Remembering Cesar Chavez by Eric Jackson
On April 23, aides found United Farm Workers (UFW) president Cesar Chavez dead in his bed. In death as in life, Chavez mobilized an unlikely crowd. His funeral was attended by humble farm workers and flamboyant Hollywood stars; moderate Democratic elected officials and radical activists; Roman Catholic clergy and pro-choice feminists.
A couple of decades ago, I was heavily involved in UFW boycott activities. Since then l have followed the cause's ups and downs. From day one, and ever since, I realized that what Chavez started was no ordinary labor union.
Chavez will be mainly remembered as the man who revived the concept of organized labor as a popular movement for social justice. Working people and their friends - among whom union members were and increasingly are a distinct minority - responded enthusiastically.
Chavez brought a lot of bright and idealistic young men and women into his union. At a time when the mainstream of the labor movement was supporting Hubert Humphrey and the Vietnam War, the UFW was one of the few unions in which progressive people were welcome. The union that Chavez built is one of the few that has been out organizing new members in recent decades. It supports no well-paid, complacent bureaucrats. When growers signed sweetheart contracts with the thuggish pre-reform Teamsters in order to defeat the UFW, the differences between the old-style "unionism as a business" and the Chavez-style "unionism as a liberation movement" became readily apparent.
The UFW boycotts spread word of this different kind of labor movement to working people well beyond the fields where Chavez organized. A younger generation of workers was inspired, and many who started out as young boycott activists are now rising through the ranks in union offices. When organized labor rises again, its new generation of leaders will bear the unmistakable mark of Cesar Chavez's influence.
In order to do battle with powerful agribusiness interests, the United Farm Workers had to go beyond the labor movement to the community at large. Chavez forged a powerful coalition, strongly rooted in the Chicano community, with bastions among liberation theology Catholics, union members and radicals, and strong support among other ethnic minorities, liberals and environmentalists. This coalition won union recognition and contract concessions for the UFW members. It got California to recognize the legal right of farm workers to organize and bargain collectively.
The UFW boycott committees were the prototype for Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalitions and many lesser alliances of the Reagan and Bush administrations' most persistent foes. Clinton got the nomination by running against such folks, but we are a force to whom he had to promise concessions in order to get himself elected. The last word has not been said about what will come of the coalition politics that Cesar Chavez pioneered.
On a Personal Note
I remember one weekend n the fall of 1972, when Sister Joan Tirak (a Catholic nun, now of the East Lansing Peace Center) and I picketed an A&P store on behalf of the UFW's lettuce boycott. The alliance of radical hippies and socially conscious clergy was quite comfortable. The following Tuesday, election day, I met Joan out front of a polling place. I was passing out leaflets urging a vote in favor of a ballot proposal to legalize abortion, while she was distributing flyers advocating a no vote.
I worked backstage security with a union boiler operator and some Chicano students for a U-M lettuce boycott rally where Chavez spoke. We feared that Chavez might be jumped by Teamsters, whose union had allied itself with the lettuce growers. It wouldn't have been the first time that violence was directed at Chavez personally, nor by Teamster goons against the United Farm Workers. As it turned out, the only visible opposition were a few members of the John Birch Society who picketed outside.
I recall a mid-70s reception for Chavez at the home of a wealthy Ann Arbor Democrat, to which we of the leftist Human Rights Party, then on unfriendly terms with the Dems, turned out in force. I wore a UFW wine boycott t-shirt which proclaimed that "Nixon drinks Ripple." Some of my friends sported UFW buttons proclaiming "Viva la Causa," and portraying Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican anarchist. Though the assembled liberals, socialists and anarchists could have found many issues over which to argue, it seemed perfectly natural for all of us to gather around Cesar Chavez.
I was the token lawyer at a late-80s meeting in the basement of an Eastern Michigan University dorm. A grayer Cesar Chavez spoke of the chemical hazards of farm work to a multiracial group of students, professors, janitors, food coop members, environmentalists and clergy. Over the next few years, some of the people who first met there worked together in Ypsilanti's peace movement.
Chavez taught us lessons in diversity, before cynical politicians and university administrators misappropriated the word and perverted the concept. In late 60s/early 70s Ann Arbor, stodgy labor leaders and freaky revolutionaries, otherwise bitter adversaries over the Vietnam War, joined forces when Cesar Chavez came to town. Among Chicanos, young and old, wild men like Oscar Zeta Acosta (the model of Hunter S. Thompson's attorney in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and old-style politicians like U.S. representative Ed Roybal alike, acknowledged Cesar Chavez as their community's conscience and leader.
How was that? Why was that? Did Cesar Chavez possess such an unusually charismatic personality that he could attract widely divergent followers like few others?
There is no denying that Chavez had a magnetic charm. Living on room and board and $5 per week, the same as all other UFW employees, he went around the country and the world, simply but powerfully stating the case for the hard-working and low-paid workers who pick and pack the fruits and vegetables that we eat.