Written at a time when everyone knows what it means to construct a public image, Miriam Pawel’s Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement revisits the story of an iconic movement with an even more iconic leader. But instead of a “Chavez and Goliath” story, Pawel shows us exactly how many people make up the “little guy” and how they fought for better wages and working conditions.
Instead of offering another hagiography figuring Chavez as a saint, Pawel focuses on the experience of eight people who dedicated their lives to making a difference to the United Farm Worker cause. From Eliseo Medina, a grape-picker who rose in the ranks to become the second vice president of the union, to Chris Hartmire, a Presbyterian minister who headed the California Migrant Ministry when he began supporting the fledgling union, the characters give an intimate perspective of the victories and losses of the union’s fight.
Because of Pawel’s more democratic approach, Chavez appears less as revered leader than as a dedicated man with a keen sense for staging and a spellbinding public speaker. In the chapter describing Chavez’s influential fast of 1968, Pawel recounts that Chavez aimed to send a message to workers to be disciplined and willing to sacrifice. Coming in the middle of the emotionally-charged Delano Grape Strike, Chavez indeed picked the right time to send a message of non-violence and determination to those he had helped call to action.
Pawel’s book ultimately seeks to show that “the union was the workers,” and that this sentiment kept union morale solid. As the union started to be seen as synonymous with Cesar Chavez, union and leaders and the icon already had diverging visions for the organization. Faith corroded within the union, and its tenet that “people organize people” was replaced with impersonal strategies like using direct mail and, for the first time, using money to wield influence.
For those without a specific interest in labor practices, agriculture or Californian history, Pawel’s approach can seem dry where it might have been more literary, perhaps differentiating the subjects in her narrative with distinct voices in addition to her even-keeled reporter’s tone. Take her account of the Delano Grape Strike. As Pawel notes, at the height of the strike, 17 million Americans stopped eating grapes to support the union. Pawel recounts stories, for example, of those instrumental in organizing the strike and those who pleaded with supermarket buyers and shoppers not to buy grapes from the region until labor practices changed. It’s a story with victories and weathering losses presented as a collection of facts.
Still, the story of the farm worker’s movement reminds us that buying is not simply a matter of choosing between brands. Each purchase is a vote of support for the companies that put a particular item on the shelves — and for their labor practices. Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers also remind us that David can become Goliath, but no victory is set in stone.
Excerpt: “Those who once dedicated their lives to Cesar Chavez’s crusade now wince when they drive past farmworkers, hunched over rows of vegetables or trimming grapevines in the bitter cold. Once so certain they could change that world, the UFW alumni rue their failure. They applaud each other’s individual accomplishments, but lament the lost opportunity to collectively achieve more. The memories still cause pain.”
This was originally published at Zocalo Public Square, the coolest organization around.