A Bumper Crop of New Books

Bennett Baumer Jul 17, 2013

Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of Work and Struggle in the Fields of California
By Bruce Neuberger
Monthly Review Press, 2013

Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers
By Frank Bardacke
Verso, 2011

The Union of Their Dreams
By Miriam Pawel
Bloomsbury Press, 2009

When Cesar Chavez died in 1993, he was a cultural icon and progressive hero. Cast into poverty at a young age, he worked the fields as a youth before he went on to fuse his brand of Catholicism and grassroots organizing into the United Farm Workers, a union that sought to raise his Mexican farm laborer base out of poverty and into power. Chavez built a fighting union from the ground up — Si se puede! (“Yes we can!”) was its battle cry — but by the time of his death he left an organization gutted of its farm worker base, purged of its organizing core and tattered from relentless grower assaults.

Over the past few years a crop of books has reassessed the UFW and its leader. Previous works on the UFW tended towards hagiography, but the union is decades removed from being a force in the fields and newer scholarship seeks to understand what happened. Lettuce Wars by Bruce Neuburger is the most recent addition and compliments Trampling Out the Vintage, possibly the definitive work on the UFW.

Both Neuburger and Trampling Out the Vintage author Frank Bardacke come from the '60s New Left antiwar, civil rights and campus free speech movements. Both also worked multiple years in the vegetable fields, stooped over alongside a largely Latino workforce, and both books contain vignettes of workers and their lives, language and struggles. Where Lettuce Wars is a lively memoir, Trampling Out the Vintage is a densely packed comprehensive history.

Rabble Rouser

Lettuce Wars reads like a troublemaker's handbook because Neuburger was a rabble-rouser. Neuburger annoyed anti-communist UFW officials by espousing radical politics that harkened to China's Cultural Revolution. Neuburger was also accused of arson (charges dropped), pursued by Mexican and American police and kicked out of a martyred farm worker's funeral. (I recently met him; he's an affable ESL instructor in San Francisco). While Neuburger traces the arc of the UFW competently, he was never close to the union's core leadership.

Bardacke follows both major and minor events and political currents within the farm worker movement that provide mostly unflattering portraits of Chavez (and to a lesser extent, Dolores Huerta). Bardacke credits Chavez with winning better living conditions for farm workers and utilizing innovative techniques to build public support for consumer boycotts of California lettuce and table grapes. But it is clear Bardacke believes the organizing heft rested with other UFW leaders. Internal union debate raged on such topics as the effectiveness of boycotts vs. strikes and a volunteer vs. paid staff.

In Chavez, Bardacke finds a leader who mastered interpersonal communication but was wary of bombastic public speaking, opened the union to boycott volunteers but directed numerous purges, inspired Chicano farm workers to challenge the racist system that kept them poor but endorsed crackdowns of “illegal” Mexican immigrants, encouraged freedom of expression through farm worker theater and a newspaper but jettisoned both when they ran afoul of his script for the movement.

One of the most disturbing practices that Bardacke chronicles is the UFW's pressuring staff to participate in the cultist Synanon's attack therapy. Chavez utilized Synanon's emphasis on participants revealing their innermost weaknesses to cow staffers and purge “assholes.”

Cesar Chavez's Shadow

Getting out from under Chavez's shadow proved nearly impossible for the UFW's core and most left as a result of purges and personal clashes with Chavez. The Union of Their Dreams by Miriam Pawel tells the story of the UFW by reconstructing the personal experiences of eight of the union's leading figures. It confirms, albeit in smaller doses, the larger themes in Lettuce Wars and Trampling Out the Vintage, of a dynamic union made powerful but also crippled by charismatic leadership.

Chavez’s purges often targeted perceived threats to his leadership. In 1976 Chavez shuttered the farm workers’ newspaper El Malcriado. He aimed his wrath at the paper's new editor, Joe Smith, citing minor editorial disagreements. Chavez’s real target was Smith’s supervisor and veteran national boycott director Nick Jones. Both left the union and in the process Chavez threw out the baby out with the bath water, destroying the UFW’s boycott apparatus and vibrant newspaper. The Union of Their Dreams documents Smith’s appeal of his dismissal, “My character has been defamed and slandered. I am accused of…betraying the leadership [and] my friends..and being party to conspiracy to destroy this union…If we are allowed to slander and slur one another in private without being accountable our potential for self-destruction is unlimited and uncontrollable.”

Through the rise and fall of the UFW, the union faced fierce opposition from growers who presided over a racialized caste system that insulated them from their workers. Growers attempted to head off UFW militancy by signing sweetheart contracts with Teamster locals and then turning to the Teamsters to enforce labor peace if workers continued to agitate. Trampling Out the Vintage is chock-full of grower-cozy Teamster gangsterism and thuggish picket line brawls.

UFW vs. The Teamsters

With their bloated salaries and Mafia ties, the Teamsters leadership stood in stark contrast to the publicly pious and austere Chavez. The UFW eventually dislodged the Teamsters from the fields, but not until after dozens of union elections where the UFW saw mixed results — the Teamsters had to negotiate contracts that were close to UFW’s bargaining power or workers would abandon them.

Multiple forces converged to break the UFW, including Chavez's siege mentality. In 1981, he moved to smash worker influence over the union’s board in order to maintain his absolute power over the UFW, but also defanged the union’s last defense — its militant worker leadership. While reading these reassessments of Chavez and his union another idea comes forth — perhaps Chavez was not as different from his Teamster foils in the fields. Chavez doled out numerous positions in the union and its non-profit arms to family members. Today the UFW represents 6,000 members; in the 1970s it was 50,000 strong — though many unions have experienced similar declines, if not death. Meanwhile, California agribusiness booms with gross revenues routinely near $40 billion a year employing over 400,000 mostly Mexican farm workers.

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