farm workers movement

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Isang Bagsak! Meaning: If one falls, we all fall. Almost fifty years after the struggles and solidarities of the farm workers’ movement, and coming parallel with the highly-anticipated release of the film Cesar Chavez, Marissa Aroy’s independent film tells the lesser-known background of the Great Grape Strike of 1965. Aroy brings light to the significance of organizer Larry Itliong and the 1500 Filipino farm workers in Delano, California who helped light a movement which gave political voice to Chicano, Filipino, Chinese migrant workers and the development of the United Farm Workers. Delano Manongs pays respect to the elders of the American labor movement, and their shared passion, sacrifice, and sense of unity.

UFW: A Broken Contract

2006 LA Times four-part investigative series exposed UFW corruption

EDITOR’S NOTE: Think Mexican is based in Salinas, CA, site of many UFW battles. Its editor, Jose Gonzalez, was a UFW volunteer who spent several of his winter and spring breaks working at the local office. This post is not intended in any way as an attack on “Cesar Chavez,” the movie, nor the UFW and its members.

For those who have come across marketing for the new César Chávez biopic and are thinking of seeing it, we recommend that you first take a minute to read this 2006 LA Times investigative series that exposed UFW nepotism and corruption: UFW: A Broken Contract.

Unfortunately, in the 8-years since ‘Broken Contract’ was published, very little has changed within the UFW. In fact, in many cases, things have gotten much worse. This report provides a deep and extensive look at how the UFW is structured and operates on a day-to-day basis: as a corrupt family business.

UFW: A Broken Contract is still very relevant and a must read for those serious about helping the farmworkers and their cause.

These are excerpts from the 4-part series with links to each part at the bottom of the page:

Part 1 - Farmworkers Reap Little as Union Strays From Its Roots:

Today, a [LA Times] investigation has found, Chavez’s heirs run a web of tax-exempt organizations that exploit his legacy and invoke the harsh lives of farmworkers to raise millions of dollars in public and private money.

The money does little to improve the lives of California farmworkers, who still struggle with the most basic health and housing needs and try to get by on seasonal, minimum-wage jobs.

Most of the funds go to burnish the Chavez image and expand the family business, a multimillion-dollar enterprise with an annual payroll of $12 million that includes a dozen Chavez relatives.

The UFW is the linchpin of the Farm Worker Movement, a network of a dozen tax-exempt organizations that do business with one another, enrich friends and family, and focus on projects far from the fields: They build affordable housing in San Francisco and Albuquerque, own a top-ranked radio station in Phoenix, run a political campaign in support of an Indian casino and lobby for gay marriage.

The current UFW leaders have jettisoned other Chavez principles:

The UFW undercut another union to sign up construction workers, poaching on the turf of building trade unions that once were allies.

The UFW forfeited the right to boycott supermarkets and stores, a tactic Chavez pioneered, in order to sign up members in unrelated professions.

And Chavez’s heirs broke with labor solidarity and hired nonunion workers to build the $3.2-million National Chavez Center around their founder’s grave in the Tehachapi Mountains, a site they now market as a tourist attraction and rent out for weddings.

A few hundred miles away, in the canyons of Carlsbad north of San Diego, hundreds of farmworkers burrow into the hills each year, covering their shacks with leaves and branches to stay out of view of multimilliondollar homes. They live without drinking water, toilets, refrigeration. Fireworks and music from nearby Legoland pierce the nighttime skies.

In a larger camp a dozen miles to the south in Del Mar, farmworkers wash their clothes in a stream, bathe in the soapy water, then catch crayfish that they boil for dinner.

Scott Washburn was the last UFW organizer to work in the San Diego County camps; when he left in 1981, so did the food cooperative, armored trucks that cashed checks without charge, and doctors and English teachers who made regular visits.

“Man, it’s sad down there,” lamented UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, who has run the union since his father-in-law, Chavez, died in 1993.

Yet his union has done nothing to help.

Focus Is on Raising Money, Not Organizing in the Fields

On the wall of the cramped Santa Maria living room that doubles as his office, Pedro Lopez tacked a larger-than-life poster of Cesar Chavez.

“Every time I do things, I think of him,” Lopez said.

But the young Oaxacan farmworker has no faith in the UFW.

In the summer of 1999, Lopez helped organize walkouts among Mixtec Indians in the strawberry fields of Santa Maria. He would drive his truck into the fields, climb on top and call workers out in roving strikes. With ripe berries rotting on the vines, startled strawberry growers quickly agreed to increase wages.

Lopez was fired from his job and blacklisted, but the strike only deepened his commitment to organizing. An elementary school graduate who left Mexico at 12, Lopez had only recently learned about Chavez. He called the UFW for help.

The union filed a complaint that successfully recovered back wages for Lopez and others. Then, at a meeting in Santa Maria, Lopez and others recall, UFW Secretary-Treasurer Tanis Ybarra pledged whatever support the workers needed to continue organizing — an office, telephones, a computer.

When Lopez and several leaders of the United Mixtec Farmworkers arrived a few weeks later at the UFW headquarters to work out the details, the story was different.

Anastacio Bautista, then vice president of the Mixtec group, was among those asked to wait outside while the UFW leaders talked to Lopez alone; they offered Lopez a job but said the union had no money to help his group organize in Santa Maria. And they asked for a decision on the spot. Ybarra recalls Lopez wanted a job; Lopez said he wanted organizing support but felt he needed at least a paycheck.

“Pedro abandoned us, but he had no other choice,” Bautista said. “We lost faith. We didn’t want to organize anymore.”

Lopez worked for the UFW for six months but said it was difficult to generate interest in the union because it had not made good on the initial promises.

That did not stop the UFW from using the plight of Lopez’s group to raise money.

“The United Mixtec Farmworkers turned to the United Farm Workers of America for help. Our goal is to restore rights and dignity to the Mixteco Indian farmworkers,” a fundraising e-mail said. “Your gift of $25, $35 or even $50, would help provide legal and organizational support.”

The UFW spent $940,000 last year on direct-mail fundraising appeals, its largest expense after salaries, according to tax returns. Donations account for almost one-third of the UFW’s budget — more than $2 million a year — and consistently total more than member dues, which hover around $2 million.

Lopez never saw the letter about his own organization. Shown the fundraising appeal recently, he shook his head slowly. “That’s not right,” he said. “They didn’t help.

"I believe they had the power to help, but they didn’t want to. Why? I don’t know. They want to do it the easy way. They want to come in when everything’s already done. They don’t want to spend any money.”

[…]

In the garage of the small house where Lopez is raising five children, across from acres of vegetable fields, a handful of leaders of the United Mixtec Farmworkers meet each Saturday to strategize. They are not quite sure how to proceed, but they know they’re on their own.

“The UFW says, 'Organize yourselves first,’ "Lopez said. "People say, 'If we have to do that anyway, what do we need them for?’ ”

Built by Nonunion Labor, Homes Not for Farmworkers

Over the last 15 years, the National Farm Workers Service Center has raised $230 million to buy or build more than 3,500 housing units for lower-income families in California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

Very few are for farmworkers.

Almost all have been built with nonunion labor.

[…]

Paul Chavez said that only by paying lower, nonunion wages can he hope to meet the Service Center’s ambitious goal of housing 100,000 people in the next decade. The organization provides housing and services for lower-income families, who work mostly in service, retail and construction jobs.

In many places, Chavez said, it is difficult to find union contractors willing to bid on projects, though the Service Center does solicit bids.

That wasn’t the problem in Bakersfield in November.

When the Service Center rejected a union roofing contractor’s bid as too high, roofers union official Joe Guagliardo denounced it as a double standard, saying farmers use the same rationale to oppose the UFW.

“United Farm Workers Are Hypocrites — Shame,” read the banner Guagliardo draped from his truck, which he parked outside UFW headquarters one weekend. The Service Center reversed itself and told the union its roofer would get the job on the Bakersfield apartment complex. “They didn’t want my truck there,” Guagliardo said. “Bad for business.”

Part 2 - Real Estate Deals Pay Off for Insiders:

In May 2004, [Dolores Huerta’s son, Emilio Huerta] formed a private corporation called Landmark Residential. Three months later, Landmark bought the Fresno parcel from the Service Center for $1.8 million.

The day they closed the sale, Huerta and his partners had already agreed to sell the land for $2.9 million to a local developer, according to county records — reaping a profit of $1.1 million.

The insider deal is one example of how leaders of the UFW and the groups they call the Farm Worker Movement have steered money to friends and relatives at the expense of the charities they serve.

Some other recent transactions illustrate their penchant for doing business with their friends:

• A UFW-related charity rented space last fall in a building owned by UFW Secretary/Treasurer Tanis Ybarra, who also sits on the charity’s board. Ybarra said he leases the building, in Parlier near Fresno, to his son Arturo.

The charity’s executive director, Nora Benavides, said she sent her staff to talk with Arturo Ybarra because he was well-connected in the area, and he offered to make space alongside his mother Martha’s tax preparation business. Benavides said it is convenient for the community organizing group’s clients: "We say, hey, listen, there’s Martha here who’s preparing taxes if you need it…. We don’t push it, we just let people know it is available.”

Benavides said she formalized the rental arrangement to avoid any conflicts of interest. The move was never discussed by the charity’s board, which Tanis Ybarra said doesn’t “micromanage” such decisions.

• The Service Center sold the UFW a Craftsman-style house in West Los Angeles that once housed dozens of boycott volunteers during the height of the union’s organizing activity. The UFW allowed friends to live there rent free, then sold it in 2004 to a daughter of UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta for $200,000 — about half the market price for comparable houses at the time, according to county records.

Huerta said that when she heard the UFW was going to sell the house, she asked to buy it because of its historic significance to the movement and her family. Because she had not taken a salary or received a pension during her years working for the UFW, the union gave her a break on the price, she and UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said.

Charities, exempt from paying taxes because they serve a public good, have a legal responsibility to obtain the best possible deal. They are required to disclose transactions with related groups or individuals and to be able to defend such decisions as cost-effective.

In the case of La Estancia, Paul Chavez said Landmark matched a competitor’s bid and was ready to pay the full $1.8 million in cash. He said he was unaware that Landmark flipped the property at a significant profit.

“What you have is a deal in which the charity obviously was paid a million dollars less than what the property was worth,” said Marcus Owens, an attorney who formerly headed the Internal Revenue Service division that oversees tax-exempt groups. “That’s a lot of money.”

Part 3 - Linked Charities Bank on the Chavez Name:

The bulk of the movement’s income is on the side of the ledger that [Paul Chavez] oversees. He runs the National Farm Workers Service Center, which collects rents on the apartments it owns and operates, along with fees for housing development and management, and revenue from radio ads and sponsorships.

In 2003, for example, the Service Center earned $10.8 million from managing property and $6.8 million from the radio stations and spent roughly the same amount operating those enterprises, according to financial statements. In 2004, the Service Center reported spending $1.1 million on management costs and $9.87 million on programs, primarily the housing projects and radio stations. After payroll, the largest expenses are rent, travel and interest on loans.

Chavez also heads the Cesar E. Chavez Development Fund, which sits on almost $10 million and uses the interest to help support the Service Center and other related charities — even as the UFW issues desperate pleas for the donations that make up one-third of the union’s $7-million budget.

The business of organizing farmworkers has become almost an afterthought, like the junked cars and abandoned school bus that once transported boycott volunteers and now litter a back field on the UFW’s 180-acre campus.

LUPE: Political Clout Helps the Entire Movement

The UFW-affiliated radio studios were paid $9,300 for production, and then each of the four California radio stations the movement owns earned $375 per hour to air one-hour programs required by the grant.

The Farm Worker Movement’s radio stations were even paid to air public service announcements, with rates ranging from $11 to $75 per 30-second spot.

During one week in December 2004, Radio Campesina billed $2,295 to do 85 promotions for an upcoming event, charging $27 for each 30-second promotion. Then it charged $5,000 for 90 minutes of live broadcasts from the event.

Paul Chavez, who oversees the radio stations and also sits on the board of LUPE, said the network doesn’t usually charge for public service announcements unless groups come in with a budget: “It’s really whatever the market can bear.”

The checks are cut by the UFW’s accounting office, run by Elizabeth Villarino, who is also the treasurer of LUPE.

To meet the goal of the program funded by the First Five Commission, LUPE set up committees of farmworker parents, educated them about their preschool children’s needs and helped them sign up for existing programs, such as health insurance.

Once organizers had set up the committees and compiled a database of parents, half a dozen organizers said, Benavides told them to start signing the parents up as LUPE members and charging a $40 annual fee. When staffers objected, they said, they were forced out.

Benavides, who became LUPE’s executive director in August 2004, agreed that the organizers were reluctant to ask for membership dues, which she said are vital to making programs self-sustaining and making sure members feel invested in LUPE.

“Some people just aren’t comfortable asking for money,” she said, adding that she fired a number of staff members because they did not meet various goals, including that one.

When state officials monitoring the grant raised questions about the staff turnover and the push for members, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, also the president of LUPE, tried to reach Reiner to complain.

Some LUPE staff members said they objected that it was wrong to collect dues for programs that were already paid for by the state grant. In some cases, they said they’d assured parents there would be no fee.

“We didn’t need the money,” said Cesar Lara, LUPE’s California director until he resigned under pressure in July. “And we weren’t offering any services.”

Part 4 - Decisions of Long Ago Shape the Union Today:

The UFW board members had arrived expecting to hash out a new strategic plan after a string of victories, including a pact to keep the rival Teamsters union out of the fields. Instead, they found themselves in the Game room, where some observed from elevated seats as others accepted a challenge to play in the recessed pit.

In retrospect, some UFW leaders came to view the Synanon meeting as a watershed, the first clear signal that Chavez had veered off course and shifted his focus away from organizing farmworkers.

“We were so close,” said Eliseo Medina, one of the UFW’s top organizers and a board member until 1978. “And then it began to fall apart…. At the time we were having our greatest success, Cesar got sidetracked. Cesar was more interested in leading a social movement than a union per se.”

[…]

The decisions Chavez made a quarter of a century ago shaped the union and Farm Worker Movement today, turning it away from the core mission of organizing farmworkers. His actions drove out a generation of talented labor leaders; he replaced them with handpicked loyalists — including many of the people now running the organization. He quashed dissent and increased his control just as the union’s growth made that more problematic.

He became increasingly concerned with traitors, spoke of malignant forces and publicly purged the young and old. He turned on proteges, some of his earliest supporters and close friends. His actions so baffled them that many years later they still seek explanations.

As the UFW board gathered in February 1977 at the Synanon campus, there was a moment of opportunity to solidify those gains. Instead, Chavez became focused on building a community at the UFW’s rambling headquarters in the Tehachapi Mountains. He railed about inefficiency, obsessing about the cost of telephone bills or questioning a $7.20 brake repair bill. He led committees that discussed celebrating movement anniversaries instead of birthdays. He studied mind healing and practiced curing illness by laying on hands.

For more than a year, Chavez required staff members to drive as much as five hours every weekend to La Paz, the union’s headquarters, to play the Game.

“Cesar was struggling with disloyalty within the ranks. Dederich says: 'This is how you deal with it.’ The Game came to La Paz for control,” said Chris Hartmire, a close Chavez aide who became the “game master” at La Paz, setting up the encounters.

[…]

Whether Chavez initiated the changes or responded defensively, the net result was the same. By 1982, he had driven out dissenting voices on the board, among the staff and in the fields. Key staff and architects of the union’s early success were gone, along with the next generation of leaders in the fields. The UFW never regained the same momentum as a labor union for farmworkers.

1977: The Purges

In December 1976, Nick Jones, a longtime left-leaning volunteer who had been directing the UFW boycott, was accused by Chavez of masterminding a communist conspiracy to bring down the union. “I was flabbergasted,” said Jones. “It demoralized me more than anything else in my whole life.”

Jones quit, his abrupt departure triggering protests from around the country. The boycott had been a powerful weapon for the union, publicizing the harsh conditions for farmworkers and exerting pressure on companies to sign contracts. A mix of volunteers, students and farmworkers, the boycotters were a close-knit group. Many moved from city to city, and Jones was a well-known and liked leader.

“An atmosphere of suspicion has developed, in which preposterous accusations can be made and acted upon indiscriminately. People have been fired on the basis of flimsy charges against them,” the Seattle boycott staff wrote to Chavez, one of many letters that demanded either an explanation or an apology.

[…]

At a community meeting on April 4, 1977, that became known as the “Monday night massacre,” volunteers were viciously attacked and expelled for sins ranging from smoking pot to betraying the union. “It was planned, and it was brutal,” said Larry Tramutola, then a high-ranking union leader who participated in the denunciations.

Deirdre Godfrey was one of those expelled; she described in a letter to the executive board how security guards followed and threatened her that evening when she made a call to find a place to live: “I have never spent such a fearful night…. I shall never forget the frenzied, hate-filled faces and voices of people who had been warm and friendly with me right through to the hour of the meeting.”

Over the next year, Chavez continued to denounce popular workers as communist infiltrators. A volunteer in her 70s was turned out with no place to live. In the middle of a wedding reception, Chavez vilified a young woman who had lived in his house as a teenager, ordering her thrown off the grounds just weeks after she had successfully negotiated a contract.

Huerta said it was a time when security had become a major concern in the loose-knit organization, after Chavez received death threats. “If Cesar was a little paranoid, there’s a reason for it,” she said.

1978: Turmoil on the Board

In an organization where most staff were volunteers, paid $5 a week plus free room and board, UFW lawyers had special status: They earned about $600 a month. In the spring of 1978, each lawyer asked for a $400-a-month raise.

Chavez seized on the requests and turned them into a referendum on the larger issue of whether the union would have paid staff. He painted the lawyers as greedy and unwilling to sacrifice like everyone else and said acceding to their demand would be a prelude to destroying the volunteer organization. He asked the board to vote in support of the status quo, effectively dismantling the legal operation.

Cohen and Ganz countered that a stable of professionals who could afford to stick with the union was critical, particularly as the contracts in Salinas were expiring. The debate was so heated the executive board adjourned for 10 days. Chavez eventually won by one vote, and most of the lawyers left soon after, replaced by a smaller operation at La Paz.

“It wasn’t about money; it was about control,” said Cohen, who resigned as chief counsel but stayed during a transition.

To Medina, the vote was one more sign the UFW was headed in the wrong direction. A farmworker who had risen quickly to a leadership position, Medina was widely viewed in the fields and among staff as the logical successor to Chavez. But Medina had been unhappy for months. “We sort of had become focused on everything except going out and organizing farmworkers,” he said.

1979: The Strike

On the eve of the UFW’s convention in Salinas on Aug. 11, more than 6,000 farmworkers and supporters marching from two directions converged at a rally where Chavez and Gov. Jerry Brown gave fiery speeches and talked about a general strike.

In fact, Chavez had come to Salinas intent on shifting the union’s resources into a national boycott. At a secret meeting that night, he explained to the workers’ leaders that the UFW could not afford a strike.

“The union is broke. We’ve spent $2.8 million on this strike,” Chavez said. A boycott would increase pressure. “It takes more time, but it is easier to win. It is a sure win. In a general strike you aren’t as sure you will win.”

The farmworkers didn’t buy it. One by one, for more than 90 minutes, they articulated reasons to strike. If they were sent to boycott, they would lose their jobs and seniority. Workers had been eager to strike for months. If there was money to support a boycott, why not for the strike that workers were demanding?

“If we don’t do it, the high morale and all the desire they have had for so long to go on strike … that morale will fall to the ground,” Chava Bustamante told Chavez. “We have to make a decision that we will have to live with forever.”

Workers who had been on strike for seven months would feel abandoned, his brother Mario said: “And with that, the faith and spirit that everyone had in us will be lost.”

Ganz ended the meeting after midnight, saying everyone was tired. The convention would endorse a boycott and a strike, concealing the dissension, and the group would reconvene. They never met with Chavez again.

“I think it was the worst thing you could do to a leader like him,” said Sabino Lopez, another farmworker who attended the meeting. “ … To say, 'Sorry, boss, we’re not going to boycott.’ ”

Within days, more workers went out on strike, without benefits. Chavez called a meeting at La Paz to plan the boycott; Ganz was running the strike and refused to go. The two did not speak for weeks.

“I didn’t feel I was part of the union leadership,” Ganz said.

Unusually hot weather accelerated the harvest and increased the pressure on growers, who began to settle on terms union leaders had only dreamt about: wages starting at $5 per hour, significant medical benefits and paid union representatives.

Chavez hailed the victories but shunned the celebration at a Salinas hotel. “We had the growers lined up at the Towne House, waiting to sign, and Cesar wouldn’t come,” recalled Cohen, the lawyer who handled negotiations.

Back in La Paz, there was a different celebration around the same time. A class of farmworkers had completed a 10-week English course. More than a hundred friends, family and residents of La Paz gathered for graduation and applauded a student slide show that concluded: “The union is not Cesar Chavez. The union is the workers.”

Minutes later, graduates and guests sat down to a celebratory lunch. Dolores Huerta rose and attacked the teacher, demanding to know who had put the students up to voicing such heresy.

The lunch was over before it began. Chavez fired two teachers later that day.

1980: The Paid Reps

For some time, Padilla had found the changes in his longtime friend and mentor so puzzling that he asked others if they thought Chavez had gone crazy. Padilla was particularly outraged when Chavez scrapped plans for a clinic and service center in the Central Valley city of Parlier and turned the site over to a builder to make money jointly by selling houses.

“I knew Cesar was the man, el jefe, but I didn’t think the movement belonged to him,” said Padilla, who resigned as secretary/treasurer. “I thought it belonged to the workers.

1981: The Confrontation

The campaign for the UFW board was as fierce and ugly as the elections between the union and the growers. Chavez dispatched board members, who spent almost $5,000 campaigning against the insurgents, painting them as dangerous radicals trying to depose Chavez at the behest of Ganz and Cohen. Both had left the union months before.

Huerta had often found fault with Ganz but had been unable earlier to shake Chavez’s confidence in his trusted aide. Then and now, she accused him of masterminding the Salinas insurgents’ campaign, a charge Ganz and the workers reject as patronizing and untrue.

"They were good organizers,” Huerta said about the paid reps, arguing they were manipulated by Ganz, who thought he should run the union.

On Sept. 5, Chavez opened the Fresno convention with a speech about “malignant forces” and then pulled off a parliamentary maneuver that effectively precluded a contested election for the board seats.

About 50 of the Salinas delegates walked out in protest. Chavez allies passed out leaflets calling the insurgents communists. Mario Bustamante broke the staff of his union flag in two.

[…]

After the convention came the repercussions.

Adair’s wife was fired from her job as a nurse at the union-run health clinic. She was told, she aid, that she was fired for “being married to the traitor.”

In Hollister, Cesar’s son Paul led picketing of the office of a legal assistance agency where Chava Bustamante worked.

“They’d come out to the fields and attack me and my friends,” Pelayo said. She returned to the Imperial Valley, never worked in the fields again and tried to shut out news of the union. “I didn’t want to know anything. It was great pain.”

In Salinas, Huerta led a campaign to unseat Mario Bustamante, who had served as president of the union workers at his company for seven years, and the other dissident leaders. When the workers stood by their elected representatives, Chavez fired them.

“They accused me of being a spy, being with the growers,” said Sabino Lopez. “I refused jobs with growers. I didn’t want to allow them to make the point. At the end, nobody wanted me. The union didn’t want me, the growers didn’t want me.”

Bustamante, Lopez and seven others sued, charging Chavez had fired them illegally because they were elected by the workers. Chavez countered with a $25-million libel suit.

Although almost all from this investigative series is current, some things have changed within the UFW in the 8-years since this report was first published. Many have left, some have been fired (including at least one Chávez heir), some of the UFW’s non-profit entities have merged, but what has unfortunately not changed is the indifference most in the Mexican community have toward the many documented cases of corruption within the UFW. This needs to change.

While the UFW is busy promoting “Cesar Chavez,” and in some cases attempting to educate the general public on who he was, few if any in the media are offering information like this that we feel more accurately reflects the legacy of nepotism and corruption Chavez left behind, and its effect on the day-to-day lives of farmworkers.

Therefore, this post should be seen as a primer on the UFW with much more updated information to come in the coming days. In the meantime, please read and share with friends.

Links:

Part 1: Farmworkers Reap Little as Union Strays From Its Roots

Part 2: Real Estate Deals Pay Off for Insiders

Part 3: Linked Charities Bank on the Chavez Name

Part 4: Decisions of Long Ago Shape the Union Today

Image: Juan Ventura savors a soft drink on his cardboard bed after a day of picking strawberries in Carlsbad. Tape and string held his plastic house together. A church donated the rosaries and toilet paper. Credit: Don Bartletti, LAT