What "César Chávez" missed

The diversity of the farm workers movement

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Mayo 16, 2014 10:42 hrs.
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The new movie, Cesar Chavez - History is Made One Step at a Time, directed by Diego Luna, tells the story of the Grape Strike of 1965. This epic 5-year labor battle led to the organization of the United Farm Workers, and made Cesar Chavez a social movement hero. The movie has provoked controversy over its depiction of his role, and the accuracy of the history it recounts of those events. In this roundtable, labor journalist David Bacon, a former organizer for the UFW and other unions, explores these themes with four guests. Eliseo Medina was a farm worker when the strike started, and became a noted labor organizer, first in the UFW and later in the Service Employees Union. Doug Adair was an activist in the 1965 strike, and then worked the rest of his life as a farm laborer in the grapes in the Coachella Valley. Dawn Mabalon is a professor of history at San Francisco State University, and an authority of the history of Filipinos in California. Rosalinda Guillen comes from a farm worker family in Washington State, worked as a UFW organizer, and today organizes farm labor in Skagit and Whatcom Counties, north of Seattle, with Community2Community.

David: How did the movie square with your memories of the grape strike as a participant?

Eliseo: It's a good time for this movie to come out and show not only the challenges immigrants face, but also the fact that they're willing to struggle and that when they do they can win, regardless of the power structure. It could've done a much better job of telling the full story, but it's impossible to tell 10 years worth of history in 2 hours. It's a movie, not a documentary, and its aim is not to tell the story of the whole movement. To do that would take a lot more than just one movie.

David: The film presents the UFW as a movement mostly of Chicanos and Mexicanos, but it was also a multinational union, including African-Americans, Arab, and even white people. That doesn't come through as much.

Eliseo: When I was a farm worker, before the strike began, we lived in different worlds -- the Latino world, the Filipino world, the African-American world and the Caucasian world. We co-existed but never understood who we were or what each other thought and dreamed about. It wasn't until the union began that we finally began to work together, to know each other and to begin to fight together. I do wish that that had been more explicit because certainly the contribution that was made by the Filipino workers to the strike and the movement was an incredible part of the success of the union. The fact that we also had Caucasians and African-Americans participating in the strike never even gets brought up. It was always multi-racial. I do wish it had focused more on showing what can happen when people work together and fight together and make changes, not only for one group, but for everybody.

Cesar Chavez (l) and Pete Velasco (r) a Filipino member of the UFW executive board for many years.

David: There has been criticism of the movie's portrayal of Filipino workers. How do you feel about that?

Dawn: Filipinos had been organizing, not just that year, but for decades before. The growers had always divided Mexicans and Filipinos. What was so powerful about that moment in Delano was that those two groups defied this. But way they came together was downplayed. There was so little context that there's no understanding that it was these other people, in particular Larry Itliong, who really sparked the strike.

Larry went to Delano in the early 1960s, sent by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, the AFL-CIO union founded in Stockton. He already had decades of labor experience with the Alaskan salmon cannery union. He organized a failed strike of asparagus workers in Stockton in 1948 and a successful strike in 1949. He had more experience than everyone, Dolores Huerta and Cesar included. Unfortunately he died a few years after the UFW and didn't leave much behind for us. We're still trying to piece together how important he was, not just to the Filipino-American community, but to American labor in general. But we know he was really pivotal to this strike and to the early years of the UFW. He resigned in 1971, so he often gets left out of that larger history.

Also, the first person killed in the strike was a Yemeni worker, but in the movie, it's portrayed as someone who's Mexican. The filmmakers didn't really understand what made the strike so powerful.

Doug: The original spark in Delano was when Filipinos workers began sitting in at the camps. It wasn't a strike with picket lines, but a sit-in and refusing to go to work. Larry began going around to the camps seeing if he could use the sit-ins to negotiate better wages.

David: The film did show the sit-in in the camps, which surprised me. Not many people know that happened, and it's a very important part of history. The movie starts with a little section where Cesar is the head of the Community Service Organization (CSO), but doesn't show him organizing protests about the bracero program, in which growers were able to bring workers from Mexico under very abusive conditions, sending them back at the end of the season. Should the movie have said more about it?

Doug: Workers first went on strike in Coachella in the spring of 1965 because the bracero program was being phased out. With braceros, it was almost inevitable that strikes would lose. When the government said growers had to offer $1.40 an hour if they wanted to hire braceros AWOC demanded the same wage. That was the spark that set off the strike. Actually if it had been up to Cesar, there wouldn't have been a strike in Delano because he didn't feel our union was ready. There was no money in the bank, and he wanted to do more organizing. He used to say "we're not a union, and we're not gonna start strikes."

Rosalinda: For us, organizing farmworkers and opposing guest worker [bracero-type] programs today, it's clear why Cesar opposed the bracero program. Growers at that time used the program to break strikes, when workers tried to form unions. It's still happening today, to farmworkers in Burlington, Washington who went on strike last year. When I joined the United Farmworkers in 1996, the union opposed the H2A guest worker visa program very strongly. Leaving out that history was a wasted opportunity to include more political context that is still important to us.

David: The movie stops when the industry-wide grape contract gets signed. Did the contract and the union change life for farmworkers and was it a permanent change?

Doug: When I worked under that first contract our wages and benefits were over double the minimum wage of American workers. We had a health plan that was the envy of many other unions. We could sit down with the growers and negotiate over grievances. We wouldn't always win, but we could negotiate our working conditions.

The movie did show that workers can join together in spite of appalling conditions and improve their wages and working conditions. That did come through. It is a possible to change history with concerted action, by getting together.

Rosalinda: Today farmworkers can organize because of the example of the farmworkers in the 60s and 70s in California. The movie shows clearly what it looks like to organize and come together. This is one of the legacies of Cesar Chavez, this coming together of different workers with different religions and different political views. Unfortunately, today we have a splintered movement and divided communities. We see the same old attacks, like this guest worker program, to stop farmworkers from organizing for better wages and better treatment.

Doug: But I think the movie did show the viciousness of the growers and their local power structure; district attorneys and the cops and thugs on the side of the growers. The whole local structure was against the union and the farmworkers.

Rosalinda: And it's still like that.

David: How much presence does the union have today?

Doug: There are no contracts in the grapes today. Wages are nowhere near even the miserable minimum wage, which is not enforced. There are a few advances in pesticide regulations and toilets in the fields and shade, drinking water - minimal things that didn't exist in 1965. But the presence of the union in the Coachella
Valley is a shadow of its former self. Just a few pensioners like me.

Dawn: My father died working the asparagus nine years ago. I wish the film had been much stronger in saying these conditions still exist today and we still have to fight for farmworkers. I was hoping at the end of the film you would have this feeling of inspiration and a call to action, but you get the sense that now we won and it's over.

Eliseo: Clearly the union was able to begin lifting workers out of poverty. They had paid holidays, vacations and health insurance. Unfortunately, at the time when we were poised to completely change these workers' lives we lost focus. As a result, workers today are back where they were before the union. Most are working at minimum wage again. Employers are back to just trying to get the work done in the cheapest way possible, regardless of the impact on workers. They are making the rise of another farmworkers union inevitable. People are only going to put up with exploitation for so long before they rise up and begin organizing. That's going to happen in agriculture. It's not a matter of if - it's a matter of when. I have no doubt about that.

David: I want to talk about how the film treats radical politics. There is a scene in which the sheriff and the growers accuse the unions of being Communist, and Cesar and says that's silly, we're Catholic. But the Filipinos, in their prior organizing, had been very leftwing. Is this underplayed?

Dawn: I've always seen tension between the Filipino leftists/Marxists/Communists and anti-communism within the UFW. Larry Itliong considered Chris Mensalves one of his mentors, who organized Filipino lettuce workers in Salinas in the 1930s and was considered by the FBI one of the most dangerous Communist labor organizers of his day. The union Larry came from, ILWU Local 37, was led by leftists and members of the Communist Party. [UFW leader] Philip Veracruz was an ardent leftist. By erasing Filipinos, you also downplay those radical roots.

Even nonviolence was a tension for Filipinos, who were used to shooting at scabs who crossed the picket lines, and were uncomfortable with hunger strikes, marches and religious pageantry. This history of the grape strike - about negotiation and collaboration and what people learned from each other - is missing in the movie.

Doug: The movie stressed Cesar saying "Oh we're Catholic, so we couldn't possibly be Communists", but in fact there was a strong element in the union that was very anti-clerical. The church in Mexico was always on the side of the growers and the wealthy and always against the peasants and the poor. Typically the Protestants among farmworkers had rebelled against the Catholic Church and were rebels at heart and were especially receptive to the union.

The young Filipinos in the movement were the revolutionaries, fighting to overturn the whole system. We called them "the Huks." The march to Sacramento was a very radical statement - that we wanted to overturn this whole corrupt structure. We were the people that were feeding America and that we had a right to be at the table.

David: At one point the growers say they are going to bring in "illegals" - they use that word, not "undocumented" - by the truckload. Do you think this experience shaped how Cesar saw the question of immigration?

Eliseo: The growers knew very well that divide and conquer was an important strategy, so they were not above using workers to break the strike, whether they were documented or undocumented. And they certainly felt that having a captive work force would make it easier for them. Cesar was well aware, as were all of us, that many strikers who undocumented. What the union wanted was to make sure that no one was used to break the strike, regardless of their status. The union and the strike was a movement of documented and undocumented people. Some of the strongest and most active people were undocumented.

In many cases when workers began to organize, growers would call in the Border Patrol to scare people and arrest and deport them. For the undocumented, being for the union was a lot more serious because it potentially meant arrest and deportation, leaving their families behind. The union was very conscious about this and made it their policy to defend those workers

Doug: Whether they had papers or not, if they were strikebreakers we wanted them out of there. At different points in the union's history, it's taken a very hard line against people without papers. The union's base were the permanent families who lived in Delano. But of course there were a lot of people who lived in labor camps.

David: So there was always tension about new migrants, not just the undocumented, as being either job competitors or part of the union. Did you think of the union as being hostile to undocumented people, or just hostile to strikebreakers?

Rosalinda: Hostile to strikebreakers. In my time in the union, from 1996-2003, I did not see any behavior that was anti-immigrant in any way. I know how ugly things can get when growers use this tactic of turning Mexican against Mexican or Filipino against Filipino, turning people against each other, the poorest of the poor and the most desperate.

Today when we're opposing guest workers we're not against Mexican workers who are being brought in. We're against this program that puts them in vulnerable situations. It's legalized wage theft, because they're displacing the workers who are already here. In fact, the whole issue of blocking the guest worker program was central to the union's political work, because the agricultural industry uses this program to slow down farmworker organizing.

David: The Filipino community was not united in how it looked at the union or Cesar, was it?

Dawn: The Stockton community is divided over the legacy of the United Farm Workers. I think that Larry Itliong's compadres became very bitter about what happened to him, and that Filipino voices had been drowned out in the union. So there was a lot of silence and bitterness when I was growing up. And then there's also the issue of Cesar's visit with [Philippine dictator Ferdinand] Marcos. The community was already split about the Marcos dictatorship. It's a very complex legacy, with some people not even knowing that Filipinos were part of UFW, and others who do know having a complex relationship with the ways in which Filipinos were treated.

Doug: Many of the leaders in the Filipino community were foreman. They had a tradition of representing their workers and trying to get better wages and working conditions for the crew. Larry mostly organized through them and got whole crews on board. But when it became clear the strike was going to be broken a lot decided it was time to go back to work, and made a deal with the growers. When the contracts did come in, the powers of the foremen were stripped away. Then when the Teamsters Union came in, they offered those foremen their powers back. Many of the Filipino foremen urged their crews to switch to the Teamsters. But many of the strongest Filipino workers, who had been foremen, stayed with the UFW because they were too radical to negotiate with the growers.

Rosalinda: Now more than ever we need to see how movements are built. Organizing is not perfect - there is conflict. It's almost like this movie was pulled together to make Cesar a kind of superhero instead of understanding how difficult it is to build a union from the bottom up.

David: Most people's experience of the union was not in the fields, but as supporters in the boycotts. The union had an enormous impact on growers, by basically appealing to people not to buy grapes. There are scenes in the movie of people picketing stores, of growers complaining it's hurting them, and it even shows Cesar going to London. The boycott is one of the most important and powerful weapons workers have in addition to the strike. What do you think about the picture that the movie painted of it?

Doug: I thought it was good enough on the boycott. By late November [1965], it was clear that the strike had been broken-we weren't going to win the grape strike in the fields. The boycott was one of Cesar's many ideas to finesse the local power structure and get the American public involved.

Cesar's genius was not in being the one handing out leaflets but in putting together a team, and sending people out to cities all across the country, and in fact, all across the world. A woman named Elaine Elinson went to London. The American embassy was promoting grapes and the transport workers and the other unions in England supported the boycott. Cesar went to Europe much later, but he never went to London.

Dawn: Larry Itliong and other Filipinos like Pete Velasco were also a strong part of the boycott. For the Filipino-Americans who were inspired by Larry, those were some of their best memories of being involved in the movement

David: Any last words??

Doug: I cry in movies, and I cried in this one. It brought back a lot of memories. I'm looking forward to the movie on Larry Itliong.

Dawn: A talented Filipino filmmaker from Bakersfield, Marissa Aroy has made one called "The Delano Manongs." She's unearthed some amazing archival footage of the Filipinos striking, of Larry Itliong talking about his experiences. It provides some rich nuance for understanding this movement.

As disappointed as some of us may be, I think the movie has given us this amazing opportunity to dialogue, and to continue to be involved in farmworker justice and all these issues where we need to coalesce with the Latino community, like immigration reform. It's made young Filipinos go, "Why aren't we in it, and I want to know more." I think that's amazing.

Eliseo: Cesar's legacy today is that thousands of people learned the skill of organizing and are making their own contribution to a more just society. A lot of the strategy and inspiration comes straight out of the farmworkers movement. I hope the Diego Lunas of the future will be inspired to take a look at the whole story. It has a lot of lessons about organizing and perseverance, and the theory and practice of non-violence and how it can lead to major social change. It's a story that needs to be told.

David Bacon radio review of the movie, Cesar Chavez

Interviews with David Bacon about his new book, The Right to Stay Home:

Book TV: A presentation of the ideas in The Right to Stay Home at the CUNY Graduate Center

KPFK - Uprisings with Sonali Kohatkar

KPFA - Upfront with Brian Edwards Tiekert

Photoessay: My Studio is the Street

Photoessay: Mexico City marches against NAFTA and to protect its oil and electricity

Nativo Lopez dialogues with David Bacon on Radio Hermandad

The Real News: Immigration Reform Requires Dismantling NAFTA and Respecting Migrants' Rights/ Immigrant Communities Resist Deportations

Books by David Bacon

The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (Beacon Press, 2013)

Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Beacon Press, 2008)
Recipient: C.L.R. James Award, best book of 2007-2008

Communities Without Borders (Cornell University/ILR Press, 2006)

The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border (University of California, 2004)

For more articles and images, see http://dbacon.igc.org

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What "César Chávez" missed

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