Tuesday, January 10, 2006

United Farm Workers in the "Los Angeles Times."

Much ado over the “L.A. Times” series on the United Farm Workers Union and its sainted leader Cesar Chavez, after whom the state has proclaimed a public holiday.

You can catch some of the debate and links to the four-part exposé here at L.A. Observed:

Anyway, the scribe has read the first three bits. The upshot is that the union has abandoned its original commitment to farm workers’ whose plight.

Four decades after the great battles fought by Chavez and Co. to gain recognition for the union and passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, things are worse than ever without the union representing 7,000 of some 450,000 total workers in the agricultural sector.

In its stead its leaders have developed a branded-name UFW that uses its historical value as a fixture in the early struggles for social justice in the immigrant community to raise money and finance a larger pan-Latino struggle.

It’s irrelevance to field workers living in shanty towns outside Carlsbad, Calif., are treated with authenticity in the piece. Which is to say the writer has visited there and talked to its inhabitants and attributed their remarks to a name.

(take not, Bob Woodward).

Members of the Chavez family are doing very well as directors and such of a number of charities related to the Farm Workers and their causes, under a strange relationship, paradoxical in the American labor movement, whereby the charities raise money and pass it to the union, instead of the other way around.

If you walk down Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles – the city’s first street and now an updated shrine to the latest strains of hip, Chicalanga latino-ism – the Farm Workers black eagle (see image fished up by the scribe, for you) flag is as visible as an icon as Ché t-shirts, Frida Kahlo postcards, and An-to-ni-O Vi-YA-ry-GOsa.

The UFW polls high in esteem among Latinos and one union official is quoted as having observed, at some point early in the transition to professional fundraising operation, “This is pure gold!”

None of which is the end of the world. Few institutions maintain an almost revolutionary street presence forever and, alas, when it comes time to put things in their place, family members are often tapped in a mixture of necessary trust and nepotism.

Not that any of this is desirable, just not the end of the world. The foundations do work for charities and build low-income housing, they seem to have merely moved away from the farm worker cause. There is no suggestion they are moving away from Chavez’ vision, merely carrying it out.

Somebody made a business decision.

What’s very discouraging are the hits Chavez takes himself in the series which confirms sentiment that he had retreated like a monk to his mountain aerie in Tehachapi, proud of the fact he wasn’t merely a union guy.

But if the reports are correct, the “retreat” became a place where the best-and-brightest who had been drawn to the UFW ideal were purged in bizarre events occurring under the rubric of “The Game.”

Actually, it’s not quite bizarre at all. Too many times the kangaroo court and public humiliation for “crimes” against the original idea have meant the end, often literally, of well-meaning and progressive people.

Too many ideas have become used for churches of purges.

The account is one of a paranoid Chavez “crushing dissent” and chasing real talent out of the movement. Even then, he seemed more serious about boycotts, hunger fasts and other media-driven events, than the hardcore mechanics of the strike. The article shows how this was fatal, in the end, to efforts at improving the lives of the lowest paid field laborers.

Completing the transformation from a media-message apparatus to a union that takes on the job of other peoples’ political campaigns, for money, must have been a hop-skip-and-jump given the difficult business of wrangling with landowners, farmers, and police across the pesticide-laden fields of California that stood as the alternative.

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