February 17, 2006

UFW Criticisms No Surprise In Central Valley

EDITOR’S NOTE: On February 3, 2006 we published this article in Spanish. Since then we have had several request to publish the article in English, which we now present.

By Eduardo Stanley

FRESNO, Calif.—Just four decades ago, California farm workers didn’t have bathrooms, drinkable water, medical insurance, a work schedule or retirement benefits. The list of abuses they endured could fill several pages.

In the mid-1960s, a strike by Filipino agricultural workers demanding better salaries set off a movement led by César Chávez (1927-1993) that would achieve significant improvements in work conditions. This marked the birth of the first union of agricultural workers, the UFW (United Farm Workers).

A series of articles by Miriam Pawel, which recently ran in the Los Angeles Times, presents harsh criticisms of the union and its founder. According to Pawel, the UFW has stopped organizing farm workers in order to dedicate itself to real estate and other revenue-generating services. The Chavez family, she writes, controls all positions in the organization and uses its influence for political campaigns, among other things.

“The articles blame the UFW for the dire situation farm workers find themselves in today, but it seems to ignore those who are truly responsible — the growers,” says David Bacon, a former UFW activist now a journalist specializing in unions. “As far as owning other businesses, that’s common among many unions in the United States.”

Bacon adds that to avoid responsibility farmers groomed middlemen, contractors who recruit workers and are responsible for their productivity, releasing farmers of all legal, housing, transportation and insurance responsibilities. This makes it harder to solve problems arising in the fields, where primitive housing and working conditions — like the lack of bathrooms or basic services — persist.

Pawel says she conceived the series while reporting on farming conditions in the San Diego area. “Then I asked myself, ‘Where is the UFW?’” She adds that it took her a year to work on the articles.

Pawel denies having any anti-union motives. She reports that the farm workers are no better off than they were 30 years ago — in 2004 Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed a UFW-backed proposal to increase minimum wage to $6.75 per hour — and that the UFW is trying to maintain an image that doesn’t correspond with reality.

“The question is whether or not to organize the farm workers,” Pawel says. She reports that in 2002 the UFW removed all references to farm workers from its constitution in order to shift its focus to political work “to benefit Latinos,” an ambiguous and unusual definition for a union. While UFW’s political presence increased, its membership declined dramatically.

“In the last few years, various laws protecting farm workers were approved in California, thanks to the UFW,” says union secretary Tanis Ybarra. “The Times doesn’t make it clear that the constitution was changed in order to include those who work in agriculture-related fields, like packers.”

Ybarra says the article is biased and claims the editorial line of the Los Angeles Times has become more conservative after the paper was bought by The Tribune in 2000.

But criticisms of the farm workers’ union are nothing new. “Before, you’d find UFW activists everywhere, but not anymore,” says Pablo Espinoza, a former union member and a well-known advocate of farm workers’ rights in the Central Valley. He adds that the mid-1960s, when the union began, was a unique moment in history, when hundreds of volunteer organizers led the farm worker cause with energy and conviction.

Then the civil rights, peace and women’s movements coincided, followed by the Chicano Movement. Young people were very politically active. Their collective energy put a unique stamp on that era. Later, however, conservatives regained lost ground, eventually neutralizing left activism on campuses.

In the early 1970s César Chávez began a series of “purges” to marginalize members deemed to be Communists and those who might question the union leadership. The farm workers’ movement became a cult of personality. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was carried at the forefront of its marches, symbolically pushing the union’s social convictions to second place.

Chávez succeeded in getting intransigent farmers to negotiate with the UFW. Latinos still feel a sense of pride and racial and social vindication when they remember that historic moment, which came after decades of powerlessness and humiliation. Their adoration of Chávez, therefore, is understandable. But many of his admirers quietly criticize the changes in the UFW and Chávez himself. They are careful not to do this in public, so as not to betray the union’s almost religious sense of solidarity. Thus, a double view of the union exists — one public, the other private.

This is why the Los Angeles Times series didn’t cause a commotion in the Central Valley, where the UFW was born and fought its most memorable battles for the dignity of farm workers.

“Union organizers always had a paternalistic attitude towards farm workers,” says Luis Magaña, an activist from Stockton. “Let me defend you, poor little farm worker.” Magaña adds that the UFW didn’t allow independent organizations or local leaders to work in defense of workers. “They arrived immediately and seized control of the situation.”

Paternalism is part of the political culture of farm workers. Given its social fragility and a traditional and deeply religious ideology, the agricultural working class doesn’t lead radical social changes in industrialized societies. It tends to depend on leaders who are sometimes messianic and whose revolts often end in defeat, as happened in the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

A leader doesn’t make history, although he’s an important part of it, argued Leon Trotsky (1879-1940). The process makes the leader. The mythification of César Chávez could only succeed as the result of collective complicity and the farm worker ideology that favored it.

If the ’60s were marked by excitement and solidarity, the social climate today is disadvantageous to unions. The UFW’s slackening of organizing adds to the daunting realities in the fields.

“When the UFW began, the farm workers were primarily Texans and U.S.-born Mexican Americans,” says Magaña. “But in the ’90s indigenous Oaxacans, Central Americans and even unemployed professionals from Mexico and other countries began to arrive,” as well as Pakistanis and Indians. This work force is highly mobile, moving from field to field and migrating to other states, following the farming seasons. Organizing is becoming more and more challenging.

Some working conditions today are similar to those of 40 or 50 years ago. While the UFW debated over leadership and strategy, growers were quietly reclaiming the power they had lost. The state of the UFW — just like the problems faced by farm workers and the possible solutions — should be discussed without taboos or fanaticism. This can only happen if the emotions swirling around the union and its historic inheritance can be tempered.

Eduardo Stanley (nuestroforokfcf.org), host of the bilingual “Nuestro Foro” weekly radio program on KFCF in Fresno, Calif. Translated by Elena Shore.

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