The Dubious Legacy of César Chávez

by Michael Yates

review of Randy Shaw’s Beyond the Fields: César Chávez, the UFW, and Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 347 pp., $24.95.

The thesis of this book is simple. Randy Shaw argues that most of the social movements of the contemporary U.S.—labor, immigrant rights, antiwar, worker and consumer health and safety, anti-sweatshop—are fundamentally the progeny of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) union. Shaw attempts to prove this by showing that UFW alumni have been critical leaders of these movements, and these causes have employed tactics pioneered by Chávez and the farm workers. Shaw’s argument is deeply flawed.

It is certainly true that thousands of young people, radical activists, trade unionists, clergy, and assorted other actors, politicians, writers, and artists worked for or with the UFW during its heyday from the mid-1960s until about 1980. I did, in the winter of 1977, when I worked at La Paz, the union’s headquarters in Keene, California. For most of us, our UFW experiences were exciting and meaningful. We carried them with us, and they informed our lives and actions.

But the same things could be said about the IWW before the First World War; the CIO or the Communist Party during the 1930s; or the SDS, the SWP, and the antiwar and the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Of course, there were historical continuities in all of these movements—a problem for Shaw’s arguments. The UFW didn’t spring full-blown from the body and mind of César Chávez and his mentor Fred Ross. There is history here, and Shaw, by and large, ignores it. Would the UFW have been possible without the radical Filipino farm workers who started the organizing? The Filipinos drew strength from struggles in their homeland and from the CIO upheavals of the Great Depression. The union used the boycott to good effect, at least in the beginning, and its use of volunteers to staff boycott offices in every major city in the United States and some in Canada was innovative. But the boycott built the AFL in the 1880s and 1890s. Similarly, the civil rights movement used boycotts, nonviolent demonstrations, and volunteers by the thousands, the sorts of tactics that Shaw attributes to Chávez’s genius. Certainly, someone could write a similar book using this movement as its template. The UFW was not unique.

Flaws up close

Consider three points, two small and one large.

First, Shaw says that, “During the 1950s, Chávez met Father Donald McDonnell, who introduced him …to a recent encyclical from Pope Leo XIII on the church’s support for workers who protested unfair labor conditions.” The encyclical, Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), was written in 1891, which hardly made it recent. But Shaw doesn’t say that the Pope wrote it in response to the growing popularity of left-wing unions and politics among working people. It is an anti-socialist screed, aimed at Catholic workers. It is very much a defense of capitalism, and only goes so far as to suggest that capitalists must treat workers fairly.

Shaw makes much of the UFW’s alliance with religious groups and clergy, and there is no doubt that church support for the farmworkers’ struggles helped the union immensely. However, the close relationship the UFW and Chávez had with churches was a mixed blessing. The Catholic Church is a hierarchical, dogmatic, and sexist organization. The Church view is, at best, that the poor are worthy sinners who have to be looked after by the priests, who, like Christ, sacrifice for them.

Chávez imbibed this paternalistic ethic, and the ministers, who flocked to the union and were powerful within it, encouraged him. Chávez said that to sacrifice is to be a man. With the union’s successes, Chávez began to think of himself as a holy person, Christ-like and above reproach. Once in a community meeting at La Paz, César was criticized by some of us for making an incredibly sexist remark. He became enraged and said, “I work eighteen fucking hours a day for the union. Who of you can say the same?”

How do you challenge Christ?

Is it any wonder that when Chávez showed his disdain for rank-and-file power in the union, almost none of the clergy challenged him? Or many of his staff or board members either? Is it surprising that Chávez was a staunch anti-communist and engaged in vicious and mindless purges and red-baiting of those who challenged his authority?

Chávez had a history, and the social doctrines of the Catholic church were part of it. Unfortunately, Shaw ignores the seamier side of these. You would never know from this book that the Church did some evil deeds during the great CIO movement of the 1930s, even informing about left-wing labor leaders to the FBI.

The Game

The final chapter in the book contains a long list of UFW alumni who have continued to fight the good fight. It is a kind of “shout out” to these often unrecognized models of courage and social solidarity and an attempted empirical validation of Shaw’s thesis. There are some curious inclusions and omissions, and these raise a second point of criticism. Under the heading “Labor Organizer/Union Staff,” we find the name, Fred Hirsch. Fred is a communist plumber, and he was one of the first researchers to uncover the close relationship between certain unions and the CIA. He worked diligently in support of the UFW, beginning in the 1960s. Fred did not owe his politics or dedication to labor to Chávez or the UFW but to the communist movement.

Fred’s daughter, Liza, who is not on Shaw’s list, began working with (and then for) the union from age twelve. I helped her develop a piece rate proposal for tomato pickers at a ranch near Oxnard, California. We shared a friendship with a volunteer at La Paz, a man who did carpentry and maintenance work for the union.

In the winter of 1977, Chávez hooked up with Charles Dederich, who ran a drug rehabilitation center called Synanon. (To his credit, Shaw discusses this in a chapter on the UFW’s decline). Dederich had concocted a psychological warfare scheme called the “Game,” in which addicts were subjected to relentless group attacks, the idea being to break down their psyches so they could start over again, without drugs. At the time of Chávez’s fascination with Synanon and the “Game,” Dederich was a megalomaniacal cult leader, abusing his clientele. A reporter who exposed the organization found a rattlesnake in his mailbox.

César took to the “game” like Stalin to the secret police, and he used it for the same purpose—to consolidate his power in the union. He took some trusted members of his inner circle to Synanon for training and began immediately to force the game upon the staff. On April 4, 1977, he incited a screaming mob of “Game” initiates to purge the union of “troublemakers.” All sorts of ridiculous charges were made against “enemies of the union,” including our carpenter friend. When our friend confronted Caesar and demanded to face his accusers in a hearing, as the union’s constitution stated was his right, Chávez called the Mojave police and had him arrested for trespassing.

The last time I saw him was at Fred Hirsch’s house in San Jose, after we bailed him out of jail. A few weeks later, Liza went to La Paz to attend the wedding of a friend. César, with whom she had been very close and in whose house she had once lived, summarily threw her off the property and expelled her from the union.

Wreckage

If the UFW positively changed some peoples’ lives, it harmed and wrecked others. Shaw certainly knows this; he just chose not to mention it. He devotes considerable space to the admirable parts of the life and work of famed UFW leader Dolores Huerta, who is also on his list. He uses her as a prime example of the importance of the UFW in training and nurturing social change activists. She has won every imaginable award given to women leaders and been in the forefront of many struggles.

But Huerta has never repudiated Chávez’s dictatorial, hateful, and ruinous behavior. She could have, and it might have made a difference. Instead, she was and still is a Chávez apologist. Shaw reports that she was unhappy with the treatment of women in the union. She says that women need to have power. She doesn’t say for what. Had she been union president, I doubt things would have turned out much different.

Also absent from Shaw’s list of UFW luminaries is Chávez’s son, Paul. The younger Chávez still lives at La Paz, from where he runs a group of interlinked union enterprises, including radio stations and housing companies. The union raises money from these and many other sources: mass mailing fund-raising, marketing the Chávez name to sell union trinkets and win public grants, political consulting, and managing union trust funds. The union has precious few members; a handful of members collect pensions or get health care from the trust funds (though they sit on tens of millions of dollars); and the union leadership seems little concerned about any of this. Paul Chávez is paid more than $125,000 for his “services” to farm workers.

A charitable description of today’s UFW is that it has become a quasi-racket. Another UFW legacy Shaw neglects to discuss. Chávez created an undemocratic union of migrant workers. He ran it as if it were his property. History tells us that such an organization is ripe for corruption. And so it was.

Legacy

The final and most serious flaw of Shaw’s analysis shows itself in the opening pages, where he says, “This legacy should not be based on the size of the UFW’s current membership rolls. Rather, it should be evaluated by the impact of its ideas and alumni on current social justice struggles.”

Let’s see now. The UFW managed, despite long odds, to organize farm workers, attract thousands of talented volunteers to its banner, build a feared grassroots political action machine, defeat the Teamsters and the sweetheart contracts it had signed with growers, and win passage of a farm workers’ labor law unmatched by any other such statute in the country. By 1977, the union was poised to achieve a mass membership that would have made it a power to be reckoned with in California, and maybe in the entire nation.

But then, under Chávez’s autocratic leadership, the union dissolved the boycott staff, firing its leader and accusing him of being a communist; purged its staff, using the most disgusting means imaginable; refused to entertain any local union autonomy and democracy; denied the election of actual farm workers to the union board; ruined the careers, and in some cases, the jobs, of rank-and-file union dissidents; lost almost all of its collective bargaining agreements, and began a long and ugly descent into corruption.

Today, farm workers in California are no better off than they were before the union came on the scene. They still don’t often live past fifty; they still suffer the same job-related injuries and illnesses; they still don’t have unions; they are still at the bottom of the labor market barrel. How is all of this not an important, indeed critical, legacy of the UFW? If we judge the union and Chávez in terms of the well-being of the workers they set out to organize, both must be judged utter failures. If we compare the UFW to any number of the CIO’s left-led unions, for example, the United Packinghouse Workers of America, the Farmworkers pale by comparison. The UPWA was not only a multiracial and democratic union. It also led the struggle to end segregation at work and in the workers’ communities, and it put the pay of the black and immigrant laborers who did the unenviable work of slaughtering the animals we eat on a par with those of steel and auto workers.

A union is supposed to organize workers and improve their lives. Chávez and the UFW had their chances, and they threw them away. Imagine that Martin Luther King had sought and taken advice from Chuck Dederich after his “I Have a Dream” speech. And after that, imagine that he had forced the Memphis garbagemen to play the “Game.” Surely historians would count that as a major part of his legacy.

Alumni

And if we follow Shaw’s lead and look to the “impact of ideas and alumni on current social justice struggles,” we are still left with serious problems. Consider two outstanding alumni, Marshall Ganz and Eliseo Medina.

Ganz was a master organizer, of both union and political campaigns, and he has put this skill, which he learned in the UFW, to use after he left the union. He has led election campaigns for former U.S. senator Alan Cranston, and he was a key organizer in getting Nancy Pelosi elected to Congress. He now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Shaw makes much of the get-out-the-vote techniques Ganz has mastered. However, these were not new when he used them. The AFL-CIO employed them, and most of the tactics Shaw traces to the UFW, in a 1977 campaign to defeat a right-to-work ballot measure in Missouri. I don’t find Ganz’s work for the Democratic Party to be particularly progressive either. Nancy Pelosi? An old-line political hack trained in the art of politics by the king of pork, John Murtha?

With Medina, we can make a similar criticism. He did many good things with the UFW and after he left. But he was the one person who could have mounted a challenge to Chávez. He chose not to, and he has, to my knowledge, never repudiated the reprehensible tactics Chávez used with the “Game.”

There may be good reason for this. Today, Medina is a senior vice-president of SEIU, a union that has used somewhat similar tactics, but in a situation where the union is loaded with money. The SEIU hires scads of young nonmember organizers, puts them though a cult-like training (the same seems to be true of another union, HERE, which also has many former UFW people on it staff, and which even uses a variant of the “Game” to train new staffers), works them to death, gives them no power inside the union, brooks no criticism, and confines their education to the technocratic mechanics of organizing. They learn little about the labor movement, economics, and the many other things that would help them develop a radical, worker-centered ideology.

The same was true in the UFW; César even sent a spy to monitor a labor history class I had begun to teach interested staff. The SEIU is completely staff-dominated—and staff make a great deal of money—Medina is a long way from his UFW penury. His total compensation in 2006: $194,336. SEIU leadership is as fearful and intolerant of union democracy and rank-and-file power as the UFW. If local workers assert themselves, there is a good chance that their local will be put in trusteeship by the national union—exactly what happened recently to a large local of healthcare workers in California. It has been trusteed, and Medina is at the center of the whole sordid episode. [Randy Shaw himself, on the civil war within SEIU, is here; a more radical view, from Steve Early, here.]

SEIU is not above threatening to sue its critics, just like the UFW threatened to sue The Nation magazine in 1977 after it published an article I wrote critical of the union. Also, like the UFW, the SEIU has witnessed serious incidents of corruption, involving theft of money and shady dealings with third parties. There is a separate heading for SEIU in Shaw’s table of UFW notables. It is certainly debatable whether this legacy of the UFW is a positive one.

The problem with Shaw is that he simply assumes that the various movements and causes UFW alumni have either led or worked in are good. He doesn’t ask whether what they are doing is what needs to be done to build a better society. Get out the vote for what? Boycott for what? Organize workers for what? Teach people to organize for what?

I enjoyed the parts of Shaw’s book that recount the UFW’s epic battles. But I did not find the rest of it credible or penetrating. An objective history of César Chávez, the UFW, and the union’s legacy has yet to be written.

*note: This article is original to the Left Business Observer website and can be found here. (c) Copyright 2009, Michael Yates. All rights reserved. Michael Yates is Associate Editor of Monthly Review. A new edition of his book, Why Unions Matter, is just out. His blog is here.

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Ron Paul Hates Me (Black, non-white, GLBTQ, Working, and Poor People, really)

by Cliff Cawthon

When talking to many friends about Ron Paul there’s one suggestion that always repulses me: ‘you should register Republican to vote for Ron Paul….he’s anti-corporate and anti-war’. No, I shouldn’t vote for someone who wrote in a 1980- 1990’s newsletter that “Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks”.  Ron Paul is tied to bigots and a friend to neoliberal capitalism and business. Furthermore, my non-U.S. friends may desire the empire to collapse but Paul will fiddle while completing the American ‘wall’: along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Issue by issue, Paul’s right-libertarian policies reproduce his populist ignorance. His is touted as a peace loving savior but, his KKK wizard friends, such as; David Duke and Don Black (seriously, look it up on News One) wouldn’t appreciate an America  that is apart of the global community. Paul’s paleo-conservative love of isolationism is precisely that. What is rather disturbing is that Paul’s isolationism means that we retreat to our borders, with the stuff we’ve expropriated and that U.S. corporations continue to expropriate from faraway places. A fortress America also would be an America of states rights’ (something which Ron Paul avidly supports) state’s rights enabled American Apartheid (a.k.a. Jim Crow) to occur by relieving themselves from observing U.S. constitutional or federal law.

Let’s remember, unless you were a white, wealthy landowning (probably slave-owning), male, Protestant Christian, and heterosexual (homosexuality was considered sinful and socially abhorrent at that time) America’s promise was simply propaganda. Only later on, constitutional amendments such as, the 13th(freedom from slavery), 14th (Equal Rights, Privileges and Immunities of citizenship, Due process, and Equal Protection), 15th (Right to vote), and acts such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were political and civil manifestations that were the result of struggle and of social and political change. These things weren’t conceived by the “founders” who dominated another class of people (namely my ancestors) by virtue of how much property that they had, particularly via the ownership of others. These changes however, occurred through a convergence of changing economic conditions, social movements, and political struggle from pressure from below that translated into concession s and adjustments from above.

Owners, bosses, slaveholders, agrarian America’s bourgeoisie led the revolution that Paul fervently alludes to like a fanatic. When I hear some Paul supporters hailing Paul and ‘constitutionalism’ they forget the aforementioned clash between classes and the evolutionary nature of bourgeois republics’. People like David Duke, just want to take us back to 1776 or 1950’s in Mississippi where WASPMH’s (white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant, male, heterosexual) ruled and people ‘knew their place in the real America’ and we didn’t have to worry about “Obama’s corporate commu-nazi fascist socialist imperialism”, a la big government.

In a few words: Paul’s aspirations are inspired by a system supported by slaveocracy and merchant-barons- the America of Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin. He’s very clear about this, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Paul’s positions against corporations have gotten a lot of support as well, but he’s more pro-corporate than the openly pro-business candidates! Paul’s position is complete laissez-faire. The machinery of the state, as opposed to being operated in the public’s interests or addressing historical inequalities will either be abolished or privately run. Upon the private sector being de-regulated corporations outsourced millions of jobs and reduced cities like Buffalo from gilded living cities to communities on life-support. In doing so, it widened the historical race gap. It has been government intervention, not abstention that has helped close the gap. For example, in the wake of the deregulation of the Bush regime, U.S. National Public Radio and the Pew Research Center cited a significant decrease in income for non-white people: the black home was 20 times poorer than white in 2009.

So whose interest is Paul’s utopia in? When he says that the 1964 Civil Rights Act “undermine[d] the concept of liberty”, I know that it wouldn’t include me; or anyone who comprises the has-nots.  However, one cannot completely erase history; the catch of this liberty is that it covers those with power, privilege or favor.

Ron Paul’s message of universal liberty from government intrusion, taxation, via the free market, based on what the founders intended wouldn’t have been good for a slave. I would have been enslaved in 1776 as America declared its independence! That’s what Paul’s vision means to me.

To my friends who suggest Ron Paul as a left-wing alternative to Obama and do mean well, I hope you consider that his agenda represents the opposite of what we want. Do we want capitalism to be unregulated so people with money can accumulate as much as they want and buy up the world around us? No, because that is control. It’s small government but big corporations where everything is a commodity and greed.

Lastly, For my anti-war friends, don’t just judge on moralistic talk. If we are for peace in general then we have to accept our mistakes.  Lastly, we’ve messed up. The last 100 years we have gone across the world and we’ve done horrific things but, the only thing we can do is make it right. Global poverty is not an accident and simply withdrawing bases and troops as a panacea is Paul’s pipe dream. We are the result of people we don’t even know, so we owe it to our brothers and sisters to work for a better tomorrow. Not praise slaveholders and imperialists and wish for Jim Crow, at home or abroad.

Also, on a racial note to my white friends who identify with Paul’s ideas, do you really want to identify with a particular (and recent) strain of libertarianism that is based on racial and class privilege? If so, then remember the true crime of racism is that we are stuck in our skin: you and I, white and black. Therefore, there’s a dynamic of privilege and un-privilege, whereas human beings are given goods and prioritized by an artificial category. Paul and likewise, European fascists who want to defend “western values” or ‘mainstream’ intellectuals like the riot-hawk David Starkey, who attributed the multiethnic riot to white kids “turning black”, refuse to see  race or acknowledge historical un-privilege. We have to deal with these things, or we fear repeating the horrors of the past. So let’s not start smoking Paul’s crack pipe.

*note: Originally posted on http://www.redemancipation.wordpress.com

Feds to investigate killing of Trayvon Martin

People’s World
by Dan Margolis
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Photo: Rev. Dames of St. James AME Church leads people in prayer at the Titusville Courthouse, March 18, in Titusville, Fla., where a rally was held demanding justice for Trayvon Martin, black Florida teenager fatally shot by a white neighborhood watch volunteer. Craig Rubadoux/Florida Today/AP

MIAMI — In a southern town, a white adult shoots and kills an innocent black youth he thinks looks suspicious. Witnesses report that they heard the high school student screaming for help before he was shot and shot again. The victim was unarmed and simply walking towards his family’s house after buying candy at a 7-11. The local police don’t charge, and even defend, the shooter without any real investigation. Any possibility to enact justice is left to the federal government, spurred on by thousands of angry citizens.

Sound like the 1960s? It’s not.

The Department of Justice, the FBI, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced that they will investigate the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, as local authorities seem to have failed at a proper investigation.

The parents of Martin, the African American youth who was shot to death Feb. 26 in an Orlando suburb by self-described neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, had asked the FBI to step in and investigate the shooting, and others called for investigation by the Justice Department.

“The department [of Justice] will conduct a thorough and independent review of all of the evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation,” the DOJ said in a statement. ” The department also is providing assistance to and cooperating with the state officials in their investigation into the incident.”

Though there is no question that Zimmerman took the high school student’s life by shooting him  in the chest, Zimmerman had not been charged with any crime by the police in the Orlando suburb of Sanford, raising a nationwide public outcry.

Martin was a student at Michael Krop High School in Miami. The youth lived in Miami Gardens and was in Sanford visiting a relative.

“It’s a shame that he’s not getting any justice,” Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, said at a March 16 press conference. “We’re not, as a family, getting any closure,” the elder Martin said. “I feel betrayed by the Sanford Police Department and there’s no way that I can still trust them in investigating this crime.”

Across the country, many fear that Martin’s “crime,” for which he received a death penalty ordered by neither judge nor jury, was walking while black.

Martin’s family hopes that the federal government will be able to bring justice to what many around this state see as a blatantly racist miscarriage of justice. This comes after weeks of public outcry, across the Internet and across the country. A petition at change.org has garnered more than 400,000 signatures already.

Even Republican Gov. Rick Scott was pushed to action by the outcry: He ordered the FDLE investigation.

Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown, who represents much of the area, met with the police chief and other city leaders March 16 to “clarify the situation.” She later sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder calling for a federal investigation. She noted that a “history of racial tension” in the community could lend itself to the lack of a thorough local investigation.

“How police immediately concluded that he had a reasonable belief of imminent death or great bodily harm from a boy half his size remains unclear and three witnesses have publicly contradicted this version.”

Zimmerman, who experts say sounded drunk at the time, was never tested for drugs or alcohol, as is standard procedure.

Rep. Brown requested an emergency meeting with Holder or another official, and, in a strange twist, Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett, on behalf of himself and the city council agreed, sending his own letter to the attorney general.

Zimmerman spotted Martin walking towards his relative’s home. Police told him not to follow Martin and to stay in his car. He didn’t listen, and confronted Martin, with whom he apparently provoked a fight. Zimmerman says, however, that he stepped out of his vehicle and that Martin attacked him, causing Zimmerman to fire his semi-automatic handgun. But many point out that this account simply does not fit with the facts of what happened:

There were cries for help. There was a shot, and then another. With that final shot, the pained screaming ceased. Zimmerman was unscathed.

Three separate witnesses said that the pleas for help were from Martin himself. This brings up more questions: If Martin was crying for help — until he was shot — how could he have posed any threat to Zimmerman?

Most of the facts in the case are clear: Martin was unarmed, was in the neighborhood for a legitimate reason, and Zimmerman fired the shots that killed the teen. However, because of Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law, local police say they are unable to charge Zimmerman. According to the law, anyone has the right to use lethal force — to kill — a person they deem threatening.

All of this makes the case for the federal government much harder to prove. The Justice Department warned, “With all federal civil rights crimes, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted intentionally and with the specific intent to do something which the law forbids — the highest level of intent in criminal law. Negligence, recklessness, mistakes and accidents are not prosecutable under the federal criminal civil rights laws.”

The local NAACP chapter will host a town hall meeting this evening in Sanford.

*note: People’s World is a print and online publication of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). The People’s World website with this article can be found here, and here is the CPUSA’s website.