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Trampling Out the Sanctimony

John Womack, Jr. was born (1937) and raised in Oklahoma, and taught Latin American history at Harvard from 1965 to 2009. His article “Dreams of Revolution: Oklahoma, 1917,” written with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, appeared in Monthly Review in November 2010.

Frank Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (London: Verso, 2011), 848 pages, $54.95, hardback.

This big book is great U.S. history. A solid, comprehensive, richly detailed, brilliantly composed study of a major post-1960 movement in U.S. labor, it is also a dramatic narrative vivid with critical analysis of the movement’s developing strengths and faults, and thick with lessons for the struggles of today’s left.

The author’s critical and analytical powers are remarkable, undoctored by any academic department. Bardacke began his critical education in school, but off-campus, as a Southern California kid at Harvard picketing in Boston for SNCC in 1961. As a political science grad student at Berkeley fighting for the Free Speech Movement and against the Vietnam War, he was one of the Oakland Seven against the draft in 1967. He learned from Maoist students supporting the Black Panthers and soon went onto organize the Bay Area Revolutionary Union (BARU). Still in Berkeley in 1969, a leader at People’s Park, he learned more at the Battle of Telegraph and Haste, when the law used shotguns on a rebellious crowd. He later got a different education in the military town by Fort Ord, when he tried to organize soldiers against the war at the local G.I. coffee house. If Berkeley taught him that the U.S. working class was hopeless, in Seaside he learned that white guys like him could not move black Vietnam vets. But life and his Oakland-Berkeley police record soon caught up with him and drove him into the education he would get from having to make a living. Almost thirty and now a husband and father, he went looking for work—not to do politics, but simply to support his family. East of Fort Ord lay the Salinas Valley, where a year before the United Farm Workers (UFW) had won the biggest farm-worker strike in California history. The union gave Bardacke a job on an otherwise all-Mexican crew hoeing lettuce, and in the fields he began his serious analytical education. From 1971 to 1979 he worked as a UFW member for six seasons in the fields, learning lettuce, celery, broccoli, and cauliflower; the tools, skills, and order of the work; solidarity; and the main language, Spanish. On the side of the union betrayed by the executive in the 1979 strike, he quit the fields and turned to a farm town twenty miles north. He worked plant jobs there for a few years, then in 1983 settled into teaching English as a Second Language at the local “adult school.” There he continued his education about the fields and the people in them, learning from the farm workers and their children who took his courses.

By 1993, when Cesar Chavez died, Bardacke knew enough for his first broad publication (in The Nation) on the reasons for the UFW’s rise and fall. His work on the subject over the next fifteen years was immense, spanning twenty archives, eighty-odd interviews, and many books. It proves him to be a master of historical inquiry, research, examination, exposition, and explanation. It is a history of individuals, farm work, organizations of labor and of capital, local and national class struggles, political cultures, and politics. Its questions are clear and sharp, its conclusions balanced, and it has no academic jargon. All told it is a fascinating read, and it will long remain the definitive study of the UFW for the period of 1960–81.

Its theme is the dialectic between the UFW’s “two souls,” or social forms, a movement and a union. The movement came from an Alinskyite organization in postwar California for Mexican-American civil rights. This organization made gains in the 1950s, but regarding Mexican-American farm workers it tried to operate without its best organizers, who cut loose and seized the lead in farm towns and fields. In the 1960s the UFW developed a bi-animated force: both as a movement (an intermittent organization of staff-directed volunteers devoted to national boycotts, rousing liberal charity for poor brown citizens), and a union (a durable organization of California agribusiness’s workers, for grievances, strikes, elections, contracts, laws, and the courts). As movement and union combined, the UFW was an amazing success between 1965 and 1979, putting much of U.S. labor to shame. But it failed over a mounting conflict between its episodic moral campaigns for a U.S. ethnic cause and its continual fights for labor against capital, the labor ever more Mexican, capital ever more subcontracting non-union. The UFW’s movement finally beat the UFW’s union into little more than an excuse for its own agencies. As a business it survived in good shape, but the union shrank into a front for the movement’s non-profits.

Through this argument three parts recur in different keys. One is in the theory of regimes. The movement, run by the UFW’s spartan executive board, was at best an oligarchy, sending unpaid staff around the country, as if for civil rights, to inspire volunteers to raise support for La Causa. The union in its successful years ran mostly under executive control, but in various bases of the California valleys its driving force was combative farm workers, Mexican-American and Mexican, who always threatened to break into democracy—and locally sometimes did. The movement became tyrannical to keep the union from going democratic, and thereby subsumed it.

A second part is in tragedy, the classic, personal kind (registered in the epigraph from Julius Cesar [sic]). Chavez the Alinskyite proved himself on his own mission a genius at organizing, and charismatic too—a genius at performing his charisma, he became practically a saint for his cause: justice for his (Mexican-American) people. He was a great leader in the formation of his movement and of a brave, battling, winning U.S. labor organization. But then he insisted on managing, micromanaging, and in proud delusion debased both the movement and the union, leaving a cult for some, angry grief for many.

The third part, the deepest, is in capitalist progress—the bourgeoisie’s continual reengineering of production. At their strongest UFW workers may have had a chance to establish their amazing gains over capital and to secure their communities and their work. But caught in capitalist “globalization,” Reaganism, corporate deliabilization, and the UFW’s own conflicts and crises, they lost the struggle of their lives. Many tell their individual stories of hope and sorrow. This is not tragedy; it is memorial.

All through the book the individual workers’ stories are intense, stirring, and gripping. And altogether they make the most important point in Bardacke’s argument, that the UFW was not only Chavez, his backers, his staff, their strategies, but also, forcefully, “the farm workers themselves,” originally Mexican-American, increasingly (despite Chavez) Mexican.

Two other features receive close analysis that are of special interest for Marxist studies: divisions of labor and organizing. Like almost all academic labor historians today, Bardacke examines racial, ethnic, national, and gendered divisions at work. Unlike most academics, he also examines in wonderful detail the material divisions (geographic, chronological, industrial, and technical) to explain struggles in their specificity. Better even than David Brody showed technically strategic positions at work in steel, Bardacke shows them in California’s fruit and vegetables. His analyses emphasize how organizing differs among different dimensions: workplaces, communities, markets, media, elections, moral fashions, public agencies, legislatures, national voluntary associations, and national institutions of labor and capital. The explanations are careful, coherent, and illuminating. They deserve study by any labor historian, Marxist or not.

The book suffers some minor but considerable problems. The Mexican-American history is weak and too generic, largely because the Mexican history draws so much from official Mexican populist mythology. Bardacke well adduces Catholic tradition to explain Mexican-American conservatism, Catholic Action, and postwar cursillismo, which certainly fits Chavez’s case. But he misses that “the mass immigration of the 1920s” of Mexicans to the United States was mostly Catholic refugees from a big religious civil war in Mexico, the Catholic rebellion (the Cristiada) against Revolutionary anti-clericalism. The rebels lost in Mexico. It was from the refugees in California that La Raza arose the first time—very Catholic, clannish, and conservative, and many up for any righteous fight. The braceros and later immigrants, after the Second World War, came from a more nationalized Mexico and from a new generation; they were militant for the Mexican Revolutionary myths, and made La Raza new. The mix is significant for both the force and the limits in the UFW.

Bardacke rightly insists on some farm workers’ high skills and corresponding strategic power over production. But high skills are not necessary for all strategic positions, e.g., at technical junctures, as in much transport work. Moreover, once capital figures that the workers in these strategic positions cost more than new technology, it can make them obsolete fast. Bardacke suggests Chavez eventually saw that even if the UFW won everything it wanted—contracts, respectable communities, laws to protect migrants and immigrants—it would remain at risk in a capitalist economy; this was why he made the union more business than union. But Bardacke also argues that “the farm workers themselves,” that good old rank and file, could have saved their cause if the union had been a “democracy.” Here de Tocqueville is humming in the background, and Berkeley’s Sheldon Wolin, John Schaar, and Hanna Pitkin, and maybe some International Socialists and BARU Maoists as well. It certainly sounds progressive. Only in Bardacke’s own accounts of the workers, their pride in their work, wages, cars, etc., he gives no sign a majority would have pressed for anything beyond U.S. capitalist corporate agriculture, where most would meet their economic doom. Democracy, representation, authority, and responsibility are heavy questions, but over the last thirty-odd years in the United States the words often mean a high alert for the patriotic swindle. Here it looks as if both Chavez, the Catholic Alinskyite, and most workers, Mexican-American and Mexican, wanted only Gompers’s famous “more,” in the same system, and disagreed only over how to keep winning it, although however they did it in this system the workers were bound to lose.

The most significant absence in the UFW was a purpose beyond a nicer capitalism, beyond M-C-M de colores. Struggling within capitalism, but not alienated from it, neither the leadership nor the members gained the critical distance to understand the nature of their own struggles, much less the consequences—never mind the deeper meaning of an essentially different future. To crack this kind of problem takes much more than democracy, in prescription or practice.