Matt Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory: the Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012), 298 pages
From the Jaws of Victory narrates the rise and fall of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union. An introductory chapter gives a brief roadmap of the book and a warning: the book includes the failures and shortcomings of UFW founder, Cesar Chavez, not just his success.
The first three chapters chronicle the slow but successful efforts to organize farm workers and improve wages and working conditions. After a brief discussion of historical material and the former Bracero Program, the narrative turns to Cesar Chavez and his decision to leave community organizing to organize farm workers. That was April 12, 1962.
Chavez built a devoted following to his United Farm Workers Association (UFWA) by knocking on doors and recruiting members one by one. He used marches, rallies and fasts to attract public attention in what turned into a crusade. His UFWA lacked the funds to support a strike when Larry Itliong of the Agriculture Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) called his mostly Filipino members out of the Delano vineyards September 8, 1965. UFW joined the strike and the two unions combined their efforts to attract public support and put economic pressure on the growers.
Garcia develops the strike and its unfolding strategies over the next 70 pages. The two unions eventually merged to become the UFW with Chavez as president. His leadership in the Delano grape strike put the UFW on the path of success. The coincidence of the farm worker movement with civil rights helped bring in hundreds of volunteers and make the strike a cause for social justice. The early presence of UAW president Walter Reuther brought additional publicity.
The narrative follows the path of decisions that evolved into a successful consumer boycott. The union set up boycott houses in big grape consuming cities and volunteers settled in to devise strategies to reduce grape sales and sales of branded products made from grapes, like wine. Some grocery store chains agreed not to shelve grapes; pickets confronted shoppers at stores that would not go along. In Toronto, young Harvard dropout Marshall Ganz let balloons lettered with “Don’t buy Grapes” float to the ceiling of grocery stores, much to the anger of store managers.
Gradually the boycott succeeded. Prices dropped and then sales. Total shipments were off 9.2 percent by 1969. The bigger producers settled and others followed. Growers in the Coachella valley agreed first, then 26 growers in the San Joaquin Valley signed a labor union contract July 29, 1970.
By August 1970 UFW had 12,000 members, but external and internal problems brought celebrating to an abrupt halt. Chapter four narrates the division and conflict with the Teamsters union after they reneged on their promise not to organize farm workers. The Teamsters organized Salinas’ lettuce growers in August 1970 without a vote of farm workers and in competition with the United Farm Workers. Garcia takes readers through the gritty details of their conflict: picketing, fights, beatings, a court injunction and twenty days in jail for Cesar Chavez who defied the court.
The competition between the UFW and the Teamsters generated questions about labor law. Farm workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act that established voting procedures for union representation, but the law also makes boycotts an unfair labor practice subject to immediate court injunction. Chapter five describes the pros and cons of passing a California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the administration of the law after it passed in May 1975, and the decision to propose changes in the law through a statewide initiative, proposition 14.
UFW won a majority of its representation elections, but the law in practice generated many disputes and unfair labor practice charges, often because the growers did not want the UFW organizing on their property. After a short period of operation both the growers and the unions wanted to amend the law, but the UFW made the aggressive and risky decision to propose a statewide referendum. Proposition 14, among other things, proposed to give union organizers access to workers on California farms during elections and required farm owners to allow organizers on their farms an hour before work, an hour after work, and at lunch time.
Garcia takes readers through the UFW campaign to pass proposition 14. Chavez diverted significant money and personnel to the campaign and over ruled internal opposition, but there was organized opposition from the growers who found a Japanese-American internment camp victim who characterized the access issue as stealing property rights.
Proposition 14 lost badly in the November 1976 election. Garcia interviewed union personnel who described Chavez as badly shaken up by the defeat and they give November 1976 as the date he changed.
There were ominous signs of trouble before the proposition 14 election loss. Chavez previously moved his headquarters to a remote place he called La Paz near Keene, California, which took him away from the activities of the union and the farm workers he needed to influence. He had trouble accepting that the labor contracts he signed needed administration. He did not appreciate the need to switch from volunteers to paid professional staff and continued to prefer organizing to the day to day work of a union, but these were miner compared to the trouble after the election loss.
The last three chapters - six, seven and eight - narrate the union’s post election decline and Chavez role in the union’s ruin. It is a story of the obsession Chavez developed to force union volunteers and staff to travel to La Paz to play a “Game” developed by his friend Charles Dederich as part of a drug rehabilitation program. The Game called for a moderator to attack and ridicule a target and then have a dozen others join in as part of “therapy” for self-examination. Only Chavez and few sycophants could see any connection to the needs of a union.
It is also a story of Executive Board meetings filled with personal attacks and purges of people Chavez falsely accused of plotting against him and the union. The people Garcia interviewed remember specific episodes like the “Monday Night Massacre” where the vegetarians at La Paz were attacked with accusations of plotting against the union and expelled without a chance to reply. Later the entire legal staff was summarily fired; 17 attorneys and dozens of support staff. Chavez arbitrarily called off the boycott and then badly offended Filipino farm workers when he insisted on a visit to Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Many volunteers and staff protested through this period and tried to continue with the business of the union, but to no avail. Over the course of four years firings and resignations decimated the union which ceased doing what unions do by the early 1980’s. The book stops at this point followed by a brief epilogue.
The book covers the rise and fall of Cesar Chavez and the UFW thoroughly and clearly as it sets out to do, but not more. The book is not a history of farm workers or farm worker unions. Other unions and union organizing are mentioned only as necessary for the UFW story.
Given the tight focus of the book it has many details. Garcia had access to tape recordings of meetings and especially Executive Board meetings that allow a line by line recounting of who said what that fills the last three chapters of the book. Readers are introduced to many names in the narrative; some disappear, some reappear many times. Readers get to know a few key figures like Marshall Ganz and chief counsel Jerry Cohen, but special effort is required to keep track of all the people and their role in the story. Sometimes discussion reads like an organizer’s convention.
As I finished the book I weighed the positives and negatives in the work of Cesar Chavez and the legacy he leaves to organized labor, but one thing caught my eye in the epilogue: not one person picking grapes in California in 2012 was a member of a union.