Authors: Miriam Pawel
Chavez timed the first part of the march to end in the second UFW convention, designed to build enthusiasm for elections. “We have survived jailings, beatings, professional goons, biased judges, racist law enforcers and the violent deaths of two of our brothers,” Chavez said in his opening speech. “We have learned to match our opponents’ riches with our blood, sweat, dedication and hard work. For all their money and sordid influence, the growers and Teamsters have not been able to destroy our movement. Now our time has come.”
Several hundred boycotters had traveled back to California to join the celebration. Jessica Govea had left Toronto on a bus with about twenty boycottters at midnight on Sunday, August 10, joined up with boycotters in Detroit and then Chicago, and spent four days in a bus caravan to reach Fresno on the eve of the convention. She was known for her beautiful singing voice, and when Chavez called upon her to sing for the audience, Govea apologized for being hoarse from the long trip. Along with many of the boycotters, Govea stayed in California after the convention and joined the frenetic election preparations.
Chavez left the convention to complete the last lap of his walk through the San Joaquin Valley. As critical questions arose, staff members had to drive to find him on the march and walk with Chavez to discuss the issues. Cohen was already frustrated by Chavez’s lack of interest in the strategic details. The two men had testified at a hearing on proposed regulations, and when the meeting was simultaneously translated into Spanish, Chavez became overwhelmed with emotion. He teared up at the sign of respect and told Cohen they had won a great victory. Cohen, intent on lobbying to get symbols on the ballot because many workers could not read, was dismayed by Chavez’s lack of interest in the nitty-gritty decisions.
In the field offices, nitty-gritty decisions had become all-consuming. The evening before the ALRB was to spring to life, a crowd of workers gathered outside the board’s Salinas office. A priest said mass and the workers settled in for an all-night vigil to make sure they would file the first, historic petition. When the doors opened and a state agent tried to escort a Teamster representative into the building, a near-riot ensued. The start was every bit as chaotic as Cohen had predicted.
Workers who had never cast a ballot in their life lined up to vote for “
la union de Cesar Chavez
,” marking an X next to the picture of the eagle. In Oxnard, Medina’s staff assembled cards from twenty-two companies he had targeted, half of which had Teamster contracts. In Salinas, Cohen’s second in command, Sandy Nathan, was in the board office every day, screaming at the state agents about unfair access for Teamsters and demanding that they protect workers from retaliation. When police and immigration agents raided a labor camp a week before elections and tried to deport thirty-two undocumented workers who supported the UFW, Nathan went to find them in the detention center. He ended up under arrest, handcuffed to Ganz. The workers who had been in danger of deportation were allowed to cast ballots.
For weeks, the results of many elections remained secret because growers persuaded state officials to seal the ballots pending legal challenges. State agents were untrained, many unfamiliar with agriculture, and none accustomed to the feverish pace. In the first month, more than thirty-thousand workers voted in 194 elections.
The union hired five hundred organizers, many of them farmworkers, for $100 a week. Chavez decided where to throw resources based in part on the Teamsters and in part on what he called psychological reasons. He poured resources into losing campaigns at Gallo and Giumarra, the vineyards that had been poster children for the boycott. In private, Chavez regretted the decision, which he blamed for diverting resources that hurt in Delano, where the union lost all but a handful of contests. “This one breaks my heart,
Delano,” Chavez said sadly, as he reviewed the record. In public, Chavez blamed Teamster-grower collusion for the union’s defeats. “There is now a reign of terror,
especially in the Delano area,” he said. “There are no free elections in Delano.” He claimed UFW supporters refused to vote out of fear, despite the secret ballots.
Chavez called the executive board to a meeting at La Paz to plan a different kind of campaign, one where he felt on sure ground: an attack on the new state agency. Many of the three dozen state board agents had been making decisions that favored growers and Teamsters. Chavez wanted to expose the conspiracy between growers and the board, he said, calling the past two weeks “the most frustrating in the history
of the union,” with the sort of hyperbole that had become second nature.
His view was not universally shared. In Oxnard, Medina had won eight elections to the Teamsters’ two, taking companies away from the opposition’s strongest organizers. In Salinas, Ganz had successfully adjusted his tactics in response to the growers, who had initially advocated a “no union” vote and then switched to supporting the Teamsters. Ganz urged that union leaders evaluate their own performance. “It’s not a depressed scene,” he told Chavez. In San Diego, Scott Washburn won five out of six elections. The competition with the Teamsters forced UFW organizers to articulate reasons why workers should vote for the black eagle. The successful organizers applied the lessons they had learned from Chavez: listen to the workers and respond to their needs.
Chavez dismissed their victories. If a grower supported the Teamsters, the UFW could not win, Chavez told the group. “Harder, but not impossible,” Ganz countered. “Impossible,” Chavez repeated. “A miracle,” Huerta added.
Chavez interrupted the meeting to take a call from Roger Mahony and warned the bishop that the UFW would attack the board and the governor if the situation did not improve. “I told him, we’re working fulltime. We don’t want to win elections any more. We want to prove to you and everybody else that the whole thing stinks.”
“We’re better at that anyway,” Jim Drake replied, and everyone laughed.
They all agreed that the ignorance of many board agents posed impediments, and organizers wanted to pressure the state to correct egregious favoritism toward growers and Teamsters. The process needed to be streamlined so that results and appeals were handled expeditiously. If workers had to wait months for justice after they were unfairly punished or fired, confidence in the new law would erode.
“What the hell are we going to do?” Chavez asked. “Boycott the elections? Cry? Continue to cry about what they’re doing to us?”
“Go after the board,” Ganz responded.
“Go after Brown,” Cohen said. “Fuck Brown.”
“Brown, Brown, Brown,” chanted Chris Hartmire. “Get him! . . . It’s a big feather in his cap. Let’s put mud all over it!”
Chavez liked the idea of attacking the governor. He wanted a villain, and he found one—Walter Kintz, general counsel of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB), who supervised board agents in the regional offices. They must force Kintz out, Chavez declared. His mood brightened. He was back in his element, planning a campaign. He told Hartmire to organize religious observers to visit and document abuses. Chavez would go on television, hold press conferences, and demand Kintz’s resignation. The union would organize a letter-writing campaign to Brown, and if necessary stage sit-ins to increase the pressure. The governor was contemplating a run for president; Hartmire suggested they could tarnish his reputation around the country. “Get a few people who want to run for president to come here,” Chavez added.
Chavez spent a day in San Francisco for media appearances in which he attacked Kintz. He persuaded Meany to send several top AFL-CIO officials to Delano to witness the problems. Hartmire brought two religious delegations. Brown appointed a task force to investigate the problems and report back, but Chavez was dubious that would achieve real results. Farmworkers picketed an appearance by Kintz, and Chavez warned that the governor would face pickets, too, unless he removed Kintz. Huerta suggested they enlist legislators from East Los Angeles and other heavily Chicano areas to pressure Brown. “If we can just get the Chicano community
on his ass, that’s all we need to do,” Chavez agreed.
When the governor did not relent, Chavez sent Washburn with a delegation of farmworkers who had been fired from jobs in San Diego to stage a vigil outside Brown’s Sacramento office. More than fifty workers camped out, first on the floor and then on couches in the governor’s reception area. When Brown returned to the office around midnight on the third night of the sit-in, he spoke with the group for three hours, and they finally dispersed.
The task force corrected many of the problems. During its first three months of operation, the ALRB conducted 329 elections,
handed down fifteen formal opinions, and scheduled three hundred hearings around the state. Of the 38,164 ballots cast, only 16 percent were for no union. In head-to-head contests, the Teamsters outpolled the UFW, but overall the UFW won more elections than it lost.
Winners and losers also became clear among the union staff. During the boycott, no one had known if an organizer failed to set up picket lines one weekend or fudged his numbers. “When it comes to elections, you win them, or you lose
them,” Ganz said during an argument over the competence of certain staff members. “You either do the work, or you don’t. There’s no bullshit about it.” Mistakes were glaring, and costly. One error could have statewide ramifications. The winners were those who applied all they had learned from Chavez to navigate the new state rules. The losers were those who had always counted on Chavez to tell them what to do; they looked to him for guidance, but he struggled to find his footing.
Much as he loved a fight, Chavez never mastered the new game. He was immersed in the smallest details about the administration of La Paz, but not the minutiae essential to winning elections. He was uncomfortable playing by someone else’s rules; his past successes had depended on the ability to spring surprises, pivot 180 degrees on a moment’s notice, and make outrageous demands and bluffs. Elections called for methodical organizing. The best organizers could predict election outcomes within a handful of votes.
“We knew that the new legislation was going to have an impact on the union, but we had no way of knowing how big it would be,” Chavez said in an interview. “It changed everything.
It affected everything we do, even our way of thinking . . . We now are faced with trying to find out how to maintain the vitality we had, so that it goes beyond just shouting, ‘Viva la huelga.’ . . . We have to find a way of enduring.”
The union’s center of gravity shifted inexorably away from La Paz and Delano, toward the coastal regions of Salinas and Oxnard where the bulk of the new members worked, and the Imperial and Coachella Valleys. Chavez resisted the message in the early election results, which would become increasingly clear: The union’s greatest strength was among the vegetable and citrus workers. He clung to a sentimental attachment to the Delano area and a determination to win in the vineyards where he had begun his quest. “It’s in the valley towns where we have our strength,” he insisted. “People will sacrifice
. . . They’ve been in the union longer . . . They have less love for money than the others. That’s the difference.”
Organizers in the field pressed to consolidate their victories with contracts. “What kind of time schedule
are we looking at for negotiations and who’s going to be doing it?” Medina asked at the fall 1975 board meeting. “I don’t have it quite worked out in my mind,” Chavez replied. In the meantime, he said, organizers should work with ranch committees to form negotiating committees, compile seniority lists, and preliminary lists of demands. Medina and Ganz said they had already done that.
“I think it’s important for us to go out there and get a contract so that we can show some concrete results,” Medina said. “Not just winning an election and then sitting there and sitting there and sitting there with nothing happening.” Inaction would hand the Teamsters a campaign issue: the UFW didn’t deliver. “It sounds to me, we’re talking about a month or more. And I think waiting can be very harmful.”
“No not a month,” Chavez said. “We’re talking about doing it right away.”
Medina persisted: “What do you mean by right away?”
Chavez said they needed to discuss strategy before he could answer that question and promised the timetable would be clear by the end of the night.
But nothing was clear by the time they adjourned. Medina had developed a strategic plan for Oxnard and targeted dozens more companies for elections. A month later, Chavez decided the priority was fighting the Teamsters. He moved Medina to Coachella, one of the most difficult areas for the union because of the short season, the transitory nature of the workforce, and resentment among grape growers who had chafed under the 1970 contracts.
Even in Coachella, Medina and his troops found moments to savor. John Gardner, one of Medina’s strongest organizers, wrote to Fred Ross in late December, describing election night at Valdora Produce Company. David Valdora got very drunk, bet thousands of dollars that his workers would reject the UFW, then watched in astonishment as ballots were counted and the union triumphed. “You deserve a Christmas present,”
Gardner wrote, “and maybe one of the best ones is the reassurance that everything is proceeding smoothly, at least for the moment, without your presence for impending emergencies and general directions.”