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UFW Begins to Crack

AFTER RECENT CRITICAL PRESS REPORTS alleging massive dysfunction inside the legendary United Farm Workers and its related agencies, the movement’s top woman administrator has resigned, upset over the union’s strategy to lash out at the media and other internal issues, the Weekly has learned.

Dissenting from the UFW network’s current strategy, veteran activist Nora Benavides stepped down as executive director of LUPE, the nonprofit community-organizing arm of the farm workers’ movement. LUPE’s president is Arturo Rodriguez, son-in-law of César Chávez and current UFW president. Paul Chávez, one of César Chávez’s sons and the director of another UFW-linked agency, also sits on the LUPE board, as do other UFW officials.

When contacted by the Weekly, Benavides, who took over LUPE operations two years ago, confirmed that she had resigned, but declined further comment. LUPE staff members said she handed a letter of resignation to Paul Chávez last Friday. Farm worker-movement spokespersons refused to comment on the matter.

Benavides was the only woman running one of the myriad agencies and charities linked together in what the UFW calls “the movement.” Her small but scrappy organization was among the few bright spots in the farm-worker movement, which has recently been accused by the L.A. Times and the Weekly of having fallen into a long, unproductive slump of nepotism and institutionalized back-scratching. The articles in the Weekly and the Times reported that the heirs of César Chávez had used his legacy to build up an interlocking network of organizations that were successful in capturing millions of dollars in public and private funding but had neglected the work of organizing impoverished farm workers into unions.

Forty years after the dramatic emergence of the UFW, less than 2 percent of California farm workers are represented by the union founded by César Chávez. By contrast, LUPE has shown some measurable success in fulfilling its stated mission of organizing around community and social issues inside farm-worker communities, especially since Benavides took the helm.

The UFW and its related agencies reacted vehemently to the published allegations that it has strayed from its original mission, recently threatening to sue both the L.A. Times and the Weekly. Neither the Times nor the Weekly acceded to demands to retract the critical stories.

Sources inside the farm-worker community say Benavides was well-known as one of the few movement leaders who opposed the current strategy of attacking the media and blaming the messenger for the recent scrutiny. “Nora wasn’t happy about the news articles that came out, but she believed the way to answer back was to do the best work possible, and not attack the press who criticized us,” says one source close to Benavides.

INDEED, THE UFW AND ITS LINKED ORGANIZATIONS have not publicly accepted any of the criticism offered by the reports in the Times and the Weekly. Apart from its threat to sue, the UFW has posted a 101-page rebuttal on its Web site.

The UFW plans to stage a demonstration against the L.A. Times in the coming weeks. When organizing similar demonstrations in the past, the UFW has traditionally relied on its related agencies to drum up the foot soldiers who are eventually bused to protest sites. Over the past few weeks, movement leaders have been pressuring the groups within its orbit to once again gear up for the coming anti-Times protest. Typically, groups like LUPE are “asked” to contribute a certain number of demonstrators to fill the buses provided by the movement. They are then billed for bus rentals by the UFW network.

Similar economic arrangements were outlined in the L.A. Times series when LUPE was given a $2.2 million grant by the state to conduct popular education programs. More than a third of that grant was diverted to farm-worker movement coffers as LUPE was charged by the UFW to handle accounting and human resources, billed by the Farm Workers Service Center for “consulting” and even charged by the UFW-related radio stations for running public-service announcements.

It’s not known what sorts of specific demands were being made on LUPE to help build the upcoming protests against the Times, other than that Benavides considered them an unnecessary distraction, according to movement sources. Nor is it clear, in the wake of the turmoil caused by Benavides’ resignation, if the protests will go ahead. Inside the close-knit ranks of the farm workers’ movement, the resignation of a top official like Benavides comes as a disorienting blow.


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