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Gag Me With a Grape

IN 35 YEARS OF WRITING ABOUT POLITICS, I have done what little I could to help bring scrutiny to corrupt government agencies or officials: I’ve outed members of foreign-government death squads; uncovered greedy slumlords; blasted corporations for their workplace practices; exposed wealthy cults for staging massive public hoaxes; and, modestly, done my best to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

At times my work has drawn criticism, protest, denunciation and condemnation. Yet not once has anything I’ve penned drawn the direct threat of a lawsuit. Not until now, that is. Sitting in front of me is a 20-page demand that threatens such action if the Weekly does not “correct” or retract what I have written.

The threat doesn’t come from an offended Bush-administration official, nor from a fat-cat factory owner, nor a sweatshop operator. It comes, rather, from lawyers representing a union. The United Farm Workers.

The L.A. Times has been handed a similar threat. So has the Bakersfield Californian. Even some lonely bloggers who have recently written about the UFW have been contacted by the union or its hired PR agents and directly warned not to continue criticizing it.

This attack on critical reporters is the UFW’s orchestrated response to the Times’ recent four-part series on the union, which raised some very serious doubts over how the legacy of Cesar Chavez is playing out in the fields of California. Times reporter Miriam Pawel did an excellent job detailing the union’s straying from its original mission and failing to organize any significant number of workers while building a network of interlocking agencies it rather arrogantly calls the “farm worker movement.” In a column last month, and following up on my own critical reporting on the UFW last summer, I congratulated Pawel for her writing and advised UFW supporters to re-assess the work the union is doing.

A lot of well-meaning people didn’t like what they read in the Times or in these pages. They assumed that the union started by Cesar Chavez should be retained in some iconic category, forever immune to criticism or review. The message coming from the pieces criticizing the UFW is certainly an uncomfortable one. For those who sincerely believe in the principles of social justice, in the rights of workers and unions, and who have empathy for the faceless migrants who work our fields, hearing that the UFW may not be doing its job could — and should — be unsettling. But that’s no reason to shoot the messengers. I didn’t write my long piece on the farm workers last summer because I got some sort of thrill in slagging the UFW. My reportage focused, with open sympathy, on the deplorable plight of average California farm workers and, while the UFW is hardly the cause of their predicament, the union shares some of the responsibility for the current human disaster in our fields.

Some of the more thoughtful, longtime allies of the union responded to the Times series by suggesting the local Gray Lady focus on more comprehensive labor reporting, and not just open its pages to union coverage when the message is so negative. That seems a reasonable point to me — though in no way does it undermine the integrity of Pawel’s series.

The union itself, however, has responded in the worst way possible. Instead of taking the very valid criticism to heart and conducting some minimal good-faith re-examination of its own work, it has, instead, bunkered in and lashed out wildly at its critics. The UFW has enlisted Hollywood publicist Steve Rivers, as well as local Congressman Howard Berman, in its defensive PR campaign. Berman, to his credit, is an original co-author of landmark state agricultural-labor-protection legislation, and his tight relationship with the UFW dates back decades. But Berman and the UFW are also integral political partners, and union cash was a primary lubricant of the legendary Waxman-Berman political machine. No wonder, then, that the UFW has called in its chits in hiring Berman and other prominent Democrats — like former Clinton cabinet secretary Mickey Kantor — to run offense against the press.

The chilling tactics now being employed by the UFW are those it has learned from its abusive employers. Simultaneously threatening a number of news agencies and reporters with expensive lawsuits smells suspiciously similar to the corporate strategy of pressing so-called SLAPP suits against public critics. These suits are never intended to seek any real redress — only to inflict punishment. In this case, their collateral effect would be to shut down media scrutiny of the UFW.

I’m not going to put the reader through the “he said, she said” of what the UFW objects to in my reporting. But I can fairly summarize its complaint by saying it vigorously disagrees with my suggestion that it has failed in its historic mission. When you consider that at most 2 percent of California’s farm workers are represented by the UFW, and that working conditions overall for those workers are in decline, it’s difficult to conclude otherwise. The UFW is free to dissent, but this is still America. A difference of opinion is not, and should not be, the basis of a lawsuit.

If the UFW would spend as much energy organizing ?farm workers into unions as it is now investing in its campaign to shut down reporters who criticize it, we ?would all be better off.