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.

| January 2013

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. 

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[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 —Fred Ross, “Book Outline (Bell Town and Casa Blanca),” from his unpublished autobiography, Fred Ross Papers, Stanford University Library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?