Can labor organizing ever be properly described as “a discipline” — according to author Randy Shaw this is exactly what Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers accomplished. Shaw makes his argument in his latest book, Beyond The Fields, and in public appearances to promote the book.
NEW YORK — October 21 2010. On Thursday evening activist, attorney, and author Randy Shaw addressed a group of labor organizers and writers at the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education. The topic: the legacy of Cesar Chavez and the UFW. The occasion: a tour to promote “Beyond The Fields: Cesar Chavez, The UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.” Shaw is an eloquent, dynamic, and thoughtful speaker and this is one book tour that anyone interested in labor history — and organizing — should not miss.
Randy Shaw is Executive Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a non-profit, tenant rights organization in San Francisco that Shaw co-founded in 1980. Shaw also edits BeyondChron.org, an alternative — to the San Francisco Chronicle — online daily newspaper. In addition, Shaw has written three well regarded books on activism. His first volume, The Activist’s Handbook, is one of the top ten books in this reporter’s Goodread‘s library: it discusses the relationship activists must maintain with elected officials (electeds must regard activists with “fear and loathing”) and traces the long struggle of a strange alliance. Fighting together to keep a waste incinerator out of their Willamsburg neighborhood, Brooklyn’s Hasidic community put aside a long-standing — and mutual — distrust and allied with the Latino community to take on City Hall. And prevail.
An uncompromising commitment to winning the struggle, willingness to form unlikely alliances, keeping politicians at bay, and taking the long view are themes that inform all of Shaw’s work and Beyond The Fields is no exception.
Describing the work of the UFW and their legendary leader, Cesar Chavez, Shaw described how the Farm Workers redefined the labor union: tabling at colleges as a recruiting tool, winning struggles by elevating local struggles into national boycotts, digging in for long campaigns, “living off the land,” providing hands-on training for organizers, demanding dedication from — and offering meaningful work to — volunteers, taking principled positions against the Vietnam War and hiring women as organizers are just some aspects of the UFW approach that separated them from their counterparts in the AFL-CIO of the Seventies.
Shaw told the gathering at Brooklyn College that the UFW was the first union to table at campuses. And the point was not simply to hand out fliers. Organizers were expected to engage in “barking” — engaging students directly in conversation. And when a student signed up as a volunteer, that recruit got a phone call that same night. The volunteers were contacted immediately and consistently, were well trained, and were put to work.
The UFW gave fledgling organizers something that transcended good training and opportunities to grow — according to Shaw the UFW gave young activists “Something meaningful to do with their lives.” As a result young organizers were willing to work for $5 a week, to “live off the land,” to travel, to start a union office from scratch, to recruit a staff and organizers and to fundraise to support the organizing work. Shaw said that this sort of immersion training made the UFW an “amazing incubator” that produced very talented organizers — organizers who left the UFW but never left the movement. Many UFW trained organizers went on to work in UNITEHERE and other unions and to involve themselves in a variety of social justice causes. In effect, Chavez and the farm workers built a social movement. And they did this by turning labor organizing into what Shaw termed “a real discipline.” UFW-trained organizers could, and did, build unions and movements literally from nothing.
In the last three decades UFW alumni went on to organize coffee boycotts against the brutal government in El Salvador — with its death squads funded by U.S. tax dollars, to fight agribusiness — and win, to challenge the notion that pesticides didn’t harm the environment, and to stand up for immigrant rights.
The eventual decline of the UFW in the Seventies and Eighties should not be seen as the sole indicator of its effectiveness, Shaw said. Cesar Chavez became very difficult to work with, possibly due to emotional issues, and drove out most of the UFW’s top talent, according to Shaw. But, Shaw notes, the UFW must be assessed, not by its current membership numbers, but by its legacy.
And what a legacy it is.
In its heyday, the UFW was alone in hiring women — and making them officers. Shaw told a story of a 15-year-old woman who became a “boycott captain” — before she was old enough to drive a car.
In 1968, Chavez aggressively recruited organizers and used his recruits for voter outreach — providing a model that was adapted and adopted by Obama in in 2008.
The UFW pushed organized labor to change its position on immigrants. In 2000, the AFL-CIO dropped its long-held anti-immigrant stance and began representing undocumented workers.
A number of great organizers still working today got their start in the UFW – and the training they received served them well. Consequently, the diminished state of the UFW today is no measure of the union’s greatness. Its profound and long-lasting impact on the labor movement is the best quantifier of its success.
As Randy Shaw said, “You have to look at the big picture of what the legacy of the UFW is.”
One means of having a look at that big picture is to read Beyond The Fields. It is packed with great labor history, analysis — and near and dear to the hearts of organizers and activists: ideas. Many of the fascinating stories contained in the book could not be presented in a brief presentation.
For example: Cesar Chavez was an admirer of Mohandas K. Gandhi.
Cesar Chavez studied Mahatma Gandhi. And applied what he learned. In 1968, a UFW grape strike was faltering and some union members advocated violence against strikebreakers. Chavez responded by delivering a 90 minute talk on nonviolence and an announcement that he was going on a spiritual fast until the UFW affirmed its commitment to nonviolence.
Randy Shaw: “The initial reaction to Chavez’s decision to fast was mixed. Some of the more secular and radical UFW volunteers, who included those most critical of Chavez’s strategy of nonviolence, disdained the religious imagery of the fast. Saul Alinsky, whose Industrial Areas Foundation had employed Chavez as an organizer in the 1950s, told Chavez that his fast was ‘embarrassing’ to the IAF. Labor officials were reportedly incensed about the fast. Unions were accustomed to ‘beating up scabs’ as the best strategy for deterring strikebreakers, yet Chavez was ignoring this and instead engaging in what they perceived as a religious act.”
[ p. 85, Beyond The Fields ]
Bobby Kennedy was on hand when Chavez ended his fast — 25 days later — and famously offered the labor leader a piece of bread.
Reading Beyond The Fields, it becomes clear that there is much to learn from the successes and the failures of the UFW.
In a question and answer segment following his presentation, Shaw commented at length on the problem of how unions and other progressive organizations fail to deal effectively with dissent. Unfortunately, in many unions, any dissent is viewed with suspicion and the dissenter is regarded as not being a “team player.” This stifling of dissent and initiative is forcing organizers out at a time when they are most needed.
“When you have to be that homogenous you also then lose people who don’t want to be part of those organizations,” Shaw said.
Given that many unions once profited by borrowing a page or two from the UFW’s playbook now might be an excellent time for labor people to take a look at the rich history of that organization.