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Commentary: “From The Jaws of Victory” by Doug Adair


By Doug Adair, UFW Pensioner

FROM THE JAWS OF VICTORY: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement by Dr. Matt Garcia

Dr. Matt Garcia has been a guest at our farm several times, and I consider him a friend, with the best interests of farm workers in his heart. But I was surprised and disappointed in his book, From the Jaws of Victory, The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement.

First and foremost, the manuscript needed a good editor, spell check, fact checker. Names are repeatedly misspelled, dates wrong, locations mixed up. El Malcriado editor Bill Esher is “Asher;” Gene Boutillier is “Rev. Boutitier”;
Jim Drake is “a young New Yorker” when actually he grew up in Thermal and went to school with grower and farm worker kids

The Stardust Hotel is in Delano, not Coachella. “Gimmian Brothers” is supposedly a grape grower in Coachella? Pic ‘n Pac grows strawberries, not lettuce.

Minor quibbles, perhaps, but serious errors continue when he gets into history. The Imperial Valley lettuce strike of 1961 was a seminal event in farm labor history, leading to the first labor contract in the lettuce (between the Teamsters and Bud Antle) and helping to end the Bracero Program. Garcia states:

“In 1960, a coalition of workers in the Imperial Valley tried to increase their wages by striking the lettuce fields. Two AFL-CIO representatives, Al Green and Clyde Knowles, had begun to organize workers with an eye toward starting a new union, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC).”

The lettuce strike was actually in 1961; AWOC had been founded in 1959, and was led by Norm Smith (later referred to by Garcia as “another organizer); Al Green was appointed head of AWOC in 1964, and was not present in the 1961 lettuce strike; Clive (not “Clyde”) Knowles was head of the Packinghouse Workers, later affiliated with the Amalgamated Meatcutters, and was never a part of AWOC.

In the period from 1961 to 1965, AWOC was not quite moribund, but had little success in organizing workers. George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, sacked the 300 lb. Smith and replaced him with Al Green, who impressed me as being a near-retirement union hack, borderline racist, and clueless about farm labor. The AWOC did have some able organizers and dedicated staff, starting with Larry Itliong, but to say, as Garcia does, that AWOC was “most likely to succeed” as the Bracero Program was being ended, is a stretch. The Teamsters, with their (arguably sweetheart) contract with Bud Antle, had more farm worker members under contract than AWOC, as did the International Longshoremen with their good contracts in the sugar and pineapples in Hawaii (never mentioned by Garcia). Both these independent unions, and AFL-CIO Packinghouse Workers and Meatcutters and AWOC were all jockeying in jurisdictional and turf disputes in this period. Only the National Farm Workers Association, founded by Cesar Chavez and Gil Padilla in 1962, was free of outside and urban agendas and leadership as the Bracero Program ended in 1965.

Garcia mentions the key events of early 1965, preceding the Delano grape strike, but gets facts and significance wrong. For the NFWA, these were the strike in the roses in Wasco and McFarland in the spring; the Rent Strike by tenants in the Tulare County Housing Authority farm labor camps in Woodville and Farmersville; and the the strike in pre-harvest work at the J. D. Martin Ranch outside Earlimart. In all these cases (and also at a strike at Exeter Dehydrator, where I was also involved), workers precipitated the action, and then came to the NFWA for help and leadership. The publicity given the $1.40 minimum wage, which the U. S. government decreed was the base that employers must offer before asking for Braceros, and then the supposed end of the program itself, all these led farm workers to believe that the time had come to demand more, in wages, in living and working conditions, in respect. The news of Blacks in the South demanding respect, the spread of the Civil Rights movement, was an inspiration. And El Malcriado, the NFWA newspaper, was spreading the news of these actions from Arvin to Madera, and every barrio in the Southern San Joaquin Valley had a core of farm workers familiar with Chavez and Padilla and Huerta and the NFWA team and its program. And these actions were not instances where union organizers went in and called on workers to strike. These were instances where workers organized themselves, stood up and made demands, and then went to the NFWA for back-up.

It is my impression that the same is true for the AWOC and its members. The grape pickers themselves (yes, under the leadership of Itliong and AWOC) precipitated the strike in Coachella in the spring, winning an increase in wages from $1.25 to $1.40 (but no written contract). When the grape harvest moved north to Arvin, the AWOC did organize and sponsor a strike at El Rancho Farms, that was brutally broken by the growers and Kern County Sheriffs. The picket lines and organizers were arrested, and AWOC faced a mountain of legal bills for bail, injunctions, and court cases. At that point, August, 1965, Al Green retreated to his Stockton office, but left Itliong and a cadre of organizers (Ben Gines, Tomse) in Delano.

As the grape harvest reached Delano, it was the workers themselves that started the actions, with sit-ins spreading among the camps in the first week of September. In an attempt to get control of these wildcats, Itliong called a meeting of AWOC membership, on September 8, and 800 grape pickers, mostly Filipino, were overwhelmingly in favor of striking. But to say that Itliong “pulled the farm workers out” denies the spontaneous actions of the workers. In effect, Itliong played catch up to actions on the ground, offering organization and structure (and a leadership geared to crew foremen) for the spreading movement.

Chavez, like Green, was also cautious about how to proceed. But once the NFWA called upon its membership to attend a meeting and voice their opinions (on September 16), the movement could not be stopped. It was Epifanio Camacho, the leader of the rose strikers, who called upon the (mostly Mexicano) workers to join the strike. Garcia states that Chavez was “drawn into the strike by the more radical, union oriented AWOC members,” that Itliong, rather than Chavez, led the “farm worker vanguard”. He later suggests that “the rise of the NFWA on the heels of the AWOC strike,” was similar to the Teamsters intervention in 1970, …”the union that proves it can organize farm workers invites more, not less competition from competing unions.”

I do not want to take away from the courage and militancy of the AWOC members who started the grape strike in Delano; or from the skill and leadership of Itliong in organizing and leading the workers as the strike spread. But AWOC was a flawed institution in that Itliong had no real power, was an employee of a top down structure run by Al Green out of Stockton who in turn was a creature of George Meany and the AFL-CIO in Washington, responding to national politics, jurisdictional squabbles, and the openly racist orientation of much of the AFL hierarchy. On the ground, they were hobbled by Green’s strategy of organizing foremen and labor contractors, rather than rank and file workers. By the winter/spring, 1966, most AWOC foremen wanted to end the strike and return to work. Green forbid AWOC staff from joining in the March to Sacramento. At that point, many of the most militant AWOC members, Rudy Reyes, Fred Abad, Ernie Delarmente, Manual Vasquez, defied Green and joined in the March. After Bill Kircher of the AFL-CIO organized the merger of the AWOC and the NFWA, in 1966, the more militant AWOC members accepted Chavez as their natural leader, while the majority of the AWOC foremen abandoned the strike and later supported the Teamsters, whose contracts did not threaten their power within the crews.

After such a poor understanding of the background of the Delano grape strike of September, 1965, Garcia skips the events of the actual strike and moves on to discussing the various consumer boycotts of 1966-1970, without noticing the critical evolution of the AWOC and NFWA in this period. The walk-out of NFWA members and Mexicano farm workers on September 20 could be said to have saved the grape strike launched by the largely Filipino membership of AWOC. The strike spread, with new momentum, in late September. But the grape growers dug in their heels, recruiting new workers from outside the strike zone, and increasingly from Texas and Mexico; and used their local political power to impose strike breaking court injunctions and mass arrests by Kern County Sheriffs to break the strike in the fields.

Instead of folding and admitting defeat, as AWOC had done in Arvin in August, the NFWA used these events to publicize the injustice, first through the Communist newspaper, Peoples’ World, and then religious and civil rights groups, and eventually through the L. A. Times and then the national press. Most AWOC crew foremen were ready to go back to work as the pruning began in December, and Al Green and Meany were ready to abandon the grape strike, and shifted their campaign to the citrus in Tulare County, outside the strike zone. But publicity surrounding the arrest of Rev. Dave Havens (for reading Jack London’s famous “Definition of a strike breaker”), the mass arrest of women (including Helen Chavez), the picketing of scab grapes on the docks of San Francisco, and the NFWA refusal to give up, all these led to the grape strike becoming a cause celebre, with religious folk (especially organized by Chris Hartmire and the Migrant Ministry, and a few radical Catholic priests), and students and civil rights groups, mobilizing to aid the strikers, and coming to Delano in solidarity. Steve Allen brought Hollywood visibility and then Walter Reuther, using support of the grape strike to show he was more militant and radical than Meany, with whom he was now feuding, gave the NFWA the momentum to continue the struggle just as the AWOC leadership was willing to admit defeat. But clearly, the strike in the fields needed new focus and new tactics to win contracts, and Chavez and the NFWA team welcomed a diversity of thinking (but excluding violence) among the members and supporters, to figure out how to finesse the local power structure.

According to Garcia, the creative genius behind the various boycotts from 1966 to 1970, culminating in the successful table grape boycott and the signing of table grape contracts in April-July, 1970, was one Jerry Brown, not the governor, but rather the husband of Jane (Juanita) Brown, who acted as the Delano coordinator of the table grape boycott in the 1968-1970 period. Garcia’s interviews with Brown would lead one to believe that he convinced a reluctant Chavez to use the tactic of the boycott after the strike in the fields was broken. Actually, a consumer boycott against Schenley Corporation was launched in the winter of 1965-66, before the Browns came to Delano, coming out of the creative thinking unleashed by the NFWA team (and specifically Jim Drake of the Migrant Ministry?). Brown’s interview leads Garcia to focus on a few individuals, and especially on the boycott of grapes in Europe (kudos to Elaine Ellinson, who certainly deserves credit), and Canada (kudos again to Marshall Ganz and Jessica Govea). But when Garcia suggests that Brown sent Padilla to start a boycott in Philadelphia (actually in March of 1970), he misses years of previous boycotts (against Schenley, against DiGiorgio and S&W fine foods, against various wine companies) and years of prior organizing in Philadelphia, by volunteers Marian Moses and Eric Schmidt, by farm workers including the Saludado sisters of Earlimart and Hope Lopez of Fresno – years of outreach, organizing, picket lines, little steps that built the coalition that finally pushed the grape growers to the bargaining table in 1970.

During the 1965-1970 period , I served on the staff of the NFWA newspaper, El Malcriado, in Delano and Texas (the Texas campaign is never mentioned in Garcia’s book though that too caused an upheaval in the labor, social, and political history of Texas), or on the grape boycott with Padilla in Philadelphia. I can comment with some personal knowledge on this period. So I approach Garcia’s “history” with skepticism. I hesitate to comment on the horror stories that Garcia presents for the period of the 1970’s, especially the purges and Synanon “Game” that took place at union headquarters in La Paz. Garcia states frankly that he began his project “intent on telling the story of the UFW from the point of view of the volunteers.” Chavez and the workers themselves seem almost incidental to the successes in the story.

When Garcia turns to “the legacy of Cesar Chavez”, he focuses on the tragedies and failures of the UFW. One can look at conditions in farm labor in the United States today, and despair. A revival of the Bracero Program is on the political agenda, by Democrats and Republicans alike, and even the remnant of the UFW itself. Real respect for farm labor is at an all-time low, a labor to be done by foreigners or indentured servants…. The “solution” to the poverty among farm workers is to get an education and get out of farm labor…. Or one can look at the transformation of the Mexican-American and Latino community, the whole landscape of rising social, union, and political empowerment in California and throughout the nation. The CSO agenda that Chavez initially served has come true. My California Assemblyman, Manuel Perez, and my Congressman, Dr. Raul Ruiz, both came out of farm worker families of the Coachella Valley, a journey hard to imagine without the impact of the UFW on this community. Huge credit goes to Chavez and the movement he led. And for a time, 1966-1981, the UFW offered a model of how a militant union could win and enforce good contracts with extensive benefits for farm workers, and we could work with pride and dignity and respect in producing the food that feeds the nation.

Doug Adair, UFW pensioner
Pato’s Dream Date Gardens, Thermal, Calif



© 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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