It’s hard to challenge a saint. And so, the story of the United Farm Workers union tends to start and stop with Cesar Chavez, the audacious Mexican American who built the UFW. So great is his accomplishment and so dramatic his story that few writers have ventured beyond hagiography.
Accounts glow with a familiar refrain: Chavez patiently waiting for his chance, taking on the Delano table grape growers and emerging as an innovator who injected civil-rights tactics into the farmworker struggle, a modern Gandhi who induced 17 million Americans, and millions more worldwide, to stop eating grapes. Then, this living saint died in his sleep, apparently worn out by his nonstop schedule. His brother, Richard, built a plain pine coffin. Ten thousand people came to Delano and carried Chavez’s body for three miles across town.
Today we acknowledge the man and his accomplishment by sanctifying his name on countless schools, buildings and street signs.
And yet Chavez did not act alone. The movement he built was populated by an eclectic agglomeration of people who left the fields, classrooms, courts and churches to become organizers and activists in one of the most unique collaborations in California history.
In “The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement,” Miriam Pawel shifts the perspective away from Chavez to highlight eight second-level members of the UFW: Jessica Govea, daughter of a cotton picker who became a member of the union executive board; Jerry Cohen, a young lawyer who ran the UFW legal department; Eliseo Medina, a shy teenage field hand from Zacatecas, Mexico, who rose to become heir apparent to Chavez; Chris Hartmire, a Presbyterian minister who risked life and limb while transforming the California Migrant Ministry into an adjunct of Chavez’s union; Sabino Lopez, an irrigator from Jalisco, Mexico, who led a grass-roots revolt within the UFW; Ellen Eggers, an idealistic college student who organized the union’s boycott activities; Gretchen Laue, a free spirit looking for meaning; and Sandy Nathan, a Columbia University-trained lawyer writing legal briefs by hand while stuck in a Coachella Valley hole in the wall.
Devoted to changing the social order and bringing power to a class of people exploited to the hilt, they -- not Chavez -- formed the backbone of the union. Their stories are deeply inspiring and profoundly unsettling.
Those who know Pawel’s work should not be surprised that she digs deep. A former editor and writer at The Times and Newsday, she has produced a complex and flawed masterpiece of collective biography.
Written in a sprightly, fast-paced, staccato style, “The Union of Their Dreams” tells a boisterous and messy story. Here, for instance, is Cohen, recently minted as an attorney, wandering into People’s Bar in Delano, where a chance encounter with Chavez leads him to develop an awesome and daring union legal staff. After Chavez lost table grape contracts in 1970, Cohen told him that if he wanted to commit suicide, he ought to stand on the state Capitol steps and pour the pesticide parathion over his head, and twitch to death. Cohen lasted a decade. When he called for a subsistence wage for his staff, Chavez forced him out.
An early fervor
As a group, Cohen and the others in this book serve as archetypes -- young and fearless, perhaps a bit naive. Devoted and willing to work a killing schedule, each began as a true believer. They experienced the heady David-vs.-Goliath victories in the early days. They grappled with the hard decisions emerging from the UFW’s transition from movement to union. They remained active through the intense pain and disillusionment of the later years.
Some of their accomplishments border on the fantastic. At 21, Medina was dispatched to boycott duty in New York and Chicago. Living hand to mouth, he and other boycotters managed to shut down the sale of table grapes. Without their work, the UFW would have failed. In a dispersed industry crawling with an oversupply of desperate first-generation immigrant workers, strikes seldom succeed.
Over the next eight years, Medina shifted from one assignment to another. Elevated to second vice president of the union, he planned an ambitious organizing drive. But in the summer of 1978, Chavez became preoccupied with traitors. Medina watched staff members come and go. He saw ranch committees -- representing field hands employed by various farming companies -- fail to receive necessary training. He despised the UFW’s unsavory alliance with Synanon and its strange leader, Charles Dederich. Convinced that the union was moving in the wrong direction, Medina resigned. Today, he is executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, “the first Mexican American,” Pawel writes, “in the top leadership of the union.”
By the time Chavez died in 1993, all the union members profiled by Pawel were gone -- purged, denounced, alienated, mystified, no longer in awe of Chavez. Pawel glosses over some of the most important departures: Jim Drake, who disappeared into the turpentine forests of Louisiana; LeRoy Chatfield, who became an aide to Gov. Jerry Brown; and Marshall Ganz, who returned to academic life at Harvard. Drake is dead, Chatfield still supports the cause with a website (www .farmworkworkermovement.org), and Ganz has pressed his own experiences into a dense sociological tract.
Last to go, and only reluctantly, was Hartmire, Chavez’s most trusted advisor and fervent defender. After Chavez turned on him, he too left, another stalwart denounced as a traitor.
“The Union of Their Dreams” is profoundly unsettling. Chavez, it turns out, was not so loved. He had his own enemies list.
Pawel’s account of the mysterious death of Cleofas Guzman, a union representative who clashed with Chavez loyalists, will infuriate old union members, as will her implication that the union would be better served by purged leaders such as Medina. Her description of the 1978-79 revolt by Salinas Valley lettuce workers, and the UFW’s subsequent libel and slander lawsuits against them, suggests that the union might be far different today had democratic principles survived and the lettuce workers won.
When we pause to look at the big picture, three facts become clear. One: that California agriculture is both a literal and figurative graveyard for farmworkers, organizers and unions. Two: that the UFW’s problems and failures were the same ones that develop in other organizations operating under intense pressures. Three: that the UFW survives is itself a triumph of will, spirit, purpose and need.
A provocative glimpse into recent history, Pawel’s expose offers deep insight into the nature of mass movements. It is not the last word on Chavez and the UFW.