June 08, 2014

Cesar Chavez, hugely flawed hero

The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A BiographyThe Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography by Miriam Pawel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Addendum, outside the review, and expansion of it, itself. Noting the one retweet of this, despite Chavez' numerous flaws, I reject the idea that organizing farmworkers was bad, and I also reject the idea that Chavez' later Hispanic political empowerment, even at the expense of farmworker neglect, was all bad. So, to anybody dedicated to following the ideas of Hayek, or beyond, or other doctrinaire conservativism, no soap from me, and I'm putting that right up front.)

Miriam Pawel, author of a previous book on farmworkers, offers us an in-depth, totally honest must-read, based on thousands of hours of audiotapes, notes and more.

Pawel, in the first "critical" biography of Chavez, gives us the good, the bad, and the ugly in the life of the man who gave California's farmworkers their first union, then, due to stubbornness, wrongly-directed singlemindedness and authoritarian leadership, essentially wrecked that same union, to the point that farmworkers today are little better off, in a number of ways, than they were before Chavez founded the United Farm Workers.

Where to start? Here: Pawel quotes Chavez talking about that "singlemindedness." That was part of his genius in getting the United Farm Workers started. So, too, was his recognition that, because agricultural workers were largely uncovered by US labor law, there were few rules to play "outside of." Related to that, he was an outside-the-box thinker in early tactical and strategic moves.

If only we could end his life, or freeze it, in the early 1970s, then the Chavez of myth — a myth largely perpetuated by Hollywood-type liberals, which in turn adds to the degree of truth in generalizations about that subculture — would closely match that of reality. But, we don't end there.

Pawel shows that recognition as a union, especially on larger contracts, meant that the UFW was no longer "outside the system." That became even more true in the mid-70s, after California passed into law the bill creating the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

It was at this point that, as Pawel shows, Chavez essentially went off the rails. He decided the UFW needed to be a social movement, not a union. He decided his single-mindedness needed to be more authoritarian. And, to bring this all together, he decided to borrow some "control" tools from the notorious 1970s cult, Synanon, even working with its founder. The result? Longtime Chavez supporters were accused of being traitors to the cause, Communists, or whatever, and booted out. Besides Synanon, Chavez also borrowed ideas from Mao and the Cultural Revolution.

All of this was new to me, the stuff related to Synanon, Chavez turning UFW headquarters into something akin to a cult, and his refusal to focus on union development issues because that would force him to delegate authority.

Meanwhile, because he wasn't a good administrator, but was too much of a "controller" to delegate administrative tasks, maintaining and renegotiating contracts fell by the wayside. Expanding the union outside of California did the same, with Chavez even crushing independent organizing efforts. (Austin having a "Cesar Chavez Boulevard" could be considered a bit laughable for this reason.) And, the UFW wound up owing a bunch of back taxes.

At the same time, Chavez began intervening a lot more in California politics, an idea he once rejected. He also began marketing the UFW as a brand, especially to the likes of those Hollywood-type liberals, even as more and more contracts with growers were lost and the union was shrinking.

This isn't to deny that things like pesticide use in the fields weren't important issues. It is to say that things like that were secondary to renewing efforts at organization of union locals, getting new contracts signed with growers, etc. It is also to say that many of them were "pitched" at appealing to those Hollywood-type liberals. And, as Chavez because more and more of a national political star and icon, that, the elbow grease work of maintaining a union, appealed to him even less as the 1970s moved into the 1980s.

However, as a result, he was able to expand the political power of "la raza." And, to do so somewhat outside of California. So, Austin's commemoration of him isn't totally wrong, either.

Given that the farm workers' movement really started in my pre-school days, that the slide of the union and Chavez' move to becoming a cult leader happened before the end of my high school days, growing up in a politically quite conservative household, and that his next move to political icon and final abandonment of original unionization efforts happened before I had started escaping that background, let alone gone beyond more stereotypical versions of liberalism, I never had understood what had happened to the farm workers' movement. And now I know — Cesar Chavez happened to it — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

This just catches the tip of the iceberg of a must-read book. And, should lead a reader asking, was the expansion of political power worth it for the price that Chavez eventually left farmworkers to pay?

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