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What the Right Can Learn from Cesar Chavez

You have to learn, and train, and build, before you call for mass political action.
Cesar Chavez In Community Garden

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.

My last column was about how Cesar Chavez, poor farmworker turned leader of a farmworkers’ union, got to be CESAR CHAVEZ, the only union organizer most people have heard of, a man with his bust in President Biden’s office and a holiday named after him in California. If you missed it, you can read the long answer in Miriam Pawel’s excellent biography The Crusades of Cesar Chavez; the very short answer is that his real accomplishments made him lastingly popular with two rising demographics and with longstanding political allies who cemented his legacy as part of establishing their own. That’s how immortal heroes are made. Righties should keep an eye on that example if we hope to enshrine some of our own.

But it’s not enough to look at the penultimate step to understand why something happened. You can learn more valuable lessons by looking to the preceding steps. If you want more immortal heroes the first step is to have a big pool of potential heroes who could one day become immortals. But conservatives don’t really know how to get people into that pool. Our concept of the heroic figure tends to be the brave conservative truth-teller, which in practice mostly winds up being somebody with a career like William F. Buckley, Jr. The problem is that becoming famous for merely opining tends to require either being rich yourself or finding a rich person to sponsor you. The process yields pundits, not heroes, and the most prominent tend to be already privileged and connected.

Aristocracy is all very romantic in storybooks, but in practice it leads to nasty things like ubiquitous blood-clotting disorders or a head of state who’s a drooling imbecile because his family tree is literally a circle. Perhaps as a result of our love affair with laissez-faire, Righties tend to assume that real heroes will manifest on their own and we don’t have to help them. But potential alone doesn’t equal opportunity; spare a thought for the untold Mozarts who were born and died in the tens of thousands of years before the concept of the orchestra.

Getting over this stumbling block requires us to learn from the early careers of immortal heroes, especially those who didn’t start with very much. And Cesar Chavez started with less than most. His grandfather had been successful in business in Arizona, but his father did poorly, fell behind on the property taxes, and the family homestead was sold at auction after Chavez’s grandmother died. The family moved to California, taking farmworking jobs along the way. Chavez was 12. He went from living in his grandfather’s well-made adobe house to living in a tent and then in a garage. He wore the same outfit to school every day, because it was the only one he had. He worked weekends and summers, and left school after eighth grade to work full-time. He grew up, served two years in the Navy, got married, had children, and found a steady job as a lumber handler. The first step from worker to organizer came on June 9, 1952, when the 25-year-old Chavez attended a house meeting run by a community organizer named Fred Ross. He hadn’t been specifically recruited; Ross was trying to organize as many people as possible in Chavez’s community.

Most Righty readers won’t know Fred Ross’s name the way they know Saul Alinsky’s (whose exaggerated fame among us is a fluke likely due to his popping up in anti-HRC opposition research). But Ross is a titanic figure in the history of organizing. Born in Los Angeles in 1910, Ross got his start in the Great Depression working for the Farm Security Administration, where he worked in labor camps for migrant workers fleeing the Dust Bowl and organized self-governance for them. By the late 1940s, he worked with Edward Roybal to form the Community Service Organization, which worked to organize Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles. The CSO offered value: It taught English, registered voters (enough to make Roybal L.A.’s first Mexican-American city council member), and helped in discrimination cases—not only defending Mexicans beaten by police, but pressuring for the police to be charged with brutality.

In 1952, Ross took his show on the road, landing in the Sal Si Puedes neighborhood in San Jose, California. He didn’t wait for people to come to him; he went to the people where they were. The first thing Ross did was check in with the local priest, who not only spoke Spanish but was strongly leftist, and a staunch union man. The priest helped Ross reach out to the community, where Ross began recruiting Spanish-speaking residents at house meetings. One of them was Cesar Chavez, who was fascinated to learn about the labor movement and the power of organizing. Chavez turned out to be pretty good at organizing; the CSO registered thousands of voters. The next year, Ross and his new protege were hired by organizer Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Arts Foundation, which funded expansion of the CSO. But the expanded CSO was never able to become self-sufficient. Chavez, when he and the allies he made went off on their own, learned from its mistakes (sometimes overcompensating in the process).

At this point in the early career of Cesar Chavez, who is not yet immortal, let alone a hero, we can already see some key factors in his recruitment and development that conservatives don’t really understand. The first is that people won’t come to you to join your cause. As Fred Ross did, you have to go to them wherever they are, and find people they trust who can introduce them to you. The second is that it’s not enough to just share ideas. Ideas are useless without the skills to make those ideas a reality. And you have to impart those skills to as many people as possible, because it doesn’t matter how much raw talent people have—without skills and opportunities, they could lie fallow, as Chavez did until he went to a house meeting and learned what organizing was. Maybe the extraordinary and the lucky can make it all on their own, but you don’t just want the extraordinary and the lucky. You want as many skilled people as possible, so the extraordinary and the lucky don’t have to do it all alone. That’s the approach leftist organizers take. That’s why Chavez was able to get his start. And that’s why once he had started, he had friends and networks of organizations to help him, not just to spout off at the mouth, but to set goals and achieve them.

Pawel highlights several lessons that Chavez learned in his early years as an organizer with the CSO. Some of these are more useful to us than others. For example, after struggling to keep CSO chapters afloat financially, Chavez realized that even though many of his members were poor, he had to insist on their paying enough dues to fund the organization; he became a brutal, browbeating fundraiser. He also learned to not depend on largesse from outside funding sources (though in practice, he was prepared to compromise on this, especially to promote expansion and stabilization). Our situation is a little different: Righties in the grassroots are actually pretty good at giving money; our bigger problem is that most of the people asking for it are just thieves who spend it on material goods and not material effect.

More important for us are the things Chavez learned about managing people—himself, and others. He learned not to let your reputation ride on something unless you could actually deliver it. He learned that people had to be taught “the value of sacrifice”—not given things, but trained to work for them—and they had to understand that the work would be hard. He also learned that open violence against people by a labor movement resulted in bad publicity. And, most crucially, he learned that calling for an action, whether a strike or a boycott, in order to have something to organize people around doesn’t work; you have to build the organization first, develop it, plan out an action, and then perform it.

In case you’ve ever wondered, that last item explains why conservative boycotts fail. Conservatives think that the most important step in a boycott—or a new group, or any organizing plan at all—is announcing it. So we announce an effort first and then try to put it together with spit and baling wire, as if saying, “We should boycott this!” and, “Stop giving your money to people who hate you!” will make our atomized, unconnected people come together and make our desired result magically materialize.

Chavez learned better. And he didn’t learn this stuff in college. Forget never graduating high school; he never even went to one. But he had an advantage over the people in the conservative grassroots today: He was trained in effective techniques, and he was given opportunities to practice with those techniques, and he was cut enough slack to experiment and learn what worked and what didn’t. He learned by doing small, and gained the capacity to grow bigger. We could do a lot better by our own grassroots by giving them training and opportunities and projects—real chances to learn by doing.

I keep using the iceberg analogy for a reason: There’s a lot more to organizing than what you see in the news. A boycott like Chavez’s grape boycott isn’t just an announcement of a boycott; it’s a lot of hard work making the boycott possible. The left side of the board has a whole bunch of effective tools, and whether you want to use them or defeat them, you need to understand how they actually work and what they actually do.

The good news is, the Lefties who do this stuff with great success—and the people who admire them—write books. If they’re going to go out of their way to be so helpful, the least we can do is read them.

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.