Cesar Chavez during the California grape strike in 1968.
Paul Fusco/Magnum

The real Cesar Chavez leaves behind a complicated legacy

Updated

One of 20th Century America’s iconic labor leaders receives the Hollywood A-list treatment in “Cesar Chavez,“ a biopic inspired by the early career of the eponymous head of the United Farm Workers (UFW). The film, which came out last week, dramatizes the UFW’s long campaign to organize the farm workers, many of them Latino immigrants, who performed back-breaking labor in exchange for the poverty wages handed out by California’s industrial agriculture industry in the 1960s and 1970s.

Chávez is the film’s hero, the UFW co-founder who would take on the industry (personified in the film as John Malkovich’s villainous grape magnate), help to unionize tens of thousands of farm workers, and ultimately leave an indelible mark on both the labor movement and the Latino civil rights movement. The official movie poster depicts Chávez, played by Michael Peña, marching at the head of a mass of farm workers with his fist raised. The trailer declares him to be “an American hero.”

NOW With Alex Wagner, 3/28/14, 11:44 PM ET

‘Cesar Chavez’ film chronicles life, legacy of labor leader

Director Diego Luna and actresses Rosiario Dawson and America Ferrara talk with Alex Wagner about their experience telling the story of civil rights and labor rights leader Cesar Chavez.
The truth is more complicated according to Marshall Ganz, a former UFW organizer who spent over a decade and a half working with Chávez. Although the UFW left an enduring mark on the shape and history of American social movements, Ganz described its story as fundamentally tragic.

“It was a genuinely heroic movement, and César was a heroic guy, but it [the movement] turned on itself and thereby failed to fulfill its promise,” he told msnbc.

The UFW now has only about 6,000 members, down from the 50,000-strong membership it boasted at the end of the 1970s. Ganz places much of the blame for the decrease on the union’s internal structure, which he said allowed Chávez unchecked power even as he descended into “paranoid perception” and isolation.

“We really screwed up in allowing power to be so centralized,” said Ganz. Without anyone to answer to, Chávez was free to experiment with eccentric and perhaps even abuse leadership techniques, such as a ritual called “The Game” which he picked up from the controversial New Age facility known as Synanon. “The Game” was an experiment in enforcing loyalty through public humiliation, “in which people were put in the center of a small arena and accused of disloyalty and incompetence while a crowd watched,” according to The Atlantic.

“The culture of the organization became a negative of itself,” said Ganz. “What had been contentious, humorous, creative [and] open became rigid, dour [and] closed. And dissent was all of a sudden disloyalty. It was a real flip that happened, and part of that I think came out of the problem of how to deal with having actually succeeded, and in some strange way not being able to deal with that.”

At the same time, the UFW was not performing the essential functions required to ensure its own survival. The union did not have enough staff to negotiate and enforce contracts, manage the mundane day-to-day realities of running a large union, or expand into new workplaces. Miriam Pawel, the author of two books on César Chávez and the farm workers movement, said Chávez was unwilling to either do the work himself or delegate it to other people.

“The fundamental sort of work of running the bureaucracy of a labor union did not interest him,” said Pawel. “He called it non-missionary work.”

Today, the UFW still operates as a union in some places. Currently, the organization is engaged in a protracted labor battle with Gerawan Farming, a large fruit producer in Southern California. But current UFW president Arturo Rodriguez acknowledges that the union is not the size it once was, and he says it has turned its attention to lobbying the government on issues which extend beyong a single workplace.

“We look at our work a little bit differently, in that yes, it’s important to continue to fight to get collective bargaining agreements, but simultaneously we want to do things like immigration reform which benefit all farm workers,” he said.

Even if the UFW is now diminished in size, its legacy has left a sizable footprint on other unions and movements. Pablo Alvarado, the executive director of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, said that his organization learned from studying the UFW’s rise to prominence.

“The farm worker community is very similar to the day laborer community and workers who are in very vulnerable conditions are always difficult to organize,” said Alvarado. “People talk of day laborers as impossible to organize. The same was said about farm workers, yet Chávez put together a strategy that accomplished what people didn’t think was possible.”

That strategy emphasized reaching out beyond the confines of a single workplace, and turning the strengths of enemies into weaknesses—so-called “organizational jiu jitsu.” Because farm workers were excluded from the workplace rights enumerated in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), they were also able to do things which would have been illegal in a typical NLRA unionization campaign, including boycotting companies that did business with their employers.

The UFW also developed tight bonds with other activist groups not formally affiliated with the labor movement, and made clear that it was fighting for Latino civil rights as much as labor rights. The use of civil rights movement tactics and rhetoric helped to inspire a tradition of social movement unionism in the modern era.

“It’s not just to protect workers’ rights but it’s to dignify the person,” said Alvarado, explaining the philosophy behind both the UFW and NDLON. “It’s to push justice on a larger scale.”

Large unions such as SEIU and UNITE HERE have explicitly adopted civil rights rhetoric and social movement tactics in some of their major campaigns. In many cases, the legacy of UFW is more than just philosophical: Eliseo Medina, the former secretary-treasurer for SEIU, was an acolyte of Chávez. Other former UFW organizers have moved outside of the labor movement, to work within the immigrant justice movement or other activist communities. Ganz himself said he had done some work with the young immigration reform activists known as the DREAMers.

“The farm workers movement was part of a much broader movement,” he told msnbc, and that movement “was a crucible for generating a whole generation of organizers and activists, not by any means limited to the Latino world. For years in California, if you asked anyone where they got their start, they’d say in a boycott or on the picket line.”

California, Dream Act, Immigration Reform and Latinos

The real Cesar Chavez leaves behind a complicated legacy

Updated