Successes and Failures of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union

Learn about the successes and failures of Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers Union and the grape boycott.
By Matt Garcia
January 2013
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“From the Jaws of Victory” delves deeply into Chavez’s attitudes and beliefs, and how they changed over time. Based on little-known sources and one-of-a-kind oral histories with many veterans of the farm worker movement, this book revises much of what we know about the United Farm Workers Union.
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From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (University of California Press, 2012) is the most comprehensive history ever written on the dramatic rise and precipitous decline of the United Farm Workers, the most successful farm labor union in United States history. Matt Garcia’s gripping account of the expansion of the union’s grape boycott reveals how the boycott, which UFW leader Cesar Chavez initially resisted, became the defining moment of the movement and drove the growers to sign labor contracts in 1970. Garcia vividly relates how, as the union expanded and the boycott spread across the United States, Canada and Europe, Chavez found it more difficult to organize workers and fend off rival unions. Ultimately, the union was a victim of its own success and Chavez’s growing instability. Learn the complicated relationships between Cesar Chavez’s influence, the goals of the United Farm Workers Union and the effectiveness of the grape boycott in this excerpt taken from the introduction. 

[The role of the] organizer [is to] work with the people where they are, not where you are, or where you think they ought to be. —Fred Ross, “Book Outline (Bell Town and Casa Blanca),” from his unpublished autobiography, Fred Ross Papers, Stanford University Library

An organizer is an outsider in many cases—there’s nothing wrong in that. But then he assumes a sort of special position in that program. If you organize a good group, pretty soon you find yourself hoping, “I wish I had a vote in this outfit.” —Cesar Chavez, “What Is an Organizer?,” in Cesar Chavez, An Organizer’s Tale 

I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach. —Upton Sinclair, The Jungle 

Before publishing his provocative novel, The Jungle, on the meatpacking industry in 1906, Upton Sinclair embedded himself in the Chicago stockyards as a worker and an investigative reporter. Dedicated to the plight of immigrant workers, he sought to produce sympathy for the less fortunate producers of meat products from those who consumed the fruits of their labor. Like so many issues involving food, his was a cultural problem as much as a political one. How do you communicate the experience of working-class, Lithuanian immigrant laborers in a way that moves middleclass, English-speaking consumers to care? More important, how do you get those consumers to pursue reforms that serve the interest of people other than themselves?

To his chagrin, Sinclair succeeded in meeting only the first challenge. The Jungle prompted progressive-era activism and reform—the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906—motivated primarily by the public’s horror over what went into the food and consequently into their bodies. The question of workers’ rights, as Sinclair and others discovered, required further activism up through the 1930s. During the Depression, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, but an executive order later excluded agricultural workers from the collective bargaining rights that went to industrial laborers. The task of extending these rights to farm workers would fall to a new generation of activists, most famously Cesar Chavez and the many people responsible for building the United Farm Workers Union in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Cesar Chavez created the most successful farm worker movement in United States history. Born into a farm worker family, Chavez fought his way out from under the tyranny of the fields to become a community organizer whose mission it was to convince poor people that they could achieve justice through collective action. Like Sinclair before him, Chavez entered a world not completely his own. Chavez too had to find a vehicle for explaining the need for justice to the public in a convincing manner that would move them to action. Although he used many strategies to achieve this goal—long marches, fasts, and the age-old tool of the strike—it was the boycott that had the greatest impact in reaching across the divide between farm workers and consumers.

From the Jaws of Victory examines the strategy and leadership that sustained the farm worker movement for nearly two decades, from the beginning of the 1960s until the end of the 1970s. During that period, the United States experienced unprecedented economic change. The country moved from being the dominant producer of goods on the world market to a country that imported more than it exported. Rather than relinquish their attachment to military spending or stake all of their hopes on a struggling automobile industry, U.S. lawmakers worked to expand the reach and profitability of U.S. growers by reducing restrictions against the trade of U.S. agricultural products. This shift in economic priorities brought new prestige to California agriculture; it also renewed the public’s attention to rural poverty. Chavez offered his solution to the problem by working toward an end to the exploitative guest worker program (known as the bracero program) and creating a union. By using community organizing efforts begun in the wake of World War II, he and his early allies forged a broad, new coalition of workers, students, social justice activists, and religious affiliates. Throughout the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, the United Farm Workers won most of their battles by leveraging this diversity. Farm owners, on the other hand, remained committed to ethnic cliques and business models that made it difficult for them to communicate a common message.

Chavez achieved his early success through a combination of political savvy and attentiveness to workers’ concerns. As a former director of the Community Service Organization (CSO), a group of working-class citizens committed to electoral empowerment, he understood the capacity of organized citizens to accomplish tangible goals. Although he became frustrated by the nonpartisan and urban orientation of the CSO, the organization served as an important training ground that provided opportunities to cultivate support for a new farm workers union. This outreach, as his mentor Fred Ross had taught him, required a tremendous amount of patience and listening. Rather than push a solution upon communities in need, Ross encouraged members to meet, argue, and eventually come to collective decisions. Strategically deployed, such democratic methods gave participants a sense of ownership over the goals of the movement and inspired deeper investments among its adherents. Chavez urged organizers to be creative in their tactics, which enabled many volunteers to discover new methods for achieving their goals. The nimbleness and independence that Chavez encouraged among his organizers led to a union with deeper roots and more effective strategies than any of its predecessors had achieved.

The challenge of building an effective organization also requires decisive leadership. Chavez exhibited this attribute early on, offering a clear path for those who joined the cause. This began in his years as an organizer for the CSO, when he determined that the organization lacked the capacity and appropriate membership to address the particular needs of farm workers. His departure from the CSO in 1962 to start the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) was just one moment among many over two decades in which Chavez asserted his leadership in a way that propelled the dream of building a farm workers union forward. In making these decisions, Chavez not only assumed great risk for himself and his family but also jeopardized the security of his allies. When the NFWA evolved into the United Farm Workers union in 1966, his decisions—and the decisions of a small national executive board—threatened to compromise the jobs of thousands of workers and volunteers who sacrificed their time and their bodies in the pursuit of Chavez’s vision of justice. This awesome responsibility weighed heavily on him, but his propensity—in the beginning—to seek counsel from trusted advisors helped distribute this burden.

From the Jaws of Victory shows that the task of striking a balance between cultivating creativity among organizers and providing strong, timely leadership ultimately was a challenge too great for Chavez to sustain. After achieving the first collective bargaining agreements for farm workers in California in 1970, Chavez made a series of missteps that compromised the health of the union. Initially, his encouragement of debate among organizers produced inventive solutions to new problems that arose throughout the first half of the 1970s. Yet the failure to channel this ad hoc democracy into a permanent structure of governance eventually led to personal and systematic failure. As some of his closest advisors and friends testify, Chavez became increasingly invested in his power to dictate the strategies and priorities of the union as the decade wore on. His isolation in a communal living arrangement at the union’s headquarters, La Paz, augmented his infatuation with control over the organization and the individuals who composed it. According to advisors and staff members who worked alongside Chavez during this period, the living arrangements separated him from farm workers and union staff in the field at a time when he needed to incorporate more perspectives into solving an increasingly complex situation. Chavez’s physical and emotional distance contributed to an alarming lack of accountability to union members and allowed him to abandon the principles of democracy preached by his mentor and friend, Fred Ross. Ironically, Chavez abused power and manipulated the powerless like the employers and the state he had become so critical of. Sadly, by the end of the 1970s, he had alienated most of his early allies and compromised most of the gains made during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of authors who have written about the United Farm Workers, I explain how and why the union achieved most of its goals through 1970, and how and why it failed to live up to its tremendous potential after that. Most historians writing about the union have celebrated its triumphs only and, in the process, canonized Chavez as a leader who could do no wrong. Mario T. García, for example, recently declared Chavez “one of the great figures in the history of the United States” for “accomplish[ing] what no other U.S. labor leader had been able to do: successfully organize farm workers.” While Chavez accomplished much, I believe his legacy is far more complicated. To begin with, his success is debatable if we consider that by the end of the decade the union lost most of the contracts it had gained in 1970. Some authors have depicted Chavez and the UFW as helpless victims of the Teamsters union or hostile Republican administrations in Washington and Sacramento to explain these shortcomings. Although these wealthier and more powerful foes created barriers to UFW growth, their influence alone cannot explain the union’s rapid decline during the late 1970s.

What is missing is a consideration of how Chavez employed strategies and management techniques that compromised the union. Such self-inflicted wounds were particularly damaging in the late 1970s, when Chavez benefited from the support of a sympathetic California governor, Edmund “Jerry” Brown, and enjoyed the fruits of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, a state law that gave California farm workers collective bargaining rights starting in 1975. From the mid-1970s through the end of the decade, Chavez squandered political advantages and the esprit de corps he and other leaders had cultivated. In interviews with organizers and volunteers, I found that many veterans of the movement hold Chavez accountable for these failures. My oral histories are corroborated by findings from the Farm Worker Documentation Project, including a valuable archive of listserv discussions in 2004-5 among people who lived through these tumultuous years. I also consulted previously uncatalogued archival material in the United Farm Workers Collections at the Walter Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University that include rarely heard recordings of the union’s national executive board meetings during the mid- and late 1970s. Taken together, these sources reveal that Chavez had much more to do with the union’s decline than previously acknowledged.

Chavez’s mishandling of the boycott and his failure to replace it with an equally effective strategy was among his most important strategic blunders. From 1965 until January 31, 1978, union volunteers extended the reach and power of the UFW through a successful boycott of grapes and, to a lesser extent, lettuce and wine. Described by Chavez as “capitalism in reverse,” the boycott emerged as the sine qua non of the movement, expanding the struggle beyond the fields in rural California to urban storefronts across the United States and Canada and docks and union halls all over Europe. Such consumer activism falls within an American political tradition dating as far back as the Boston Tea Party, although, as most consumer historians note, the vast majority of boycotts have been “putative failures.” In some cases, U.S. companies, in a fit of economic nationalism, encouraged the boycott of foreign products that served corporate rather than worker interests. The United Farm Workers, on the other hand, maintained firm control of their grape boycott campaign, driving growers to the bargaining table in 1970 and keeping their adversaries in check throughout the first half of the decade. In doing so, they bucked the trend of unions before them who had mostly treated the boycott as a supplement to strikes and picket lines at the workplace.

The United Farm Workers distinguished their use of the boycott in three primary ways. First, Chavez expanded the use of the boycott by appealing to consumers to participate in the pursuit of social justice. Prior to the farm worker movement, most unions had used the boycott to create class solidarity by asking fellow laborers not to purchase a particular product linked to the unfair treatment of workers. Chavez, however, transformed his campaign into a social movement akin to that of the abolitionists who appealed to northern consumers not to buy southern-made textiles as a protest against slavery, or that of the Montgomery bus boycotters who asked blacks and white allies not to use public transportation until the segregation of buses ended. The UFW’s insistence on presenting the campaign in a social justice framework irritated national union sponsors, although Chavez and other UFW leaders understood the potential of the civil rights moment and its influence on the farm workers’ struggle. In hopes of capitalizing on a heightened civil rights consciousness in the nation, Chavez used the boycott to draw attention to the injustices of a farm labor system that employed mostly Mexican and Filipino laborers. By matching long marches in rural California with picket lines at urban markets, he drew a connection between the conditions of farm laborers and the buying habits of urban consumers. To the surprise of traditional union leaders, his tactic mostly succeeded. In doing so, the United Farm Workers articulated the possibilities of uniting protest for social justice with labor organizing in a new social movement that renewed faith in labor unions across America.

Second, although initially Chavez and a handful of union leaders started the boycott to occupy volunteers’ time between harvests, he and union leaders eventually came to regard the boycott with at least as much respect as they did strikes and marches. Here, however, Chavez had to be convinced. Throughout most of the boycott’s first year, he remained focused on building membership in the fields. Nevertheless, many young, mostly white (and several Jewish) volunteers believed in the power of the boycott and campaigned to make it a stronger component of la causa. At a time when Chavez listened to advice, his acceptance of their opinions paid tremendous dividends. From 1966 to 1968, young college students joined with veteran organizers and aggrieved farm workers to build an effective boycott network that stretched across North America. Key to this network were the many boycott houses where people from all walks of life took up residence and formulated the best strategy for appealing to local consumers. In these cities, far from the front lines of the rural struggle, volunteers often cut their teeth as organizers, learning how to build a farm worker justice movement where none had previously existed. Many applied tactics borrowed from a variety of sources, including the counterculture group the Youth International Party, or Yippies; fellow civil rights organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); and local unions who supported the UFW. In short, boycott house volunteers adopted a “by any means necessary” approach with great success.

Third, the United Farm Workers pursued a strategy not available to most labor unions: the secondary boycott. In 1947 the Taft-Hartley Labor Act amended the National Labor Relations Act to restrict labor unions from running campaigns against companies that were not abusing workers but were selling products of companies that were. In 1959, the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act strengthened the restriction against this practice, which was known as a secondary boycott. For farm workers who had been excluded from the NLRA, however, the secondary boycott remained a viable tool. The United Farm Workers availed themselves of it thoroughly, setting up picket lines in front of markets that had nothing to do with the production of grapes but had become targets because they carried the produce. Grapes proved to be a particularly good product to boycott since most consumers regarded them as a nonessential luxury item that they could easily eliminate from their diet. Initially, UFW volunteers persuaded many consumers to forgo shopping at markets that carried nonunion grapes. When growers with UFW contracts began sharing their labels with peers in an act of corporate solidarity, the union called a boycott against all California and Arizona grapes, and consequently all markets that carried the fruit. Rather than sacrifice their entire sales, many market owners dropped grapes altogether.

The secondary boycott initiated a game of global cat and mouse between the union and growers that played out over a decade. When the grape boycott began in earnest in 1965, incredulous grape growers dismissed the action as a weak publicity stunt. The union proved, however, that it could affect the top North American markets. Growers shifted their sales to other cities, believing that they could outrun the boycott and outlast the poorly funded United Farm Workers in a war of attrition. The union applied an organizer’s logic to the construction of the boycott by aggressively recruiting volunteers and consumers as if they were potential members of the union itself. The more growers expanded into new markets, the wider and stronger the boycott became. Ultimately, the UFW showed the powerful growers that grapes were not the moveable feast that they thought they were.

If the success of the boycott taught the growers the limits of their strategy, it also imbued Chavez with false confidence. The story of the UFW after the historic signing of the first grape contracts in 1970 is mostly one of tactical errors caused in part by Chavez’s refusal to take counsel from his advisors. Chavez assumed he was infallible, which led to self-destructive behavior that short- circuited the movement. Disappointing the many people who dedicated their lives to the farm workers struggle, Chavez ultimately managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Nonetheless, the boycott’s veterans and supporters continued to hold him accountable to the workers he purported to serve, even after the boycott network had been dismantled. This spirit of resistance extended to some members within Chavez’s inner circle, preventing a complete dissolution of the union.

An exploration of the successes and failures of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers is valuable now, at a time when a new food justice movement is on the rise. On college campuses, a new generation of students have created gardens, demanded new courses, and challenged their universities to serve “real food” in dining halls. Their ideas have also had significant influence beyond the ivory tower, compelling consumers to spurn fast food, shop at local farmers’ markets, and invest in community-supported agriculture (CSAs).

In many ways this new consciousness about food and its contents builds upon the longer American tradition that starts with Sinclair and runs through Chavez and the United Farm Workers. Most similar are the large number of young people drawn into the movements then and now. In the 1960s and 1970s, many young people dedicated a summer, a semester, or even years to working for the United Farm Workers, participating in strikes or traveling to far-off cities to picket stores carrying nonunion grapes. Such volunteers were most effective in the boycott, where their cultural affinity with consumers and their urban upbringing made them effective advocates for the movement. At the height of their power, hundreds of boycott volunteers killed the grape market in nine of the ten most important North American cities and blocked (or “blacked,” as they called it in England) grapes from reaching European markets, contributing to the final push for contracts. In the process, volunteers gained valuable experience that propelled them into a life of activism and social justice.

Today advocates for food justice have a similar passion for their cause. I fear, however, that the motivation of many participants stems from concern for themselves rather than for the lives of workers. Like Sinclair’s audience who worried about what went into the hot dogs more than the conditions under which laborers produced them, many of today’s activists are inclined to think of their own diet or their impact on livestock animals before they think of the workers. Such positions are a product of popular food writers who often privilege consumer-oriented food justice over the equally important challenge of achieving better working conditions in the fields.

The history of the United Farm Workers grape boycott offers a reminder that this has not always been the case. Safe and humane working conditions and fair wages for farm workers served as the primary motivations for boycott volunteers throughout the 1960s and 1970s, compelling some to sacrifice their own lives for the cause. This is not to say that moments of tension did not seep into the movement; however, the overwhelming majority of those who volunteered saw themselves as servants to an idea that went well beyond concerns for their own health. And although boycott campaigns often involved familiar warnings about pesticides, the message focused on workers who endured exposure to potentially harmful chemicals in the fields. At root, the boycott was a consumer strategy for achieving producer-oriented goals. That most of the intended beneficiaries of this movement were Mexican and Filipino is a testament to the power of the intercultural understanding that thrived in the union throughout the better part of two decades.

The United Farm Workers, therefore, symbolized the potential of peaceful protest by a multiracial, intergenerational coalition of men and women at a time when social movements had begun to grow weary of such approaches. Students for a Democratic Society splintered into the Weather Underground, a group that carried out bombing campaigns on unoccupied government buildings in the early 1970s. Similarly, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee turned toward a politics of “black power” that privileged black (male) voices, excluded white ones, and questioned the viability of peaceful protest. During this same period, the United Farm Workers increasingly became the last, best hope for those still committed to a world without violence and racial division. As groups like the Black Panthers, the Brown Berets, and the Young Lords chose a paramilitary character that earned them increased surveillance from federal and local authorities, the union projected an image of inclusivity and cooperation that attracted new recruits and won the support of the media and urban consumers. Although this approach moved the nexus of power farther from Chavez’s hands and into the public, it also gave him more bargaining power than his contemporaries in other movements.

Some readers may wonder why I focus on organizers rather than farm workers. In some instances, the distinction between the two is blurred since many organizers had experience in the fields, including Chavez himself; however, by the mid-1960s, most had left this line of work. The union relied heavily on volunteers who lived in cities and suburbs rather than the California countryside, a fact that initially did not trouble Chavez. As he noted, the organizer is often an outsider to the people he represents. A lack of strike funds and the constant migration of agricultural laborers created what Chavez called “a movement without members” that was kept alive by the volunteers who had little or no experience in the fields. It was not until the mid-1970s that some members of the UFW executive board became concerned about the authenticity of a union run by people other than farm workers, although they failed to produce a viable alternative.

The experiences of organizers have also been better recorded than those of workers. In addition to my oral histories, the Farm Worker Documentation Project and the United Farm Worker Collections at the Walter Reuther Library provide more insight into the lives of organizers, reflecting the origins of these archives. As a web-based, English-language project, the Farm Worker Documentation Project attracted computer-savvy veterans to upload memoirs, documents, and photos and to engage in discussion online. Regarding the collections at Wayne State, most documents and recordings focus on organizers who ran the union and, to a lesser extent, the farm workers who benefited from their activities. This is not to say that farm workers’ voices are absent or that worker opinions are not available. Nevertheless, a systematic collection of oral histories and documents from farm workers during the heyday of the UFW remains to be done.

These limitations notwithstanding, From the Jaws of Victory conveys a tale of hope, triumph, and disappointment that will be useful to anyone who has harbored the goal of bringing justice to this world.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement, published by University of California Press, 2012. 


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