Google chose to honor Cesar Chavez on their website today – and I was quite disgusted by that. He was not a supporter of immigrants and his supporters should stop trying to pretend otherwise.
Cesar Chavez (born César Estrada Chávez, was born on March 31, 1927. President Obama has recognized March 31 as Cesar Chavez Day. Chavez was an American farm worker, labor leader and civil rights activist, who, with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which was later known as the United Farm Workers union.
A Mexican American, Chavez became the best known Latino American civil rights activist, and was strongly promoted by the American labor movement, which was eager to enroll Hispanic members. His public-relations approach to unionism and aggressive but nonviolent tactics made the farm workers’ struggle a moral cause with nationwide support. By the late 1970s, his tactics had forced growers to recognize the UFW as the bargaining agent for 50,000 field workers in California and Florida. However, by the mid-1980s membership in the UFW had dwindled to around 15,000, according to Wikipedia.
The UFW during Chavez’s tenure was committed to restricting immigration. Chavez and Dolores Huerta, co-founder and president of the UFW, fought the Bracero Program that existed from 1942 to 1964. Their opposition stemmed from their belief that the program undermined U.S. workers and exploited the migrant workers. Since the Bracero Program ensured a constant supply of cheap immigrant labor for growers, immigrants could not protest any infringement of their rights, lest they be fired and replaced. Their efforts contributed to Congress ending the Bracero Program in 1964.
On a few occasions, concerns that undocumented migrant labor would undermine UFW strike campaigns led to a number of controversial events, which the UFW describes as anti-strikebreaking events, but which have also been interpreted as being anti-immigrant. In 1969, Chavez and members of the UFW marched through the Imperial and Coachella Valleys to the border of Mexico to protest growers’ use of undocumented immigrants as strikebreakers. Joining him on the march were Reverend Ralph Abernathy and U.S. Senator Walter Mondale. In its early years, the UFW and Chavez went so far as to report undocumented immigrants who served as strikebreaking replacement workers (as well as those who refused to unionize) to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
In 1973, the United Farm Workers set up a “wet line” along the United States-Mexico border to prevent Mexican immigrants from entering the United States illegally and potentially undermining the UFW’s unionization efforts. During one such event, in which Chavez was not involved, some UFW members, under the guidance of Chavez’s cousin Manuel, physically attacked the strikebreakers after peaceful attempts to persuade them not to cross the border failed.
Even the greatest labor activist of our time, Bert Corona, spoke out against the anti-immigrant tactics of Cesar Chavez and the UFW. “Later in the 1960’s, when I began to organize undocumented immigrants full-time in the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, I did have an important difference with Cesar. This involved his, and the union’s, position on the need to apprehend and deport undocumented Mexican immigrants who were being used as scabs by the growers…We supported an open immigration policy, as far as Mexico was concerned, that did not victimize Mexicanos because they did not have documents. We did not support deportation of people.” (Mario T. Garcia, Memories of Chicano History, The life and narrative of Bert Corona, UC press, 1994) (Source – Robert Bracamontes)
Gustavo Arellano, the respected Editor of the OC Weekly, also ripped Chavez – Not only was Cesar Chavez against illegal immigration, not only did he speak out against the Mexican invasion before Congress, not only did United Farm Workers members monitor the United States-Mexico border à la the Minutemen, but Chavez even sicced la migra on the undocumented from time to time. The curious case of Chavez and his evolving views on illegal immigration is best explained in University of California, San Diego professor David G. Gutierrez‘s 1995 book, Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity. There, the good profedocuments how the position of the union leader regarding illegal immigration changed under pressure from Chicano yaktivists.
The popular Latino editorial writer Ruben Navarrette also weighed in on Chavez’ anti-immigrant polices – Under the supervision of Chavez’s cousin, Manuel, UFW members tried at first to persuade Mexicans not to cross the border. One time when that didn’t work, they physically attacked and beat them up to scare them off, according to reports at the time. The Village Voice said that the UFW was engaged in a “campaign of random terror against anyone hapless enough to fall into its net.” A couple of decades later, in their book “The Fight in the Fields,” journalists Susan Ferris and Ricardo Sandoval recalled the border violence and wrote that the issue of illegal immigration was “particularly vexing” for Chavez.
So what is Chavez’ legacy? The Left Business Observer summed it up this way:
Let’s see now. The UFW managed, despite long odds, to organize farm workers, attract thousands of talented volunteers to its banner, build a feared grassroots political action machine, defeat the Teamsters and the sweetheart contracts it had signed with growers, and win passage of a farm workers’ labor law unmatched by any other such statute in the country. By 1977, the union was poised to achieve a mass membership that would have made it a power to be reckoned with in California, and maybe in the entire nation.
But then, under Chávez’s autocratic leadership, the union dissolved the boycott staff, firing its leader and accusing him of being a communist; purged its staff, using the most disgusting means imaginable; refused to entertain any local union autonomy and democracy; denied the election of actual farm workers to the union board; ruined the careers, and in some cases, the jobs, of rank-and-file union dissidents; lost almost all of its collective bargaining agreements, and began a long and ugly descent into corruption.
Today, farm workers in California are no better off than they were before the union came on the scene. They still don’t often live past fifty; they still suffer the same job-related injuries and illnesses; they still don’t have unions; they are still at the bottom of the labor market barrel. How is all of this not an important, indeed critical, legacy of the UFW? If we judge the union and Chávez in terms of the well-being of the workers they set out to organize, both must be judged utter failures. If we compare the UFW to any number of the CIO’s left-led unions, for example, the United Packinghouse Workers of America, the Farmworkers pale by comparison. The UPWA was not only a multiracial and democratic union. It also led the struggle to end segregation at work and in the workers’ communities, and it put the pay of the black and immigrant laborers who did the unenviable work of slaughtering the animals we eat on a par with those of steel and auto workers.
A union is supposed to organize workers and improve their lives. Chávez and the UFW had their chances, and they threw them away. Imagine that Martin Luther King had sought and taken advice from Chuck Dederich after his “I Have a Dream” speech. And after that, imagine that he had forced the Memphis garbagemen to play the “Game.” Surely historians would count that as a major part of his legacy.
It should be noted that the modern UFW has been supportive of immigration reform efforts, according to Politcs365. César Chávez’s widow, Helen, initiated a petition for news organizations to stop using the term “illegal” when referring to undocumented workers. So organizations and their members evolve, but it’s important to keep in mind the historical context of Chávez’s actions in regard to undocumented workers and for people reminiscing today to not to gloss over this aspect of the labor leader’s history to paint a more positive picture for Latinos and the larger American population.