CESAR CHAVEZ was the last American union organiser motivated by that selfless idealism which had helped recreate the labour movement in the 1930s. Mainly because he was such a remarkable man, and partly because he had the right social and ethnic background, he provided in the 1970s that charismatic leadership migrant workers had been seeking most of this century in California and the whole South-west.
Here migratory farm workers, largely of Mexican-American origin, sowed, nurtured and reaped grape, lettuce, tomato and market-garden harvests using methods so intensive that they were essentially 'factories in the fields'. The farmers who employed them were among the most brutal and ruthless employers anywhere, and their workers among the most degraded and depressed sections of the working class.
Earlier attempts to organise them, by such radical unions as the Industrial Workers of the World, had always failed. Campaigns to awaken public conscience to their plight, whether in the novel and film The Grapes of Wrath or Ed Murrow's celebrated television documentary Harvest of Shame a generation later, had got nowhere. Faced with the choice between social justice and cheap wine and salad, the great American consumer had always chosen the latter.
But in the late 1960s Chavez, himself a Mexican-American of farm- worker parents, changed all that. Partly because he won consumer support, Chavez resisted opposition from farmers to help migrant farm workers build their first successful union.
The Farm Workers' Organising Committee later became the United Farm Workers, thanks largely to great tactical insight shown by Chavez. 'Alone, the farm workers have no economic power,' he explained, 'but with the help of the public they can develop the economic power to counter that of the growers.'
Conventional strikes and picket lines were useless in the countryside. Instead, Chavez perfected the new technique of consumer boycott which soon became national and international in scope. Backed by other unions born in the 1930s of similar radical strategies, and supported by such influential politicians as Robert F. Kennedy and Roman Catholic prelates and priests, the UFW in 1967 forced California grape growers to sign contracts with their workers for the first time.
Buoyed up by success, Chavez pushed ahead in the following years with demands for similar contracts from other commercial farmers, notably lettuce growers. For a while, backing the lettuce boycott became the height of 'radical chic' among the intellectual middle class of New York and San Francisco.
But this time the situation was different. Salad, unlike wine, was consumed by everyone across the nation. So effective boycott was much harder to enforce. Moreover, following their earlier defeat, growers had been able to regroup and retaliate.
As governor of California between 1967 and 1975, Ronald Reagan backed the growers against Chavez and the UFW. His successor, the maverick Democrat Jerry Brown, was unable to transform his support for the grape boycott into anything decisive. Politics appeared no help.
'I'm very convinced,' Chavez told a boycott organiser in Toronto in 1970, 'that political power for minority groups, in particular the farm workers, is a myth; that our votes don't count for much unless they're backed by economic force. That without real economic power we will develop a small, elite group of workers with a lot of benefits surrounded by mass unemployment, welfare, war on poverty, old people, etc, which will not be able to participate simply because they are not members.'
This showed Chavez's clear insight into the state of American society and its unions. For what really destroyed the UFW was the rest of American labour. The men who in the 1930s had stormed the citadels of American capitalism to make labour a real force were by the 1970s a complacent and conservative bureaucracy.
Ironically, the brutal strength of the corrupt Teamsters Union finally killed Chavez's dream. Truck drivers who transported agricultural products all over the nation had the power of life and death over the boycott. Moreover, they moved in to organise the farm workers themselves, signing collusive, kick-back contracts with the growers and using goon squads to enforce them with a reign of terror.
UFW pickets were repeatedly shot, wounded and killed or arrested in thousands for violating court orders. Defeat of the UFW in the 1970s was part of the decline of a once mighty American labour movement so that it is less influential now than at any time this century. Once again the weakest had gone to the wall. Yet Cesar Chavez had won a place in the hearts of Hispanic Americans to equal that of Martin Luther King among blacks.