Authors: Miriam Pawel
A year later in Oxnard, the first meetings of the CSO Employment Committee turned into gripe sessions. Workers aired their grievances, and Chavez listened. After a few meetings, attendance dropped off sharply. “Don’t know whether it’s because of lack of interest or because they feel it’s impossible to put the program over,” Chavez noted. “There was a lot of discussion on the different approaches to the problem, but we came back to the fact that it looks almost impossible
to start some effective program to get these people their jobs back from the braceros.”
That Chavez persevered was a testament to both his indefatigable work ethic and a strategic intuition that enabled him to see beyond the despair. He could play out the contest far enough into the future to envision change, at a time when no one else could.
His first hurdle was to convince workers they had a chance. He suggested they start with a “registration campaign” to sign up all the unemployed farmworkers in Oxnard. He told the committee this would document the extent of the prejudice against locals and show that workers were not overstating their problem. He cut a stencil and ran off copies of a one-page “Application For Work”
form that included more than a dozen questions: work experience, education, union affiliation, citizenship, marital status, military service.
Volunteers began helping people fill out the forms in the CSO office while Chavez answered questions. He explained they were not a labor union and allayed fears about strikes. All they were doing, he said, was asking to be hired before the braceros, to reclaim jobs that belonged to local workers. Soon the momentum built. Romulo Campos,
an out-of-work field hand, arrived at the CSO office with thirty completed applications. As Chavez had hoped, the registration campaign built an esprit de corps. He stayed late most nights, eating dinner in the office with the volunteers.
The farmworkers taught him how the system worked. Growers belonged to large associations. Each association set wages and handled hiring. A grower would order a certain number of carrot toppers or tomato pickers. The director of the major growers association had his office right in Oxnard’s Buena Vista bracero camp. In collusion with state officials, the director devised ways to circumvent the requirement that growers prove no local workers were available before they hired braceros. Local workers had to first obtain a referral card from the state Farm Placement Services office, more than ten miles away. By the time they had filled out the application and been sent to the Buena Vista camp, all the jobs for the day were taken. When they returned the next morning, they were told they needed a new referral card. Or they were offered the least desirable jobs, at the lowest pay. Most soon gave up.
Surrender, Chavez told the dispirited workers, was exactly what growers wanted. Besides, he reminded them, they had nothing to lose. They had no jobs. What they did have was the law on their side, and an argument that appealed to anyone with a sense of justice. As the registrations piled up, Chavez looked for opportunities to make the injustice public. He learned that Edward Hayes, the state director of the Farm Placement Service and a close ally of the growers, would be the guest speaker at a Ventura County Farm Labor Association lunch. Chavez wrote and circulated a leaflet urging unemployed farmworkers to show up and castigate Hayes for his failure to enforce the law. Hayes waved the leaflet angrily during his celebratory meal with the growers and declared, “This bulletin is a dastardly thing!”
Chavez’s next move was to give the enemy a face. He chose Hector Zamora, director of the Ventura County Farm Labor Association and the man who controlled the most jobs in the area. Zamora had worked both sides of the bracero program, which made him ideally positioned to help growers collude with government officials. When the bracero program began, Zamora worked for the U.S. Labor Department as a recruiter in Mexico. Later he worked in the Washington, D.C., office and then as a field representative in California. When public criticism of the bracero program mounted, Zamora penned lengthy rebuttals, portraying the guest workers as grateful for the opportunity. His last federal post had been the chief enforcement agent in Southern California; now he helped growers flout the law.
“Zamora seemed to have a very satisfied attitude and frankly asserted his right to decide who is a qualified worker and who should be employed,” reported a federal labor department official who visited Oxnard at Chavez’s urging. Zamora admitted
that he made life difficult for the workers brought to him by the CSO, and he asserted he had the right to assign them wherever he wished.
Once the CSO had amassed hundreds of registration forms, Chavez was ready to challenge Zamora. The CSO moved into the phase Chavez dubbed the “rat race.” At 9:50 on Monday morning, January 19, Chavez arrived at the Farm Placement Service office with four workers. They asked for dispatches to the Fred C. King ranch, where they knew of good-paying jobs on the flower farm. Chavez helped the men fill out lengthy paperwork, and they were directed to Zamora’s office. They arrived at 11:25 a.m., too late for that day’s work, and the dispatcher told them to return the next day with lunch, ready to work. Back at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, Zamora told them there was no work at the King ranch. The workers drove out to the fields—only to find sixteen braceros cutting flowers.
Chavez drove the men back to the Farm Placement Service office to complain. The state official called Zamora, who said Chavez’s crew had shown up too late. Chavez drove back to the labor camp to argue with Zamora. “You come back tomorrow
morning and I’ll send you where I want to, not where you want to go,” Zamora retorted. Each step of the way, Chavez took notes.
A subsequent inquiry
confirmed what he suspected: the complaints he filed were sent to the growers association to answer. Even when government officials drafted responses, they were often typed by secretaries for the growers.
All through March, Chavez led the rat race. He bombarded the newly elected Democratic governor, Pat Brown, with telegrams demanding action. “I have no work.
Do something for us,” wrote Romulo Campos, the worker who had helped collect dozens of registration forms. Chavez kept filing more and more complaints.
He was not alone in pressuring government officials. In early February, U.S. labor secretary James Mitchell found more than two hundred farmworkers
picketing outside the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles when he arrived to address a farm labor conference. Fathers Donald McDonnell and Tom McCullough led the workers into the hearing room, where they stood silently at the back, holding up protest signs. Mitchell, a Democrat appointed by a Republican president, had earned a reputation as the social conscience of the Eisenhower administration. He repeatedly expressed support for extending minimum wage laws to farmworkers and ending the bracero program. Mitchell noted the workers’ presence as he began his remarks.
“First, the conditions under which far too many of our farmworkers live and work today are an affront to the conscience of the American people. This is both my personal and my official opinion,” the labor secretary said. He pointed out the country had a large surplus of underemployed farmworkers. In 1957, more than two million people reported working in the fields an average of only 144 days—down from 180 a decade earlier. Total wages averaged $892, also lower than any year since 1951. Mitchell delivered a strong attack on the bracero system: “The foreign labor programs in themselves often permit employers to evade the necessity to pay the wages and to do the many other things needed to attract and retain domestic farm workers . . . This is no secret . . . Too many migrant farm laborers are living as no American should
live in this abundant land.”
State and federal officials had launched several investigations into abuses in the bracero program. In the midst of the rat race, the
carried front-page reports
that detailed scams where growers had collected insurance premiums from workers but never sent them to the insurance company. When workers filed claims, the authorities stalled until the braceros were back in Mexico.
If Chavez could keep up the pressure and feed investigators more ammunition, he thought he could outwit the growers. He worked hard to keep up the spirits of workers, who knew by now the campaign was destined to make a case for the long term. They joked about the futile efforts as they shuttled back and forth. But Chavez and a small group kept going back day after day, compiling the damning evidence. In February the tomato season started, and Chavez put state officials on notice that he had men ready to take those jobs. On February 23, they saw braceros weeding and hoeing in tomato fields at Summerland Farms. When telegrams to the state yielded no action, Chavez called a federal labor official, who arrived and pulled the braceros out. Summerland Farms agreed to hire the locals.
Fred Ross wrote in his journal on March 1, 1959. “He had his first victory today. Forced the farm labor office to remove braceros from a large tomato ranch and replace them with the local boys he’s organized. Almost had a riot on his hands. He’s getting up at 5 am every day to go into the fields and gets to bed at 12 or 1 am.” When Ross went to visit, he was shocked at how tired Chavez looked.
The confrontations in Oxnard came to a head in April during the tomato harvest at the Robert Jones ranch. First Chavez convinced Jones to hire the local workers. Zamora came the next day with braceros and fired the local men. Chavez summoned federal officials, who warned Jones he could lose his certification to employ guest workers if he continued to allow Zamora to displace locals.
Jones took a different approach. He told the local workers they were picking too slowly. He said he would pay them by the box instead of the hour, to force them to go faster. The workers protested that would cut their pay in half. When Jones did not relent, the crew of twenty-five local workers staged a sit-down strike in the fields. The forty braceros working alongside joined the strike at first. But the braceros had little leverage; they knew there were plenty more in the camp.
The next day, Chavez teamed up with the UPWA local in a protest march from the Farm Placement Services office to the Jones ranch, where the men burned the state referral cards that had proved so worthless. The protest made television news and forced a summit meeting with state and federal labor officials.
Slowly, Chavez made progress. A few labor contractors and smaller growers started to come to the CSO office in the early morning to hire workers directly. Chavez arrived each morning at five to help. By May, the CSO office was functioning like a union hiring hall. The national CSO leadership thought the UPWA should take over and Chavez should focus on the CSO’s more traditional functions. “On May 14 the General assembly [of the Ventura CSO] voted to turn over the activities of the Employment Committee, Lock, Stock and Barrel, over to the United Packinghouse Workers of America,” Chavez wrote in his monthly report.
“In the last two months many things happened in the employment field and the whole battle to secure employment for the domestic workers in the Oxnard area,” Chavez summed up. “It started with a sit down strike, a thousand complaints to both the State Farm Placement and the United States Employment Service and then a protest march from the Farm Placement office (trailer) to the Robert Jones Ranch. This, plus almost six months of Headaches
and Heartaches on numerous attempts to obtain employment for the local workers produced several minor gains for the people of this area.”
The director of the state Farm Placement Service promised to enforce local preference, not to require workers to go to the bracero camps for referrals, and to allow direct hiring at individual ranches. Federal officials began investigating complaints promptly. The state employment service moved its trailer closer to Oxnard. The CSO won recognition to represent workers with complaints to state or federal officials. The governor pledged to help raise wages.
“Going back to November 1958 when we first started the program,” Chavez wrote, “one couldn’t [imagine] that all of these gains were going to be obtained for the workers.”
The once-hesitant rookie had methodically set out to take on the agribusiness powers and fight an injustice that resonated personally. The battle showcased his ability to outwork, outlast, and outthink his opposition. Emboldened by his success, he also began to express another theme: he needed more control. He was frustrated with the UPWA organizers, frustrated with his bosses at the CSO, and frustrated with his deputy. None of them worked as hard as he did. “This has been a wonderful experience in Oxnard for me and [I] never dreamt that so much hell could be raised,” Chavez wrote to Ross. But he needed to vent about his coworker. “I’ll never want to work with anybody else on another project unless it’s Fred Ross, otherwise I’ll go at it alone.
‘No me vuelve a llevar otra Gallina el coyote.’” (“The coyote is not going to take another chicken from me!”)
Chavez returned to his first love, the problem clinic. From 5:30 a.m. till midnight, dozens of people came to the office each day “with every imaginable problem from traffic tickets to marriage problems.” Most mornings, people waited outside for the office to open—a woman denied welfare benefits, a man seeking disability insurance, a family fighting a deportation order, an absentminded citizen who put a can of tuna in his pocket and was arrested for shoplifting. Chavez negotiated with merchants, interceded with the police, and arranged transportation to government offices.