Everett Collection

Cesar Chavez’s union of one

Why workers shouldn’t wait for a savior like Chavez

April 4, 2014 6:30AM ET

On Monday, a dozen states observed holidays honoring Cesar Chavez. Last week, a movie was released celebrating his life. For Chavez, like Martin Luther King Jr., universal respect was possible only once he was dead and no longer posed a threat to the powerful.

Hollywood’s embrace of Chavez, in particular, is part of a spate of liberal hagiographies of left-wing figures. It’s not necessarily a bad thing: “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” was more than watchable, and now, with “Cesar Chavez,” a whole new generation of viewers can be introduced to the legendary Mexican-American labor organizer. “Cesar Chavez” is well intentioned and rightly foregrounds the struggle between workers and planters, but it veers too close to hero worship to say anything of substance about Chavez and the union to which he devoted his life. It settles for a simple moral parable about the weak and the powerful instead of something more complex. The decidedly mixed legacy Chavez left behind in the fields, in the United Farm Workers and in the broader American labor movement remains unexamined.

‘Si, se puede’

Cesar Chavez, left, in 1977.
Harold Filan/AP

At its peak in the 1970s, the UFW represented fewer than 100,000 members, but still managed to capture the imaginations of millions, particularly within the Chicano community. Its leaders, such as Chavez and Dolores Huerta, became household names. Its slogans — like "Si, se puede" ("Yes, we can") — are still chanted today.

The roots of the organization were humble. Through much of the 20th century, Chicanos faced systemic job and housing discrimination. They, along with Filipino workers, formed the bulk of the labor force in the West’s thriving agriculture sector. But farmworkers were not covered under the National Labor Relations Act, which gave most others at least the nominal right to form a union.

Despite legal barriers and the outright violence of owners, Chavez’s UFW scored victories where others failed, because of its focus on combining traditional strikes with boycotts, vigils and marches. The actions helped build a moral and ethical infrastructure to the drives that could attract public sympathy. In the fields, the power of the bosses would always crush that of the workers, but with the aid of millions success was possible.

Though the UFW wasn’t protected by the NLRA, it was also not restricted by the Taft-Hartley Act, which made tactics like secondary boycotts illegal for most other labor organizations. Its flexibility and reliance on outside help contrasted sharply with the bread-and-butter approach of most Cold War–era unions, which focused primarily on direct negotiation with employers to improve conditions and wages for their own members. The creativity of the United Farm Workers, as Randy Shaw notes in his book “Beyond the Fields,” reshaped the way progressives in and out of the labor movement thought about strategy.

Fleeting success

For all its success, the UFW’s moment was a brief one. Its membership has plunged to around 5 percent of its former strength, and today conditions in the fields of California are almost as bad as they were before the union’s emergence. Heat stroke and wage theft plague ordinary workers, many of whom are undocumented. With the charismatic luster of the movement gone, so is the outside attention and bargaining power it desperately needs.

Most of the blame has to be placed on wider structural shifts: the rise of neoliberalism, an employer offensive and the nationwide decline in union density. But there was a darker side to Cesar Chavez’s leadership that played a role as well — a side that the movie neatly avoids.

The UFW at its peak attracted the country’s most talented organizers. But not only did Chavez take conservative stances against undocumented immigrants and tout his anti-communism, he had a knack for running off all but the most blindly loyal through his authoritarian management style. The same goes for the relationship between the leadership and the rank and file. Many UFW members were immigrants with left-wing backgrounds. They knew how to mobilize and desperately wanted a more democratic and militant organization behind them. They were let down. And while other unions suffered similar fates, Chavez — as a nationwide figure who drew his power and influence from outside his role as union leader — was even less accountable to his membership.

In the late 1970s and through the 1980s, even as the union decayed, the cult of personality around Chavez and his family grew. He embraced bizarre group-therapy exercises that amounted to rituals of self-criticism and intra-staff denunciations. Chavez used the process to demean and humiliate those he suspected of disloyalty. The best activists left the union, and those who stayed were unable to revitalize it.

Worse still was Chavez’s visit to Ferdinand Marcos, then dictator of the Philippines. “From what I have seen it looked like Marcos’ martial law was really helping the people,” Chavez was quoted as saying, alienating both a vital bloc of Filipino workers and anti-Marcos advocates in the Catholic community. He celebrated Marcos’ hand-picked labor leaders on his visit, while ignoring the tortured and imprisoned union activists in Manila’s jails.

Waiting for a savior

It’s fine for a mainstream film to ignore this tragic ending and focus on the heroic early years of the UFW, but by focusing so much on the figure of Chavez, the movie gives the impression that workers toiling in the fields today need only wait for their savior to rally them to fight back. That is decidedly not the case, and it sends the wrong message about organizing.

Workers don’t need to be told what’s in their interest. They know, as we all do, that better wages and safer conditions will improve their lives. What they do need is the type of organization capable of rallying them together and reducing the very real risks of collective action — one that uses leadership without becoming reliant on a supreme leader.

A Hollywood portrait of a heroic individual might be an easy way to frame a script, but it’s no model for how to achieve justice in the 21st century.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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