What We Must Learn From Cesar Chavez
By Frederick Clarkson
August 7, 2009
A new book by veteran organizer Marshall Ganz tells the sometimes
triumphant, sometimes cautionary tale of the rise and fall of Cesar
Chavez's Farm Worker Movement. While the story of the movement's
successes is well known, the reasons for its decline are more
Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization and Strategy in
the California Farm Worker Movement
By Marshall Ganz
Oxford University Press, 2009
Marshall Ganz is an organizer, a teacher, a scholar, and a Jew. And
not necessarily in that order. His personal story, as he is the first
to explain, is integral to how he came to be the top organizer for
the United Farm Workers in the heyday of Cesar Chavez; he later
became a scholar and teacher of organizing at Harvard, and, most
recently, a strategist in the improbable presidential campaign of Barack Obama.
His long-awaited book, Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership,
Organization and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement, is
a very readable analysis of exactly how powerless Mexican Americans,
led by the legendary Cesar Chavez, overcame impossible odds to form
the United Farm Workers union while capturing the heart and the
imagination of the nation.
But Ganz wants to do much more than to retell a familiar story; he
seeks to find in this analysis lessons that transcend our moment,
lessons that are as old as the story of David and Goliath. In doing
so, he has identified strategic principles that are more culturally
relevant and accessible than those the ever-popular ancient Chinese
military strategist, Sun Tzu. This alone makes the book a must-read
for anyone, religious or non-religious, who is involved in the
politics of social justice.
But there is a shocking conclusion to this book that is not for the
nostalgic or the politically fainthearted. "David can sometimes win,
and a heroic story it can be," Ganz ruefully observes, but "it can
also become a tragedy." And while the book teaches us valuable
lessons about what's needed to take on the rich and powerful (what
Ganz calls "strategic capacity"), what went wrong at the height of
the UFW's success holds lessons, Ganz warns, that analysts and
organizers of social movements can not afford to ignore.
I first met Marshall Ganz at one of the founding meetings of
Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts, an outgrowth of the
remarkable 2002 Democratic primary campaign of former Labor Secretary
Robert Reich for governor. Reich came in a respectable second while
revitalizing the progressive wing of the Party. A lot of electoral
neophytes like me learned, among many valuable lessons, the mechanics
of electoral politics. After the election, many of us agreed that we
should continue to organize to build our capacity to help candidates
who were up against entrenched interests.
What could we do that would help to persuade good candidates to get
in, and to prevail against the odds? The answer, we realized, was us.
We would create a statewide network of volunteer electoral activists
of the sort that can be a decisive factor, particularly in party
primaries. Four years later, we played an important role in getting
the then almost unknown African American attorney Deval Patrick
elected Governor of Massachusetts. Much of what we were able to
contribute was thanks the principles of organizing we learned from
Marshall was one of the first people I asked to contribute to what
became the 2008 anthology, Dispatches from the Religious Left: The
Future of Faith and Politics in America. His opening essay explains
how he found answers to the questions posted by the ancient Rabbi
Hillel, who famously asked, "If I am not for myself, who will be for
me? When I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?" He
writes, "And only as I began to look for words to teach this
craftdeveloping leadership, building community, and taking public
actiondid I really hear the questions Hillel asked 2000 years ago."
Why David Sometimes Wins brings us the words he had found to teach
the craft of organizing.
It took a while, he explains in his introduction, to understand that
the biblical story of Exodus is not merely the story of Moses leading
his people out of slavery in Egypt. "I came to see this as a journey
that passes from generation to generation." For Ganz, the story of
Moses and the story of David and Goliath are not merely ancient tales
of God's champions, but the story of how we live: metaphorical maps
of who we are, who we might become, and how we might get there.
Ganz's father was a rabbi, and a military chaplain during WWII; many
survivors of Nazi genocide passed through his home. "Although I was
too young to grasp the full horror of what had occurred," Ganz
writes, "the people whom I'd met had clearly survived a catastrophe."
His parents taught him that the Holocaust was not just about
anti-Semitism, but about racism. It was this view that led him to
drop out of Harvard to join the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi
in 1964; and when he returned to his native Bakersfield, California,
in 1965 to see for the first time, the plight of Mexican-American
farm workers through "Mississippi eyes." He soon got involved with
the farm workers' movement and over the next 16 years served in a
variety of positions, including organizing director and as a member
of the board (1973-1981).
Getting Out of Egypt
Why David Sometime Wins opens with an eye-opening history of largely
unsuccessful farm worker organizing from the mid-19th century. Ganz
explains how the exploitation of migrant, immigrant labor and people
of color who happened to be citizens, has been integral to the
business model of California agribusiness from the beginning;
starting with unemployed Chinese railroad workers in the 19th
century, and, eventually, Filipino, Japanese, and Mexicans hired by
growers to work in the fields. When an influx of white refugees from
the dust bowl were immortalized in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of
Wrath, the plight of the farm workers came briefly to national
attention. It did not last, but the story continued to threaten
powerful interests such that Ganz reports that the book was banned
from Bakersfield libraries when he was a child. (More recently, it is
worth noting, religious right leaders in Texas have sought to ban any
mention of Cesar Chavez from public school textbooks.)
Much of Ganz's book focuses on how three unions (the Teamsters, an
organizing committee of the AFL-CIO, and the group that became the
UFW) competed, beginning in the 1960s; and why the UFW prevailed over
these more powerful, better financed, and politically connected entities.
The main reason, he explains, is that:
"the UFW's leadership devised more effective strategy, in fact a
stream of effective strategy. The UFW was able to do this because the
motivation of its leaders was greater than that of their rivals; they
had better access to salient knowledge; and their deliberations
became venues for learning. These are the three elements of what I
call strategic capacitythe ability to devise good strategy. While I
do not claim that strategic capacity guarantees success, I do argue
that it makes success more probable. "
He goes on to describe how strategic capacity allows an organization
to take best advantage of unique opportunities as they present themselves.
Examples abound throughout the book, as the UFW leadership team
gathers to figure out how to adjust in light of new favorable
circumstances or a seemingly devastating move by the growers or union
rivals. Ganz adds that strategic capacity is not merely about making
plans; it is "a function of who leaders aretheir identities,
networks and tactical experiencesand how they structure their
interactions with each other and their environment with respect to
resource flows, accountability and deliberation."
A few illustrations:
The UFW was primarily led by people directly involved in the
community being organizedthey brought younger Mexican Americans into
leadership; people with complementary skills, social networks, and
life experiences. This stood in contrast to their Big Labor
competitor which, although well-funded, tended to be controlled by
turf-conscious, older Anglos who came out of industrial union
organizing, had no knowledge of or experience in California farm
issues, and not only did not speak Spanish but had few contacts in
the Mexican American community. At least as significantly, the Big
Labor efforts were tightly controlled by senior officials, whereas
the UFW's leadership and strategy making leadership was broader, far
more flexible, and premised on considerable delegation of authority.
It was a cause: La Causa. For the Big Labor leaders, it was primarily a job.
The religious and cultural context was at least as important as the
racial element of ethnicity. During key organizing campaigns, for
example, daily Catholic mass was as integral to the campaign as
Catholicism was integral to the identity of the Mexican American farm
workers, and the community from which they came.
The UFW, in the heat of the 1960s, cast itself as much as a civil
rights struggle as it did a labor struggle. They learned from the
example of the African American civil rights struggle, and drew on
the reinvigoration of the Catholic social justice tradition stemming
from Vatican II, as well as an interfaith cast of religious leaders
and institutions across the country (notably, the National Council of
Churches and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops). Competing union
organizers sneered at this. One declared, characteristically: "This
is a trade union dispute, not a civil rights movement or a religious crusade."
Each step of the way, religious people and institutions (and related
social networks) played pivotal roles. For example, a progressive
labor priest, Fr. Thomas McCullough, first identified a young
parishioner, Cesar Chavez, as having "potential." A young Union
Theological Seminary graduate, Rev. Jim Drake, served as Chavez's
driver in the early days; and likewise Chris Hartmire stepped up as a
young director of the Catholic Church's "Migrant Ministry." Both
became part of the UFW's predecessor group's "strategic planning."
Examples like these abound.
The Farm Worker Association's founding convention was held in a
Catholic Church in Chavez's hometown of Delano, California, and the
preamble to their constitution included a quote from Pope Leo XIII's
Rerum Novaruma papal encyclical written in response to the ravages
of late-19th century industrial capitalism:
"Rich men and masters should remember thisthat to exercise pressure
for the sake of gain upon the indigent and the destitute, and to make
one's profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws,
human and divine. To defraud anyone for wages that are his due is a
crime which cries to the avenging anger of heaven."
The Game that Ended the Union
Most of the book is an encouraging, tightly argued narrative that
shows us how the UFW overcame obstacles, and gathered a strategic
capacity and the power to compel growers to recognize the union and
to negotiate fair contracts. But Ganz quickly dispatches the reasons
other scholars and commentators have offered for why the UFW began to
unravel at the height of its success in the late '70s. Ganz knows
because he was a member of Chavez's inner circle or "leadership team"
during the period Chavez was coming under the influence of Charles
Dederich, founder of Synanon ("a Los Angeles-based drug treatment
program that had evolved into a cult and had declared itself a
'religion' a few years earlier").
Chavez compelled his top leaders and organizers to participate in
Synanon's fiercely confrontational encounter group technique he
called "the game." Ganz describes it as "an intensely political kind
of group therapy. In emotionally aggressive sessions with 10-15
persons, participants verbally attacked each other to air problems"
for periods of one to three hours.
Ganz concludes, "Chavez transformed UFW deliberations into a
controlled, exclusive and judgmental process in which one's loyalty
was constantly on the line." Chavez sought to make "the game" as
central to the practice of the union as it was to Synanon. In the
Spring of 1978, Chavez required 200 staffers to travel as much as
five hours to attend weekly sessions.
The UFW degenerated into a "community of unpaid cadres, loyal to a
single leader, governed by groupthink rituals, and enjoying the
apparent efficiency of unquestioning obedience." Ganz continues,
"It's unclear how Chavez hoped to reconcile Dederich's vision with
that of a democratically accountable union organized to represent
workersespecially when the UFW thrived on diversity, contentiousness
and creativity. In fact, he could not."
In a sustained frenzy of political paranoia, Chavez fired or drove
out the committed veterans who had brought the UFW so far. Control
became concentrated in the hands of Chavez family members and dependents.
In short, Chavez "scrapped the strategic capacity that the UFW had
taken years to develop," and the UFW stopped organizing and "moved
into the kind of advocacy, services provision and public policy work
that other nonprofits had done for years." Even after Chavez's death
in 1993, the UFW never regained its capacity for organizing. At its
height, the UFW had 70,000 workers under contract; today that number
is no more than 5,000 and the UFW serves mostly as a hub of a network
of nonprofit agencies.
Ganz does not explain why Chavez came unglued or how Dederich came
into his life and was able to wield such influence in the union. But
in telling the truth about the matter, Ganz plants a red flag on the
problem for those who come later. This is important in part because
what happened with the UFW in many ways epitomizes what we saw in the
1970s, when many religious, political, business, and psychotherapy
cults employing similar techniques wreaked havoc in the culture. Some
of this continues to this day, including programs modeled on Synanon,
and it remains a dark social and political undercurrent that most of
us choose not to see, let alone address.
The UFW story points to vulnerabilities in open, democratic
organizations, religious or non-religious, whose spirit of openness
can blind them to abuses by anti-democratic elements. This can be
compounded by the mutual deference that allow people to turn a blind
eye to leaders and members who are turning healthy institutions into monsters.
Ganz has a few suggestions on the importance of ensuring the
viability of democratic structures of leadership development so that
challengers have an avenue to challenge leadership in a responsible
manner. This becomes especially important when a leader is not only
failing but consolidating power as in the case of the UFW. But
clearly, there are no easy answers.
Even as David sometimes wins, Ganz poignantly observes, "remaining
David can be even more challenging than becoming David in the first place."