Whatever Happened to the United Farmworkers?

On New Year’s Day, a friend mentioned that Frank Bardacke had published his long-anticipated history of the rise and fall of Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers. It was worth the wait, he assured me and “completely stunning. Just get it and read it. You won’t put it down.”

He was right. Bardacke, a respected labor activist and educator based in Watsonville California, was first mentioned in this blog six years ago in connection with his research on Cesar Chavez. Like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, he dropped out of Harvard after his freshman year and moved west to change the world. Unlike them, he joined the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and has had an abiding interest in radical politics ever since.

In the early 70s, I traveled to China with Bardacke to get a first hand look at Mao’s proletarian dictatorship. Frank admired all things proletarian; I feared the dictators. Bardacke often views the world through a different template than I do, but I have learned a lot from him and continue to have enormous respect for his views. Bardacke became a farmworker – one of a handful of Anglos and surely the only former Harvard student to work the celery fields. He became fluent in Spanish and formed friendships with many of the union staff and farmworkers who appear in his book. He spent more than a decade interviewing every major participant in the drama, reading every known book on the farmworkers and scouring every archive. He received help in managing this massive project from faculty in history and politics at nearby UC Santa Cruz.

The result, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farmworkers, is the most complete account yet of the rise and fall of the UFW. It is also an epic, Shakespearean drama with all of the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster. The pitch meeting would be surreal:

OK, picture this: we have a conservative Catholic who fasts and marches like he’s Ghandi. He courts progressive clerics and hires liberal Jews and alienated Anglos to mobilize immigrant Mexicans and Philipinos to fight Slavic and Italian growers. At first David slays Goliath, but then he morphs into King Lear and destroys his newly built kingdom amidst slaughter and recrimination. We’ve got side plot romances between devotees who work for $5/week and bad food trying to raise farmworker pay. We’ve got violent Teamster, UFW, and grower thugs straight out of the Sopranos. We’ve got a certifiably batshit human potential guru who wreaks havoc getting everyone to criticize everyone else. And under the carpet here somewhere, we may even have communists trying to advance a proletarian revolution without a proletariat. How can we miss?”

Astonishingly, it is a true story and Bardacke delivers it with intelligence and compassion. Unique among labor historians, he grounds his analysis in “the work itself”, with brilliant, memorable descriptions of how different stages of production for different crops in different regions of California all affect the ability and willingness of different crews to self organize. He describes clearly why organizing was often sustained by the tight-knit, highly skilled lechugeuros or the celery cutters, not the garlic or asparagus workers or those in ladder crops. He describes the skill and endurance that the work requires, introduces leaders that arise from various crews, and captures in fine detail how they interact with a union that was built on a very different set of principles from farm work. In a decade spent organizing waiters, housekeepers, nurses, bartenders, machinists, cannery workers, and assembly workers, I observed precisely these differences. The work itself shapes our propensity to organize. Bardacke is the first writer to apply this principle to the fields and he does so with a deep understanding and compassion for the work.

Bringing an existing union into a workplace is an act of industrial combat not for the faint of heart — but starting a new union from scratch is a herculean task that almost always fails. I started a company that has lasted more than a decade, a public agency that lasted three years, and a union (United Espresso Workers – I was a bit early) that lasted all of three weeks. With the proud exception of the United Farmworkers, I cannot think of a single independent union formed in the United States in the past 50 years that was not sponsored and controlled by an incumbent union (I can think of several that tried and died – but none who made it). This was not always true — new unions once spawned regularly in the US. There are many reasons for the change, but the lack of competition between unions has positioned them nicely for extinction.

Organizations evolve through the mutation, variation, and selection that is always produced by competition. The labor movement stopped growing the instant the AFL joined with the CIO and prohibited unions from competing with each other. When two teachers unions competed, both grew. The instant the Teamsters stopped raiding the UFW, growth stopped. I hated the Teamsters (who were kicked out of the AFL-CIO for corruption and are not subject to the noncompete provisions) and I took a nasty beating from them once, but like sharks or wolves, they have their place in the ecosystem. (I am aware of no union leader who agrees with this view, by the way. Most feel that they have all the competition they can handle from employers). But for a brief moment following the civil rights movement in the 1960s, a new labor union arose in the United States and in the least likely place.

If you had asked in 1960 where in the economy a new union might appear, you would never have selected the farmworkers of California. Organizers prefer workers who are tied to one place and to one employer, not workers who are seasonal and often itinerant. Probably wrongly, organizers prefer workers who are covered by labor laws, which had always exempted farmworkers. Organizers like English-speaking Americans, not Tagalog or Spanish-speaking immigrants or Braceros who are tolerated for a season then ushered back to Mexico. A dozen or so failed efforts by farmworkers to form agricultural unions seemed to validate Marx and Lenin’s belief that workers would organize once they were forced into factories and worked for a single employer. Bardacke demonstrates that Cesar Chavez succeeded in organizing farmworkers because he was, at heart, a brilliant and hard-working Alinksy-trained community organizer.

As a community organizer, Chavez pioneered an enormous innovation that had the potential to transform labor organizing: he mastered the secondary boycott (illegal for most workers under the federal labor law, which thoughtfully excludes farmworkers). Chavez tirelessly organized enormous boycott operations in grapes, lettuce, and against major retailers including Safeway. Farmworker boycotts were the Occupy movement of the 70s and 80s – a way for college students, community activists, and middle class young people to participate directly in the tough work of social change. And credit Chavez’s brilliant leadership, it worked magnificently: faced with effective boycotts, growers raised wages and improved working conditions and politicians begged the army of grass-roots Chavistas to help register voters and turn them out on election day. The UFW became a powerful force for social change.

But the UFW was only briefly a powerful labor union. Bardacke correctly diagnoses the boycott as creating a formidable tension within the UFW. He frames the tension between labor and boycott organizing as a struggle between the “two souls” of the UFW. The metaphor is fraught. As Bardacke demonstrates, the UFW collapses not because it has two souls, but because none of its activities were organized, financed, or led in a manner that enable them to grow. The problem is not that community organizing is a distraction — most American labor unions lack a community service organization and are much the weaker for it. This is tragic: having discovered and refined one of the few recent innovations in union organizing, Chavez cannot let it grow. Instead, he strangles his own child.

One of the heroes of Bardacke’s book is Marshall Ganz, one of America’s most innovative labor organizers. Ganz also dropped out of Harvard, but moved south to organize for civil rights before heading west. After his exile from the UFW, Ganz helped the Silicon Valley Central Labor Council build a powerful neighborhood-based political organization for the 1984 elections. He was terrific at posing fundamental questions – and at directing me and others to writers and thinkers who helped answer them. In 1984 he urged me to read, of all things, a business book, In Search of Excellence. I quickly developed an appetite for business writing. decided to get trained in it, and ended up working with the book’s authors. Marshall returned to Harvard, got his degree after a 28 year hiatus, and now teaches at the Kennedy School. (His version of the UFW story, told in Why David Sometimes Wins, is a fine companion volume. It suffers for being his PhD dissertation and dwells more deeply on theories of organizing and less on the dynamics of local struggles). So let’s ask a Marshall Ganz-like question: what does it take for an organization to grow successfully? Venture capitalists, a group not deeply concerned with the welfare of those who produce their salads, obsess about this question. There are at least as many answers as there are VCs, but common elements include:

  • A big market. If there is not substantial demand for the product or service an organization produces, the organization cannot get very big.
  • Positive unit economics. If serving one more person imposes more cost on the organization than it generates in revenue, then growth makes no economic sense and the organization will depend for growth on funding from charity or government. Anyone can sell a dime for a nickel; selling a nickel for a dime means that an organization has to add at least a nickel’s worth of value if it wants to grow.
  • Customer or member acquisition costs that scale. Every organization has a cost of acquiring a customer that must be repaid over the lifetime of that customer or member. Smart organizations exhibit declining COA: the cost of acquiring each incremental customer declines with scale. Very smart organizations (and effective social movements) are viral: COA approaches zero as current participants recruit new ones. See Facebook, Google, or Arab Spring.
  • Leadership. Growth is very, very demanding on an organization. Everyone in a fast-growing organization has to grow with it: jobs change radically every few months. Not everyone grows at the same pace, so leaders must recruit furiously, communicate direction and values continually, promote and replace people regularly, and test what works all the time. It is stressful and a lot of fun – ask anyone who has been involved in a fast-growing company, boycott, strike, or organizing campaign.

Back to the fields. Boycotts have completely different economics than labor organizations. Boycotts have huge markets: liberals eager to shop their conscience. Churches and colleges do the recruiting at very low cost to the boycott sponsors. Every convert adds more value (the grapes they don’t buy) than cost (the very low cost of volunteers leafleting).

Unions are different. The market for a membership organization of farmworkers is not small, but it is small enough that the UFW needed to capture almost all of it because, as Bardacke notes, organizing half an industry penalizes the organized growers. A union has a responsibility to organize the remaining growers and will frequently be cheered on quietly by those who have signed. More fundamentally, unions need to grow big enough to achieve minimum economic scale: they cannot fund the fixed cost of their operations if they are too small. Unions with fewer than a half a million members are nearly always too small to operate efficiently across the US (meaning that most unions in the United States waste money because they are too small).

The UFW never had 100,000 members — although its field operations were mostly in California. Bardacke would counter that the democratic character of the union matters more than its size, which is true, but creating organizations that are not economically sustainable is a bad idea. Unions do this all the time. Unions have a second problem, to which Chavez developed a unique but ultimately unworkable solution: the economics of labor organizing are often unattractive. Campaigns, negotiations, and strikes are expensive and uncertain of success. If unions file for elections on half of the campaigns they run, win half of the elections they file on, and negotiate contracts successfully 80 percent of the time, then every successful contract has to finance four unsuccessful campaigns and potentially a strike.

If the campaigns and the negotiations are labor intensive and the union bears all of those costs, then the economics of organizing turn heavily on the cost and productivity of staff and on the cost and duration of strikes. The Chavez solution to this dilemma was simple but utterly unsustainable: pump talented people through the organization. Those of us who worked boycott operations worked 14-16 hour days, often 7 days a week. We were paid $5/week and had to beg for donated food to eat. Once we burned out, the UFW happily replaced us in a process Chavez once compared with pumping water. At any given time during large boycotts, hundreds of young people slaved on the campaigns for months and sometimes years. Staff at headquarters (located in the small misnamed town of La Paz), were likewise furnished with living quarters, food, and a minuscule stipend. Chavez personally approved all expenses. From here, it looks like a cult – although from inside the cult, it looked like La Causa and stands today as some of the best work many of us ever did.

Regardless of how it feels or looks however, and regardless of the ethics of exploiting volunteers on behalf of underpaid farmworkers, an organization without a core of talented, motivated leaders simply does not scale. Volunteers are not enough — and finding people like Marshall Ganz and Eliseo Medina to fight year after year for farmworkers without paying them even farmworker wages is simply unrealistic. Bardacke does not go deeply into union economics in part because there is a much bigger tension restricting growth: a command and control organization. Chavez not only micromanaged, but much worse, he prohibited local labor or boycott operations. Centrally led boycott operations could work: boycotts demand a consistent message and negotiations with a single adversary and since allied organizations delivered most of the volunteers with help from a skeletal UFW staff, there were relatively few local issues to resolve. But labor organizations are built in hundreds of unique workplaces.

This is in part due to the work itself: the problems of lechugueros are simply not the same as tomato workers or lemon pickers. More important however, is that without elected reps, stewards, and ranch committee members, contract negotiations suffer because strike threats lose credibility. Without a credible strike threat, backed in this case by a credible boycott threat, growers rationally refuse to negotiate. Chavez tried to run the union from the top, like he built and ran the boycott.

When George Meany and others derided the UFW as “not a real union”, they were wrong at the level of the fields. But in their description of La Paz, they were right. Bardacke reveals Cesar Chavez to be a brilliant community organizer who campaigned for farmworkers but did not empower them. Bardacke plots the tragic trajectory of the UFW from an authentic movement led by a charismatic leader to one paralyzed by demoralized staff that could see no way to grow a union beyond the constraints imposed by its increasingly unstable founder.

When Chavez died in 1993, he was not loved by mainstream labor leaders. The AFL-CIO sent no delegate to his funeral. Because of this, the Clinton Administration obediently boycotted the event, a decision i protested loudly as Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of Labor.

Few people have had their biographies re-written so quickly. Having devoted his life to La Causa, Chavez is remembered as champion of La Raza. This is a rewrite: from the time he began organizing farmworkers in the 1950s until the mid 1980s, Cesar was all about the cause of farmworkers. Like every labor leader, he knew that he had more leverage if labor was scarce. When growers would truck illegal immigrants across the border from Mexico to break UFW strikes, Chavez would call the INS – not unlike the Minutemen do today. Using the INS to try to keep illegals from entering the fields was a key organizing tactic for more than thirty years — hardly the leader that Latinos want to recall today.

During the sixties and seventies, Latinos, Chicanos, and Hispanics grew in political strength and awareness. These groups frequently and credibly cited abuses from La Migra – the very INS that was helping the UFW build a union. Latino organization brought with it political muscle and in 1975, Governor Jerry Brown signed the landmark ALRA making California the first agricultural state to grant farmworkers the right to organize unions. Farmworker organizing was now to be clean, civil, and highly regulated.

As often happens, institutionalizing the cause killed it. Membership in the UFW began to drop almost immediately. By the mid 1980s, the UFW had fully morphed from La Causa to La Raza and changed its position on immigration, arguing that employer sanctions discriminated against Mexican immigrants. By then however, it was a shadow of the perhaps 80,000 members it had at its peak. Since his death, Cesar has become a Latino icon and the UFW an organization that is devoted to little more than his memory. According to LA Weekly (in an article that got them sued by a testy UFW):

“Writing in The Nation magazine on the heels of Chavez’s funeral, UFW sympathizer and leftist chronicler Frank Bardacke sharply declared: “[A]t the time of Cesar Chavez’s death, the U.F.W. was not primarily a farmworker organization. It was a fund-raising operation, run out of a deserted tuberculosis sanitarium in the Tehachapi Mountains, far from the field of famous Delano, staffed by members of Cesar’s extended family and using as its political capital Cesar’s legend and the warm memories of millions of aging boycotters.”

Bardacke masters an enormous amount of material to relate these events skillfully. He salts his prose with stories and characters straight out of Steinbeck. He rarely leaves the reader guessing about his point of view: Walter Reuther, the brilliant activist who built the United Auto Workers (and marched with Cesar in Delano) is a worthless hack because he voted against seating the Mississippi Freedom Delegation in 1964 and drove communists from the union. Those who cross the US border illegally are noble immigrants deserving of union embrace; those who cross picket lines legally are scabs deserving of UFW tire-slashing and intimidation (but not of UFW efforts to call La Migra and send the illegals among them home). Teamster and grower goons are thugs; Manual Chavez, designated hitter for his nonviolent cousin and other UFW punks are charming rogues who firebomb field sheds and beat their opponents. Those who seek to impose Synanon’s destructive ideology on the UFW are obviously crazy and should be driven from the union; those who seek to advance various communist or nationalist ideologies within the organization are dedicated activists who should be protected.

Trampling Out the Vintage is a beautiful work despite these caricatures; it would be even stronger without them. It is a book that deserves a wider distribution and better copy editing than Verso, a niche left publisher, can provide. It would also be nice had Verso published the book electronically (then again, Frank confesses in the postscript that he composed the early chapters of the book on a typewriter!)