Beyond the Fields

By Randy Shaw; University of California Press, 2008, 347 pp.


The Vietnam-era spawned many political activists on the left, right, and center. Some who actually fought in Vietnam later became big-name players in Washington, DC. At least one of the competing presidential candidates nominated by the Democrats or Republicans in 2000, 2004, and 2008 served there.

On the social movement side of the 1960s ledger, those who opposed the war—plus Vietnam-era veterans of civil rights, black power, feminist, and farm labor struggles—boast equally large, if overlapping, alumni associations. One crossover talent from that period, an education professor named Bill Ayers, found himself much in the news this Fall, even though he was not running for office. The larger generational cohort of which Ayers is a part includes fewer would-be presidents but some well-known mayors, city council members, state legislators, Congresspeople, and Senators. Outside of electoral politics, America’s "68ers" hold influential positions in labor and community organizations, academia and publishing, journalism and public interest law, the arts and entertainment industry, foundations, and what Randy Shaw calls "social entrepreneurship."

Shaw is a Bay Area journalist and community organizer whose latest book, Beyond The Fields, examines one key incubator of this left-liberal diaspora, the United Farm Workers (UFW). Shaw’s important study focuses on the UFW’s 1965 to 1980 heyday, when it was a pioneer in the field of "social movement unionism."

This small California union never had more than 100,000 members and 2 years ago was down to 7,000. Yet, in the late 1960s, UFW founder Cesar Chavez commanded the loyalty of hundreds of thousands of strike and boycott supporters around the country. Unlike previous writers about Chavez or his union, Shaw "connects the history of the UFW to an analysis of post-1980 and 21st century social movements." In particular, he describes the influential "role of UFW alumni, ideas, and strategies" in Latino politics, immigrant rights protests, the Service Employees and Hotel Workers unions, and labor alliances with students and religious groups. Despite the UFW’s own sad decline, Shaw argues that the spirit of "si se puede," has never been stronger, as evidenced by the fact that the union’s old rallying cry (or, at least an anglicized version of it—"Yes, we can") still "reverberates across the nation’s political landscape."

The UFW generated similar enthusiasm 40 years ago because its low-paid, much-exploited members were fighting for dignity and respect on the job. Prior to his 30-year career as a trade unionist, Chavez spent almost a decade knocking on doors as a community organizer in Mexican-American barrios throughout California. Before that, he had been a rebellious teenager, working in the fields alongside his family and chafing at the segregationist "Whites Only" signs in restaurants and the "colored" sections set aside for African Americans, Chicanos, and Filipinos in movie theatres.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Chicanos faced a humiliating system of discrimination in jobs, schools, housing, and public accommodations that would have been familiar to African Americans in the rural South.

Chavez responded to these conditions by becoming a voting rights activist. Under the tutelage of Fred Ross, an apostle of Saul Alinsky-style grassroots organizing, he succeeded in mobilizing tens of thousands of Mexican-Americans to register to vote and use their newly acquired political clout to deal with issues ranging from potholes to police brutality. In 1962 Chavez set aside political agitation "to pursue the impossible dream of organizing farm workers" in a state with a long history of failed efforts to unionize agricultural laborers.

California agribusiness did not come to the bargaining table quickly. In fact, local growers had every reason to believe they would never have to negotiate with Chavez’s fledgling union because farm workers lacked any rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Prior to 1975, this left UFW supporters in California with no way of securing union representation elections and no legal protection against being dismissed, which, in the case of those who lived in grower-owned migrant labor camps, meant being evicted as well. When grape or lettuce pickers walked off the job to join UFW picket lines, they faced injunctions, damage suits, mass arrests, deadly physical attacks by hired guards, and the hostility of local police.

Beyond The Fields recounts how Chavez, his union, and their far-flung allies overcame such formidable obstacles. More than any other American union in the past half century, the UFW employed recognition walkouts, consumer boycotts, hunger strikes, long distance marches, rallies, vigils, and creative disruptions of all kinds to win its first contracts. The UFW became a national cause celebre that attracted college students, civil rights activists, liberal clergy, and political figures like Robert Kennedy, who conducted Senate hearings on conditions in the vineyards of Delano. Chavez’s own persona contributed a great deal to the union’s appeal. Deeply religious, the UFW president was, like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a controversial foe of U.S. intervention in Vietnam and a home-grown Ghandian. In 1968, as strike-related confrontations swirled around him, Chavez embarked on the first of many fasts to help regain the moral high ground. His widely publicized 25-day ordeal "on behalf of his movement and the power of non-violent activism galvanized America," Shaw writes. "The fast signified the idealism of the era and left a permanent legacy for future struggles."

Management attacks on the union continued nevertheless. The UFW’s initial gains were nearly swept away in the early 1970s when growers signed sweetheart contracts with the Teamsters to avoid dealing with the dreaded "Chavistas." The Teamsters, now a fellow member of the Change To Win (CTW) coalition with UFW, "often resorted to violence to intimidate opponents." Among the "countless UFW members victimized in the next decade by the then corruption-plagued union" was Eliseo Medina, who was badly beaten, but survived to become executive vice-president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) today. All the inter-union mayhem finally forced California legislators to act. After UFW-backed Democrat Jerry Brown became governor in 1974, the state created an Agricultural Labor Relations Board to referee farm labor disputes. Before the board’s operations were eventually subverted by Brown’s Republican successors, UFW victories in government-run elections routed the Teamsters and boosted the union’s membership.

At long last, some farm workers were finally getting a living wage, health benefits, better housing, and protection against dangerous pesticide use. Unfortunately, the UFW fared worse than most unions during the ensuing Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush era. As factors in UFW’s steady marginalization, most observers cite continued grower opposition, the massive influx of undocumented workers from Mexico, the union’s over-reliance on boycott activity and failure to back it up with ongoing organizing in the fields, and Chavez’s increasingly autocratic style.

Shaw devotes an entire chapter ("The Decline of the UFW") to "Chavez’s shortcomings and his role in the union’s post-1981 problems." Since his death in 1993, Chavez has been posthumously transformed into "a national icon," while his darker side has "been minimized or ignored," the author notes. In his later years, Chavez brooked little internal dissent and was not accountable to anyone within the UFW (because democracy took second place to charismatic leadership). As a result, rank-and-file critics were purged and independent thinkers on the union staff became so disaffected that they quit, after years of dedicated, low-paid service to the membership. The union reached its nadir when Chavez began employing, in meetings of his inner circle, a bizarre and destructive "group therapy exercise known as the Game." Imported from "a cultish drug treatment program known as Synanon…[t]he Game required participants to ‘clear the air’ by launching personal attacks against one another," an experience that "caused much anger and bitterness."

Marshall Gans, a former civil rights worker, was among those who left the union in disgust or dismay, along with Medina, who had been regarded as a likely successor to Chavez. (The UFW is today headed by Chavez’s son-in-law, reflecting one of business unionism hoariest traditions, nepotism.) Now a lecturer at Harvard and campaign advisor to Obama, Gans offered Shaw this structural explanation of how the UFW shrunk into a cult-like shell of its former self: "[T]he UFW was not giving workers any real power or responsibilities in setting the union’s direction…. Chavez’s decision that the UFW would not have geographically distinct ‘locals’ left the union without the vehicles traditionally used by organized labor to obtain worker input. [As early as 1978] the UFW’s executive board had no farmworker representation, leaving those working in the fields with no way to influence the UFW’s direction."

According to Shaw, UFW alums have learned the hard way that "charisma can help build a movement, but it does not sustain one." Beyond the Fields suggests that "this style of leadership" is no longer in vogue because "charismatic leaders often resist democratically imposed limits on their authority," with the result that "organizational dissent is either directly suppressed or forestalled by a reluctance to challenge the leader’s decision." The author believes that younger organizers have "responded to the troubling power dynamics of 1960s-era movements by promoting non-hierarchical and even consensus-based decision-making."

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be true in the major union where Medina, former boycott staffer Stephen Lerner, and more than a dozen others ended up after their UFW work, as Shaw recounts. In the 1.8 million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a similar leadership personality cult has developed under president Andy Stern, with an accompanying culture of party line conformism. (Internal critics even have a name for Stern’s unquestioning loyalists; they’re called "Purple Kool Aid Drinkers," a reference to SEIU’s trademark color and the fatal beverage served at Jonestown.) In SEIU, just like in the UFW before it, the absence of member-controlled local branches has left workers with little say in the affairs of their own union. Like the UFW executive board (circa 1978), SEIU’s today is stacked with staffers and hand-picked friends of the president and contains only a shrinking number of one-time working members.

Worse yet, from the standpoint of Shaw’s thesis, former UFW figures now in the leadership, like Lerner and Medina, have been personally involved in SEIU’s attempt to silence Sal Rosselli, president of 150,000 member United health care Workers-West (UHW). Stern’s on-going threat to put UHW under trusteeship—in direct retaliation for its criticism of SEIU’s "troubling power dynamics"—would leave most of the union’s 600,000 California members without elected leaders.

Most troubling of all, in light of his personal history battling the Teamsters, is Eliseo Medina’s support for SEIU’s "raid" on a union in Puerto Rico that looks very much like the UFW of his youth. In the public school system of Puerto Rico, SEIU has for the last year been reprising the "company union" role of the Teamsters in California agriculture 30 years ago. It has offered itself to the island’s governor, now under federal indictment for corruption, as a management-friendly alternative to the militant Federacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR). The FMPR is a feisty, democratic rank-and-file organization. Last February, it struck for ten days with much popular backing, but lost its legal certification as a result. (One issue was pay—since top salaries are only $2,600 per month— but another was the threat of school privatization.) Despite its continued support from 12,000 teachers, FMPR was barred, by a court ruling, from participating in a teacher representation election scheduled for October. In that election, only one choice appeared on the ballot: a new SEIU affiliate, aligned with the union of school principals and administrators.

When former strikers, most of them women, protested this undemocratic scheme during SEIU’s convention in San Juan last June, the local riot squad was called out to keep several hundred of them at bay. Meanwhile, inside the convention center, the teachers’ arch enemy, Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila, was welcomed as a great friend of SEIU and spoke to its 3,000 delegates. FMPR members were roughed up and several arrested when they broke through police lines to appeal, on a worker-to-worker basis, for an end to SEIU’s undermining of their union. After this embarrassing episode, EVP Medina, who makes nearly $200,000 a year, held a press conference at which he questioned the legitimacy of the FMPR and belittled its turn-out capacity (as if it had been safe or easy to picket the heavily-policed convention). Medina’s performance was not the finest hour of UFW’s still-active alumni. But it demonstrates how some of the "youthful idealism" so rightly applauded by Shaw has, unfortunately, congealed into political cynicism far less worthy of emulation today.

For their part, FMPR members demonstrated on October 23 that the spirit of "si se puede" is alive and well in Puerto Rico. After a low-budget Vote No campaign, teachers rejected SEIU’s costly takeover attempt by a margin of 18,123 to 14,675. Some local press reports called the election battle a David vs. Goliath contest—the same media frame once used to describe UFW triumphs over California agribusiness and the Teamsters.


Steve Early worked as an organizer for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years. He is the author of Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home (Monthly Review Press, forthcoming).