Tuesday 11 November 2008
by: Randy Shaw, In These Times
Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement brought community
organizing strategies into the electoral and legislative arena,
writes Randy Shaw, in this excerpt from his new book, "Beyond the
Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the
21st Century" (University of California Press).
During the United Farm Workers' critical decade of growth, from
1966 to 1976, farmworker activists became experts in conducting voter
registration among low-income and minority voters, and operating get
out the vote (GOTV) drives to boost turnout in traditionally
low-voting, working-class neighborhoods. The UFW responded to
political attacks from growers by adopting innovative approaches for
almost every type of electoral campaign. These strategies brought the
union victories in statewide initiative contests, legislative fights
and races for public office - and continue to set the course for
today's progressive election campaigns.
In 1966, the farmworkers movement had no more experience with
politicians and elections than it had with boycotts. Cesar Chavez's
previous job as an organizer for the Community Services Organization
had included voter registration drives, but the CSO did not make
political endorsements or engage in partisan electoral work.
The UFW did have one experienced hand, however: Fred Ross Sr.,
who had become a legendary electoral organizer after running Edward
Roybal's winning campaign for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council
in 1949. Roybal, who was president of CSO, was the first
Mexican-American to win a Los Angeles city council election in more
than 70 years, a victory described as marking "the birth of Latino
politics in California."
Ross used the same painstaking approach to voter registration
and GOTV in the Roybal campaign that he later brought to the UFW's
first representation election at the DiGiorgio ranch in 1967, and his
methods would soon become central to the union's grassroots electoral
approach. Using Ross's lessons as a starting point, UFW activists
were not deterred by their lack of financial resources or political
experience; in fact, these circumstances forced them to pursue
innovative electoral and legislative strategies.
Not all of these efforts succeeded, but by "pushing all kinds of
buttons" and being willing to "try something else," the UFW developed
a model for grassroots voter outreach to Latino and other low-income
and minority voters that has spearheaded winning progressive
campaigns in subsequent years.
California's 1968 Democratic presidential primary put Chavez and
the UFW on the state and national political map. New York senator
Robert F. Kennedy was a staunch ally, whose public support for Chavez
and the farmworkers during Senate hearings in the fields in 1966 had
greatly boosted national sympathy for the union, especially among
Catholics. Chavez developed a close personal bond with Kennedy and
considered it "heroic" that the powerful senator had publicly
embraced the UFW without asking anything in return.
In April and May of 1968, UFW organizers spread throughout the
state's Mexican-American neighborhoods to build support for Kennedy.
Chavez himself made as many as six public appearances a day on the
senator's behalf. Rallies were held across the Central Valley. In the
long-ignored and politically disenfranchised Mexican-American
neighborhoods of East Los Angeles, the UFW set up an electoral
operation that included personal visits to all registered voters,
phone banks, and walking committees. To build election excitement,
the campaign even hired kids to hand out thousands of leaflets.
A key strategy the UFW developed during the Kennedy effort was
the recruitment of volunteer organizers who could be counted on to
turn out their neighbors to vote on election day. These volunteers
were recruited at their doors by UFW campaign workers, who were
simultaneously contacting voters, training them to conduct voter
outreach on the spot, and enlisting them for GOTV efforts on
Kennedy's behalf. This emphasis on developing volunteer leadership
was as central to the UFW's electoral work as it was for the boycott,
and it would become a major component of Latino voter outreach
efforts in Los Angeles three decades later.
Marshall Ganz was the chief organizer of the UFW's Kennedy
campaign, and he later recalled the effort as "the model" for
grassroots campaigns that the UFW and its alumni would run at the
local and state levels over the next three decades. Journalist Sam
Kushner observed that the UFW volunteers "worked as no other
political activists. Hours meant nothing to them and they accepted
hardships such as sleeping on floors in churches and meeting halls as
a necessary part of the struggle." Chavez later compared the
experience to organizing a strike; the fact that the UFW assembled
its campaign operation without much prior electoral experience likely
contributed to its functioning more as a community organizing effort
than a traditional political campaign.
The UFW was not the only organization helping to mobilize the
Mexican-American vote. Kennedy - Latino activists such as Bert
Corona, head of the national "Viva Kennedy" campaign, also played key
roles - but to Kennedy delegate Paul Schrade of the United Auto
Workers union, "the farmworkers had made the difference." Schrade's
conclusion was echoed by three journalists from the London Sunday
Times, who wrote: "In the end, the votes of Chavez's
Mexican-Americans contributed most of the slender margin by which
Kennedy beat McCarthy in California."
The UFW was forced back into the California electoral arena in
1972 to face a political challenge that threatened the union's very
existence. Growers had tried to pass an anti-UFW measure in the
legislature in 1971, but the union mobilized forty-five hundred
people in a rally in front of the state capitol building to
successfully defeat it. Farm interests then put an initiative on the
ballot, known as Proposition 22, that included the standard
provisions forbidding boycotts and strikes and added such extreme
provisions as barring farmworker unions from bargaining on work rules.
The No on 22 campaign initiated a new approach to electoral
politics that would become a prototype for the successful grassroots
labor campaigns that began reshaping Los Angeles and California
politics in the late 1990s. In many respects, the UFW's model
replicated on a larger scale the detailed approach that Fred Ross Sr.
had developed for winning the union's first representation election
at DiGiorgio farms. Ellen Eggers, who extended her summer stint with
the UFW in Los Angeles to help fight Prop 22 and ended up staying on
with the farmworkers for fifteen years, describes the incredibly
tight organization of the campaign:
We always kept totals of what we did and reported in to our
coordinator. Whether it was bumpers "stickered," leaflets passed out,
voters registered, or declarations signed, we always kept accurate
tallies. The numbers were turned in, added up, and reported on,
probably to Cesar and LeRoy, but always, also, to those of us who
were "out there." The union leadership was excellent about this.
Always keeping us going and lifting our spirits by showing us that
our little piece of the puzzle was important. Each of us was doing
our job, and as grinding and boring as it could be at times, we knew
we were part of something much larger.
At the end of each day's billboarding, the Reverend Chris
Hartmire announced how many cars had seen the signs, a number based
on UFW research on traffic patterns at the various intersections.
This record-keeping reinforced the importance of the volunteers'
efforts, a critical encouragement for an activity that required
people to wake up at 4:00 a.m., be out on freeways by 6:00 a.m., and
then continue working into the evening. Boycott volunteers normally
worked six days a week, but the Prop 22 campaign required an
all-week, morning-to-night commitment.
Knowing that Latino voters would strongly oppose Prop 22, the
UFW targeted this constituency by establishing precinct operations in
East Los Angeles and other Latino communities across the state. In
East L.A.'s Lincoln Park, the union set up a tent city to house the
hundreds of farmworkers coming from the fields to help the campaign
in the month before the election. Boycott staff across the nation had
also been redirected to the campaign.
Although Chavez was still recovering from his Arizona fast, he
toured the state attacking Prop 22 as a "fraud which would destroy
the farmworkers union in California." The UFW had strong backing from
the Democratic Party, the AFL-CIO, California's Catholic bishops and
Secretary of State Brown. Growers spent nearly $500,000 (a large sum
by 1972 standards) on television ads supporting Prop 22, but they
were outmatched by the UFW's massive grassroots effort. The
initiative was defeated by over 1 million votes, 8 percent to 42
percent, despite California voters' strong support for pro-grower
Republican Richard Nixon over pro-UFW Democrat George McGovern on the
The UFW's defeat of Prop 22 in 1972, its key role in the
election of Jerry Brown in 1974, and the enactment of the
Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975 enhanced Cesar Chavez's
confidence in the union's ability to win California elections. This
led him to promote a farm labor initiative on the November 1976
ballot primarily aimed at preventing legislative interference with
the funding of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. Although some
of the issues the initiative addressed were quite technical, Chavez
was so confident that the voters who had backed the UFW in 1972 would
do so again that he vowed, "We're going to teach the growers a lesson
they'll never forget once and for all."
The union collected 720,000 signatures on initiative petitions
in just 29 days, a remarkable show of strength for an all-volunteer
effort. Most California initiatives reach the ballot by partially or
entirely relying on paid signature gatherers. Growers were so
impressed by the UFW's display of grassroots mobilizing that they
soon agreed to most of the provisions included in the ballot measure.
Nevertheless, Chavez was tired of having to fight over implementation
of the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, and Proposition 14
proceeded to the ballot.
In many ways, the campaign was a remarkable tribute to the
grassroots political machine Chavez and the UFW had built. Prop 14
volunteers were seemingly everywhere, and the campaign exceeded the
successful Prop 22 effort in money raised and volunteer hours spent.
Prop 14 volunteer Larry Tramutola, who had worked for the UFW for
years and later became a leading California campaign consultant,
described the effort as "probably the best statewide grassroots
campaign you can imagine."
Marshall Ganz, by now recognized as one of the nation's leading
political strategists, managed the campaign. Prop 14 brought
virtually the entire nationwide staff together for the first time,
and the national UFW boycott structure was transformed into a
statewide political operation. The campaign also built working
relationships among boycott staff that would later benefit the labor movement.
Although the Prop 14 campaign enhanced activists' electoral
skills and established long-term working relationships among UFW
veterans, the measure suffered a landslide defeat. Some voters were
simply unwilling to make changes only a year after the ALRA's
passage. But Prop 14 was hurt most by a provision granting labor
organizers a constitutional right to enter fields to meet workers.
Opponents ran television commercials in which a farmer and homeowner
expressed fear for his daughter's privacy and safety if union
organizers - assumed to be nonwhite - had unrestricted access to
Even more effective were statewide newspaper ads offering the
passionate testimony of a Japanese-American farmer who had been sent
to an internment camp during World War II. The farmer, whose photo
appeared in the ad, linked his wartime deprivations to the battle
against Prop 14: "I was 20 years old and I gave up my personal rights
without a fight," he said. "Never again."
Despite Prop 14's defeat, Chavez and the UFW in the decade from
1966 to 1976 developed a model for labor and Latino political
involvement that laid the framework for today's grassroots campaigns.
The farmworkers movement brought community organizing tactics and
strategies - voter registration drives, mass petition drives,
intensive door-to-door and street outreach, public visibility events
to catch the attention of voters and the media, and election-day
voter outreach efforts - into the electoral and legislative arena.
In contrast, mainstream labor unions did little to mobilize
their rank-and-file members. As one union member described it, while
the UFW was running grassroots electoral campaigns, other unions'
political programs focused on "writing checks to political candidates
and party organizations, lobbying entrenched members of Congress, and
- shortly before Election Day - sending mailings to union members
informing them of our endorsements."
Cesar Chavez and the UFW laid the groundwork for California's
increase in Latino voting, and Marshall Ganz and other UFW veterans
then refined and expanded the UFW model in a series of 1980s
campaigns. After Miguel Contreras and the Los Angeles County
Federation of Labor found success using this approach during the
1990s, this grassroots mobilization and voter outreach model spread
throughout California through labor-backed organizations, fueling the
transformation of California politics.
These efforts continue to expand nationally as SEIU and other
unions build their presence in Colorado, Florida, Arizona, Texas and
other states where greater Latino voter turnout is boosting
progressive candidates and issues. To the extent that much of
America's Latino electorate was once described as a "sleeping giant,"
its awakening depends not on reacting to a hostile political
environment, but rather on the spread of a UFW organizing model that
has proven successful for over 40 years and is advancing the struggle
for economic justice across the nation.
Randy Shaw is the editor of BeyondChron.org and author of the
newly released "Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the
Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century" (University of California Press).