Friday, June 1, 2012
Cesar Chavez, Tragic Hero
For more than two decades I’ve argued, whenever the subject comes up, that Cesar Chavez was the classic tragic hero — a man of greatness brought down by a fatal flaw. In his case the flaw was an utter lack of interest in actually running a labor union and an unwillingness to delegate the job to someone who could do it.
It’s not an argument that endears you to people on either side of the political spectrum. Conservatives, who tend to view Chavez as the illegitimate spawn of Mao and Karl Marx, don’t buy into the greatness. Liberals, who want to believe in his saintliness, want to blame the collapse of the UFW on the growers and Republicans and excuse or absolve Chavez of any part in it.
To me, the greatness is self-evident. With no legislative or legal structure to build upon, he organized a labor movement among people who worked in the fields and who had largely been forgotten by society. That movement succeeded, for a while anyway, beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. It was clearly the work of a visionary and uncommon man, accomplished, to be sure, with the help of many others.
Over Memorial Day weekend I read Frank Bardacke’s Trampling Out the Vintage, a history of the UFW under Chavez. It’s a wonderful book: Thorough, fair-minded, highly readable. And it documents Chavez’ own contribution to the demise of his union in a way that will make it nearly impossible for future historians and biographers to engage in hagiography.
It has long been clear that Chavez regarded the union as only one part of a much larger farm worker movement, and I had assumed he neglected the nuts and bolts of the union operation solely because of his focus on the larger vision. Bardacke shows that the story was more complicated.
Chavez was a classic control freak, and because his leadership was unquestioned, that aspect of his personality did untold damage. It led to UFW administration of contracts being structured in ways that maximized union control over everything, to the point that the hiring halls couldn’t process workers fast enough to get them into the fields during the harvest, when time was of the essence. At the same time, Chavez was running the union like a small-town drugstore owner, trying to oversee and sign off on everything. At best that caused delays; at worst, things didn’t get done.
It’s often said that nothing ruins a man like success. In one sense that was true for Chavez. Having won his initial grape contracts through a nationwide boycott, he became the classic case of the man with the hammer who sees every problem as a nail. Bardacke makes a well-documented and persuasive argument that by focusing on boycotts, rather than on organizing workers and building a democratic, sustainable union, Chavez helped sow the seeds of his own destruction.
In the late 1970s the UFW moved its headquarters to La Paz, an isolated former county building in the hills above Tehachapi. Not only did the move distance the union leadership from the people it was serving, it spawned a culture of self-absorption, pettiness and paranoia. By the time the union was crumbling in the early 1980s, the toxic atmosphere at La Paz made the Nixon White House look like Mister Rogers’ neighborhood.
A lot of people won’t want to hear any of this. They’ll continue to blame the growers, Republicans and the Establishment in general. But the hard fact of the American labor movement is that the bosses have always been against it, and the legislatures and courts have usually been against it. Many unions succeeded despite those circumstances; the UFW didn’t. Chavez has to own his part in the failure.