LA Times Exposes The Corruption Of The Late Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers
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In a four part series by Miriam Pawel, the newspaper notes that the union leadership, mostly Chavez's relatives, has largely lost interest in union organizing and instead runs a profitable business as ethnic activists. Here's Part 1: Farmworkers Reap Little as Union Strays From Its Roots and Part 2: Linked Charities Bank on the Chavez Name.

While useful, the series lacks the conceptual clarity that I brought to this same topic six years ago in my article "La Causa or La Raza?

We can be confident that the propaganda fed California students will portray him [Cesar Chavez] the way the Chicano verbalist elite prefers: as the patron saint of the reconquista of Alta California by La Raza.

The truth about Chavez is much more interesting. A third-generation American citizen from Yuma, Arizona, he was first and foremost a labor leader, as crafty and sometimes ruthless as any effective union boss must be. Today, Mexican-American educators and politicians have one simple priority: more immigration. Every warm body with a brown skin increases their clout. But, then and now, union leaders have the opposite need. The UFW's essential problem was the same as all other unions', straight out of Econ 101. Chavez needed to limit the supply of labor in order to drive up wages.

From this grew the fundamental conflict of his life. Was he an American class warrior or a Mexican mestizo racial activist? What came first: La Causa or La Raza? This irresolvable dual identity culminated in the terrible irony of his tragic last dozen years.

Chavez's success at bringing better wages to stoop laborers in the early Seventies stemmed from the long-term decline in the pool of available migrant farm workers. According to agricultural economist Philip L. Martin of UC Davis, migrant farm workers in the U.S. numbered 2,000,000 in the Twenties. But the U.S. government started to crack down on Mexican illegal immigrants, most notably during 1954's "Operation Wetback," when a million were loaded onto railroad cars and shipped home. By Chavez's heyday in the early Seventies, there were only 200,000 migrant farm workers left. Which made his triumphs feasible.

In his prime, Chavez fought constantly against illegal immigration. He frequently complained that the Immigration & Naturalization Service wasn't tough enough. When Chavez would lead a strike, the grower would send trucks across the Mexican border, load them up with scabs, and race back to the Central Valley in the dead of night. Chavez even offered his UFW staffers to the INS to serve as volunteer border guards to keep Mexicans from sneaking into California. As Ruben Navarrette Jr. reported in the Arizona Republic: ( 8/31/97 "Cesar Chavez, a labor leader intent on protecting union membership, was as effective a surrogate for the INS as ever existed. Indeed, Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union he headed routinely reported, to the INS, for deportation, suspected illegal immigrants who served as strikebreakers or refused to unionize."

Successful unionization typically leads to management investing in mechanization, which in the long run drives down the number of workers. In fact, United Mine Worker boss John L. Lewis would explicitly proclaim that he wanted to drive miners' wages up so high that his union would be much smaller in the next generation. If his members were paid enough today, they could afford to educate their kids to do something less miserable with their lives by the time the bosses had figured out how to do without them.

During the Seventies, a similarly benign outcome appeared to be inevitable for American stoop laborers. The inflated wages paid Chavez' members would impel mechanization, which would eventually turn this literally backbreaking job into merely a painful memory.

It didn't happen. In fact, stoop labor wages stagnated in nominal terms from 1981 onward. In other words, over the last dozen years of Chavez's life (he died in 1993) real wages for migrants fell. As workers stopped paying dues to an organization that couldn’t deliver, the UFW withered to a fraction of its former size.

Why? No doubt California's 6,000,000 public school students will be told that it was all the fault of the evil Republican governors who reigned from 1983-1998, those divisive anti-immigration racists like Pete Wilson. Chavez's memory has been used so many times by Chicano intellectuals and politicians to insist on the moral necessity and practical inevitability of la reconquista that few remember who really sank the UFW: Mexican immigrants, hundreds of thousands of them.

The lure of higher wages; the Mexican economic catastrophes of 1976, 1982, and 1994; the fraudulent 1986 immigration "reform;" and a loss of will among white elites to defend the nation's borders has lead to a huge increase in the number of migrant farm workers in America. Since somewhere between 30% and 60% are illegals, the exact number can only be guesstimated. Dr. Martin pegs it at between 800,000 and 900,000, a rise of at least fourfold since Chavez's glory days.

The rotten pay and working condition suffered by today's migrants is all just a matter of supply and demand.


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