"¡NO SE PUEDE!": THE LEGACY OF CESAR CHAVEZ'S PRO-MIGRA POLICIES & AMERICAN CHAUVINISM
And the road forward.
"Chavez and the UFW were so against “wetbacks” that they formed their own private Border Patrol." Dr. Eladio Bobadilla, Associate Professor of Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies at University of Kentucky, writing for the Duke Human Rights Center At The Franklin Humanities Institute.
BY JONATHAN SALINAS
MIGRANT PHILANTHROPIES around the country, including the Rio Grande Valley, honored the legacy of Cesar E. Chavez this weekend and will continue through Wednesday, the 31, his birthday and a national holiday. As expected we were told and will continue to hear that Chavez was a champion of farmworkers and that we should continue his work by supporting the Democratic Party's current immigration reforms in Congress.
Most if not all these groups however did not and will not discuss Chavez’s brutal attacks against undocumented farmworkers, which took several reactionary forms. The root of American chauvinism that inspired the UFW's 'anti-illegal' policies—namely, Chavez and co-founder Dolores Huerta's subordination of the movement to the Democratic Party—persists. The Democrats' grip on La Causa remains an obstacle to breaking with capitalist politics.
SHODDY REVISIONISM: DOLORES HUERTA'S RE-WRITING OF HISTORY
The above charges against Chavez, albeit serious, are established facts. Nobody to my knowledge is more vociferous in defending Chavez against these charges than UFW cofounder, Dolores Huerta. In a 2013 interview with FUSION TV, when pressed on the question of whether Chavez opposed undocumented farmworkers, Huerta said:
"That's not true. That's totally not true. And I can prove it to you. When we first started organizing way back in 1962 the Bracero Program ended in 1963. And we worked to end the Bracero Program because a lot of the Braceros were being exploited. In my hometown of Stockton, California, I saw checks of people who had worked for two weeks and they got sixteen dollars!
Dolores Huerta on OPEN SOURCE, Fusion TV, 2013.
This first appeal by Huerta sidesteps the UFW's primary motive in opposing the program. Frank Bardacke—historian of the farmworkers movement, former farmworker, UFW member, antiwar activist at UC Berkley in the 1960s—author of Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, published a paper in International Labor and Working-Class History after Huerta made these comments in the Spring of 2013, titled, "The UFW and the Undocumented," in which he sets the record straight on Chavez and the ‘Illegals.’
Bardacke attributes "embarrassment" to why surviving UFW leadership (like Huerta) red-wash the union's pro-migra history, as today the union styles itself as champions of migrant workers. Bardacke's attribution of motive makes sense when we revisit the actual history. There's a lot to be embarrassed about.
UFW: "Deport the illegals! Workers control of deportations!"
When the UFW adopted pro migra policies the U.S. border was in effect an "open border." The Bracero Program—an immigration agreement that facilitated recruitment of temporary farmworkers, in turn allowing bosses to drive down wages—was fueled by the U.S.'s porous frontier. It was used as an anti-union weapon, pitting documented workers against ’illegals.’
Braceros were definitely exploited, as Huerta recalls. But the UFW's opposition to the program—in coalition with American liberals and the AFL-CIO—stemmed from their opposition to ’illegals‘ taking ’our jobs.‘ The farmworker population consisted more of native-born, resident, "legal" workers at the time.
The Bracero Program ended after decades of class fraternization between farmworkers, regardless of status, which subdued the growers’ divide and rule. This class fraternization was in motion well before Chavez and Huerta hit the scene. Had they built on this budding class solidarity, as Huerta now claims they did, history would have taken a different course. Instead Chavez and Huerta drew the wrong lesson and made a historic mistake:
"Nevertheless the liberal antibracero campaign had played its part, and the success of that fight had a large impact on the UFW leadership, making them optimistic about their ability to force the federal government to close the border," Bardacke wrote.
You read that correctly. There was a time within living memory when the U.S. government's immigration policy was "open borders" and the UFW's policy was "border enforcement." After the Bracero Program ended tens of thousands of farmworkers were given green cards to continue working. But undocumented labor into the fields continued as unemployment in Mexico grew.
The U.S. capitalists' government purposely underfunded the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), the forerunner to "ICE," Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to help allow easy border crossings to undercut strikes. Three agents, for example, were responsible for policing four counties in California where hundreds of thousands of farmworkers lived and worked. Ten agents patrolled six counties where hundreds of thousands of farmworkers made their living in the Central Valley. From Bakersfield to the Oregon border, no more than seventy-five people were employed by the INS. The New York Times dubbed INS as an immigration bureaucracy “designed to fail.”
"These agents were able to remove only a small number of people to Mexico—most of whom came right back. While they posed a constant threat to the undocumented, they did not stop, or even seriously hinder, the large flow of illegals into California between 1965 and 1980," Bardacke wrote. Chavez and Huerta viewed high flows of 'illegals' into the fields as job competition and a threat to union strikes. Huerta airbrushed this historical fact.
This leads us to her next claim:
"A lot of the people in our organization were undocumented. The one thing that Cesar was against, and he would say this: 'If my mother would break the strike, I would be against my mother.'
His Nino—his godfather!—brought in people to break the strike! Cesar did not talk to his godfather. Just before his godfather passed away he asked Cesar to come and see him, and Cesar went. And he begged Cesar to forgive him for breaking the strike.
So it was not about being against the undocumented. A lot of undocumented people were in the union."
Huerta paints Chavez's position on undocumented farmworkers as a principled stance against strike-breaking. To the contrary, Bardacke writes, "The UFW was for keeping all undocumented workers out of the California fields, whether they were breaking strikes or not," between 1962 and 1975. Additionally Huerta only says Chavez was “against” undocumented workers breaking the strike, whatever “against“ means. Chavez called for their deportations. That’s different from just “being against.” Huerta should have said Chavez would have ‘deported’ his mother. That would have been a more accurate analogy.
This revision also airbrushes what many regard the UFW's darkest period: its 'Campaign Against Illegals.' From 1974 to 1975 the union and especially Chavez focused all resources on demanding INS deport hundreds and thousands of illegals, regardless if they were breaking strikes.
The ‘campaign’ evolved—or devolved—to Chavez "organizing and mobilizing" UFW volunteers to surveil thousands of illegals, in order to report their whereabouts to INS.
Worst of all, Chavez formed a "UFW Border Patrol." 300 UFW 'agents,' equipped with motor vehicles and air plane, apprehended, beat up and turned back/turned-in 'illegals' in Arizona. Chavez's fascist-like thugs went unchecked by the police, whether local, state or federal.
Rio Grande Valley and Pharr-based barrio historian, Eduardo Martinez, recently unearthed a newspaper clipping, showing the then-newly formed, "Farm Worker Navy," tasked with patrolling the Rio Grande River in Starr County to do what the UFW BP was doing.
Eduardo Martinez | @PharrFromHeaven | 21 January 2021
Chavez believed scapegoating illegals would best help the union win back labor contracts that growers did not renew upon expiration, in 1973. The growers instead signed sweetheart deals with the corrupt International Brotherhood of Teamsters, undercutting the UFW who had more than 60,000 members at its height and hundreds of union contracts. The 'campaign' against illegals was vehemently opposed by UFW dissidents whom Chavez exiled and by independent leftists and workers organizations whom he dismissed.
The terror finally ended with the passage of the 'Migration Agricultural Relations Act' in California, 1975, allowing farmworkers to pick their union, absence of which allowed for the grower-Teamster collusion. So Chavez called for deporting 'illegals' whether they broke strikes or not until 1975. After 1975 to his death in 1993 he only called for deportation of strike breakers. This brings us to Huerta's third and final claim:
"And even in today's world, all of the farm workers who are under union contract, they get the same benefits whether they got papers or not papers. When we passed the Agricultural Relations Act in 1975—guess what?—people are covered under that law whether they are undocumented, citizens or residents. So it's not about being against undocumented. It's against people breaking the strike."
Here again, Huerta's revision is easily falsifiable. Bardacke says about the act, "The new law was silent on the question of illegals." Indeed, the law makes no mention of undocumented farmworkers. Although the reform allowed for farmworkers to pick their union, only in California, the UFW's pro-deportation policies turned-off illegals, as the UFW went on to lose the vast majority of elections taking place in table grape farms. As Bardacke lamented, "it was too late." The damage was done.
All three of Huerta's central claims in her Fusion TV interview, far from doing what its title says—"school us”—ineptly rewrites and in some cases denies what the broad opposition to Chavez's chauvinist policies, as well as authoritative historians who lived through these events, bitterly remember only too well.
The names of dissidents within the UFW include Bardacke, as well as Phillip Vera Cruz, a Filipino-American farmworker and fighter. Those outside the UFW include labor organizer and fighter Bert Corona. Dissident organizations include CASA (Centro de Accion Social Autonoma) and the Socialist Workers Party, the latter of whom published an analysis in 1974 titled, "United Farm Workers: how the struggle can be won." Although it is said the word ‘Illegal’ was less derogatory then the SWP exposed and repudiated this term in their analysis.
"United Farm Workers: how the struggle can be won," by Harry Ring | 6 December 1974
FROM FIGHTING LABOR MOVEMENT TO FRONT FOR DEMOCRATIC PARTY
Although the UFW updated its deportation policy between varying degrees of 'reactionary' throughout Chavez's time one constant which remains is the chaining of the farmworkers movement to the Democratic Party. Even as a young, fighting labor movement—which gained mass-traction within the civil rights and antiwar struggles of the 60s—Chavez and Huerta tied La Causa to the political needs of liberal Democrats beginning with their endorsement of and campaigning for Bobby Kennedy in the 1968 California Presidential Democratic Primary. Kennedy and Chavez were very close. This collusion with a nationalist, capitalist and imperialist political party and its ruling families formed the basis for the UFW bureaucracy’s chauvinism. A failure of the 'friends of labor' Congressional Democrats to include farmworkers under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) left in tact the conditions for the Teamsters to exploit.
Nonetheless Huerta remains a loyal liberal Democrat. She endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 against Bernie Sanders, endorsed, co-chaired, Kamala Harris' failed campaign for President. I've met Huerta at Democratic Party and Robert Kennedy Foundation-sponsored events in the Rio Grande Valley and Washington D.C. She recently made 'headlines' when a bronze-bust of Chavez was seen in Joe Biden's Oval Office on the first day of his administration. She said it signified Biden's 'servant' heart. There couldn't be a more fitting place for a decapitated Chavez to sit as an ornament than Biden’s Oval Office.
The UFW's sister-organization in the Rio Grande Valley which was founded by Chavez, La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), follows the UFW's model. As a former community organizer for LUPE myself, from September 2017 to February 2018, one of the organization's primary focuses is turning out votes for Democrats. Mobilizing Director, Danny Diaz—former Democratic Party candidate for the Hidalgo County board and party chair, former Senior Advisor to Jessica Cisneros—said at their Cesar Chavez rally Saturday "we" made our voices heard "in November" and must prepare for 2022.
As a 'nonprofit' organization LUPE cannot legally endorse candidates. But they can tell their members—largely migrant workers from all industries—which candidate‘s "values" most "align" with the 'union's.' In February LUPE hosted former Congressman 'Beto' O'Rourke, who is considering a run for Governor in 2022, for a town hall at which he awarded them $30,000 for their campaign to deliver aid to local communities affected by the winter freeze. Rather than call for the nationalization of the electrical grid under workers control, as the SWP has done, LUPE bureaucrats believe electing a governor with similar 'values' is the solution. I wonder whose 'values' will most closely align with LUPE's in 2022.
LUPE's Cesar Chavez rally took place at the Bert Ogden Arena parking lot in Edinburg. What seemed to be hundreds of vehicles, from watching the livestream, caravanned from LUPE headquarters in San Juan to the exorbitant arena that regularly hosts upscale concerts. It was billed as a 'Caravan of Hope.' Their demands were "legalization, democracy and health." Notice how even though the word 'illegal' is no longer in fashion, what does it suggest to demand that something (or someone) be legalized? Thus the language of 'legal' and 'illegal' is still being used, as if undocumented workers were banned substances.
The focus was support for the ‘Farm Workforce Modernization Act’ and the current DREAM Act, both of which would create a strenuous and punitive 'path to legalization' for farmworkers and DACA recipients to receive citizenship after eight years and $1,000 fine. While farmworkers were 'centered' in program, no farmworkers spoke. But we did hear from the Hidalgo County District Attorney, local judges and past Democratic candidates for office, like Jessica Cisneros. Nothing memorable was said about the situation at the border, covering for Biden. All mentions of Biden were positive, suggesting he’s an ally of immigrants.
This soiree of self-promotion isn't surprising when we recall Chavez's ideological foundations. Chavez was heavily influenced by activist, political philosopher and theoretician, Saul Alinsky, whose political formulations focused on building-up the public image of community organizers as champions of the oppressed and ‘the agent of history.’ As the union suffered defeats, Chavez made more and more public spectacles of his personality and self-sacrifice with his trademark fasts.
Today the UFW and LUPE promote a cult of personality around Chavez, which (like all cults of personality) distorts, erases, flat out rewrites the history of the dear leader. The spirit of Chavez and Alinsky survives in the careerist bureaucrats who now control LUPE, working administrative jobs and paying themselves middle class (or what passes in the RGV for middle class) salaries, while advancing collaboration with the capitalist state.
LUPE for instance brokered deals with Hidalgo County authorities to deliver street-lighting to colonias, only after a majority of residents sign a petition whose effect is to give LUPE 'organizing' work, opportunities to sell memberships and (in turn) deliver good press to capitalist politicians and the 'organizers,' rather than fight for the unconditional human right to electricity and basic community services.
Members of LUPE's administrative bureaucracy don't live in colonias. They live in middle class neighborhoods within 'city limits,' although many hourly office workers and the vast majority of their membership does. Just as the UFW bureaucracy grew ever-alienated from its rank-and-file so has LUPE’s. Such is the legacy, logical conclusion and historical condemnation of Alinskyism.
CHAVEZ IN THE FINAL ANALYSIS
The legacy of Cesar Chavez is one of tragedy. He was an impressive and innovative organizer. His work in bringing the farmworkers movement to the forefront of U.S. life and politics—during a time of mass-radicalization—is an unassailable pillar of the civil rights struggle. No history of the civil rights movement is complete without extensive discussion of La Causa.
Despite appeals from fighters within the UFW's rank-and-file membership and others outside it Chavez led the union down a reactionary road of American chauvinism instead of one based on class-solidarity and internationalism. This alienated the UFW within the fields, from which it has never recovered and possibly never will. Chavez's 1977 endorsement of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines probably doesn’t help either.
The UFW could have greatly fortified the international labor movement, forging ties with the Mexican and Filipino workers movements and revitalize the U.S. labor movement which was in need of revival at the time. Instead Chavez sowed divisions which set the U.S. labor movement back by at least several decades, leading to the irrelevance the union suffers to date.
THE ROAD FORWARD
Encouraging signs within the farmworker movement have developed in recent months and years. Fruit packing workers at three fruit packing companies—Columbia Reach Pack, Allen Brothers and Matson Fruit—in the Yakima Valley in Washington state, established work committees in 2020, now represented by Familias Unidas por la Justicia—a fighting union that formed in 2013.
Some committees have been recognized by their companies, while others continue to fight for recognition. Familias Unidas por la Justicia oppose the Democrat immigration bill and counter-propose amnesty for all undocumented workers, as does the SWP.
With the Amazon union vote count underway in Alabama and other inspiring developments across the U.S. multi-national working class, we should heed the two main lessons of the farmworkers movement. One: Don't sow divisions among workers. Two: Don't tie labor fights to voting for the Democratic Party, even "Progressives," or any capitalist party. At the very least, let's resolve to never call for the deportation of any worker, even if they break strikes, nor to form a union border patrol.
The new labor movement of the 21st century must be uncompromisingly internationalist and independent from capitalist parties. Together workers have the ability to fight for each other. As we build and strengthen our unions our confidence in ourselves and each other will, too.
The only kind of party that unions should support is a workers party, a labor party, independent of the capitalist class, one that is composed of and fights for workers and our control of production in factories, fields and every workplace. This is the basis for a government of workers and farmers that can begin to create a better society and world. It can be done, as an old fighter who lost his way used to say.