Authors: Miriam Pawel
When Alinsky raised his young organizer’s salary again, from $4,800 to $5,200 a year, Chavez objected that the money was “corrupting.” Alinsky ignored the protestations. “I would appreciate your attributing your ‘corruption’ to Fred Ross rather than to myself,” Alinsky wrote in his typically wry manner. “I was willing to respect your wishes, but you know as well as I do how persistent Ross can get. All this is by way of saying that I would appreciate your not resenting ‘too much’ your salary increase.”
While he lauded Chavez’s work, Alinsky saw little progress toward making the CSO self-sustaining. He spoke out forcefully at the 1956 national board meeting, then again in 1957. In 1958, Alinsky came up with an idea that would buy the CSO some time. His plan bought Chavez a reprieve as well.
Ralph Helstein, head of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), was an Alinsky ally in Chicago, a close friend, poker-playing buddy, and occasional collaborator. The two men saw some advantages to teaming up in California. Helstein’s union represented agricultural workers who packed fruits and vegetables in sheds where the produce was taken after harvest. Shed jobs were a step up from the fields, but the lines had become increasingly blurred. Workers had long gone back and forth, depending on the seasons—as the Chavez family had done during the 1940s.
As refrigeration trucks became available, growers shifted work out of the packing houses and into the fields, where workers were not subject to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) or wage and hour laws. The move lowered salaries
by about 65¢ per hour, decimated the ranks of the UPWA, and enabled growers to substitute Mexican guest workers for the local union members.
Helstein’s union had won several elections in the Oxnard area, using procedures laid out in the NLRA, and won the right to represent workers who packed citrus. But the companies balked at negotiating contracts. An Alinsky-Helstein idea took shape. Perhaps the CSO could help the Oxnard workers, in exchange for a much-needed financial boost. A strong CSO chapter in Oxnard that demonstrated the political power of Mexican Americans might give the labor union added leverage in negotiating contracts.
At first Helstein proposed a $10,000 grant. Ross rejected the offer and said he needed twice that amount to build a CSO chapter in one year. By August they had a deal.
The UPWA would give the CSO $20,000. CSO would hire Chavez as director of organizing, Chavez would hire an assistant, and the two men would spend a year in Oxnard.
Ross was sad about losing his organizing partner. Though their relationship had subtly shifted as the student began to outstrip the teacher, the pair enjoyed each other’s company and worked well together as a team. They happily shared the most mundane tasks: Ross bought soap, and Chavez scrubbed the walls; Ross bought stencils, and Chavez fixed the typewriter; Ross called information to get phone numbers for prospective members, and Chavez made the calls.
In early August 1958, Ross and Chavez went to Stockton for their final collaboration. As soon as the grant from the UPWA started, Chavez would move to the payroll of the national CSO and report to the president, Anthony Rios. Ross wrote Rios to let him know where Chavez would be when the time came for him to make the move. “Just in case that twenty grand should come hurtling through the air, your new director of organization wants to let you know where he’ll be and when you can have him,” Ross wrote. “Well,” the older man concluded, wistful about the imminent loss of his star pupil and accomplice, “all I can say at this point is me and my big mouth.
I guess I told one too many people I’d give Tony Rios my right arm. But, God, I never thought I’d end up doing it!”
This has been a wonderful experience in Oxnard for me and [I] never dreamt that so much hell could be raised.
The election night party on November 4, 1958, in the Quonset hut in the Oxnard colonia lasted until three the next morning. Sixty precinct walkers, tired after hours of shuttling voters to the polls, filled up on homemade tacos, sang songs, and cheered as they watched the results on television. They didn’t care who won. They had declared victory as soon as the polls closed.
Chavez had arrived in Oxnard six weeks before a local election, determined to make a splash by producing a record turnout among Mexican Americans—not to influence a specific race, but to signal the political power of the community. Chavez had prepared one index card for each of the 1,425 registered voters in five heavily Mexican American precincts, recruited one captain and nine volunteers for each district, and plastered cso says vote signs all over a temporary office. On election day, he egged on the captains in a competition to see who could produce the most voters. The result was a 72 percent turnout, a city record.
After only a few hours of sleep, Chavez was back at work, cleaning up party debris. To capitalize on the election momentum, he had scheduled the first CSO organizational meeting for the next evening. More than fifty people showed up an hour early at the Juanita School, and Chavez greeted each at the door. A Boy Scout color guard led the audience of 230 in the pledge of allegiance. After two and a half hours of speeches, the appointment of a temporary president and secretary, and the formation of committees, a large group adjourned to the nearby Blue Onion bar.
On Sunday, November 9, Chavez took his first day off in almost two months.
Oxnard had not changed much in the two decades since Chavez had lived in the seaside city as a young teen. Mexican Americans lived in the colonia,
on the east side of the tracks, connected somewhat perilously to the rest of the city by only one road that shut down every time a train came through. Agriculture was the dominant industry, and the fields, sheds, and related businesses were the most common source of jobs for Mexican Americans. The rich alluvial soil and temperate climate of the Oxnard plain boasted some of the best year-round growing conditions in California. Sugar beets and citrus had long been the primary industries, and growers had recently expanded into vegetables and flowers.
One significant change had altered the Oxnard landscape. The small city in Ventura County was home to the largest labor camp in the United States for Mexican guest workers, known as braceros. The number of Mexicans employed
in the Ventura County fields had increased steadily, jumping 25 percent in the year before Chavez arrived, to 3,148 men. Chavez soon began to hear a lot about the braceros.
He had arrived in Oxnard on September 19 and launched a house meeting campaign the same evening. Two meetings a night was ideal, one acceptable, none a dismal failure. Some nights the living room of a small house overflowed with a dozen or more curious listeners. Chavez tried to position himself in a corner, to watch the most faces. He usually delivered his rap to the hosts and a few of their relatives and friends. Sometimes it was just Chavez and his host, slightly embarrassed that the invited guests had not materialized. “No matter how successful the day might have been, if the house meeting doesn’t turn up a good attendance we feel as if the whole day was spoiled,”
Chavez fretted after a night of back-to-back meetings that turned into one-on-one sessions. “To me the most important thing
are the house meetings and I will not leave them for anything in the world,” he explained, turning down requests to attend other evening events.
As usual, work took precedence over his personal life. He despaired of finding a house for his family because no one wanted tenants with seven small children. He asked Helen to come down from San Jose to help. Cesar picked her up at the bus station and took her straight to a house meeting. While Cesar talked, Helen wrote down the names and addresses of the twenty-two people, a record crowd. The animated discussion ran so late that some excused themselves to dash to work at the 11:00 p.m. shift at the sugar plant.
Amid the typical complaints and queries at house meetings, the issue that piqued Chavez’s interest was the braceros. Residents told him they were routinely passed over for jobs in the fields, and sometimes fired, so that growers could hire cheaper and more docile Mexican guest workers. Both practices violated federal law, but authorities did nothing. Chavez saw how the injustice angered people, and he knew that anger would fuel a campaign. Anger fueled him, too; he was back in the city where he had shivered in a tent and endured the ridicule of classmates for wearing the same shirt every day.
Until now, Chavez’s work had revolved around social and political issues. In his problem clinics, he had focused on individual problems. In Oxnard, he saw an opportunity for the CSO to directly affect the livelihoods of an entire class of members—if the organization was willing to take on the economic goliath of agribusiness. During house meetings, Chavez took special note of complaints about how braceros displaced local workers. As the CSO set up its usual committees—Citizenship, Membership, Voter Registration—he added a new one: the Employment Committee. He told the workers that if enough people showed interest, the CSO would get involved.
When he had practically given up, Chavez found someone willing to rent to a family with seven children, who ranged in age from seven months to eight years old. A landlady in nearby El Rio agreed to take the family after raising the rent $10, to $70 a month. He moved the family from San Jose and settled in, ready to tackle something more ambitious than voter registration drives and citizenship classes. He chose a fight that seemed almost impossible to win.
The bracero program
had begun as an emergency measure during World War II to import temporary laborers to fill jobs in the fields and railroads left vacant by the exodus of military recruits. Its name derived from the Spanish word for arm and reflected the lack of humanity: Braceros were viewed as extra hands, disposable and easily replaced. The agricultural industry found this new workforce so cheap and malleable that growers successfully lobbied to extend the program long after the veterans returned home. Braceros’ livelihood depended on their sponsors, who could send them home at any time. So the men had little recourse when they were underpaid, cheated out of wages, or housed in deplorable conditions. By the end of the 1950s, an increasing chorus had been urging Congress not to renew the program, to no avail. An entire economy had grown dependent on the braceros—not only the agricultural employers but a host of ancillary businesses. Braceros could be overcharged for anemic meals and substandard housing, forced to patronize shady businesses and services, and cheated out of health insurance. They still earned more money than they would back home in Mexico, and competition for the jobs remained fierce.
Religious activists, including the Spanish Mission Band, were among the first to demand an end to the bracero program. Father McDonnell used every opportunity to argue Catholics had a moral responsibility to lobby against the use of braceros in California’s $2.5 billion a year agricultural industry. A state that was the leading producer of fruits and vegetables, he said, should shun a program
that depressed wages for the poorest workers, broke up Mexican families, encouraged gambling, drinking, and prostitution, and deprived locals of jobs. Sociologists chronicled the braceros’ mistreatment and indignities, which led to media exposés that showed Mexicans packed into filthy barracks and fumigated at the border with DDT.
Organized labor viewed the Mexican workers as an impediment to unionizing farmworkers. Unions were enjoying a period of relative success nationally as the postwar economy grew, and although the seasonal nature of migrant farmwork posed particular challenges, some leaders had begun to press for a farmworker campaign. Alinsky’s friend Ralph Helstein was one. Walter Reuther, the dynamic leader of the United Auto Workers, was another. “The unspeakable cruelty
with which migrant workers are treated in the United States has for many years, I know, been an especial concern of yours,” Reuther wrote to George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, in November 1958, just as Chavez arrived in Oxnard. “I believe that a climate of opinion and a national awareness could be created at this time which would make an organizing campaign practical and effective. It can succeed, however, only if the entire labor movement is prepared to cooperate and to provide practical day-to-day support in addition to the moral backing of an aroused public conscience against this kind of human exploitation.”
For several years, representatives of the United Packinghouse Workers union had been complaining to federal officials that growers employed braceros ahead of local workers, in flagrant disregard of the law. The practice had dramatic impact
on the union’s members: the average packing shed worker in California worked at most three months a year, less than half of what had been the norm. The bracero program had also driven an alarming wage discrepancy:
while nonfarm wages had increased 56 percent in the previous decade, farm wages had increased less than half as fast, barely keeping even with inflation.
Dependence on braceros varied by region and crop, but abuses had been well documented around California by the time Chavez arrived in Oxnard. He had paid scant attention. The CSO targeted citizens and potential citizens. Its members were overwhelmingly Mexican Americans, many born in the United States, and they drew a sharp distinction between themselves and Mexican nationals. When the Immigration and Naturalization Service deported one million Mexicans during Operation Wetback in 1954, the CSO did not register any complaints. The CSO had minimal contact with braceros, whose contracts required them to return to Mexico at the end of each season. When Chavez was asked at house meetings in 1957
whether braceros were displacing local workers, he said he was not familiar with the issue.