Today is Cesar Chávez Day. At Claremont McKenna, we will be celebrating for one full month. (It is widely known that even white liberals get tired after that much self-flagellation, although how much they can take is still a matter of dispute.)
If that month long celebration seems excessive, it is because it is.
Should it be a holiday? I submit to you that it ought to have never been a holiday in the first place.
There are several myths about Chávez that deserve explanation, clarification, and explication, but the most pressing of these myths is that Chavez helped Latino fruit pickers, or La raza get a living wage. He did no such thing. In fact, he may have done more harm than good.
Truth: Chavez didn’t even end up helping United Farm Workers of California workers. Although he himself did not use violence, he looked the other way when his supporters roughed up the illegal immigrants who the growers brought in. Chavez even condoned the deportation of people who refused to unionize.
In the end, he robbed them of wages – you don’t get paid when you are striking all the time – helped drive small growers out of business by forcing them to sell to larger agribusinesses, and led to mechanization.
Chavez, as a union boss, faced the classic union dilemma: how do I drive up wages quickly but guarantee that the labor you claim to represent won’t be replaced?
Chavez never came up with a good answer to this dilemma. Instead he demanded that everyone in Great Central Valley in California be unionized. When the growers didn’t like this deal, they found alternative around it.
The famous nonfiction writer, John Gregory Dunn, recounts how easy it was to ignore Chavez and the federal government. (emphasis mine.)
The strike against Guimarra [one of the major grape growing companies] proved one thing – there wasn’t a picket line in the world that could force a grower to agree to a contract. It was next to impossible to certify a strike. Workers who were pulled out were readily replaced by scabs and green-carders—foreign nationals (in this case Mexicans) with U.S. work permits, or green cards. The pickers were usually out of town working at another farm before the applicable state agencies even arrived to verify their departure. Though green-carders were legally enjoined against working in a strike situation, they were free to work if no strike had been certified.
…it simply defied all logic for a picker to go out on strike. However grandiose (by growers standards) a picker’s hourly wage, his annual income was barely at subsistence level, if indeed that high. Given that picking is one of the most miserable jobs known to man, it is usually – for whatever social or cultural reasons – the best a picker can hold. So no matter how much he favored the union, he would have had to be a sainted fanatic to go on strike and further heighten both his own and his family’s level of misery. (John Gregory Dunn, “Memento Delano” in Regards: The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunn, p.100)
Chavez didn’t recognize that he was beat and treat to stop stores from buying the Guimarra label. He accomplished this boycott by using the media and Democrat politicians, like Robert Kennedy, who were sympathetic to his cause.
Guimarra, recognizing that its label had been tarnished, “began borrowing labels from other growers and using them in place of its own.” (Dunn, 101)
By Chavez’s count, Guimara was using 105 different labels by the end of 1967. He decided to retaliate and extended his boycott beyond Guimarra to include every California grower of table grapes.
Upset that the growers had not caved, many UFWOC members turned towards violence. Here’s how Dunn describes it.
The imperceptible erosion of the growers’ position was not particularly heady to union militants steeped in the literature of the headlines, the combat communiqués from the core cities. There was a new truculence in the air; packing crates were burned, tired slashed, scabs roughed up. Chavez was not unaware of the nascent violence. Late in February 1968, he quietly began a penitential fast to redirect the movement back onto its nonviolent course. Only on the sixth day of the fast did he alert aides to what he was doing. No one had to be apprised of its exploitative potential. (Dunn, 101)
Part of the reason the myth of the UFWOC sells so well stems from the heartstrings it pulls.
Dunn described the difficulties the growers experienced during the 1969 recession. With inflation high and their own debts soaring, the increased likelihood that they would have to sell their property to larger agribusinesses. We know now that many of them did just that. In effect, Chavez drove them out of business.
Of course none of this is reported in the history of that period. Dunn explains why:
“In the summer of 1970, high interest rates did not sing like food stamps.” (104)
Dunn then turns to analyzing the future of farm work. Given that we live in the world he imagined, it’s worth examining in fuller detail.
“In the narrowest sense, a union of farm workers can only lighten its members’ burden of misery. The figures are simply too relentless. … There is simply too little future in farm work. While farms grown bigger and productivity increases, the number of farm workers steadily declines. … Two years ago [written in ‘71], less than two percent of the wine grapes in Fresno County were harvested by machine; the estimate for 1971 is more than 30 percent… It is estimated that mechanical pickers will cost Fresno County farm workers nearly $2 million in wages during 1971 and that by 1973 some 4,500 heads of families will be displaced by machines.” (110)
So let me get this straight. Chavez took farm workers out of the labor force by striking. This striking led to mechanization, which meant fewer workers would be hired and therefore the workers would remain poor all the while developing no marketable skills and starving because the growers won’t pay them. And Chavez’s friends would rough up somebody who wanted to make money for his family.
Yep, Claremont McKenna, the State of California, and six other states celebrates a thug.