How Cesar Chavez’s Union Lost Its Way

LOS ANGELES — Day after day this summer, the dramatic images filled front pages and social media feeds: a sea of red flags; the trademark black eagle on homemade signs carried by weathered hands; banners with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the face of Cesar Chavez. The storied United Farm Workers was on the move, re-enacting the 335-mile march to Sacramento that its founder, Chavez, led in 1966.

It was an easy narrative to spread in the age of tweets and TikTok: Heroic farmworkers pleading with the villainous Gavin Newsom, the wealthy Democratic governor with presidential aspirations who refused to sign a bill that would give hard-working, underpaid immigrants who feed the nation the support they need. Clergy members joined the march, doctors stopped to offer first aid, and donors sent money.La causa tugged at the heartstrings of an older generation that grew up boycotting grapes and a younger one hungry for something to believe in.

Yet if the emotional pleas are to translate into actions that benefit workers, facts need to prevail over feelings. And the facts suggest that the energy and public pageantry of the march are a far cry from the struggle for justice in the fields. The symbolism of the U.F.W. president holding aloft her worn-out shoe is not matched by the painstaking commitment required to do what the union has not done in years — organize, rather than exert political pressure to change laws it does not even use.

Workers have to be persuaded that to join a union is worth the risk. That takes more than marches. This Labor Day weekend, we see those struggles playing out successfully across the country at Amazon warehouses, Starbucks, a vineyard on Long Island. California farmworkers, overwhelmingly Latino and often undocumented, need a union that will commit itself to the difficult work of real organizing.

The focus of the U.F.W. marches, rallies and vigils is a bill recently passed by the State Legislature that would overhaul the landmark California law that governs union activity in the fields. State-administered secret-ballot elections to determine union representation could be replaced with either mail-in ballots (in the unlikely event a grower agreed not to oppose the union) or a petition process that the union would control. The U.F.W. argues that because polling places are at workers’ job sites, the current system is so stacked against the union that it cannot fairly compete with employers.

Yet, sadly, it has barely tried. It has been five years since the U.F.W. filed for an election to represent workers at a California farm. It won. There have been only a handful of elections in more than a decade under the process outlined in the unique California law — which, it bears emphasizing, is one of the strongest, most favorable labor laws in the country.

The union, whose motto is “Sí se puede,” has always found an excuse, someone else to blame for just how little organizing work it has done in recent years — the growers who use anti-union propagandists, threats and intimidation to illegally quash union support; the backlogged state agency that takes too long to resolve complaints; the court decisions that hamper access to workers in the field; the politicians who fail to support the union’s demands.

To a degree, those are real obstacles. Growers fight unions and engage in unfair labor practices. The state is slow to order and process redress for workers unfairly fired or deprived of wages. The U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down a key regulation that allowed union organizers to meet with workers in the fields. But in the previous five years, the U.F.W. took advantage of that right just three times. It stopped organizing long ago.

Under the current law, if a majority of California farmworkers at a ranch request a union election, the state must hold it within seven days. If the state determines the union lost because of grower interference, the state can issue a bargaining order, a decade-old law never invoked. If the grower fails to negotiate in good faith, the state can order mandatory mediation after 90 days and then impose a contract. If the grower delays, they can be ordered to give workers lost pay. Those are provisions many union organizers in other sectors would envy.

Last year, Mr. Newsom became the third governor in a row to veto a bill that would allow farmworker unions to be certified by card check, a process in which a union can gain bargaining rights by collecting commitments from a majority of workers (which the labor movement has pushed for unsuccessfully on the federal level). His most recent predecessors — a Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a Democrat, Jerry Brown — vetoed similar bills, on similar grounds: If union organizers fill out forms and solicit workers’ signatures, it deprives workers of the right to vote in secret. Union organizers’ knowing how each worker votes can constitute a different type of intimidation. This year’s bill, which Mr. Newsom has indicated he does not support, provides for mail-in ballots only if an employer agrees to remain neutral and not discuss the union; otherwise, a union may use card check.

California is the only state with a labor agency dedicated to protecting the rights of farmworkers, who are excluded from the national labor law that governs union activity. Governor Brown, who marched with Mr. Chavez, negotiated the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975.

By the time he returned to the governor’s office 36 years later, time and circumstances had eroded the power of the union and the law. The U.F.W., which went into decline decades ago, reported 4,332 active members for 2021, a small fraction of the farmworkers in California, much less the country. Even in its heyday, dues never were the bulk of the union’s revenue. Then as now, it relied heavily on donations from organized labor, foundations, companies and supporters like those who embraced the recent march.

The pomp and celebration of the marches and the failure to organize seem particularly painful at a moment when there is widespread empathy for farmworkers, who could not work from home, who cannot escape ever-rising temperatures, who labor in an industry being reshaped by drought and global warming. The Covid pandemic has made farmworkers more visible and climate change makes their livelihoods even more precarious — generating public appreciation that could be leveraged for real change, not just fund-raising.

A friend who grew up in a family deeply shaped by the farmworkers’ movement, his parents one generation removed from the fields, told me of his angst when a colleague proudly said her aunt made breakfast burritos for the marchers. He tried to explain how grateful he was for what the U.F.W. did back in the day, the way it showed poor people the power of collective action and showed the world the power of a union, and the real changes the movement brought about in the fields. But that was history.

In more than a decade of research and writing, I have seen the power of the U.F.W. over and over, in the generation of farmworkers and organizers who came of age at the movement’s height. I immersed myself in that history to understand how it transformed lives, wrote about Cesar Chavez in all his humanity and heroism.

But if the U.F.W. is not committed to the difficult work of real organizing, as my friend told his colleague, it is long past time to get out of the way and give someone else a chance. Because, as the marchers said, the need has never been greater.

Miriam Pawel (@miriampawel) is the author of “The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement” and “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography.”

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