CÉSAR CHÁVEZ TAKES ON SCAB-LOVING GOVERNMENT.
Coinciding generally with César Chávez’s birthday (March) and the anniversary of his death (April), a movie about Chávez’s life and work will soon be released. And people are talking about Chávez and his legacy. However, many misperceptions—some benevolent, others malevolent—about Chávez exist.
One of the benevolent ones is that Chávez was the first person to organize farm workers. Although Chávez is who brought the issue of farm workers into the national consciousness, he was not the first to organize farm workers. For example, in 1938, Emma Tenayuca led 12,000 Mexican American women pecan workers in a strike in San Antonio, Texas. After 37 days, the pecan producers capitulated and the strikers won the wage increase they sought. In the 1940s, Dr. Ernesto Galarza, a Mexican immigrant from a farm worker family, devoted several years, under the auspices of the National Farm Labor Union, to organizing farm workers in northern California in the face of bitter, and often violent, opposition from the large California growers.
The most malevolent misperception is the discredited canard that Chávez hated Mexican immigrants, especially the braceros (Mexicans brought in by the U.S. government to work on farms).
I consider myself privileged to have known César Chávez, who visited Tucson many times in the 1970s and later. One of the first times he came to our fine city (circa 1971), he stayed at my house in Barrio Hollywood. I marched with him many times. In the early 1970s, a hub of United Farm Workers union (UFW) support activities in Tucson and southern Arizona was the Centro Chicano in Barrio Hollywood, where I was an organizer. Thus, I was familiar with the UFW and its goals, etc.
But when the Chávez-undocumented workers dynamics emerged, circa 1972, I, like many others, was confused. In order to learn directly from Chávez about the undocumented workers matter, a group of us from the Centro Chicano drove up to Phoenix, where Chávez was conducting a 25-day fast, to ask him. Chávez put things in perspective for me. Antonio D. Bustamante, one of Arizona’s top civil-rights leaders, who worked directly with Chávez in the early 1970s and had first-hand knowledge regarding the Mexican worker matter, also filled in some gaps.
The UFW represented an enormous threat to the growers who had shamelessly exploited farm workers for generations. Previous attempts to unionize farm workers had been quashed by violence, trumped-up criminal charges, and many other nefarious means.
Those tactics were also used against the UFW, but the UFW persevered and was winning strikes and developing a national urban support base among politicians, clergy, students, unions, and others. The UFW was on the cusp of turning the farm-worker exploitation culture on its head.
So many farm workers were joining the union that the pool of potential esquiroles (scabs, strikebreakers) was greatly diminished. This gave birth to an evil marriage. The growers made common cause with the Republican administration of Richard Nixon to destroy the UFW. The linchpin of that conspiracy was to have the United States government, at the behest of growers and agri-corporations, import foreign workers to break a legal domestic strike.
To unionists, strikebreaking and scabbing are anathema, no matter who is involved—families have been rendered asunder during strikes when a family member of a striking worker scabs. So, Chávez fought the Nixon-INS-Grower conspiracy fiercely. He lobbied U.S. Senators and Representatives to rein in the INS. He picketed INS offices. He and striking farm workers marched to the border, where they explained the conspiracy to the Mexican workers and made personal appeals to them to not let themselves be used as strikebreakers.
In Chávez’s view, the Mexicans were as much victims of the conspiracy as the UFW strikers. They were poorly paid and were threatened with forfeiture of wages and deportation and were beaten by the growers’ goons if they as much as spoke to a union member. As soon as their usefulness as scabs was done, they were deported, frustrating Chávez’s attempts to unionize them.
Chávez’s campaign against the government-grower conspiracy to break the UFW strike had nothing to do with hating Mexicans. Rather, it had everything to do with strikebreaking and the U.S. government’s complicity in strikebreaking. To not have fought this conspiracy, Chávez believed, would have been an abdication of his responsibilities as a labor leader.
And in the final analysis, that’s what Chávez was—a labor leader. Any labor leader will fight tooth and nail against the use of scabs to break a strike.
[The conspiracy described above isn’t all that Richard Nixon did to try to destroy the UFW. During the 1968 presidential campaign, Nixon called the UFW’s grape boycott “clearly illegal.” After he was elected, Nixon ordered the Department of Defense to increase its grape purchases. In 1969, to offset the success of the UFW grape boycott, the Defense Department rescued the growers by purchasing 2.5 million pounds of grapes and shipping them to the troops in Vietnam.]
Despite his well-deserved iconic standing in the country, Chávez is not beyond criticism. Being human, he was not perfect. But criticisms of Chávez should be principled and should be based on reality rather than on blatantly stupid, absurd, and insulting notions such as that he hated Mexicans and immigrants. c/s
Copyright 2014 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org