America in the Age of Myth

But that said, Chavez was not quite the icon we see in the grainy videos walking the vineyards with Robert Kennedy. Perhaps confrontation was inevitable, but the labor organizing around here was hardly non-violent. Secondary boycotts were illegal, but that did not stop picketers from yelling and cursing as you exited the local Safeway with a bag of Emperor grapes. There were the constant union fights with bigger family growers (the 500 acre and above sort), as often demonstrators rushed into fields to mix it up with so-called scabs. Teamsters fought the UAW. The latter often worked with the immigration service to hunt down and deport illegals. The former bused in toughs to crack heads. After-hours UFW vandalism, as in the slashed tire and chain-sawed tree mode, was common.

The politics were explicable by one common theme: Cesar Chavez disliked small farmers and labor contractors, and preferred agribusiness and the idea of a huge union. Otherwise, there were simply too many incongruities in an agrarian checkerboard landscape for him to handle -- as if the UAW would have had to deal with an auto industry scattered among thousands of small family-owned factories.

For Chavez, the ideal was a vast, simple us/them, 24/7 fight, albeit beneath an angelic veneer of Catholic suffering. In contrast, small farmers were not rich and hardly cut-out caricatures of grasping exploitation. Too many were unapologetic Armenians, Japanese (cf. the Nisei Farmers League), Portuguese, and Mexican-Americans to guarantee the necessary white/brown binary. Many had their own histories of racism, from the Armenian genocide to the Japanese internment, and had no white guilt of the Kennedy sort.  I cannot imagine a tougher adversary than a Japanese, Armenian, or Punjabi farmer, perched on his own tractor or irrigating his 60 acres -- entirely self-created, entirely unapologetic about his achievement, entirely committed to the idea that no one is going to threaten his existence.

The local labor contractors were not villains, but mostly residents who employed their relatives and knew well the 40-acre and 100-acre farmers they served. When there were slow times on the farm, I picked peaches for two summers for a Selma labor contractor, whose kids I went to school with. He was hardly a sellout. The crusty, hard-bitten small farmers (“don’t bruise that fruit,” “you missed three peaches up there on that limb,” “you stopped before it was quite noon”) who monitored personally the orchards we picked looked no different from the men on ladders.

In contrast, Chavez preferred the south and west Central Valley of huge corporate agribusiness. Rich and powerful, these great captains had the ability by fiat to institute labor agreements across hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. Chavez’s organizing forte was at home in a Tulare, Delano, Shafter, Mendota or Tranquility, not a Reedley, Kingsburg or Selma. In the those days, the former were mostly pyramidal societies of a few corporate kingpins with an underclass of agricultural laborers, the latter were mixed societies in which Mexican-Americans were already ascendant and starting to join the broader middle class of Armenians, Japanese, and Punjabis.

Chavez was to be a Walter Reuther or George Meany, a make-or-breaker who sat across from a land baron, cut a deal for his vast following, and then assumed national stature as he doled out union patronage and quid-pro-quo political endorsements. In that vision, as a 1950s labor magnate Chavez largely failed -- but not because agribusiness did not cave in to him. Indeed, it saw the UFW and Chavez as the simple cost of doing business, a tolerable write-off necessary to making all the bad press, vandalism, and violence go away.

Instead, the UFW imploded by its own insider and familial favoritism, corruption, and, to be frank, lunatic paranoia.  The millions of dollars Chavez deducted for pension funds often vanished. Legions of relatives (for a vestigial experience of the inner sanctum, I suggest a visit to the national shrine southeast of Bakersfield) staffed the union administration. There were daily rumors of financial malfeasance, mostly in the sense of farmworkers belatedly discovering that their union deductions did not lead to promised health care or pensions.

Most hagiographies ignore Chavez’s eerie alliance with the unhinged Synanon bunch. In these parts, they had opened a foothill retreat of some sort above Woodlake, not far from here. (I visited the ramshackle Badger enclave once with my mother [I suppose as her informal "security,"], who was invited as a superior court judge to be introduced to their new anti-drug program in their hopes that county officials might save millions of dollars by sentencing supposedly non-violent heroin addicts to Synanon recovery treatments. Needless to say, she smiled, met the creepy  “group,” looked around the place, and we left rather quickly, and that was that.)