César Chávez day: yes, we can! Or not?
For The Herald in the US
NEW YORK — César Chávez Day is an official state holiday in California and Texas, and optional in Arizona and Colorado. This year US President Barack Obama proclaimed it — March 31st, the day Chávez was born near Yuma, Arizona — nationally. The man from whom Obama borrowed the “Yes, we can” motto — Chávez’s exhorted “Sí, se puede” — should be remembered “with appropriate service, community and educational programmes,” signed the president.
At the same time César Chávez, History is Made One Step at a Time, was launched. The movie by Diego Luna deals with the inspiring side of the labour organizer of farmworkers, with a focus on the five-year battle that included a strike, a boycott of table grapes, Chávez’s fast of 25 days, and his support of Robert Kennedy that led to the possibility of a union.
The movie was not a blockbuster nor received great reviews, justifiably. But it is interesting that in the economic post-nuclear landscape of the US, where 95 per cent of all gains go to the top one per cent of people, and the gap between the pay of a CEO and the median worker has grown to 354 percent — far from the 20 to 1 ratio that John Pierpoint Morgan, and not Karl Marx, endorsed — a story about a union can make it to a theatre.
Chávez wrote: “This strike is all the farm workers standing up together and saying: ‘From this day we demand to be treated like the men we are!’ We are not slaves and we are not animals. And we are not alone. This strike is all farm workers telling the growers we will no longer work for you until we can share in the great deal of money you have made!”
Nowadays, it sounds like a Hollywood fantasy.
In the wake of the Great Depression of 1929, Librado Chávez and Juana Estrada, both Mexican immigrants, lost their farm and store in Arizona, and headed towards the West to become migrant workers, from one harvest to another, through California’s San Joaquin Valley. His son César had been to 38 schools before he gave up — he had only finished 8th grade — in order to help the family settle in Delano, and went to the fields. When he was 17 years old, he enlisted in the Navy hoping to gain education and skills; instead, those were “the two worst years of my life,” he said.
He married Helen Favela, an activist herself, and the mother of his seven children. They moved to San José, where Chávez became an organizer in Fred Ross’ Community Service Organization (CSO). He parted with the CSO when the civil rights group declined to help him unionize farmworkers, but counted on Dolores Huerta and Ross’ support to go back to Delano, where he and Huerta started the National Farmworkers Association (NFWA) in 1962.
The movie begins when the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), a Filipino immigrants union, began a strike in 1965 because the grape growers had cut their already meagre hourly salary. They requested the assistance of the NFWA.
There are children working in the fields, under a killer sun; women, men, old people. The more the picketers advanced toward making a living, the more undocumented Mexicans the growers manage to lure, as they are still used to the Bracero Programme that had exploited them from 1942 until it was cancelled — to some extent thanks to Chávez and Huerta — in 1964. The strike persisted, and the workers were persuaded of the idea of having rights. Chávez’s figure grew. The movie focuses on the 300-mile march to Sacramento in 1966, which caught the attention of the press and the hostility of authorities; the violent reaction of growers and Chávez’s refusal to the lex talionis by an exemplary hunger strike of 25 days in 1968; the vibrant sympathy of Robert Kennedy, soon to be killed, and that of almost 13 million US citizens who stopped buying grapes; the clumsy decision of president Richard Nixon to export the grapes to Europe, where strong unions spread the boycott, and the surrender, after huge losses, of the growers, who signed contracts in 1969.
The ending: credits with a highly controversial mariachi-style cover of León Gieco’s Sólo le pido a Dios. Not so grand an ending in real life. If the unionized farmworkers were then more than 40,000, today they are less than 6,000.
Those contracts were good until 1972, when the growers turned to the Teamster Union to undermine Chávez’s United Farm Workers (UFW), as the NFWA was renamed. Chávez turned to Sacramento, and got the first state law in the history of the nation to recognize the rights of farmworkers to union elections: the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975.
The growers found small print to avoid acceptance; Chávez won a series of small battles. He left organizing for touring the country to raise awareness of the harm pesticides caused to workers and consumers.
He took a series of debatable steps. In 1977 he was a guest of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in Manila, which shocked the Filipino members of the UFW and prompted the resignation of Philip Vera Cruz. In 1972 he retreated to a residence he called La Paz and studied the methods of the Synanon, a rehabilitation programme that included mutual public exposure of the member’s weaknesses among other manipulative techniques that developed into a cult. All along the way he was an adamant opponent of undocumented migration, due to the impact of low-cost workers on the UFW’s ability to get better conditions for its members. In a TV interview in 1972 he used the word “wetbacks.” Nonetheless, he and Huerta helped shape the 1986 amnesty law.
The movie overlooks all this. Many producers tried to get the rights to film Chávez’s story, but the family zealously guards the rights to the “name, voice, image, and likeness, speeches and writings” of the labour leader. It took two years of negotiations for Keir Pearson (writer) and Larry Meli (producer) to get their permission, and they reviewed the final script. Actors Michael Peña, América Ferrara, Rosario Dawson and John Malkovich did their best with what they were given.
1968, the year that Chávez became a national figure, was also the year when the minimum wage was the highest, US$10.56 in today dollars: more than the present US$7.25, even if productivity has doubled since (260,000 college graduates got that pay in 2013 according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics). That same year the union movement began its steady decline, from representing 25 percent of the work force to today less than seven per cent.
Robert Reich, Secretary of Labour of former president Bill Clinton and professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, sees no coincidence. In his blog he compares the wages of the bigger US employers 50 years ago and today: General Motors paid US$35 an hour in today’s dollars and today Walmart pays US$8.80. He argues that, even if a GM worker helped produce goods instead of just retailing them, the Walmart employee is better educated and, most important, a lot more productive. “The real difference is the GM worker a half-century ago had a strong union behind him that summoned the collective bargaining power of all autoworkers to get a substantial share of company revenues for its members. And because more than a third of workers across America belonged to a labour union, the bargains those unions struck with employers raised the wages and benefits of non-unionized workers as well.”
He also explains that “the humongous pay packages” of the ten bigger banks’ CEOs would not be possible without the hidden subsidies derived from the 2008 bailout, when they were considered too big to fail and the taxpayer’s money (that taxpayer that earns US$7.25, too) cleaned their mess.
Reich advocates for a minimum wage of US$15 an hour.
But he is a hard-sale. Chávez’s battles belong to the past. Were his cause present-day, perhaps not even this decaf movie would have been filmed.@gesq