Former Chavez Ally Took His Own Path

Times Staff Writer

At 21, the farmworker from Delano with an eighth-grade education hopped an airplane for the first time, with $20, a bag of UFW buttons to sell and the name of a Chicago postal worker loyal to the union cause.

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.


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.

SEIU led several unions that left the AFL-CIO and formed a new coalition, vowing to put more resources into organizing workers. The UFW has joined the coalition, and two other unions in the group have contracts with farmworkers; whether they will join forces remains unclear.

Medina voices enthusiasm for a coordinated campaign to organize farmworkers, but demurs about his own role. “There needs to be a farmworkers union,” he said. “I hope that will come out of this. It’s certainly going to happen in every other occupation. Why should agriculture be any different?”

From Huanusco to Chicago

The leaders of Huanusco recently commissioned a statue to honor the generations of emigrants who have left the small Mexican town in Zacatecas and traveled north. They are dedicating it to the town’s favorite son, Eliseo Vasquez Medina.

He was born there almost 60 years ago, the son of a bracero who worked in the California fields under the guest worker program. At 10, Eliseo moved to Delano, after spending almost two years in Tijuana waiting for permission because his mother insisted on obtaining legal entry. Eliseo entered fourth grade speaking no English; his mother and two older sisters went to work in the Central Valley fields.

Eliseo joined them there full time after eighth grade. He was skilled at trimming grape vines so they would grow out the right way, not in a clump that would be difficult to pick, but so bad at picking tomatoes just when they showed a touch of red that people thought he was colorblind.

Conditions in the fields were difficult; there were no toilets or drinking water, and often workers would have to camp out in front of the grower’s office all day Saturday to get paid for the week.

“We all hated the way the system worked,” he recalled.

In 1965, El Malcriado, a brash UFW newspaper that combined news with irreverent humor, wrote about how the union had forced the state to fine a major labor contractor who had underpaid his workers. Medina took note: “To see somebody brought up and made to pay back wages, to me that was terribly impressive.”

The rest of the story he has told hundreds of times, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish, somehow sounding fresh each time, always using his life to gently make points about organizing workers:

How clever Chavez was to call the first mass meeting on Mexican Independence Day, when he would get a good crowd. How Medina was taken aback by Chavez’s small stature, doubting someone so unimpressive looking could be a great leader -- but then blown away by his speech and moral force. How he went home and scrounged up change to pay $10.50 for three months’ dues. How he began to picket because he heard they paid money (“I didn’t know what picketing meant, but $1.20 an hour seemed pretty good to me,” he told a group of SEIU organizers), and then discovered the power of the picket line.

Barely more than a year after he broke open his piggy bank to pay dues, Medina was on the cover of El Malcriado as one of the UFW’s “Young Tigers,” Chavez’s youthful lieutenants successfully taking on the powerful growers.

When he arrived in Chicago to run the boycott, he opened the phone book and called the A&P.

“I said, ‘Hi, I’m a farmworker and I’d like you to stop selling grapes,’ ” Medina recalled.

He was, as he often says in speeches, “one scared kid,” so shy that his sister remembers seeing him on television at a news conference where he could not open his mouth. He soon was moving confidently in many circles, building support through publicity stunts like pray-ins over grapes in supermarket aisles. The sophisticated boycott operation not only stopped the sale of grapes in major stores but also raised thousands of dollars to support the UFW.

Medina was already attracting followers. In 1971, Dorothy Johnson, a quiet boycott volunteer with a wry wit and quick laugh, picked Chicago for her next assignment because of Medina’s reputation for innovative and effective campaigns. She ended up following him to Calexico, Calif.; Florida; Ohio; back to Chicago and then back to California in 1975 when the state adopted a law regulating union activity in the fields. The two were married at his mother’s house in Delano in 1976 between election campaigns and contract negotiations.

Medina’s years in the union compensated for the education he never got in school; for someone with an insatiable curiosity about people, the UFW was a sumptuous buffet. He showed a knack for devising clever ways around obstacles. When growers began circumventing the union’s election victories by filing objections and dragging the appeals out for months, Medina figured out a solution: Keep striking citrus workers off the job just long enough to extract a promise from the company to recognize the union and negotiate a contract.

The tactic was key to the union’s winning more than 3,000 new members in the spring of 1978 -- nearly half as many farmworkers as the UFW represents altogether today.

Leaving -- His Way

When Medina left the UFW in the summer of 1978, his departure was as unexplained as it was sudden. Scott Washburn was at a meeting in Santa Maria where Medina outlined the next organizing battle. They walked outside, and on the way to the car, Medina mentioned that he had quit.

“When something’s hard, I struggle with it. But once I decide, I move forward,” Medina said in a recent interview. “I thought for months and months; I was having a very difficult time. It took me a while to come to grips with the fact that it would be best if I just moved on.”

That internal struggle was all but invisible even to those closest to him. Unlike others who left about the same time and for similar reasons, Medina did not voice criticism. He has always talked publicly about how much Chavez and the UFW did for him, and not about the disappointments that led him to leave, or his conviction that Chavez had taken the union in the wrong direction at the very moment it had an opportunity to become a lasting force. He did not tell his family why he left, and he has never talked about it with his sister.

“Eliseo is a closed box,” said Sabino Lopez, a former farmworker who later worked for Medina organizing janitors in San Diego.

Washburn, who has known Medina since 1973 and worked for him at two unions, describes him as a loyal friend who keeps his feelings to himself. It is all about the job.

“I’m sure he’s concerned with me, and I’m concerned with him, but we’re both obsessed with organizing,” Washburn said.

That obsession drove Medina’s frustration during his last months with the UFW, when he felt Chavez often was focused on everything but organizing workers. The relationship between the two, once warm, deteriorated.

Chavez publicly attacked Medina over a proposal he made about hiring organizers, and the exchange made a big impression on others.

“It wasn’t unusual for Cesar to do that; it was unusual for him to do it to Eliseo,” remembered Washburn.

After Medina resigned, he dismissed entreaties to change his mind, rejecting the idea that his departure would have a profound effect on the union.

“It’s important not to believe your own PR,” he likes to remind people.

In San Diego, more than a decade later, Sabino Lopez confronted Medina about having disappeared with no explanation to farmworkers.

“When you left, we felt like we lost our hope, the next generation,” Lopez recalled telling Medina. “ ... You were, for us, the guy. You were the heart and soul.”

Medina told him he had felt as though he was causing problems more than solving them.

“As organizers, our personal credibility is all we have,” Medina said recently. “If you don’t believe what you’re saying, it comes through. At that point, I didn’t feel good about what I was doing.”

Taking Risks

Medina enjoys playing two games: Chess and pool.

“In both,” he said, “you have to plan your next moves.”

He sharpened his pool game in Delano at the UFW hangout, People’s bar. Then in Chicago, where the boycott crew depended on handouts for pretty much everything, a donated chess set provided free entertainment.

In games and work, Medina advocates taking risks. Big risks bring big gains, a lesson he learned from watching Chavez gamble on tactics like the boycott: “Who would have ever thought that sending out a bunch of uneducated farmworkers to stop grapes could work?”

When Medina landed at SEIU in 1986, after organizing university workers in California and public employees in Texas, the task was taking over a failing public employee union in San Diego. Within five years, membership went from 1,700 to 10,000 as he rebuilt the local and then took over a far larger rival union.

“The minnow swallowed the whale,” he likes to say, the closest he comes to a boast.

In 1991, Medina got a call asking for help from an old UFW acquaintance. Liza Hirsch Du Brul had become a New York labor lawyer, representing musicians around the country. The San Diego Symphony was in the midst of a contract dispute and the musicians needed to stage a protest, but she was stuck on the East Coast.

Medina agreed to organize a human billboard around symphony hall.

When she took him to lunch to thank him, he told her he had been happy to help but pointed out that the musicians shouldn’t be relying on “borrowed power” and needed to organize themselves.

He was separated and she was widowed; though they had known each other only slightly, their shared experiences over the same decade in the UFW were a common bond. They got together soon after and were married one morning at City Hall four years later. Medina had to duck out on a celebratory lunch after the ceremony because a candidate running for president of SEIU was in town.

That was a prelude to another big risk: Medina backed the long-shot candidate, Andy Stern. When Stern won, it cemented Medina’s position in the leadership of SEIU. In 1996, he became the first Mexican American to assume a top position in the union.

“There is no more dignified, thoughtful, humble person in this movement,” Stern said recently. He described Medina as a rare species, the pragmatic dreamer: “Thinking big enough that it’s a little bit beyond your reach but not so outrageous -- but also building the operation to get it done.”

While based in Los Angeles, Medina was the behind-the-scenes architect of two recent campaigns that organized workers who had never been unionized: Justice for Janitors, and a new union for home healthcare workers. In 1997, SEIU signed up 74,000 home healthcare workers in Los Angeles County, then expanded across Southern California.

“He continues to push people beyond what they think they can do,” said Marion Steeg, who worked for Medina both in the UFW and SEIU. And the work always comes first. “No matter how much he loves you, he will move you around to get the job done.... But it’s never vindictive. It’s never personal.”

Medina’s role within SEIU gradually expanded. In 2000, his arguments were key to the AFL-CIO’s decision to shift its position on immigration reform; until then the labor federation had opposed any efforts to regularize the status of illegal immigrants.

Stern has watched Medina grow over the years into a more forceful advocate willing to challenge authority.

“I think he’s sort of gained a level of confidence and appreciation that he has an opportunity to become a voice for lots of people like him when he was growing up,” Stern said.

Today Medina oversees SEIU’s operations in 17 states in the South and Southwest, organizing campaigns in states with little record of embracing unions. He describes the mission as a risk.

“Most people think that’s for young kids. At my age, I could fail,” he said. He shrugs, unconcerned. “Nobody ever guarantees you you’re going to win. You can’t ever just do things when you have a guarantee. You can’t.”

Applying the UFW’s Lessons

Medina is standing in a cavernous Las Vegas ballroom, talking about building a movement, not just a union. About how the people in this room, most of them not born during the anti-Vietnam War protests or the grape boycotts, can become a force comparable to those historic movements, a force that changes America.

“We’re building a union where there’s no previous model. We’re either going to create something new, or we’re going to crash and burn,” he tells them. “But we’ll crash and burn together.”

More than 100 SEIU organizers, most of them recruited in the last six months, are preparing to win converts in some of the least union-friendly states in the country: Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Nevada. Medina is firing them up to beat the odds. He flashes a slide showing that their union’s penetration in Texas is 0.00009%. His arms are waving and suddenly his whole face lights up: “Hell, how can we miss? Everywhere you look, there’s an unorganized worker.”

The campaign Medina constructed in the Southwest has much in common with the early days of the UFW, and he draws on familiar strategies.

Coalition building: “Ministers see them in church Sunday, we see them at work Monday,” he says, urging alliances with religious leaders.

A sense of moral outrage: He lists five reasons that the union should be fighting to change the current immigration system. “And the sixth reason is, it’s just wrong.” The room bursts into applause.

Creative experimentation: “Very few times do organizers ever get a blank slate. Here it is: Draw your own picture,” Medina exhorts them. “Build a new union that is activist, that is rooted in the workers, that can win.”

He has also learned what not to do.

“Right hand, left hand,” he mutters a lot. The right hand always needs to know what the left hand is doing. That’s why he brought the organizers from four states together for three days.

“He’s my hero,” says Mitch Ackerman, SEIU director in Colorado and one of many who say they’re there because of Medina. “Without him and his ideas ... we’d be a bunch of disparate groups.”

To excite them before they begin the drudgery of winning over converts -- one by one, following workers home, persuading people to overcome their fears -- Medina has drawn again on the experience of the UFW, having opened the meeting by bringing in Dolores Huerta and former antiwar activist Tom Hayden.

“They were people who had a vision, a burning thirst, a passion for justice,” Medina says.

“I want people to leave here feeling like they too can make this happen,” he says about the team he’s assembled, who range from veterans like Washburn to 26-year-old Arnulfo De La Cruz, grandson of an original grape striker, born while his father was on a lemon strike in Oxnard that Medina directed.

When Huerta addresses the group, she talks about Medina: “He has to include himself of course in making history. He was such a big part of making sure the UFW survived.... Now you are all in those shoes -- to make the history that will change the world.”

Blended Worlds

Dichos are folk wisdom, short sayings in Spanish that can be straightforward or elliptical but always make a point.

Medina collects them, and can always find one suitable for any occasion or cause.

For the labor movement: “Camaron que se duerme, se lo lleva la corriente” (“The shrimp that sleeps is carried away by the current”).

For workers: “El que no habla, Dios no lo oye” (“He who doesn’t speak, God doesn’t hear”).

“There is so much truth and clarity contained in a few words, that, for organizers, you can make a point without a lot of elaboration,” he said. Sometimes he coins his own, just as he plays with words to come up with apt expressions to describe friends and colleagues.

Dichos also resonate with people he wants to reach.

“What makes Eliseo special is his ability to deal with people at their own level,” said Salvador Bustamante, a UFW veteran who is now first vice president of SEIU’s local representing California building workers. “He’s very at ease with workers. That’s his background. He really has the experience of working as a farmworker, of having experienced poverty, oppression, and that makes him special.”

When the other top SEIU officials are in the front of the room, Stern said, he knows he will find Medina mingling in the back. At the UFW’s 40th reunion in Delano this summer, while most speakers addressed the crowd of former boycott volunteers and strikers in English, Medina spoke in Spanish, the language of the workers whose accomplishments he was celebrating.

Medina moves easily between worlds, comfortable talking to low-wage workers, negotiating immigration policy in Washington or meeting with presidents in Central American countries.

His life is a similar melange. He earns $169,184, travels with his iPod and Treo, and is fond of electronic gadgets and Diet Pepsi and ice cream and watching football. He prefers Mexican food and does not drink coffee or alcohol or eat ripe fruit -- he acquired a taste early for peaches the way farmworkers pick them, still hard.

His crusade for changes in immigration policy combines personal conviction with pragmatic concern; immigrants are the future of SEIU.

“It’s another strategically smart move,” said Washburn, the Arizona SEIU director. “And it’s real. It comes from a real place.”

So does Medina’s commitment to helping farmworkers. He says it is both possible and necessary to organize farmworkers again, and is dismissive of the UFW’s excuses for not doing more.

In the fields today, he and his sister agree, the UFW means little to people though its legacy still lingers for the older generation.

“What they did is they taught us how to defend ourselves,” said Nuno. She works for a vineyard owned by the family of the same labor contractor that the UFW had gotten fined back in 1965, the story that first caught Medina’s attention in the union newspaper.

“They are making a farmworkers union inevitable,” Medina said. “It will happen. It’s not a question of whether a farmworkers union is possible; it’s a question of when it’s going to happen.”