January 15, 2006
Tarnishing the Cesar Chavez Legacy

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.

SAN DIEGO -- Discussing the Jack Abramoff congressional lobbying scandal, some have invoked the colorful saying -- often attributed to Eric Hoffer, a longshoreman-turned-philosopher of the 20th century -- that every great cause begins as a movement, degenerates into a business and winds up a racket.

I can't help but think how beautifully, and how tragically, that phrase sums up the moral trajectory of the United Farm Workers union over the last 40 years. What began as a worthwhile cause -- to bring dignity to farm workers -- eventually became a national movement, then a family business. And now, the evidence suggests, it's become a racket.

To get a sense for how this happened, you might read a well-done series of articles that appeared last week in the Los Angeles Times. Totaling more than 20,000 words, the series lifts the veil on what the UFW has become. And it's not pretty.

Thanks to an investigation by Times reporter Miriam Pawel, we now know that the modern UFW is a well-tuned fundraising machine that exploits the memory of the late UFW President Cesar Chavez and uses the plight of farm workers to raise millions of dollars in public money and private donations.

While agricultural laborers remain near the bottom of the economic food chain, UFW Inc. has done well in their name. According to the series, the enterprise includes a network of tax-exempt organizations and charities that rake in between $20 million to $30 million a year and have an annual payroll of $12 million. It also includes a service center that has raised more than $200 million to buy or build more than 3,000 housing units for low-income families in California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. (Few units house farm workers, and, ironically for a bunch that once made a big deal about people buying grapes picked by non-union workers, most of the housing was built with non-union labor.) There's also a charitable fund that has, to its name, about $10 million and which mostly just sits in the bank collecting interest, and a pension fund that is worth more than $100 million but services just a few thousand workers.

A bit of the take is doled out in six-figure salaries to members of the Chavez clan -- more than a dozen of the iconic leader's children, in-laws, friends or kin. Ghoulishly, they're even marketing the $3.2 million center they had built around Chavez's gravesite in California's Tehachapi Mountains as a tourist attraction and are renting it out for weddings. It seems that these days, la causa is mostly about el dinero.

No one will have a tougher time accepting this than those white liberals and Mexican-American baby boomers who cut their teeth on the strikes and grape boycotts of the 1960s and '70s, and whose image of Chavez and his crusade are locked in time. The way they prefer to remember it, the UFW was a pure and powerful instrument of social change that used nonviolence and grass-roots organizing to force growers and the politicians they controlled to make concessions to decency.

No matter what you think of the UFW, you have to give Chavez and the union their due. Before the movement came along, farm workers were denied the collective bargaining protections enjoyed by other kinds of laborers or the right to vote for union representation. There were no toilets or canteens of clean water in the fields. Growers thought nothing of demanding that workers put in 12-hour days with no guaranteed wage.

Chavez and the union altered that reality with strikes, boycotts, organizing, marches, political pressure and legal action. The labor leader tempted death with weeks-long fasts that attracted national attention and earned a powerful ally in Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Given all that was accomplished, it was entirely believable when Kennedy went into the fields and proclaimed to the UFW faithful that, though their backs might be bent from many years of labor, no one would stand taller than those who could say: ``I was there. I marched with Cesar.''

Those individuals, the true believers who worked at the grass-roots level and marched hundreds of miles and logged countless hours in service of a cause in which they believed, have nothing to be ashamed of. There's no denying what they helped bring to fruition. They still stand tall.

Too bad we can't say the same for the union, the movement and a generation of friends and relatives who have come, the Times series suggests, to treat the Chavez legacy as an ATM.

© 2005, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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