Sunday, April 24, 2016

People Taking Charge: The United Farm Workers Union


"We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community. Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sake and for our own."  - Cesar Chavez


        The United Farm Workers Union of America, or more commonly just United Farm Workers, is a labor union for farm workers in the United States. It originated from the merger of two workers' rights organizations, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, led by Filipino American organizer Larry Itliong, and the National Farm Workers Association, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. They became allied and transformed from workers' rights organizations into a union as a result of a series of strikes in 1965. It all began when Itliong's organization, working out of Delano, California, initiated a grape strike. In solidarity with Itliong, Chavez and Huerta's organization went on strike, as well. On August 22, 1966, citing commonalities in both their goals and their methods, the two organization came together and formed the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. In 1972, this organization was accepted into the AFL-CIO, and promptly, changed its name to the United Farm Workers Union.


        Larry Dulay Itliong was a Filipino American labor organizer. He organized agricultural workers on the west coast starting in the 1930s, and rose to national prominence in 1965, when he, Philip Vera Cruz, Benjamin Gines and Pete Velasco walked off the farms of California area table grape growers. They demanded that their wages be brought up to the federal minimum wage. This event came to be known as the Delano Grape Strike. Itliong has been described as one of the fathers of the labor movement on the west coast. Dolores Clara Fernandez Huerta is a Mexican American labor leader and civil rights activist. She is most famous for co-founding the National Farm Workers Association with Cesar Chavez. In the early 1950s, she completed a degree at Delta Community College, then part of the University of the Pacific. Afterwards, she worked as an elementary school teacher. However, Huerta saw that her students, many of them children of farm workers, were living in poverty without enough food to eat or other basic necessities. She could not abide this, and so, she she helped found the Stockton chapter of the Community Service Organization. This organization worked to improve the social and economic conditions of farm workers and their children, as well as, to fight discrimination. Cesar Chavez was the best known Latin American civil rights activist of the 1960s and 1970s, and was strongly promoted by the American labor movement, which was eager to take in Hispanic members. His public relations approach to unionism and his aggressive, but nonviolent tactics, made the farm workers' struggle a moral cause with nationwide support. By the mid to late 1970s, Chavez had forced growers to recognize the United Farm Workers as the bargaining agent for over 50,000 field workers in both California and Florida.


        The event that made the United Farm Workers a household name was the Delano Grape Strike. This was a labor strike against table grape growers in California. The strike began on September 8, 1965, and lasted more than five years. Due largely to a consumer boycott of non union grapes, the strike ended with a significant victory for the United Farm Workers. The Union also secured its first big contract with the growers. The strike began when the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, mostly Filipino farm workers in Delano, California, led by Philip Vera Cruz, Larry Itliong, Benjamin Gines and Pete Velasco, walked off the farms of area table grape growers, demanding wages equal to the federal minimum wage. One week after the strike began, the predominantly Mexican American National Farm Workers Association, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, joined the strike, and eventually, the two groups merged. In August of 1966, they formed what would eventually become the United Farm Workers. The strike rapidly spread to over 2,000 workers. Through its grassroots efforts, using consumer boycotts, marches, community organizing, and nonviolent resistance, the Union brought national attention to the plight of some of the nation's lowest-paid workers. By July of 1970, the Union had succeeded in reaching a collective bargaining agreement with the table grape growers, affecting in excess of 10,000 farm workers. The Union, however, was not working on its own. Itliong, Huerta, Chavez, and Cruz were able to enlist the assistance of American consumers. Their refusal to purchase non union products is what made the strike a success. This was a major public relations success for the Union.


        In the mid 1970s, just as Chavez and the United Farm Workers reached the height of their influence, they began to experience setbacks. Failed legislative initiatives gave Chavez the idea that the Union suffered from disloyalty, poor motivation, and lack of communication. He felt that the union needed to turn into a movement. He took inspiration from the Synanon community of California, which he had visited previously. The Synanon Community began as a drug rehabilitation center before turning into a New Age religious organization. Synanon pioneered what they referred to as, the Game. In this Game, each member would be singled out in turn to receive harsh, profanity laced criticism from the rest of the community. Chavez instituted this Game in the Union. He had volunteers, including senior members of the organization, receive verbal abuse from their peers. He felt that he was opening lines of communication within the Union that had somehow become closed over time. He also fired many members, whom he accused of disloyalty. In some cases, he even accused volunteers of being spies for either the Republican Party or the Communists. In 1977, Chavez attempted to reach back out to Filipino American farm workers in a way that ended up backfiring. Acting on the advice of former Union leader Andy Imutan, Chavez met with President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, in Manila, and endorsed his regime, which was seen by human rights advocates and religious leaders as a vicious dictatorship. This caused further trouble for the Union, leading to Philip Vera Cruz's resignation from the organization. Cruz opposed the Marcos regime and was against the trip to the Philippines from the outset. 


        During this period, Chavez also clashed with other Union members over policy issues. Many of the Union's leaders wanted to create locals for the Union, which was typical for national unions, but Chavez was firmly against this measure. He argued so on the grounds that it detracted from his vision for the Union existing as a fluid movement. By the end of the 1970s, only one member of the Union's original Board of Directors remained in place. In the 1980s, with the Union declining, Chavez got into real-estate development. Embarrassingly, some of the development projects he was involved with used non union construction workers, which later made national news in the New Yorker. This caused a scandal that damaged his reputation. He did not abandon the cause of America's farm workers, though. In 1988, Chavez attempted another grape boycott to protest farm workers' routine exposure to poisonous and deadly pesticides. Bumper stickers reading, No Grapes, or Uvas No, the Spanish translation, were produced and sold over a widespread area to help support the workers who would inevitably suffer the effects of a backlash from the growers. However, the boycott failed. The failure of the boycott did no sit well with Chavez and he undertook what was to be his last fast. He had been known to use the fast as a symbol of resistance. He fasted for a total of thirty five days before he was finally convinced by members of the Union that the cause was futile, and that he should begin eating again.  He lost a great deal of weight during the fast, and it is widely believed that the effect that the fast had on his body was a contributing factor to his death five years later. This is not inconceivable, as he never truly fully recovered his health after the fast. 


        Many will argue that the decline and near collapse of the National Farm Workers Union can be directly attributed to Cesar Chavez's failures. They will say that his erratic behavior, his political and social blunders, and his, at times, tyrannical administration of the Union were the prime causes of the Union's troubles. They will say that if he had been removed from leadership of the Union in the mid seventies, the cause of the American farm worker would have been in better hands administratively and would have been better positioned to make economic gains at a key point in their struggle. A couple things can be said about these people. First, they may be working for the people that are actually responsible for the decline of the Union, the FBI. It is now well documented that the J. Edgar Hoover, and his goons at the FBI, did to Chavez and the United Farm Workers, the same things that they did to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, and many more similar people and organizations. They bugged the homes of Chavez and other prominent leaders, they sent them threatening mail, they worked with the local police to undermine their initiatives, and on multiple occasions, used force in their effort to intimidate them. They spied on events, and they used special agents to infiltrate the Union. The agents' job was then to disrupt activities wherever possible. If not this, then the people that say these things about Chavez and the Union have simply bought in to the racist rhetoric that the FBI distributed about them. Either way, directly or indirectly, they are the ones that are responsible for the decline of United Farm Workers, not Chavez. Can anyone truly imagine what it must be like to be under such constant and direct scrutiny from the federal government? The potential negative effects that such things could have on a person's mental and physical health are undeniable.



        If you are doubtful, consider the real fact that Chavez's FBI File was released for public view in 1995. The first entry in his FBI file is dated October 8, 1965. It noted that a bureau informant had picked up word that Cesar Chavez, the charismatic migrant worker who was seeking to organize California farm laborers, possibly had a subversive background. The report noted that the informant was rather vague about the information. There were no specific details provided. It also noted that another confidential source had a file on Chavez allegedly showing that he had a communist background. This second informant also implicated some of the other leaders in Chavez's organization. This person stated that they had potential subversive backgrounds. He was not, however, able to offer any specific indication of the potential charges against any of the individuals he named, like Cruz, Huerta, and others. Thus began the surveillance and infiltration of the farm workers movement by the FBI. Prompted by rumor and hearsay, the shadowing of Chavez under the administrations of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon would continue for more than seven years, involving hundreds of agents nationwide at an astronomical cost to the American taxpayer. In the end, this resulted in the creation of a 1,434 page FBI file, but little else. 


        These reports say more about the practices of the FBI under its longtime director, J. Edgar Hoover, than they do about Chavez and his union. Despite keeping tabs on marches, picketing and meetings from Delano, Calif., the site of a prolonged strike and the Union's headquarters, to New York City, no evidence of Communist or subversive influence was ever discovered. Aside from a lengthy collection of insignificant reports, and a huge bill, the only other thing produced by the whole ordeal was just one more piece of evidence that this country's government is engaged in a war against its own people, and more specifically, its minority population. While Chavez and the National Farm Workers Union were getting harassed by the FBI, white unions of this period, the most prominent being the Teamster's Union, were receiving government subsidies. Here is the terrible thing about all of this. The FBI's behavior has not changed; in fact, it has only gotten worse. With the assistance of ever more advanced technology, federal legislation, in the form of the Patriot Act and the Freedom Act, and increased manpower, the FBI and other organizations like it have the tools they need to wage war against the American people like never before. They can bug your entire house without ever stepping a single foot inside. They can tap your cell phones and see everything that you post, text, or take a picture of. They can enter your home without cause. They can use drones to follow your every move. They can arrest you without a warrant, and they can detain you indefinitely, citing the suspicion that, quoting Chavez's FBI file, you might "possibly have a subversive background," as the only evidence justifying their actions. Anyone, from any minority group in this country that speaks out, is going to get this entire arsenal thrown at them. Standing up under such pressure, now, is going to be a whole new ordeal and will require a new kind of courage that only a truly mass movement can possess. 

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