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Great Cesar's Ghost 

The UFW has to give it up, and reinvent a culture of organizing

Wednesday, Jan 18 2006
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WITHIN THE ALL-TOO-SMALL WORLD of liberals and labor, there’s been no larger topic of discussion for the past couple of weeks than the Los Angeles Times’ four-part series on the United Farm Workers. Following the groundbreaking stories from the Bakersfield Californian and the Weekly’s own Marc Cooper, Times reporter Miriam Pawel did a thorough job of digging, and unearthed a sad tale of an iconic liberal institution that in recent decades has grown too comfortable resting on, and marketing, its iconic status.

But Pawel’s story took as a given one crucial but contestable assertion: that today’s farm workers are organizable. When the union was at its height, in the late 1970s, they clearly were. But that was then, when the work force wasn’t composed almost entirely of undocumented immigrants, as it is today. That was then, when the union movement wasn’t in shambling disarray, as much of it has been for decades now. That was then, when there was a cadre of brilliant organizers, the majority of whom were to leave the union in frustration when founder Cesar Chavez sought to transform it into a never very well-defined movement. (The UFW was a child of the ’60s, and, like the CIO unions that were children of the ’30s, it was prey to the manias of the moment — though a number of those CIO unions weathered Stalinism better than the UFW weathered Synanon.)

Several of the figures who’ve played key roles in labor’s semi-revival over the past decade learned their craft in the Farm Workers: Eliseo Medina, who helped make the SEIU a voice and a force for immigrant workers; Miguel Contreras, who turned his skills to remaking L.A. and California politics; and Marshall Ganz, who, from his perch at Harvard, counsels organizations on the structures and campaigns that work. But all three plied their trade outside the UFW; there was no place for their talents within.

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Within, says one union veteran who’s been close to the UFW for years, “they put so little effort into the basics of organizing — meeting with the workers one-on-one, building a committee, that sort of thing. They simply lack people who can organize workers. That was their problem in the [AFL-CIO-backed] strawberry campaign [in the late ’90s]; that was why they just lost at Giumarra — they didn’t even get a list of all the workers’ names. Only a handful of UFW staffers today are good at this sort of thing.”

What the union does rely on is Cesar’s good name — no matter how few of the new agriculture workers even know who Chavez was. Even if they did, that knowledge is of questionable value in building a union, the organizer says. “We don’t organize black workers by saying [Martin Luther] King would want them to join,” he points out.

On the whole, the UFW sounds like one of the older, smaller craft unions — in construction, say, or the maritime trades — that hasn’t had a culture of organizing in decades and doesn’t know how to generate one to save its life. If farm workers can’t be organized, of course, this doesn’t really make a difference. But in recent years, two other farm-worker organizations based on the other side of the country — the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) — have won some modest victories doing unconventional organizing of immigrant farm workers. Indeed, the CIW’s boycott of Taco Bell, modeled partly after the UFW’s old grape boycott, ended in smashing success when Taco Bell agreed to help boost wages and improve conditions in Florida’s tomato fields.

For that matter, there’s a pattern to the few victories that the UFW has won over the past decade — in roses, mushrooms and at Coastal Berry. These were campaigns in which the work force was somewhat more stable and less transient than those working on other crops.

More broadly, the many thousands of janitors whom the Service Employees have organized over the past 15 years are also an immigrant, heavily undocumented work force. But the secret of SEIU’s success is that it defines itself on every level as an organizing union, consistently devoting its resources, talents and experience to its campaigns. One measure of its success, and that of some other unions, too, is that the share of unionized workers has actually grown in California in the past half decade, despite the fact that many of the new union members are immigrants.

IRONICALLY, IN THE SAME WEEK that the Times series appeared, the UFW formally disaffiliated with the AFL-CIO to cast its lot with the new Change To Win Federation. In the debate that led to last year’s schism in labor and the formation of Change To Win, the proponents of the split argued that unions too small to have credible organizing programs should merge into larger ones, and that unions need to find ways to wage joint organizing drives. These are ideas that the UFW should seriously entertain: It could use the infusion of energy and talent of a group like the CIW. And it should consider joining up, under Change To Win’s aegis, with two giant unions that also have roots in the food industry: the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Teamsters. None of these unions has the organizing prowess of SEIU or UNITE HERE, but part of the mission of the new federation’s very able staff is to plan and direct campaigns that might be beyond the abilities of its individual members.

That’s not to say that the Chavez family, like the family of Martin Luther King, can’t run institutions that celebrate and perpetuate their father’s legacy. It is to say that the fund-raising for those institutions shouldn’t conflate their purpose with that of organizing farm workers. For that task, an infusion of new talent, new people, new funding and, above all, new dedication, is required.

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