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Rotting Legacy 

Time may have arrived for Cesar Chavez’s UFW to step aside

Friday, Jan 13 2006
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THE L.A. TIMES HAS JUST FINISHED running a bang-up four-part takedown on the United Farm Workers union that was directly inspired by — if not in great part derived from — our own reporting on the subject last summer (“Sour Grapes,” August 12–18, 2005) as well as by a groundbreaking series in 2004 by the Bakersfield Californian.

One of the imperial prerogatives of the Times is to never, ever, under any circumstances, acknowledge that any of its work has relied on the previous reporting of other newspapers. So I can’t claim I was surprised by the Times’ pretending to have done this series all on its own. That’s the standard M.O.

That said, I was quite pleased to see our local behemoth finally get around to an important story that should have and easily could have been told long ago. The Times, of course, did significant new and independent reporting, and the picture it paints of the union that carries Cesar Chavez’s legacy is appropriately grim and depressing. Reaching the same conclusions we did in these pages last summer, the Times found that the UFW has long strayed from its original course of protecting California farm workers and that it cynically cashes in on the legacy and mystique of the Chavez name to fund a network of “movement” operations that are dominated by the Chavez family and its friends. This interwoven web of agencies builds housing (with nonunion workers) for non–farm workers; it rents itself out to Democratic political campaigns, runs radio stations, merchandises the legacy of Chavez, sells rather useless ID cards to undocumented workers, has served as paid lobbyist for a casino, and occasionally raids other union jurisdictions. But most important is what the UFW doesn’t do: organize farm workers into unions.

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Jigger the math any way you want and you come to the same bottom line: Though many of the hundreds of thousands of California field workers have no legal status or protection, are often paid minimum wage or less, and in some cases find themselves living in primitive camps of plastic tents and lean-tos, the UFW represents barely more than 1 percent of the work force. It maintains not a single contract in its traditional home base, the grape growers of the San Joaquin Valley.

Principal blame for the plight of California farm workers — reduced by decades of indifference and political neglect to their current dismal status — should not be handed off to the UFW. But the union does bear a share of the responsibility. And that’s why it’s crucial that those who care about the issues must be mature and sensible enough to not blame the messenger. There will be some who will allege that the Times’ takedown of the UFW was a case of excessive force, selective prosecution or outright racism.

Wrong. The Times series — like its stunning coverage of Killer King hospital — was a crucial public service. This should be a wake-up call for the UFW to either change its ways — radically and immediately — or, otherwise, please step out of the way. The prodigious fund-raising, direct-mail and PR/political campaigns of the union create the damaging public impression that California field workers are “taken care of,” that just as the movement of MLK successfully tore down de jure racism, the union of Cesar Chavez has, at least, long ago won basic, humane treatment for the campesinos of the Golden State.

NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER from the truth. California farm workers are younger, poorer, less educated and less organized than ever in recent history. The UFW, meanwhile, may have fewer members than ever in its 40-year history, but its income continues to grow. The bulk of that revenue comes not from dues but from donations — from voluntary contributions from well-meaning liberals who cannot resist a solicitation adorned with a grainy photo of Chavez and stamped with the iconic black eagle of the union banner. Nothing feels more redeeming after a pricey dinner on the Westside than to send off a few bucks in an envelope to the heirs of Cesar Chavez.

Until now, the UFW has remained stone-deaf to its critics — both external and internal. The union’s leadership — and its auxiliary agencies — are completely in the grip of the Chavez family, making a mockery of even the pretense of internal diversity and democracy, let alone any sort of serious accountability. Two years ago, when the Bakersfield Californian first blew the cover off the operation, the UFW denounced the newspaper series as an unfair attack and undertook no reforms — not even cosmetic ones. When my article of last summer once again pinged the union for its ineffectiveness and its nepotism, its press manager did everything he could to undermine my credibility. But the institutional weight of a four-part L.A. Times series is not something that can be easily brushed off or pushed back with indignant press releases from union headquarters.

This time around, the union will have to take the public critique seriously and institute some real reform lest it flirt with extinction. Those of us who are sympathetic to the ideals of Cesar Chavez perhaps have the greatest responsibility to be honest with ourselves and with the UFW. We achieve absolutely nothing by apologizing for the UFW’s failure or rationalizing the more venal aspects of the Chavez family management. The next time one of the UFW fund-raising letters comes your way, instead of writing a check, you might want to write back a note to Chavez’s son-in-law and current UFW president Arturo Rodriguez. Tell him that as soon as he can show you a concrete strategic plan to organize unions for California farm workers, you will show him the money.

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