Author’s Note: This story was recently posted on CounterPunch. Here I have corrected a couple of errors pointed out by readers. The essay is taken from my book, In and Out of the Working Class. I worked for the United Farm Workers Union during a sabbatical leave in the winter of 1977. I was made Research Director and spent my time investigating the growers, helping out in negotiations, and testifying in unfair labor practice cases. While I was there I witnessed disturbing events, brought on in my view by the union president’s paranoia in the face of daunting external pressures. The meeting described in the story, in which several staff persons were purged from the union, was held while I was on union assignment. I learned the details of it from persons present. I recreated the meeting from information I received from them. I put myself there and invented the dialogue for dramatic effect, although some of the dialogue was told to me by friends who were there. Therefore, this is a work of what is called “creative nonfiction.” For verification that the union behaved then and later in an unusual and, from a workers’ point of view, autocratic and detrimental manner, see the series of articles in the Los Angeles Times, beginning at <www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-ufw8jan08,1,7202033.story>. The author of this series, Miriam Pawel has just published a book about the UFW titled Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement (Bloomsbury). An earlier series was published in The Village Voice, in the issues of August 14 and 21, 1984. Supporting materials can also be found at <www.farmworkermovement.org>. Except for Cesar Chavez and Jane Fonda, the names in the story are not the real names of the persons described.
I drove into union headquarters at 1:15 in the morning. It was raining, and I barely saw the sign for Keene, California, which was where my directions said to turn right from Route 58. Two hours before, I had eaten at a truck stop in Needles and begun driving across the desert. Now I was in the mountains, northwest of Tehachapi, heading toward Bakersfield. Keene wasn’t on the California map in my road atlas, so I wasn’t expecting much of a town. In fact, there was no town at all, just the Keene Café, Ed and Edna Melton, proprietors. It was closed, so I couldn’t stop to ask directions. I kept driving up the narrow road and, about a mile later, saw a hand-painted sign on a small post which read “La Paz: United Farm Workers of America.” I turned my head back to the road just in time to brake before I ran over the guard who was flagging me to stop. He motioned me into a driveway blocked by a gate. A second guard approached my car from a small guardhouse, shined a light in my face, and asked me in a strongly accented voice what was my business. It didn’t sound like they were expecting me. I found out later that the scheduled guards had been told, but they had traded shifts with two compañeros and forgotten to tell them. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t have mattered, but death threats had been made against union president Chavez and the guards were cautious of strangers. I told the second guard my name, that I had come to work for the union, and that I was expected. I gave him the name of my contact, Bill Martin, the union’s personnel director. He had a conversation in Spanish with the other guard, who went into the booth and made a telephone call. Then he came out and, in a friendly tone said, “Welcome to the Farm Workers.”
Within minutes, Bill appeared on foot, introduced himself, said something to the guards and got into my car. “I’ll show you your room. You must be tired. You can get some sleep and we’ll talk tomorrow. I’ll stop by for you at 7:00.” I looked at my watch — 2:00. I would still be tired in the morning. I had left Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on New Year’s Day, 1977, with an abscessed tooth, and by the time I reached Amarillo, Texas, I was taking fifteen Aspirins a day without much effect. Suddenly, a pain shot through my jaw so sharp that I had to stifle a cry. I had a feeling that my next good night’s sleep would be awhile in coming.
As he opened the door, Bill was saying something about how they hadn’t had time to clean my room. I was thinking, well, how bad could it be, until I looked inside. I’m glad he didn’t look at me just then because my face must have reflected my impulse to turn around and run. The room was filthy, an inch of dust on the floor, trash covering nearly every surface, furnished only with an ancient iron bed, a dirty sagging chair, and a scarred cupboard tilting dangerously forward. I wondered if maybe this was a test given to new recruits to measure their commitment. But Bill was talking cheerfully about how this was one of the nicer rooms, just a bit messy. I could get it shipshape in no time. I tried to duplicate Bill’s cheerfulness. “It looks fine. Anyway, I’m so tired, I could sleep anywhere tonight. See you at seven.” I lied about sleeping. No way was I going to rest now. I spent the next two hours cleaning the room as best I could, manically sweeping, shaking, and wiping. By 4:00 a.m. the room was presentable, at least in the dim light cast by the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. I walked down the hall to the shower, but it didn’t work. I washed myself with cold water, went back to my room and fell asleep. I dreamt that I was the preacher in The Grapes of Wrath addressing a large crowd of farm workers. I was talking about the loaves and fishes. Here in these rich valleys there were loaves and fishes aplenty, yet we who grew them went hungry. The rich men’s tables were filled to overflowing, yet ours were bare. Where was the justice in that? The growers were like vampires sucking our blood, and it couldn’t be the will of Jesus, that poor savior of us all, that we just sit here and take it. The faces in the crowd nodded approval. I could feel their power. One of them shouted out, “Hey preacher, don’t forget, we want clean rooms too.”
“You probably won’t be able to start working right away. Each new staff person has to meet with Cesar first, and he won’t be back until next week.” This was disappointing news. Bill had indeed knocked on my door at seven. He had taken me to his “kitchen” for coffee, introduced me to some of his friends, and escorted me on a tour of the grounds. The union’s headquarters were located in what had been a private tuberculosis sanitarium. The owner, the son of an actor of some notoriety, had donated it to the union, making him about as popular as anthrax among the local cattle and horse ranchers. It was an isolated place, tucked into the desert mountains along the railroad tracks, about two miles from the famous horseshoe curve. The sanitarium had consisted of a large hospital and several outbuildings. Single staff persons lived in the hospital, while married staff lived in small houses or trailers.
Living arrangements were varied and informal. At one time, evening meals had been taken communally in a large refectory, but chronic labor shortages had made it impossible to continue this practice. Now staff persons were responsible for their own provisioning and cooking. In the hospital, people had formed “kitchens” of six to twelve members who constituted a sort of mini-collective for shopping and cooking. Bill invited me to join his kitchen, an offer I quickly accepted. He explained that my duties would include preparing supper for eight to ten people two or three times a month and collecting money and shopping for food maybe once a month. Over coffee, I surveyed the kitchen. There was a double hotplate, an electric frying pan, a coffee pot, a few pots, pans, and plates, a motley and small collection of utensils, a beat up table, six broken chairs, a small bathroom sink, and an ancient refrigerator. No stove, no real sink, and, I was casually informed, no hot water, which didn’t matter because the water was contaminated and had to be boiled anyway. My stomach churned in panic. I couldn’t cook for eight people in Julia Child’s kitchen let alone here. When a woman sitting with us pointed to the cooking sign-up sheet on the refrigerator and suggested that I might as well sign it now, I looked at her with glazed eyes. There was a hint of sarcasm in her voice. She knew I was in trouble and was enjoying it. She had frowned when Bill had invited me to join their group. Mechanically, I surveyed the sheet and, with relief, I saw that there were open days at the end of the month. I marked them and made a mental note to write to my mother for recipes.
I wondered aloud what I was supposed to do until I could meet with Cesar. Bill suggested that I introduce myself to as many people as possible and let them know that I was available for work. He had heard that I would be working in the research office. Cesar had seemed excited when Bill had shown him my application. Bill had read it and decided that my skills might be better used here at union headquarters than in the Detroit boycott office, which was where I had originally been assigned. Cesar agreed, and this pleased Bill greatly. Cesar had said that we can get professors on our side, too.
Most of the people I met that first week were new, and there were frequent references to people who had just left. This didn’t surprise me — low wages, hard work, and crummy living conditions have a way of wearing down people’s commitment. The new people were uniformly idealistic and happy to be here. Most were in their early twenties and had supported the union in college or in their churches. To all of us the union was special, an uncorrupted champion of the poorest workers, and Cesar was a hero, a mystical little man, a modern-day Gandhi who, through sheer determination and will, had finally beaten the growers. He had built a union and a movement. The campesinos flocked to his union, and people who wanted to do something right with their lives flocked to his movement. With monastic zeal we came to the union, to do good and, I suppose, to purify our souls.
On first meeting, union veterans seemed just as idealistic and selfless as the newcomers. Within a few days I felt more at home than I imagined possible. This was a true community, and I found myself thinking that I should quit teaching and live here. I felt separated from my former self, as if I were in the middle of a spiritual reawakening. One evening, a married couple took me to a local union meeting in a small town down the mountain. About two hundred workers talked and sang in Spanish and English, loyalists, none of whom had yet won union contracts but who had marched and picketed from San Francisco to Boston, giving witness for the union. “Yo soy economista,” I repeated again and again. They smiled a silent welcome or told me their stories in broken English. I was moved, happy to be with brothers and sisters.
“You can go in now.” I had been waiting in Cesar’s outer office for an hour, ignored by his personal secretary, a young Anglo named Mark Wilson. Mark was flanked by two assistants, another Anglo and a handsome Chicano, Juan Salazar, who was Cesar’s chief bodyguard. They were not a friendly group. They made me uncomfortable, especially Mark, who struck me as a person who feels he has the right to order people around because he is close to the person who can. When Juan looked at me, I remembered that I had seen him the night before arguing with a woman I assumed to be his wife. Their child was crying and his wife was saying loudly that he should spend more time with his son. Juan spoke sharply to her — when he saw me, he glared but then smiled and said, “Buenas noches, hermano.” Today, I remembered the glare.
My meeting lasted less than five minutes. Mark followed me into a spare, windowless office and introduced me to Cesar. He was a small, slightly built man with jet black hair, dressed in a cheap open-collared shirt, chino pants, and sandals. He shook my hand limply but with both hands. He had a gentle voice and manner. He spoke directly and without pause, explaining what he had in mind for me to do. He wanted me to attend a staff conference the following weekend. Then the meeting was over. At the door I turned to ask a question. Cesar looked up at me from his desk. I was too embarrassed to speak so I smiled and left.
Stockton is about forty miles east of San Francisco, a shabby town, squat and dirty, like most of those in California’s central valleys. In summer the temperature reaches 110 degrees, and the air is fouled by pesticides. We had arrived in Stockton late at night after a long drive: Cesar, two bodyguards, and me. We stayed at the house of a union supporter. Cesar knew thousands of people and, like an Indian holy man, never had to worry about a place to eat and sleep. It was my thirty-first birthday, and I had packed a bottle of wine. We drank it after the meal and a meeting with a union lawyer. Cesar toasted me. He said that I was doing good work for the union.
My job in Stockton was to testify in an unfair labor practice hearing. Under pressure from the union, its allies, and a sympathetic governor, California’s legislature had enacted a law that gave farm workers the right to organize unions and negotiate contracts without employer interference. Most growers had reacted to the law with contempt and continued to treat their workers like peons and unions as the work of communist agitators. Once the union had organized a ranch, it had to get the employer to the bargaining table. More often than not, the growers refused to go.
Stockton was a hotbed of grower defiance of the law, complete with terrorist vigilante groups. The alleged leader of the vigilantes was one Ernest Carvalho Jr., a tomato grower and labor contractor. Mr. Carvalho had a fearsome reputation, having once yanked a union organizer up from the ground by his mustache. He had met the server of a labor board subpoena with a shotgun. During the organizing campaign, two of his workers, union supporters, had been savagely beaten. No one doubted that the attacker had been paid by Carvalho. Miraculously, the union had won the election, but Carvalho had refused to recognize and bargain with it, forcing the union to file charges. My job was to testify as to how much money Carvalho’s refusal to bargain had cost the campesinos. Cesar would testify, too, because this was the first case of its kind. A large judgment against the grower would send a strong message to others.
We arrived at the municipal building early. Our lawyers had to talk to some of the witnesses, farm workers huddled in a group at the rear of the room. They were tense and fearful, but the sight of Cesar eased them greatly. He had a bond with them difficult to describe but readily seen. He was of them but above them. He was their leader; he had asked them to be here; they were here. As he spoke with them, I thought of the Zapatistas in Orozco’s painting. Like them, these campesinos stood straight and tall in front of their commander, in sharp contrast to their stooped and suppliant bodies out in the fields.
By the start of the hearing, the small room was packed. The rows of folding chairs were separated by a narrow centre aisle. We sat on the left, Carvalho and company on the right. I read a book once that said that The Grapes of Wrath was not a great novel, because the growers were presented as one-dimensionally evil people. The writer should have seen this crew. Big-bellied, fat-jowled, cold-eyed men dressed in jeans and boots and cowboy hats, sniggering among themselves, giving us hard stares. They looked exactly like pigs, and Carvalho was their pig-leader. When I glanced at him, I had an image of him strangling Cesar with his bare hands, grunting, spit dripping from his chin. I was sure that he stank no matter how many showers he took. No, these were evil people. They were capable of unprovoked violence. Had I thought about it, I would have argued that Steinbeck had been too generous. Because up and down the valleys there are men like these. They are the bedrock of California agriculture, the shock troops for the big corporate growers with their smooth-as-silk lawyers and suave manners, who wouldn’t think of beating or hitting a farm worker but wouldn’t mourn her death either.
The hearing was raucous and unruly. We petitioned to have testimony translated into Spanish, but the judge refused. He said we would never finish a bilingual hearing, but then he had to admonish us to keep quiet a dozen times as we whispered translations to the campesinos. Carvalho stood up and shouted that he “wasn’t gonna negotiate with no bunch of goddam comanists.” He said, “I’m just a dumb fuckin’ Portagee, but I ain’t dealin’ with no comanists.” When the judge warned him about his language, he grinned and said, “I don’t know no other words. I’m just a dumb Portagee.” His lawyer tried to calm him, but Carvalho shoved him away. He pointed at Cesar and taunted, “Hey Cesar. Let’s me and you settle this. Let’s go in the next room. Me and you. If you come out first, I’ll recognize your commie union. If I come out, hey, we’ll just all go home and forget this fuckin’ hearing.” Cesar sat immobile and stared ahead, but his bodyguards tensed. The judge kept pounding his gavel, but his power had deserted him. I turned to watch the other growers. The only thin man among them returned my stare with a grin. He made his hand into a gun and silently pulled the trigger. Carvalho said, “See, you’re not a man, just a fuckin’ comanist.” The judge recessed the hearing until the next morning. When the union asked for Carvalho’s employment records, which had been subpoenaed and which he had brought with him in a large cardboard box, Carvalho snapped them up and strode out of the room.
Cesar was not a good speaker. His voice was soft, and he possessed none of the tricks of the speaker’s trade: the pregnant pause, the change of rhythm, the crescendo, the pointing finger. He was utterly without physical powers. Yet right away, he captivated you, made you listen, made you want to do what he said. He had a way of making you feel like an important person, that what you were telling him could change the course of the union, put it over the top of that long hill it had been climbing so slowly. Maybe it was his eyes. They were guileless eyes, the eyes of a child. You could not refuse them.
He was a master of symbolic action. He often played the saint, fasting like Gandhi, adding power by subtracting it. He would carry a cross on Good Friday, staggering under its weight, suffering for those whose lives are bounded by the short-handled hoe, the endless march, the early death. Once he had to appear in court to answer charges that union members had ambushed a train and shot rifle bullets into refrigerator cars. The local papers were full of righteous editorials and grower letters accusing the union of shameful hypocrisy, preaching but not practicing non-violence. On the day of the hearing, some two thousand members and supporters lined the street leading up to the county courthouse and the steps and hallways leading to the courtroom. Cesar walked between them, staggering from a recent fast. The crowd remained eerily silent; only Cesar and the police moved. When he reached the topmost step, everyone knelt down, in unison, with machine-like precision. Within an hour, all the charges were dropped.
Every Saturday afternoon, we went out to the fields surrounding our compound to work in the garden. Sometimes this would be preceded by a community meeting. Presumably, these were town meetings in which we would air our grievances and collectively govern ourselves. But while we would act like brothers and sisters, we were the children of Cesar. He ran the meetings, and we discussed what he wanted to discuss. Flanked by his farting and belching guard dogs, Cesar would command us, cajole us, mock us, threaten us, all the while pretending that everyone was equal. I loved these meetings at first, but I soon noticed that it was dangerous to criticize Cesar. Once he told us that a friend of the union wanted to donate several washing machines and dryers, but he wasn’t sure he would accept them because we wouldn’t take care of them. We’d fucked up everything else. We couldn’t keep the place clean. There was dog shit all over the place. Around the room hands shot up. Did Cesar realize that we had to drive fifteen miles to do laundry, which meant we had to have access to a car. And laundry cost money, which nobody had. One person’s complaint gave the next person courage, and soon the room was a babble of complaining voices. Cesar was unimpressed. He said that he really didn’t care about this chickenshit. He didn’t have to worry about his laundry anyway. This macho response was met by a chorus of boos. Cesar’s eyes narrowed and his mouth tightened. He spat out, “I work eighteen fucking hours a day, every day. For the union. Which of you can say the same? You’re wasting my time with this chickenshit.” We sat very still for more than a minute. Ricardo Reyes, the union’s treasurer, said, “Cesar, don’t forget about the water.” Cesar’s voice softened and he told us that we could once again drink the water. With that the meeting ended.
I liked the gardening, at least in small doses. It was good to use my muscles after sitting at a desk all week. And working on a community project with a melting pot of humanity — Filipinos, Mexicans, Anglos, men and women, young and old — gave me a feeling that the muck and slime of the real world could be overcome and, as the song went, “peace will rule the planet and love will steer the stars.” Cesar loved the garden. He was an expert on organic gardening and lectured us about its subtleties, from the proper fertilizer to planting by the moon. After a while we would break for a picnic lunch, and he would tell us something of the history of the union. We were eager disciples. He spun his stories of the growers and the campesinos as Christ must have told his parables. People lowered their heads to hide their tears.
Then we had to return to work, monotonous and physically exhausting in the 80 degree February heat and high altitude. Guilt kept me hard at it, long after the warm glow of brotherhood had worn off. I wanted nothing more than to go back to my room, shower, change clothes, and begin my “day off.” I would race down the mountain to Bakersfield, which, after a week of isolation at La Paz, had been transformed in my mind from the nation’s biggest truck stop, carrot capital of the world, and birthplace of Merle Haggard, into a shining metropolis. I would rent a room in the Downtowner Motel, order cartons of Chinese food, eat myself sick, take a long bath, and sleep until noon. Or I’d take some friends and go to a Mexican bar to shoot pool and drink beer. We could go to a place where we would be the only Anglos and not worry about a racial confrontation because we were with the union, though it wasn’t wise to root against the Mexican boxer who would be fighting on the television above the bar. Only a few more wheelbarrows of manure. Only a few more blisters on my hand. I was glad I had a little money and happy I wasn’t a farm worker.
As best I can tell, the trouble began with the mail announcement. I had been in Oxnard helping a union local negotiate a piece rate proposal with a tomato grower. The grower, William Fontin, prided himself as an intellectual, a libertarian who loved Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley. More than a few economists are libertarians. They babble about free markets and free choice and individual liberty, but when their privileges are threatened, as when the lower orders have the nerve to form, say, a union, they are quick to put on their jackboots and goose step. Fontin was no exception, although I was amused by the slogan he had printed on every box of his tomatoes, “Unsubsidized Product of the Free Capitalist Economy of the United States.” He smoked a pipe and was usually polite, but he would agree to nothing. He refused to negotiate in Spanish though he spoke it fluently. He referred to me as “that professor of yours.” I had gotten to know the union negotiating team. The handsome president of the committee had invited me to a party at his house where I’d gotten drunk enough on tequila to dance. I wanted to help, but we were just going through the motions. Fontin was as tough as Carvalho. He wouldn’t settle until the workers showed that they could make his tomatoes rot on the vine.
When I returned to La Paz, I heard about the mail fiasco from two of my friends, Daniel and Carl. They came to my room, looking up and down the hall before closing the door. “Did you hear about the mail shit?” asked Daniel. “Orders from Cesar. From now on all of your mail is going to be opened before you get it.”
“You’re kidding,” I said, wondering to myself if anything in any letters to me could be suspect. “Why?”
“They say it’s because some contributions people sent to the union are missing, but that’s bullshit. It’s just more of Cesar’s paranoia.”
I had been waiting for something bad to happen. Right before I had gone off to do the piece rate proposal, Cesar had asked for volunteers to participate in a retreat at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinic run by a friend of his. This place, Dalanon, had achieved some notoriety complete with an exposé in the local newspapers. The founder, Ron Wood, had become something of a guru and his organization a spiritual centre with its own unique methods for curing drug addiction. Each newly admitted addict was compelled to participate in the “game,” as Ron called it. The game was nothing more than a thought control device, common to many cults. People in the group would gang up on the new people, accusing them of all sorts of bad deeds while at the same time giving them maximum attention. Combined with sleep deprivation and a bad diet, this regimen often succeeded in making people feel helpless unless they gave themselves up to the group. Given a benign reading, this may be just what a person ruined by drugs needs, a new life so to speak. A more cynical person might see in this a form of mind control aimed primarily at enhancing the power of the leader. My instinct told me that the latter interpretation was more likely to be true. My gut reaction was reinforced when someone told me that Ron’s disciples had placed a poisonous snake in the mailbox of the reporter who had written the exposé. Ominously, the people chosen to be in the game were all in Cesar’s inner circle of relatives, bodyguards, and personal aides.
Gossip about the mail and the game abounded. A young maintenance worker, Roger, boldly posted a petition protesting the opening of our mail. I signed it, and so did most of my friends. This created tension. People began to avoid us, and most people stopped talking about anything that had to do with the union. I began to suspect that Cesar’s bodyguards were watching us carefully. One of them mysteriously showed up at the first session of a labor history class that some staff had asked me to teach. No one with whom I was close volunteered for the game.
The tension was broken somewhat by two events — Cesar’s fiftieth birthday party and the trip to Los Angeles to campaign for the mayor. Hundreds of notables came to the party. We started it out at six o’clock in the morning with a serenade at Cesar’s house, complete with mariachi band and shots of tequila. Then we ate menudo (tripe soup) to ward off the effects of the liquor and took up our posts at the giant barbecue in honor of our leader. My job was to dole out the sauce, a fiery concoction that went on the meat and rice. The Anglos would say “not too much,” but the Mexicans would say “más, más.” During a break, I went to my office to get a book, and I came upon Jane Fonda, the famous actress and brave critic of the war in Vietnam, bitching at her kids for tormenting Cesar’s dogs. “Can’t you children behave anywhere?” she moaned. Even the rich and famous have their troubles, I thought. I stumbled into bed hours later and fell right to sleep. But I was awakened too soon by the sounds of loud talking from the room across the hall. I put my ear up to my door and listened. I recognized the voices of two of Cesar’s bodyguards. They were giving the third degree to Chris, one of the union’s youngest volunteers. “Why did you sign the mail petition? You called Cesar a dictator! Man, you’re a fucking traitor. Cesar wants you out of here. Tomorrow.” When they left, I quietly went back to bed, too afraid to go over and comfort Chris.
The next week Cesar pulled the entire staff out of headquarters and into an abandoned high school in East Los Angeles. From there we were sent into the streets with farm workers from throughout the state to march door-to-door, urging people to vote for the incumbent mayor. As usual, Cesar gave us no warning, just orders. Some of the older staff were upset by this. The union had more pressing business, namely scores of organizing drives and numerous contracts to negotiate. They wondered aloud why we were doing this instead, especially since the mayor had little competition and eventually won by a large margin. I, too, thought that the trip was unnecessary, but the whole thing again demonstrated Cesar’s amazing ability to get people to do what he wanted and the union’s capacity to organize complex logistics on short notice. East Los Angeles was fascinating, like being in another country. The tiny houses and shabby apartments and hotels exuded poverty, but the pastel colors and warm breezes deceived you. Somehow tropical poverty didn’t seem as real from the outside as did the slums of the great Eastern cities. As I chatted in my bad Spanish with the campesina with whom I had been paired, I wondered what would happen when we got back to La Paz.
Cesar marched into the community meeting room followed by four of his bodyguards. Usually he chatted with someone seated in front and waited for us to stop talking so that the meeting could begin. But this time he just stood and stared at us, as did the guards. From the rear came voices urging quiet. I looked around the room. It was jammed; people were standing in the doorway on tiptoes craning to see. The sudden quiet was eerie because it was so unusual. Even the babies and young children were silent. The last sound I heard was a guitar chord. We always sang songs at our meetings, “No Nos Moverán” or “De Colores,” but there would be no singing tonight.
“Some people here are trying to undermine the union.” Cesar said this without emotion but he might as well have screamed at us. I felt a knot forming in my stomach, and my throat became dry. I noticed that the bodyguards were still standing; two were wearing dark glasses, reminding me of Tonton Macoutes. Something was terribly wrong. “There’s a cancer growing in the union. We know now that some people have gone over to the growers. We go to a fucking meeting and they knew our proposals. We plan to organize a ranch and they know about it before we fucking start. Some people here are traitors. And they’re going to have to leave.”
“Who are these bastards, Cesar?” asked the chubby old man sitting next to me. He was a Filipino, Ricardo Ochoco, an officer of the union who had defended Cesar’s tirade about the washing machines. There was a certain tension between Filipinos and Hispanics rooted in the fact that while the Filipino minority had actually started the union, the Hispanic majority, led by Cesar, had taken control of it, some said in a less than democratic manner. Cesar always spoke highly of the Filipino brothers and sisters, and Ochoco was proof of the multi-ethnic leadership of the union. But Ochoco was a weak man, a sycophant always trying to prove his loyalty to Cesar.
“Wait a minute, Cesar, how do you know. . .” Juan Reyes, a tough little Chicano and chief of the maintenance staff, jumped up to ask a question, but he was drowned out before he could finish by shouts that seemed to come from all around the room.
“Juan is one of them.”
“He’s always complaining. His name is first on the mail protest.”
“He called Cesar a dictator.”
To my right, Nico, Cesar’s youngest son, stood up and yelled, “Listen, listen.” He reminded me of a puppet, waving his hands. Nico had never impressed me. He was a whiny teenager with an unpleasant nasal voice and without much talent. Like most of Cesar’s inner circle, his main virtue was doing what his father wanted. Like them, he was nothing without Cesar.
“Listen, I think Juan is selling out the union. Juan Salazar saw him in Bakersfield talking to some growers. He’s one of the leaders of a clique here, always badmouthing the union. At every meeting he opposes Cesar. He’s a fucking traitor.”
At this, Juan Reyes made a rush for Nico but was quickly surrounded by the guards. “That’s a bunch of fucking lies,” he shouted. I waited for others to defend Juan, but none did. Those who weren’t shouting insults at him sat rigidly on the uncomfortable seats. They were afraid, and I was too. “Let him go.” Cesar commanded. He walked over to Juan Reyes and said quietly, “Brother, you’re screwing the union. It would be better if you left.” Juan looked at him in disbelief. He was close to tears. I waited for him to respond, but he didn’t. He just walked out of the room.
Before anyone could react, Maria Quiñones was pointing a finger at David Young who was sitting next to me. “David is always with Juan Reyes. He’s a traitor too.” David tensed and looked at her. He had contempt for Maria, as did I. She was the daughter of the union’s first vice president, Domenica Quiñones, a legendary union organizer who had faced down more than one gun and had been arrested countless times. But Maria was not the equal of her mother. She was nosy and obnoxious, La Casa’s telephone operator and notorious for listening in on our calls. She often slept with Charlie, the guard, who occupied the room above me, keeping me awake with their noisy quarrels and lovemaking. Outside the union she was just another unpleasant person. You could ignore her. But here she was important. She could ruin your life, and she had just begun to ruin David’s.
“You’re full of shit,” David said, but his words were drowned out by accusations from every corner of the room. The same stock phrases hurled at Juan Reyes were now directed at David. It struck me suddenly that this had all been planned. This was “the game.” This was what they had learned at Dalanon. I was witnessing the transformation of the union into a cult. A sense of detachment came over me, and I watched the show trial unfolding before me as if I were watching a horror movie, afraid but curious to see what would happen.
David stood up and demanded, “Am I on trial here. What are the charges, Cesar?”
“Isn’t it true that you said that campaigning for Mayor Bradley was a waste of time?” Cesar was agitated and speaking in an uncharacteristically loud voice.
“So what. So did lots of people.”
“Haven’t you been criticizing me, saying chickenshit stuff behind my back, saying it was my fault the union lost the Initiative?”
“That’s bullshit. Who told you that, that fucking wimp over there.” David pointed at Nico, who took his cue to launch into a tirade, accusing David of being an agent for the growers. Other voices joined the chorus. No one spoke in David’s defense.
Before he could be stopped, David hopped over two rows of chairs and stood next to Cesar. No one made a move to subdue him. “Am I being charged?” David asked. He was standing straight, almost at attention, dwarfing the diminutive Cesar beside him. The guards made a move toward him, but Cesar waved them away. David’s actions had surprised him, threatening to unravel this carefully choreographed meeting. It was up to the rest of us now. Many of us were David’s friends. None of us believed that he was an agent of the grower or anything else but a brother dedicated to the union. But he could never stand up to Cesar alone. Would we defend him?
“The union constitution says that no one can be expelled without a fair hearing. What are the charges against me? Who is making them? I have a right to defend myself. This whole thing here tonight is illegal.”
“You don’t have any fucking rights, brother. You’re working for the growers. We know it. You’re a cancer here, a disease. Admit it, man. Hey, let’s put it to a vote, right here. Who thinks David should go?”
The same voices that had been yelling for blood all night cried out in unison, “Go. Go. Go.” Some others joined the chorus. Mark Wilson, Carlos’s secretary, began to clap his hands. Soon the chanting and clapping filled the room, the noise rising to a fearsome level. Sweat glistened on the blank faces of the believers; they were in the grip of a religious frenzy. They wanted blood, and they would have it.
Suddenly, Cesar raised his hands and silenced the howling mob. “Who thinks David should stay?” No one raised a hand. The ferocity of the crowd cowed us completely. I thought, maybe he is guilty. I was grateful that it wasn’t me. I looked at Sister Denise. She was looking at me with sad and frightened eyes. Then she raised her hand. Cesar’s eyes blazed at her with hatred, but he quickly looked away.
“See, brother. The community wants you to leave. Leave now brother.” Cesar then addressed us in his usual soft voice. “This meeting is over. Don’t forget. We’ll be going to the garden tomorrow after mass.” Cesar’s words broke the unbearable tension, and, with visible relief, people filed out of the room. But David did not move; he simply sat down on the floor and said, “I’m not leaving until I hear the charges against me and until I have a hearing.” Cesar ignored him and walked away, speaking in Spanish to the guards. A few people glanced down at David as they passed, but not many. Within a few minutes the room was empty except for David, Sister Denise, and me. Someone had turned out the lights, and the darkness compounded the silence. I heard dogs barking, and a radio sounded faintly in the cool night air.
“David, are you all right,” Sister Denise asked softly.
“Yeah, but I think we’re in deep shit.”
“What do you think they’ll do?” My stomach felt the way it did when I told my wife I was in love with another woman. What had begun in such high spirits was ending in horror. My mind wandered crazily, but with its immediate focus on myself. How would I get my lecture notes, which my friends at school had mailed to me so that I could teach the class in labor history? Would the guards be visiting me tonight? Was I in physical danger? How would I get out of here? I wanted to be back on Route 66 headed east across the great desert.
“I think they’re going to have me arrested. I think Cesar told Juan Salazar to get the police here.”
I said, “Arrested for what? Peacefully protesting this crazy shit? That would be some irony.”
“No, for trespassing. You forgot. I don’t live here anymore. Cesar threw me out.”
“But what about the union’s constitution? What about what’s fucking right?”
“Cesar couldn’t care less. And neither will the cops. Don’t you know. Cesar is the law here, and it was pretty apparent that most people don’t have a problem with that. But you two ought to get out of here. You haven’t been accused of anything.”
“No way. I didn’t have the nerve to speak out in the meeting. I’m gonna stay. They can arrest me too.”
“They won’t. Cesar won’t want a professor and a nun in jail. I’m just a carpenter, less likely to cause embarrassment you know.”
“Maybe I should go talk to Cesar now,” said Sister. “Tell him how crazy this is. Maybe this wasn’t his idea. Maybe he’s calmed down by now. Maybe. . .”
“Sister, don’t you see. This whole thing was planned, by Cesar with his little group of flunkies. This was ‘the game.’ Juan Reyes and I were just its first victims.”
We sat in the dark rooms and talked. La Paz seemed like a tomb, still as a stalking cat in the mountain desert. The only sounds we heard were those of the guards who were piling David’s belongings on the walkway in front of his room. At least that’s what we thought was happening after we heard a voice commanding, “Take his shit out to the sidewalk.”
When the screen door slammed and heavy footsteps sounded on the hallway floor, I knew that David was right. Someone hit the light switch, and by the time my eyes focused, four cops were moving toward David. I made out the words “Mojave Police” on one of their badges.
The largest of the four, a red-faced man with a donut shop belly and a fat ass, said, “You David Young?” He seemed uneasy, as if he grasped the incongruity of arresting a union staff person at union headquarters. He’d busted a few union heads on picket lines and stuck his billy club between the ribs of his share of Mexicans. That’s what cops did. But this was something different, new terrain, so to speak, and he didn’t have a map.
“That’s me. What can I do for ya?”
“Just get up so I can get these cuffs on you. You’re under arrest.”
“You gonna read me my rights?” The cop tensed and his face turned crimson. One of the others tightened the grip on his billy club and fingered his revolver.
“Don’t get smart, buddy. It was your folks called us out here. We ain’t never been here before. You must be a real bad actor. Now just get up.”
David didn’t move and just looked up at the cop with an almost whimsical expression on his face.
“I think he’s on a sit-down strike. Ain’t that right, buddy?” said one of the fat cop’s partners. “We’re gonna hafta carry him out. Good thing there’s four of us. He’s a big fella.”
“Suit yourself. By the way, what are the charges?”
“They say you’re trespassing. They asked you to leave and you said ‘fuck you.'”
“That’s a lie, he never said that,” I shouted. “And how can he be trespassing? He lives here. I’ll show you his room.”
“That’s not what they say. You got proof you live here. A lease or something.”
“What do you think?” David said. “Look, just carry me out of here and get it over with. That’s what you’re here for. You got TV at your jail?”
“You’re such a wise ass, buddy, maybe we’ll just. . . .”
“Shut up, Joe,” spit the big cop, glaring at us. “Yeah, big guy, we got all the amenities of home. You’ll see.” He looked at his men and said, “Grab him.” Then they carried him out. We followed them to the police car and watched as they shoved him in the middle of the back seat and drove away.
“Sister, I’m getting the hell out of here, now. I’m packing my stuff and I’ll drive up to Mojave and try to bail David out of jail. What about you?”
“I have to stay. I’ll try to put David’s things in my room.”
I don’t have a very clear memory of the next few days. I did bail David out of jail. One of our friends, Leila, the union organizer who was negotiating with Mr. Fontin in Oxnard, called her parents in San Jose and made arrangements for David to stay with them for a while. I drove him there and stayed the night. Leila’s parents were old left Communists, appalled that their daughter had converted to Catholicism, the better to serve the campesinos. The next morning, I headed south and then east toward home.
The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939. A lot has changed since then; working people began to make a fairly good living, buying good cars and houses and sending their kids to college. But for farm workers the changes haven’t been so great. They’re still dirt poor. They’re still sickly, from bad food, from pesticides, from fouled water. They still don’t often live past fifty. And their kids still don’t go to school. Their skin colors change, but their lives don’t. And what’s true here is true everywhere in the world where the big growers own the land. Money is what they want, money in a ceaseless and growing flow, and the way to get it is to have a large reserve army of people without land whose only choice is to harvest the crops for nothing or die. The big growers will do whatever they have to do, including kill people, to ensure the existence of the landless masses. And this is true in the United States, in Mexico, in El Salvador, in the Philippines, in Indonesia, everywhere the land and its bounty have become merely things to buy and sell.
But everywhere the big growers enslave people, some of the people catch on. Some of them figure it out themselves, and some of them get help from the few outsiders who care. They come to understand why they are poor while the bosses are rich. It’s a simple thing really, but hard to learn, because the whole of the power of all of the forces that run a society — the owners, the presses, the schools, the churches, the government — have blanketed the people with a heavy weight of lies. Of course, it’s a dangerous thing too; in most parts of the world, you’ll risk your life to learn it. Yet still some do learn the great truth: that profits and poverty, profits and landlessness go together. Just like winter and snow in the mountains: where there is one, there is the other. And these people, when they learn the truth, have to act on it. They have to tell others, and then they and the others and the outsiders are transformed. They begin to form study groups, base communities, co-ops, credit unions, labor unions. They meet, they march, they strike, they form armies and they fight to get the land back, to make a decent wage, to live a life of dignity. The big people don’t like this, and they torture and kill and bribe and lie to stop it. Most times it stops, but sometimes the poor people win and, when they do, they leave a lesson for those who follow, those who must finally make the land and all of the earth’s wealth the equal property of all.
Cesar was one of the people who caught on and then did something about it. What he did was wonderful, magnificent really. He built a union where none had ever been able to exist. He gave people a vision, and the vision made them do things they’d never been able to do before. Mute people gained voices and spread the word across the land. We are poor, but we know why, we know what to do, and we’re going to do it. Up and down the valley, they formed their unions and won their contracts, and the growers took heed and were afraid.
But any movement of the poor is a fragile thing; it will be beset by demons from without and within. The external enemies are well-known, constant irritants and often overwhelmingly powerful. Those inside the union are more subtle, yet nearly as destructive: leaders have big and conflicting egos, gender and racial tensions are hard to overcome, people have honest differences about goals and strategies, and it is enormously difficult to create the selfless bureaucracy that alone will ensure the movement’s continuity. Cesar learned how to get power and to use it effectively to combat the union’s external foes, but such power was also used inside to solidify his personal hold on the movement. As he did this, he came to see the movement as his movement, to shape as he pleased. Anyone inside opposed to him was branded as an outside enemy and excised from the union. His movement was not strong enough to contain him, and the results were like those I have described above. In the years since then, things have gotten worse. Nearly every officer, organizer, and lawyer has been purged or has quit. Most of the membership drifted away, because the union could not keep them under contract with the growers and would not tolerate rank-and-file criticism of Cesar. In 1993, Cesar died at the age of sixty-six. His son-in-law was made union president, and his children now preside over a host of business enterprises funded by government grants and money raised through mass mailings. Cesar’s union has become a racket, paying high salaries to its officers while the mass of farm workers still starve. In the end, it seems that a proletarian dictator is no better than any other.
Michael D. Yates is author of Cheap Motels and a Hotplate: An Economist’s Travelogue (Monthly Review Press, 2007), Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy (Monthly Review Press, 2003), Why Unions Matter (Monthly Review Press, 1st Edition published in 1999, new edition published in May 2009), In and Out of the Working Class (Arbeiter Ring, 2009), and co-author (with Fred Magdoff) of The ABCs of the Economic Crisis: What Working People Need to Know among many other books and articles.