The kid from the tiny town in the Central Valley who landed on John Armendariz's doorstep in 1967 was totally green -- amazed at the city traffic, baffled by Chicago's El and faced with a daunting task: Get supermarkets to stop selling grapes.
Armendariz had watched his five children grapple with fear in different ways, and he wondered how Eliseo Medina would cope, without even winter clothes.
FOR THE RECORD:
UFW —A series last month on the United Farm Workers contained three factual errors about the history of the labor union and its related organizations. Health clinics operated during the 1970s were run by the UFW-affiliated nonprofit National Farm Workers Health Group, not the union directly, as reported Jan. 8. UFW officials said that a Fresno developer who partnered with Cesar Chavez to build for-profit housing donated his services and did not split the profits from the developments, as reported Jan. 9. And UFW officials said a school bus abandoned in a back field at union headquarters was not one of the buses used to transport boycott volunteers across the country in the 1970s, as stated in the Jan. 9 article, but was left by a peace activist who never returned to claim it. In addition, the Jan. 8 article reported that the UFW "board deleted all specific references in the UFW constitution to agricultural workers, including the preamble." To clarify: The board deleted the entire preamble and amended the constitution to include all categories of workers, so that the UFW constitution no longer applied only to agricultural workers and related laborers.
"His were real fears," Armendariz said. "How do you introduce yourself? How do you talk to people? He did an amazing job of controlling that."
Drawing on the kindness of strangers, his charm and his wits, Medina built a boycott operation that kept grapes out of a major Midwest supermarket chain, helping force California growers to negotiate the first contracts with the UFW.
Today the trademark smile that lights up his whole face is unchanged, but the scared kid has grown into a graying giant of the labor movement. He has helped orchestrate labor's rise in Southern California, has become a key player in the national immigration debate and now oversees locals in 17 states as executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
If not for Cesar Chavez, Medina might still be in Delano, picking grapes and shooting pool at People's bar. Instead, he is the preeminent example of a generation of activists nurtured by the UFW and its founders.
But Medina is organizing janitors and healthcare workers, not farmworkers. His life illustrates another part of the Chavez legacy: The UFW founder drove out many of the union's most committed labor leaders, who quit the fields and turned their talents to other causes.
Medina was once the obvious heir apparent to Chavez. Even in his youth, he displayed a similar charismatic appeal and tactical brilliance.
"He would have been president if he'd stayed," said Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the union.
In August 1978, Medina resigned as a vice president of the UFW, frustrated by Chavez's insistence on an all-volunteer staff and his reluctance to give workers greater power. "At a time when we should have been focused on consolidating and building the union, we got involved in a lot of things that drew attention from what I felt was our priority mission," Medina said.
Chavez, Medina concluded, was caught up in the idea of creating a poor people's movement.
"My interest was building a farmworkers union," Medina said. "The goal was not building a farmworkers movement per se. It created a lot of tension."
Medina's success in the intervening years has proved a union can negotiate better wages and working conditions for undocumented immigrants -- a stark counterpoint to the excuses offered by the current leaders of the UFW to justify their failures.
Around Delano, the farming town where the UFW began, people still ask when Medina is coming back. His older sister hears it all the time.
Consuelo Nuno lives in the house where she and Medina grew up. At 63, she works in a vineyard six days a week. Her wages went up a quarter when labor was scarce last summer, to $7 an hour, and the bonus for every full box of grapes is 2 cents more than it was four decades ago when she joined the UFW's first historic grape strike.
Bleak numbers like those encourage some friends to hope Medina might return to tackle the unfinished cause that launched his career. A split in the national labor movement this summer heightened such speculation.