page 74) that in Salinas in 1970, Msgr. George Higgins, counting the ballots by himself, announced that the UFW had won a crucial election, when in fact, the union had lost. In other words, Father Higgins lied when he reported the vote. Unfortunately, Pawel does not cite a source that any reader can check. The source she does cite is an interview in a folder in an archive, but an interview is not a vote tally. Why not cite the actual votes in the “careful tally” that Pawel writes “showed” the UFW
had lost the election? Or, if there no longer exists a vote tally from this 1970 election, then why not quote exactly what Higgins says in the interview? (Footnote 9 reads, “Higgins interview, April 11, 1994, JEL, Box 37, folder 74, Yale.” JEL refers to Jacques E Levy; Yale is a reference to the Beinecke Library at Yale University, both abbreviations, Pawel identifies elsewhere.)

Pawel reports (p. 219) that at a June 30-July 2, 1977 board meeting, Chavez told his executive board that his wife had intercepted “love letters” and that Chavez, as a result, told the leadership of the union that (in Pawel’s description) “he was not sure he was still married.” The context of this remark is Chavez’ assertion that “assholes were out to
sabotage his marriage” (Pawel’s words, again). The authority for the Chavez love-letter remarks is not given. The closest the reader gets to a source are the UFW archives at Wayne State University, which receive a citation in a footnote three paragraphs later. (See Pawel, page 219 and footnote 10, chapter 19, which reads “Tape of NEB meeting, Jun. 30-Jul. 2, 1977, UFW, Wayne State.”) If the love-letter source is UFW attorney Sandy Nathan, whose name is associated with Pawel’s narrative at this juncture, why not state this?

Why wouldn’t a writer quote Chavez directly, if his voice is recorded to say that his wife had discovered “love letters” to him? On the other hand, if a statement by Chavez about his receiving love letters is not on the tape of the board meeting, then the writer should cite her source. This looks like authorial slight-of-hand – a reference to sexual misconduct, without attribution – intended simply to reflect poorly on Chavez’ character. To darken readers’ comprehension is not to deepen it.

Both of our writers wind up at pretty much the same place. Pawel and Ganz both suggest that their narratives of ascent and decline are relevant to the state of the UFW today. Pawel writes that UFW President Arturo Rodriguez “took over a family operation” through which the UFW, “in lieu of organizing” has “mastered the art of cashing in on Latino political power.” (Pawel, pages 328, 329.) Pawel offers little data in support of these assertions or of the notion that the fortunes of the UFW have been in irreparable decline since the late 1970s and early ‘80s.

Ganz’ Epilogue, relying on Pawel’s earlier reporting in the Los Angeles Times, provides more data than Pawel does to demonstrate that the UFW has never recovered its momentum after its retreat from organizing in the late ‘70s. But this data may point to the injury done to the union by the deficiencies in the leadership of Chavez; the data may say little about post-Chavez strategies of the UFW today.

The establishment by the UFW of viable non-profit organizations does not require the conclusion proposed by these writers, that the UFW has abandoned field organizing. Perhaps the UFW’s charitable entities ought to be seen as a creative way for new leadership to assure organizational survival – in the wake of Cesar’s missteps thirty years ago and in the face of the extraordinary difficulty of organizing farm workers today.

Having argued persuasively that the UFW’s astonishing successes are subject to a sociological analysis, Ganz concludes (p. 242) that the union’s collapse is subject to the same kind of analysis. While offering respect to Marshall Ganz for his magisterial presentation, I disagree. In the 1960s Cesar Chavez used rituals of penance and prayer as organizing stratagems. Jerry Cohen in his “Gringo Justice” memoir posted at an Amherst College website, quotes Cesar in 1967 stating, “We’ll teach these bastards the power of prayer.” By the 1970s Cesar permitted himself to view such rituals as integral to his persona and therefore to his unquestioned leadership.

Pawel provides (pp. 186-89) considerable detail about Cesar and Chris Hartmire’s plans, beginning in June 1976, to establish a religious community. “The Order of Los Menos” would operate farms, beginning with the establishment of a “mother house” in Oxnard, “under the auspices of the Catholic Church.” The religious order was never established but I believe that Cesar’s focus on a regimen of personal piety and devotion added momentum to the ferreting out of supposed disloyal staff. People who think in terms of Holy Orders are likely to value obedience more than competence.

Ganz, who was there and who brings decades of thoughtfulness to the problem, sees the matter differently. Typical of his diagnosis is his conclusion about the management of the union’s increasingly complex agenda, as it won elections and undertook contractual obligations: Chavez “did not ignore the formidable administrative challenges the UFW faced. He and his allies, however, did not create an administrative infrastructure to meet these challenges. Instead, in the name of preserving the movement, Chavez consolidated his internal political control so he could respond to these challenges on his own terms.”

But what leader of any organization does not need to have internal political control so as to meet challenges on his/her own terms? Ganz’ conclusion is a retreat from the more nuanced and compelling scrutiny to be found in the invaluable book which precedes the Ganz epilogue. Reading Marshall’s book and then his epilogue, is like watching a gifted
lecturer conclude a tour de force presentation, but then step out from behind the podium to reveal a bit of toilet tissue hanging off a shoe. The audience claps, but still . . .

I suspect the contrast between Ganz’ success in delineating the reasons for the UFW’s early victories and his less persuasive delineation of the UFW’s later failures is accounted for by Marshall having signed up with the UFW for the same reason many of the rest of us did. This work was his calling, a calling which had placed him in harness for sixteen years but ended badly. To preserve the purity of the call, Marshall means to find the first of Cesar’s false steps late in Marshall’s own tenure, in 1976/77 rather than as early as 1969, as Pawel does.

Significantly, Ganz (p. 243) does not identify the reason(s) why Cesar, personally, failed: “Cesar’s personal demons, whatever their source, began to gnaw at his self-confidence, humor, and resilience.” A reader expects details here, which might flesh out examples of Cesar’s supposed loss of these qualities; instead Marshall supplies a footnote that directs us back into an analysis of organizations. But, the source of “personal demons” is not likely to be found in organizational structure.

The very question that Marshall passes over is THE question. What was going on in Cesar’s mind? Isn’t it evident that he, too, felt a sense of calling? To feel called is to identify some principle as the essential purpose in one’s life. Ironically, and despite Biblical citations to the contrary, the paring down of life’s manifold expressions into a single purpose deprives one of eyes that see and ears that hear. That is why so many who were in positions of confidence and responsibility within the UFW proved willing to turn on those who were no longer perceived as true to the founder’s vision.

Unless you were expressly loyal to the vision, you could not keep doing the work. We all knew this. Four little consonants separate kicking ass from kissing ass. Every union, no, every organization, every hierarchy, has to find a balance between the outside kicking and the inside kissing. When you mix in a calling, then you are likely to get carried away by strong currents into the dark deep, where it is all you can do to keep your head above water.

Chris Hartmire, in Pawel’s narration, is inclined to apologize for three decades of faithful work. Marshall Ganz is inclined to preserve the purity of his own UFW calling by identifying later-developed structural shortcomings for the withering of the UFW in the late ‘70s and ’80s. Maybe the old soldiers ought simply to say: Look. We gave it our best
shot. We accomplished a lot. But we could not keep the lion from eating the sheep.

There is little in either book about those UFW staff persons who have been at work in the union for twenty and thirty years, who lived through the events described but never left. What about the staff and the UFW leadership, who have come on board in the last seventeen years and never knew Cesar at all? One wonders what they will make of these
two autopsies of the union of their dreams.

Perhaps another book or two will appear that tests the following theory: the UFW, under new leadership, has become in the past two decades, a battle-hardened, practical-minded  labor organization, the outfit many of its former loyalists had wanted it to be in their day, but which it could not become while Cesar Chavez, the visionary founder, remained at the helm.

Richard Cook at UFW La Paz 1972 / Photo by Rick Tejada-Flores

© 2004–2012 Si Se Puede Press

Primary source accounts: photographs, oral histories, videos, essays and historical documents from the United Farm Worker Delano Grape Strikers and the UFW Volunteers who worked with Cesar Chavez to build his farmworker movement.

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