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October 2010, Volume 16, Number 4

Chavez and the UFW: A Review Essay

California's 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act was widely expected to usher in a new era for farm workers. The ALRA, the most pro-worker and pro-union labor relations law in the US, requires quick elections whose timing is controlled by unions. Employers who refuse to bargain in good faith with certified unions can be ordered to pay their workers the difference between what would have been negotiated and what was actually paid. Finally, since 2003, California farm worker unions can request mandatory mediation to achieve a first contract if they are unable to negotiate one.

Despite the favorable ALRA, the United Farm Workers founded by Cesar Chavez had fewer than 50 contracts and 5,000 members at the end of 2009. What went wrong? Three decades ago, the UFW was expected to organize most of the 2.5 million hired farm workers across the US, which would have made it one of the largest US unions (the Service Employees International Union is currently the largest US union, with almost two million members, over half in health care, 850,000 state and local government workers, and 225,000 janitors and security guards).

The ALRA was a self-help tool? it granted rights to farm workers that they were expected to use to form or join unions and bargain for higher wages. There are four major explanations for the failure of the UFW and other farm worker unions to organize farm workers and transform the farm labor market via collective bargaining: union leadership failures, political changes, employer restructuring, and immigration.

Most books emphasize union leadership failures and political changes in Sacramento to explain why the UFW was unable to transform California's farm labor market. The leadership failure explanation focuses on Cesar Chavez, acknowledging his charismatic leadership that inspired farm workers and attracted volunteers to La Causa and emphasizing his unwillingness to allow the UFW to become a business union that provided services efficiently to its worker-members. Instead, Chavez drove away loyal volunteers in the 1980s, just as the power to appoint policy makers to the state agency administering the ALRA shifted from Democrats to Republicans.

Employer restructuring and immigration explanations may be more compelling for farm worker union failures. The UFW had its breakthrough successes between 1966 and 1980 with the California farming subsidiaries of multinationals vulnerable to consumer boycotts, Schenley liquor and United Brands (Chiquita bananas). Both Schenley and the United's Sun Harvest signed UFW contracts that raised entry-level wages over 40 percent, an extraordinary accomplishment then or now, to avoid boycotts of their nonfarm products.

These vulnerable-to-boycott farming operations were sold soon after contracts were signed, and their land was taken over by growers much more likely to use intermediaries to obtain seasonal workers. Chavez saw farm labor contractors (FLCs) as the enemy of unions, and the ALRA explicitly makes the operator of a farm on which a FLC works the employer for union purposes (but not for minimum wage and immigration purposes). This means that a crew of FLC workers could move from farm to farm, vote for the union, and leave the farm with an obligation to bargain, even if the workers who voted for representation never worked on that farm again. Employers avoid FLCs believed to have pro-union crews. Furthermore, by bringing both workers and forklifts and trucks to the farm and making decisions about where to harvest in consultation with packers and processors rather than farmers, many FLCs became custom harvesters and thus employers in their own right, a development not anticipated in the mid-1970s. It has been very hard for unions to organize custom harvester crews.

Unions, primarily the UFW and the Teamsters, had their maximum impacts on farm wages and benefits between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s, a period of very low immigration. The Bracero program ended in 1964, and unauthorized migration did not begin to surge until 1983, when a then-record 1.3 million foreigners were apprehended by the Border Patrol (peak apprehension years were 1986 and 2000, with 1.8 million each year).

The Teamsters withdrew from the fields in the late 1970s, clearing the way for the UFW to organize farm workers. With seasonal worker "careers" typically less than 10 years, organizing newcomers is a high priority for unions. Organizing was not a priority for the UFW during the 1980s, when the equivalent of the entire farm work force changed, making it no surprise that many 20-year old farm workers by 1990 thought Cesar Chavez referred to the Mexican boxer rather than the UFW leader.

The unanswered question is whether sustained organizing and pro-union appointees to the ALRB could have kept the UFW growing in the 1980s despite structural changes in farm employment and rising immigration. Ganz suggests that sustained organizing could have moved mountains, allowing the UFW to thrive despite other economic forces that put downward pressure on wages. Pawel shows that Chavez was not interested in business unionism, defined as organizing workers and providing services to union members. Shaw's book aims to extract lessons from the UFW that have aided in nonfarm social justice campaigns. All focus on personalities, not economic forces.

The UFW since 1994 has been headed by Arturo Rodriguez, Chavez's son-in-law, who repeated the Delano to Sacramento march, signed contracts with long-time UFW nemeses such as Bruce Church and Gallo of Sonoma, and won the mandatory mediation amendment to the ALRA in 2002 under then Governor Gray Davis. However, the "new UFW?s" strawberry organizing campaign of the late 1990s largely failed, and there have been more decertifications of the UFW in the image-conscious wine business than certifications.

The UFW remains a political power, able to persuade the California Legislature (but not the governor) to approve a card-check amendment to the ALRA so that unions can be recognized as the representative of farm workers without an election (the UFW lost an election September 1, 2005 at table-grape grower Giumarra Vineyards despite 70 percent of workers signing union authorization cards? some workers apparently changed their minds). The UFW executive board in 2009 included two members who primarily dealt with grower contracts and four who dealt primarily with politics.

Ganz. Marshall Ganz, a UFW organizer from 1965 until the early 1980s, credits the UFW's "strategic capacity" for winning contracts with grape and lettuce growers in the late 1960s and early 1970s ("Why David Sometimes Wins" is a seven-chapter rewrite of Ganz's 2000 PhD thesis). During the heyday of the UFW, many large fruit and vegetable growers believed that unionization was inevitable and signed contracts with the UFW that raised wages and introduced benefits such as health insurance and pensions to seasonal farm workers. The contracts negotiated in the 1970s gave the UFW unprecedented power to be consulted over pesticides and other farming-related practices.

Ganz's book is primarily historical, reviewing previous failed efforts to organize farm workers in the first half of the 20th century in order to explain how Cesar Chavez and the UFW succeeded in organizing farm workers in the early 1960s. Ganz attributes the UFW's success to three factors: motivated leaders; ties to supporters that ranged from unions and churches to college students; and creative decision-making. Ganz credits Chavez for the UFW's victories in the 1960s and 1970s, and blames Chavez for the UFW's decline in the 1980s. For example, it was hard to develop farm worker union leaders from within because the UFW had no locals, so that members of the ranch committees established on each farm had no easy way to climb the ladder to UFW leadership positions.

Pawel. Loa Angeles Times reporter Miriam Pawel examines the evolution of the UFW from the 1960s to the 1990s through eight key figures ranging from lawyer Jerry Cohen to minster Chris Hartmire; all left the UFW by the time Chavez died in 1993. She concludes that Cesar Chavez began the UFW practically alone, and wound up as the single force directing it, unable and unwilling to share power.

Pawel wrote a four-part series critical of the UFW?s financial dealings in January 2006, concluding that "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, [but] the money does little to improve the lives of California farmworkers."

Pawel's fast-paced six-part, 28-chapter book reviews the rise of the UFW in the 1960s that culminated in contracts with major table-grape growers in 1970. As Chavez fasted in 1968 to call attention to the grape boycott and gained the status of the Hispanic version of Martin Luther King, it was already apparent that he believed that people were either union supporters or opponents and that there was no room for dissent within the union.

Part two deals with the struggle to move the union from Delano grapes to Salinas lettuce in the early 1970s. Many grower-shippers responded to the UFW by signing contracts with the Teamsters, who already represented their nonfarm packing and transport workers. Instead of a boycott, Salinas lettuce workers went on strike, confusing nonfarm supporters across the US who were asked to boycott stores that sold lettuce picked by Teamster-represented farm workers and to buy lettuce harvested by UFW members. Meanwhile, Chavez moved from Delano to La Paz, a remote location, and ignored a rising tide of complaints from both growers and workers about the union's administration of its contracts, especially the hiring halls used to deploy seasonal workers to jobs on farms.

Part three turns to the near-demise of the UFW in 1973-74 and its resurrection with the election of Governor Jerry Brown. Pawel emphasizes that Chavez was ambivalent about the ALRA, insisting on provisions so favorable to unions, such as quick elections at peak season and a continued right to engage in secondary boycotts, that he did not expect the ALRA to be approved. The ALRA was enacted in 1975, and Pawel quotes Chavez as predicting that, as the farm worker struggle shifted from boycotts in the cities to elections in the fields, the UFW would "lose a hell of a lot of power." (p156)

Chavez believed that unauthorized foreigners weakened the UFW and helped growers to break strikes. Pawel quotes Chavez telling the UFW's executive board in 1974 that "if we can get the illegals out of California and Arizona, we can win the strike overnight." (p141).

Part four turns to UFW activities under the ALRA. California farm workers for the first time had a state agency, the ALRB, to supervise elections and process charges that their ALRA rights were violated. The ALRB could restore the economic status quo after ULPs were committed by ordering employers to reinstate unlawfully fired workers with backpay and ordering employers who failed to bargain in good faith to "make their workers whole." No other US labor law has the makewhole remedy, which growers complained put the ALRB on the union's side of the bargaining table.

Chavez preached nonviolence, but Pawel emphasizes that he rejected the plan of Eliseo Medina to focus on farms without Teamster contracts in Fall 1975. Instead, Chavez insisted that the UFW confront the Teamsters on farms where they had contracts; the UFW usually won elections to represent farm workers, but there were frequent conflicts between Teamster and UFW organizers (p160). Pawel recounts the dirty tricks? employers and Teamsters sometimes called immigration agents to stage raids just before elections? but the UFW nonetheless won 55 percent of the elections that were certified in Fall 1975, compared to 32 percent for the Teamsters.

In February 1976, the ALRB ran out of money and shut down. The ALRA remained in effect, but no elections were held until July 1976, when the state's new fiscal year began. Over the objections of Governor Jerry Brown, the godfather of the ALRA, Chavez insisted on putting Proposition 14 on the Fall 1976 ballot, which would have enshrined the ALRA in the California constitution and assured funding for the ALRB. Most opinion leaders opposed amending the state constitution to fund a particular state agency. Growers ran ads attacking the access rule, which was not in the ALRA but adopted by the first ALRB and allowed union organizers to enter farms and talk to workers. Proposition 14 lost 38 to 62 percent, helping to pierce the UFW's aura of invincibility.

Chavez responded to voter rejection of Prop 14 with a purge of the volunteers who had built and sustained the UFW. He turned to Synanon, which used a "Game" to criticize a particular person. Lawyer Jerry Cohen, for example, was criticized for keeping the UFW's legal department in Salinas rather than moving to La Paz with Chavez. Pawel suggests that, during the critical 1976-77 period, when the UFW should have been building a structure to organize and administer contracts, Chavez focused on re-orienting the UFW to be a poor people's movement rather than a union.

Part five recounts the tensions within the UFW between pragmatists who wanted to build a union and Chavez intent on turning the UFW into a cooperative sustained by volunteers. Chavez insisted on approving each contract that was negotiated. He wanted union staff be non-salaried volunteers, with no exceptions for professionals such as lawyers. When Chavez rejected plans to add volunteer staff to organize farm workers in 1978, Eliseo Medina, now a leader of the Service Employees International Union, resigned.

Part six turns to the UFW's Waterloo, the strikes against lettuce growers early in 1979 that resulted in Pyrrhic victory. The first contracts signed under the ALRA expired in early 1979, and the UFW called a strike against Imperial Valley lettuce growers. After six months, the UFW won the 42 percent wage increase it demanded from a few growers, such as the Sun Harvest subsidiary of United Brands, raising entry-level wages from $3.70 to $5.25 an hour. In another seeming UFW victory , the ALRB's Admiral Packing decision ordered growers who refused to raise wages to Sun Harvest levels to "make their workers whole" at the Sun-Harvest wage rates. However, the multinationals sold their fresh vegetable subsidiaries, leaving the UFW empty handed, and the California courts overturned the ALRB decision, leaving UFW-represented workers without jobs or backpay.

Pawel concludes that Chavez did not want more contracts in the Salinas Valley because they included paid union representatives who became an independent power base that challenged his authority. Chavez's micro-management prompted key staff to quit. Jerry Cohen resigned in November 1980 after Chavez rebuked him for not including a UFW-run hiring hall in a re-negotiated contract, and Marshall Ganz and other long-time leaders left soon afterward.

Pawel devotes a chapter to the UFW convention in September 1981, the first time that Chavez was challenged by farm worker union members. These Salinas representatives, with independent power bases among relatively well-paid farm workers, wanted to nominate farm workers for the UFW's executive board. Chavez worked tirelessly to remove them from power and eventually fired nine. They sued and won back pay, but the UFW changed its constitution in 1983 to ensure that farm-level union representatives were appointed, keeping power centralized.

Pawel concludes that Chavez was a gifted but flawed leader. He was able to encourage farm workers to organize for change, to inspire volunteers, and to elicit donations and support from the wider public, but unable to negotiate and administer union contracts. Chavez made many sacrifices, including long marches and lengthy fasts, but did not take responsibility for mistakes. When things went wrong, Chavez found scapegoats.

Chavez in the late 1970s came to believe that most of his enemies were within the UFW. Pawel's stories of unfounded charges that drove dedicated volunteers from the UFW and frequent allusions to Chavez's preferences for the leadership style of Mao in China reinforce the image of the UFW as an organization unable to tolerate dissent. Chavez is quoted as saying that that he was reluctant to give up the "absolute power" he had when the UFW began in the early 1960s.

The UFW remains a top-down organization headquartered in La Paz, far from the San Joaquin Valley with half of the state's farm workers. The UFW has never had local unions, meaning that all decisions are made or reviewed by "distant" leaders, and there is no natural ladder from worker to local union leader. The UFW reports fewer than 5,000 members and fewer than 1,000 retirees on its annual LM-2 financial reports ( They are served by 64 UFW employees and 11 officers, one of the highest ratios of employees to members among unions.

In recent years, UFW revenues have been almost $7 million a year, with 40 percent from dues. UFW dues are two percent of gross earnings, suggesting that $2.6 million in dues income was generated from $130 million in earnings, equivalent to 5,000 workers each earning $26,000. The UFW's share of workers is largest in mushrooms, where workers are employed year-round.

Shaw. Randy Shaw, an activist lawyer who helped to found the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, wrote the 11-chapter "Beyond the Fields" book because ?little is known about Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers' movement.? (pxi).

Unfortunately, Shaw's book does not clarify the UFW's story. The history of the UFW in chapter one is marred by errors. Over 4.5 million Mexicans were admitted as braceros between 1942 and 1964, but they did not all come to California (p15). The table grape strike of 1965 was set in motion by growers reducing wages? Braceros had to be paid at least $1.40 an hour, but US farm workers at the time had no minimum wage protections, and growers offered them $1.25 an hour? the dispute was over a wage cut (p18). The DiGiorgio election was in August 1966, not 1967 (p20).

Shaw races through the grape boycott, emphasizing the importance of college student UFW volunteers, praising the UFW's willingness to give women responsibility, and arguing that mainstream AFL-CIO unisons were not helpful, even though United Auto Workers union contributions were a key source of funds for the fledgling UFW. The main message of Shaw's book is that UFW boycott strategies of the late 1960s and early 1970s were very successful, and that the UFW went into decline after winning the ALRA in 1975, when organizing and bargaining replaced activism.

Chapter two profiles "successful boycotts" that range from boycotting Salvadoran coffee to boycotting hotels to encourage them to remain neutral in organizing drives. Chapter three turns to fasts, crediting Chavez's frequent fasts with winning publicity and sympathy for UFW causes? but finds few successors who fasted to achieve labor goals. Chapter four turns to Justice for Janitors campaigns, highlighting on the successful effort of UFW-alumnus Eliseo Medina to have the University of Miami raise payments to its janitorial contractor so that the SEIU could win an increase in janitors' wages.

Chapter five on pesticides credits the UFW with an "historic role in educating the public about the concept of environmental justice," (p140), largely because of pesticide safety language in 1970s contracts. Chapter six turns to political campaigns, crediting the UFW with developing an effective grass-roots campaign to defeat the grower-drafted Proposition 22 in 1972, but not explaining why the same grass-roots campaign failed to win voter approval of UFW-backed Proposition 14 in 1976. Chapter seven focuses on Miguel Contreras, the first Latino to head the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, who played a major role in shaping Los Angeles politics, and credits unions with mobilizing Hispanics to vote.

Chapter eight aims to "set the record straight" on Chavez's attitudes toward unauthorized workers. Shaw argues that Chavez opposed only unauthorized workers who were used as strikebreakers, and that his opposition softened as the UFW weakened in the 1980s (p198). Shaw recounts the AFL-CIO's journey from being an enthusiastic supporter of employer sanctions to calling for their abolition in February 2000, and summarizes the activities of union leaders who are calling for the legalization of unauthorized workers.

Chapter nine is devoted to House approval in December 2005 of an enforcement-only immigration bill and the reaction that culminated in the May 1, 2006 "Day Without Immigrants," when perhaps a million immigrants attended rallies around the US. Unions provided much of the organizational support for the marches, especially in California, where a third of workers are immigrants. Shaw cites the slogan, "today we march, tomorrow we vote" as a reason the Senate rebuffed the House and approved a bill that included legalization in June 2006. Shaw noted that in June 2007, when the Senate failed to approve a comprehensive immigration reform bill, ex-UFW leader Eliseo Medina came under fire from many other union leaders for supporting a guest worker program, something Chavez opposed (p240).

Chapters 10 and 11 turn to what went wrong with the UFW in the late 1970s and 1980s. Shaw selects an event each year, from the defeat of UFW's Proposition 14 in 1976 to departure of Medina in 1978, to explain the UFW's demise. The 1979 lettuce strike, which raised the wages of some workers by 40 percent, turned into a union defeat as the employers most vulnerable to union boycotts signed contracts and went out of business. The UFW, which had largely dismantled its organizing and legal departments, turned inward in the early 1980s, dismissing UFW representatives who wanted to reshape the union's direction. Chapter 11 lists those who began social-justice careers in the UFW.

The concluding chapter emphasizes that the UFW allowed young volunteers to learn skills needed to fight for social justice away from agriculture. Shaw believes that ACORN (, PIRG (, and some unions are playing the training role of the UFW today. Shaw concludes that the volunteers trained by the UFW and its "yes we can" slogan will inspire a new generation of activists.

Shaw is a social activist who summarizes a variety of social justice campaigns, emphasizing the contributions of ex-UFW leaders or tactics developed by the UFW. The intent of Shaw's book is to highlight the contributions of the UFW to nonfarm social-justice movements in the 21st century, from living wages to immigration reform; his contribution would have been stronger with a more careful analysis of the UFW.

One issue not explored by Shaw is money. Chavez was notorious for living on a small salary and insisting that other UFW employees follow his example. The UFW was supported by donations from other unions, churches, and appeals to the public, and today gets most of its revenue from such sources. The UFW and other social-justice organizations often obtain government funds to deal with social problems that support the organization. Shaw's Tenderloin Housing Clinic, for example, reported that $15 million of its $24 million income in 2008 was from government grants.

Ganz, Marshall. 2009. Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement. Oxford University Press. Ganz, Marshall. 2000. Five smooth stones: Strategic capacity in the unionization of California agriculture. Harvard PhD thesis. Ganz, Marshall. 2000. Resources and Resourcefulness: Strategic Capacity in the Unionization of California Agriculture, 1959-1966. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 105, No. 4. January. pp1003-1062. Martin, Philip. 2003. Promise Unfulfilled: Unions, Immigration, and Farm Workers. Ithaca. Cornell University Press. Pawel, Miriam. 2009. The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez's Farm Worker Movement. Bloomsbury Press Shaw, Randy. 2008. Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. University of California Press.