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How Cesar Chavez Became Cesar Chavez

The organizer's success came from a mix of luck and merit, and his story is worth studying.
Cesar Chavez Gives Crowd Peace Sign

Organize Right is a regular column with not so much a beat as a meander on the subject of organizing: how the right does it, how the left does it, lessons from its history, and its implications for today.

There’s really no reason that Cesar Chavez should be the only prominent labor figure most Americans know. It’s not as if labor history has a shortage of notables to choose from. There are the really major 20th century figures, such as the Reuther brothers and John Lewis. There are the older names you learned in high school history class, such as Samuel Gompers and Eugene V. Debs. There are figures like National Labor Union leader William Silvis, who helped pass the first federal law requiring an eight-hour day for government employees, and Terence Powderly, whose Knights of Labor led a renewed demand for the eight-hour day for all. There are radicals’ heroes, figures like Albert and Lucy Parsons, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and the IWW’s Big Bill Haywood.

So why is it Cesar Chavez who has a bust in Joe Biden’s Oval Office and his own holiday in California?

Getting famous in your lifetime is one thing. Lasting general recognition requires a combination of merit and luck. Case in point: Isn’t it odd that you know who the Elephant Man was? There were plenty of more famous people in his day, and you’ve never heard of most of them. In his case, the domino chain goes like this: Michael Jackson got tabloid headlines for (allegedly) wanting to buy his skeleton, motivated by David Lynch’s famous 1983 film and a highly-praised 1980 biography by Michael Powell and Peter Ford; the film and the book came about because Bernard Pomerance wrote a famous 1977 play; Pomerance wrote that play because he had read Ashley Montague’s 1971 book The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity. And Ashley Montague wrote that book because almost fifty years before, in college, he had read and never forgotten the then-newly-published memoir of Dr. Frederick Treves, who had treated and befriended Joseph Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man.

Here is how much of Fredrick Treves’s memoir is dedicated to the subject of the Elephant Man: 12 pages. Twelve pages that haunted one guy for 50 years are the only reason we have great books, a great play, a great movie, and you know who Joseph Merrick is.

I take a few lessons from this. The first is that it is important to be kind, because that may be the only thing people remember about you. (Frederick Treves literally saved the life of the King of England, but nobody remembers that.) The second is that writers should, like Ashley Montague, write about things that haunt them.

The third is that lasting fame depends on a combination of merit and luck. Cesar Chavez’s merit and luck are both laid out clearly in Miriam Pawel’s excellent 2014 biography, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez. I’ll get to the merit in a moment, but the luck really came down to right timing and a hefty assist from demographics. Chavez was a prominent Hispanic public figure at a time when Hispanic Americans didn’t have a lot of public figures to admire. He was also a figure of the 1960s who survived that decade without being martyred and without having sold out. These qualities made him a natural subject for the nostalgia of leftist Baby Boomers, and there were a lot of leftist Baby Boomers. The rising power of both demographic cohorts, Hispanics and Boomers, meant elevation for Chavez, whom both admired.

But lucky timing came into play in another way for Cesar Chavez. He was a labor success story at a time when the labor movement didn’t have a lot of success stories and, moreover, had just come through a massive period of extremely bad press. Here’s what happened: In 1956, Jimmy Hoffa had wanted more delegates for a union election, and the way he got them was by creating a bunch of fake local chapters. This made for a big scandal, which led to official investigations. The Senate’s McClellan Committee ran for three years and produced a) 1959 legislation dealing with corruption in unions, and b) years of brutal headlines about organized labor being corrupt and in bed with the mob.

In 1962 Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta formed the National Farm Workers Association, later merging to become United Farm Workers. In 1965, they launched the five-year Delano grape strike, which ultimately landed a collective bargaining agreement for agricultural workers. For people who liked unions, these developments were tremendously heartening. A union organizer was fighting not to feather his own nest but to better the lives of, you know, actual workers. Moreover, Chavez had accomplished a genuinely heroic feat, because organizing farm workers was really, really difficult.

Explaining why requires that you understand a little about the law of organizing a union. In America, the right to form a union in your workplace is guaranteed by 1935’s National Labor Relations Act (often called the Wagner Act). If you want a union, you have the right to organize with your colleagues toward the goal of voting in a union in an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which bans employers from unfairly interfering with union organizing efforts. If you win the election, you have a union. You can’t legally be fired just for being a union organizer or union member, and you can organize in the workplace itself. It took a lot of time and a lot of work to get to the point that unions had sympathetic elites who were willing to pass and enforce these laws.

Except the Wagner Act didn’t cover all workplaces. One of those exceptions—a concession made to get the segregated South, heavily dependent on the labor of poor black farmworkers, to sign on—was the agricultural sector. This meant that when Cesar Chavez was trying to organize a farmworker union, he didn’t have the protections of the Wagner Act. His people could be retaliated against and fired; the growers were under no obligation to recognize or work with them. If Chavez wanted the growers to recognize his union, he had to develop enough outside pressure to force them to do it, and he had to do so without the government backing him up.

But Chavez also had an opportunity. Being outside the Wagner Act also meant that Chavez’s union was outside of 1947’s Taft-Hartley Act, which, because there was once a time when conservative lawmakers passed legislation that materially affected the abilities of their ideological enemies, had restricted the abilities of unions. So, while Chavez lacked other unions’ protections, he also had tools they didn’t have, such as the secondary boycott.

A secondary boycott is when you put pressure on someone who works with your target, leading to them to press your target to compromise with you. In Chavez’s case, that meant launching boycotts of the major grocery chains buying California growers’ grapes. The union also employed some underhanded tactics, including property damage—for example, of refrigerator train cars carrying grape shipments. These techniques worked. Chavez enlisted help from radical organizations and eager young people, but made sure they knew that they were there to support the union, not enlist it for their causes. (He later went red-hunting in his own union, the better to purge dissenters to his rule.)

Chavez not only unionized farmworkers, he made it easier for others to do the same. In the 1970s, Chavez worked with his most important political ally, Jerry Brown, to pass the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which enshrined collective bargaining protections for agricultural workers into California law. Chavez played the wild man, allowing Brown to present his proposals (into which Chavez had had considerable input) as the more moderate ones. The bill passed, forming a major part of both men’s legacies. Here timing came into play for Chavez again: Jerry Brown had a long career in California politics, and a lot of allies, which didn’t hurt in keeping Chavez’s name alive.

Men with big successes tend to have big flaws, and Miriam Pawel’s biography provides a frank look at Cesar Chavez’s. He tended to coast on the acclaim for his victories. In later years he spent more time hawking merch bearing the logo of his union than he did actually building the union. Financial and organizational issues piled up. He was a domineering, cultish leader, which is not a figure of speech; Chavez literally fell in with a cult called Synanon (it had started out as, of all things, a drug treatment program) and adopted its practice of taking turns publicly berating people for their supposed failings in group meetings. He fell into infighting with rivals inside and outside of his union, and at the time of his death had wound up in court after putting out fliers accusing a particular grocery store of being involved in child abuse.

For those who have spent any time observing the fringe and far right, Chavez’s personality flaws will seem uncannily familiar. Born into different circumstances, Cesar Chavez could easily have been a fringe right-wing figure; he was the right personality type.

But those guys don’t get busts in the Oval Office. Chavez does. That’s because he did accomplish things, and he had meaningful relationships with successful friends, such as Jerry Brown, who accomplished things themselves in part because Chavez helped them do so. And he was in a position to accomplish things because he was trained and equipped to do so. Chavez was schooled in ideas, but he was also trained in methods and did plenty of experimenting to learn what worked—the better to build pressure to force compliance from opponents who had no desire to listen to him.

Seemed to work pretty well for him. And he even parlayed it into lasting fame. Maybe fame-seeking Righty activists and pundit types should pay attention.

David Hines has a professional background in international human rights work with a focus on recovery from forced disappearances and mass homicide. He lives in Los Angeles.

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