An unsettling look at key figures relegated to working in the labor
icon's shadow, and how that situation came about.
By Richard Steven Street
November 1, 2009
The Union of Their Dreams
Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez's Farm Worker Movement
Bloomsbury Press: 372 pp., $28
It's hard to challenge a saint. And so, the story of the United Farm
Workers union tends to start and stop with César Chávez, the
audacious Mexican American who built the UFW. So great is his
accomplishment and so dramatic his story that few writers have
ventured beyond hagiography.
Accounts glow with a familiar refrain: Chávez patiently waiting for
his chance, taking on the Delano table grape growers and emerging as
an innovator who injected civil-rights tactics into the farmworker
struggle, a modern Gandhi who induced 17 million Americans, and
millions more worldwide, to stop eating grapes. Then, this living
saint died in his sleep, apparently worn out by his nonstop schedule.
His brother, Richard, built a plain pine coffin. Ten thousand people
came to Delano and carried Chávez's body for three miles across town.
Today we acknowledge the man and his accomplishment by sanctifying
his name on countless schools, buildings and street signs.
And yet Chávez did not act alone. The movement he built was populated
by an eclectic agglomeration of people who left the fields,
classrooms, courts and churches to become organizers and activists in
one of the most unique collaborations in California history.
In "The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar
Chavez's Farm Worker Movement," Miriam Pawel shifts the perspective
away from Chávez to highlight eight second-level members of the UFW:
Jessica Govea, daughter of a cotton picker who became a member of the
union executive board; Jerry Cohen, a young lawyer who ran the UFW
legal department; Eliseo Medina, a shy teenage field hand from
Zacatecas, Mexico, who rose to become heir apparent to Chávez; Chris
Hartmire, a Presbyterian minister who risked life and limb while
transforming the California Migrant Ministry into an adjunct of
Chávez's union; Sabino Lopez, an irrigator from Jalisco, Mexico, who
led a grass-roots revolt within the UFW; Ellen Eggers, an idealistic
college student who organized the union's boycott activities;
Gretchen Laue, a free spirit looking for meaning; and Sandy Nathan, a
Columbia University-trained lawyer writing legal briefs by hand while
stuck in a Coachella Valley hole in the wall.
Devoted to changing the social order and bringing power to a class of
people exploited to the hilt, they -- not Chávez -- formed the
backbone of the union. Their stories are deeply inspiring and
Those who know Pawel's work should not be surprised that she digs
deep. A former editor and writer at The Times and Newsday, she has
produced a complex and flawed masterpiece of collective biography.
Written in a sprightly, fast-paced, staccato style, "The Union of
Their Dreams" tells a boisterous and messy story. Here, for instance,
is Cohen, recently minted as an attorney, wandering into People's Bar
in Delano, where a chance encounter with Chávez leads him to develop
an awesome and daring union legal staff. After Chávez lost table
grape contracts in 1970, Cohen told him that if he wanted to commit
suicide, he ought to stand on the state Capitol steps and pour the
pesticide parathion over his head, and twitch to death. Cohen lasted
a decade. When he called for a subsistence wage for his staff, Chávez
forced him out.
An early fervor
As a group, Cohen and the others in this book serve as archetypes --
young and fearless, perhaps a bit naive. Devoted and willing to work
a killing schedule, each began as a true believer. They experienced
the heady David-vs.-Goliath victories in the early days. They
grappled with the hard decisions emerging from the UFW's transition
from movement to union. They remained active through the intense pain
and disillusionment of the later years.
Some of their accomplishments border on the fantastic. At 21, Medina
was dispatched to boycott duty in New York and Chicago. Living hand
to mouth, he and other boycotters managed to shut down the sale of
table grapes. Without their work, the UFW would have failed. In a
dispersed industry crawling with an oversupply of desperate
first-generation immigrant workers, strikes seldom succeed.
Over the next eight years, Medina shifted from one assignment to
another. Elevated to second vice president of the union, he planned
an ambitious organizing drive. But in the summer of 1978, Chávez
became preoccupied with traitors. Medina watched staff members come
and go. He saw ranch committees -- representing field hands employed
by various farming companies -- fail to receive necessary training.
He despised the UFW's unsavory alliance with Synanon and its strange
leader, Charles Dederich. Convinced that the union was moving in the
wrong direction, Medina resigned. Today, he is executive vice
president of the Service Employees International Union, "the first
Mexican American," Pawel writes, "in the top leadership of the union."
By the time Chávez died in 1993, all the union members profiled by
Pawel were gone -- purged, denounced, alienated, mystified, no longer
in awe of Chávez. Pawel glosses over some of the most important
departures: Jim Drake, who disappeared into the turpentine forests of
Louisiana; LeRoy Chatfield, who became an aide to Gov. Jerry Brown;
and Marshall Ganz, who returned to academic life at Harvard. Drake is
dead, Chatfield still supports the cause with a website
(www.farmworkworkermovement.org), and Ganz has pressed his own
experiences into a dense sociological tract.
Last to go, and only reluctantly, was Hartmire, Chávez's most trusted
advisor and fervent defender. After Chávez turned on him, he too
left, another stalwart denounced as a traitor.
"The Union of Their Dreams" is profoundly unsettling. Chávez, it
turns out, was not so loved. He had his own enemies list.
Pawel's account of the mysterious death of Cleofas Guzman, a union
representative who clashed with Chávez loyalists, will infuriate old
union members, as will her implication that the union would be better
served by purged leaders such as Medina. Her description of the
1978-79 revolt by Salinas Valley lettuce workers, and the UFW's
subsequent libel and slander lawsuits against them, suggests that the
union might be far different today had democratic principles survived
and the lettuce workers won.
When we pause to look at the big picture, three facts become clear.
One: that California agriculture is both a literal and figurative
graveyard for farmworkers, organizers and unions. Two: that the UFW's
problems and failures were the same ones that develop in other
organizations operating under intense pressures. Three: that the UFW
survives is itself a triumph of will, spirit, purpose and need.
A provocative glimpse into recent history, Pawel's exposé offers deep
insight into the nature of mass movements. It is not the last word on
Chávez and the UFW.
Street is the author, most recently, of "Everyone Had Cameras:
Photography and Farmworkers in California, 1850-2000," the third
volume in his history of California farmworkers.