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
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.
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.
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
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.''
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
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