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Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers Hardcover – October 24, 2011
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Trampling Out the Vintage serves as both a cautionary and inspirational tale that delimits the profound reach of grassroots field organizing, while also detailing the inward-looking drift of a labor leadership that wound up crowding out the key concerns of the union's own members. Bardacke, a former social-justice activist, farmworker, and labor educator, is a deft and sensitive storyteller, and he's produced an affecting portrait of both Chavez and the rank-and-file agricultural workers who aided his rise to power. —Richard Greenwald
“Bardacke is a talented writer, burning with rage against injustice, and his subject is one of the most attractive and charismatic figures US politics has produced.”—Francis Beckett, Guardian
“An ... intelligent, thorough history. [Chavez’s] truth is marching on.”—The Economist
“[M]agnificent and tragic history... Bardacke’s enormously insightful and nuanced book thus radically reconfigures the social, political, and moral narrative with which most Americans have understood the history of the farm worker movement and its leadership.”—Nelson Lichtenstein, Dissent
“[T]he first comprehensive history of the rise and fall of the UFW, written from the viewpoint of the farmworkers who vitalized the movement known as ‘La Causa.’”—Eric Brazil, San Francisco Chronicle
“The best history ever written of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Cesar Chavez. Certain to become a classic of U.S. working class history.”—Michael Yates, Upside Down World
“Frank Bardacke has written the comprehensive history of the United Farm Workers, a definitive biography of Cesar Chavez and a magnificent guide to the politics and sociology of the 1960s-80s. Deserves #1 ranking as best labor history of the year.”—Saul Landau, Daily Censored
“A radically honest, uncompromising and often painful deconstruction of the legend of Cesar Chavez, Trampling Out the Vintage is one of the long-awaited books of our time. Having spent almost a decade as an agricultural worker in California’s Pajaro Valley (where he still lives), Bardacke’s account evokes the spirit of Steinbeck, resurrecting the true heroes of La Causa—the rank and file fieldworkers—and reminding us that the grapes of wrath still remain to be harvested for social justice.”—Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums and City of Quartz
“Trampling Out the Vintage is the view of a well- informed observer who worked in the lettuce fields near Salinas for six seasons, then spent another 25 years teaching English to farm workers in the Watsonville, CA area. His views on the growth and decline of the United Farm Workers union—some of which I do not share—offer important points of history and reflection for unionists today, particularly those working with the Occupy Wall Street movement ... provides several insights not previously developed in well informed books on the UFW.”—Duane Campbell, Talking Union, a Project of the DSA Labor Network
“Bardacke is a top investigative reporter with a refreshing clarity of style who employs the careful documentation of a trained historian.”—Mark Day, Salinas Californian
“[T]he most complete account yet of the rise and fall of the UFW. It is also an epic, Shakespearean drama with all of the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster. Bardacke masters an enormous amount of material to relate these events skillfully. He salts his prose with stories and characters straight out of Steinbeck.”—Marty Manley, Jam Side Down
“There’s so much marvelous stuff in Frank Bardacke’s book that’s simply not been done before. At the book’s core are the men and women who pick the crops in California’s fields and orchards. Bardacke gives those people, mostly seen only in distant fields, a huge presence, one crackling with political vitality: those surges the UFW had no idea were coming; those moments when a strike spread like wildfire across the fields. Here are the farm workers, their skill and endurance, the world they built among themselves, the ways they shaped the history of the UFW. It is their story—refreshingly, sympathetically, and beautifully told—that makes this book stand apart and will make it stand forever.”—Alexander Cockburn, coauthor of Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press
“Frank Bardacke’s long-awaited masterpiece has finally arrived, and it’s the kind of book that comes along only once in a generation, if we’re lucky. Not only is the research spectacular, but Bardacke has a rare ability to combine a nuanced analysis of the United Farm Workers as a social movement with a mastery of the political economy of California agriculture. Best of all, he’s a superb writer, who’s constructed a gripping tale full of complex characters including Catholic activists, community organizers, Chicano youth, Filipino veteran activists, white liberals, the ever-enigmatic Cesar Chavez, and most importantly, rank-and-file farmworkers themselves, who finally enter the story of the UFW as savvy and opinionated activists with their own vision of empowerment Bardacke makes you feel the exhilaration and challenges of the UFW story at every turn.”—Dana Frank, Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz
“It is the human beings that come alive here—union officials, organizers and workers—with their foibles, rivalries, and triumphs. We should not be surprised to learn that beyond his saintly portrayal, the singular and remarkable Cesar Chavez emerges as a hugely complex individual with a full range of all too human traits. An extraordinary book about an extraordinary movement and man, and a story as inspiring as it is tragic.”—Douglas Monroy, author of The Borders Within: Encounters between Mexico and the US
“In the era of so many book-a-year authors, Trampling Out the Vintage has a lifetime-achievement feel ... [It] skillfully tells the dramatic story of the rise and fall of the UFW, but what makes this a landmark book is its emphasis on the rank-and-file leaders, who are too often obscured by the long shadow cast by Chavez. It is these workers who are the heroes of Bardacke’s book—workers whose leadership was essential to the union’s success, and whose betrayal contributed to its eventual demise.”—Gabriel Thompson, The Nation
“If you buy one book this year, the book you won’t go wrong paying cash money for is Frank Bardacke’s just released Trampling Out The Vintage, the first book I’ve read in years that lives up to every pre-release superlative applied to it. It got me right from the first page, and it’s been years since I read anything that has captured my scattered attentions so thoroughly as this history of the United Farm Workers—not that “history of the United Farm Workers” even begins to describe this riveting book’s fascinating contents. If Bardacke had introduced himself as Ishmael and proceeded to write in the first person we’d be talking about a novel right up there with Moby Dick. Trampling Out The Vintage is not only the best all-round book ever written about farm labor that I’m aware of—and I’ve read all of Carey McWilliams and the rest of the “Factories in the Fields” books—this one is the kind of true history that reads like a great novel, with a large cast of fascinating and often improbable characters, plus the first detailed descriptions of farm work ever written, and intimate portraits of large figures like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, the late Walter Reuther, the Kennedys, Chuck Diedrich and the so-called human potential movement, Catholic mysticism, campesino theater, and on and on. Everything related to this great movement is in this book, including its entirely readable history of farm labor struggle pre-dating Chavez. Bardacke, fluent in Spanish and a former farmworker himself, has devoted his life to Trampling Out The Vintage, and he really has achieved an absolute masterpiece—an accessible masterpiece, too—not a dry history that has you nodding off at the introduction (Bardacke’s intro is worth the price of admission by itself) and dead asleep a couple of pages in. If you think I’m wrong about it I’ll refund your purchase price. [Chosen as Best Book of the Year.]”—Anderson Valley Advertiser
“In his superb new book Frank Bardacke reports that by the 1970s, UFW organizing had gotten so strong that wages on some highly skilled farmworker crews earned $12 per hour—’more than 48 dollar in today’s money. Even the lowest-paid field workers in the late 1970s made more than one and a half times the minimum wage.’”—Tom Philpott, Mother Jones
“[A] detailed and impeccably researched history of the UFW ... a clear-eyed narrative and analysis of the successes and mistakes made by a group of men and women trying to organize a section of the US working class notoriously difficult to organize. [A]n expansive, readable study of one of the more meaningful struggles of the twentieth century and an instruction book for anyone interested in organizing workers to regain the wealth that they create.”—Ron Jacobs, International Socialist Review
“The UFW has been scrutinized recently but no writer approaches the breadth and depth that Bardacke achieves ... notable for its view of working class democracy and the need for strong base organization in labor unions and movements. There is much to learn about, to grieve, and to celebrate in this opus written by our union colleague Frank Bardacke.”—Tom Edminster, California Teacher
“You can take little sections out of the book and they’re the best thing ever written on the subject.”—Harold Meyerson, judge, Hillman Prize for Book Journalism
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Bardacke, a respected labor activist and educator based in Watsonville California, shares little with Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, except that he too dropped out of Harvard after his freshman year and moved west to change the world. Unlike them, he joined the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and has had an abiding interest in radical politics ever since. Amazon sells a picture from this period here, taken about the time I first met him.Vintage photo of Close up of Frank Bardacke.
Bardacke became a farmworker – one of a handful of Anglos and surely one of the only former Harvard students to work the celery fields. He became fluent in Spanish and formed friendships with many of the union staff and farmworkers who appear in his book. He spent more than a decade interviewing every major participant in the drama, reading every known book on the farmworkers and scouring every archive. He received help in managing this massive project from faculty in history and politics at nearby UC Santa Cruz. The result is history as epic, almost Shakespearean drama, delivered with intelligence and compassion.
Unique among labor historians, he grounds his analysis in “the work itself”, with brilliant, memorable descriptions of how different stages of production for different crops in different regions of California all affect the ability and willingness of different crews to self organize. He describes clearly why organizing was often sustained by the tight-knit, highly skilled lechugeuros or the celery cutters, not the garlic or asparagus workers or those in ladder crops. He describes the skill and endurance that the work requires, introduces leaders that arise from various crews, and captures in fine detail how they interact with a union that was built on a very different set of principles from farm work. In a decade spent organizing waiters, housekeepers, nurses, bartenders, machinists, cannery workers, and assembly workers, I observed precisely these differences. The work itself shapes our propensity to organize. Bardacke is the first writer to apply this principle to the fields and he does so with a deep understanding and compassion for the work.
Bardacke shows that the UFW was only briefly a powerful labor union. Bardacke correctly diagnoses the boycott as creating a formidable tension within the UFW. He frames the tension between labor and boycott organizing as a struggle between the "two souls" of the UFW. The metaphor is fraught. As Bardacke demonstrates, the UFW collapses not because it has two souls, but because none of its activities were organized, financed, or led in a manner that enable them to grow. The problem is not that community organizing is a distraction -- most American labor unions lack a community service organization and are much the weaker for it. The tragic story is that having discovered and refined one of the few recent innovations in union organizing, Chavez cannot let it grow. He ends up strangling his own child.
Bardacke points out however, that boycotts have completely different economics than labor organizations. Boycotts attract millions of liberals eager to shop their conscience. Churches and colleges do the recruiting at very low cost to the boycott sponsors. A membership organization like a union is entirely different. The UFW needed to organize nearly every grower or face mortal opposition because, as Bardacke notes, organizing half an industry penalizes the organized growers. A union has a responsibility to organize the remaining growers and will frequently be cheered on quietly by those who have signed.
More fundamentally, unions need to grow big enough to fund their operations. Unions with fewer than a 250-300,000 members are nearly always too small to operate efficiently across the US (meaning that most unions in the United States waste money because they are too small). The UFW never had 100,000 members -- although its field operations were mostly in California. Bardacke would counter that the democratic character of the union matters more than its size, which is true, but creating organizations that are too small to be economically sustainable is a bad idea -- and unions do it all the time.
Unions have a second problem, to which Chavez developed a unique but ultimately unworkable solution: the economics of labor organizing are often unattractive. Campaigns, negotiations, and strikes are expensive and uncertain of success. If unions file for elections on half of the campaigns they run, win half of the elections they file on, and negotiate contracts successfully 80 percent of the time, then every successful contract has to finance four unsuccessful campaigns and potentially a strike. If the campaigns and the negotiations are labor intensive and the union bears all of those costs, then the economics of organizing turn heavily on the cost and productivity of staff and on the cost and duration of strikes.
The Chavez solution to this dilemma was simple but utterly unsustainable: pump talented people through the organization. Those of us who worked boycott operations worked 14-16 hour days, often 7 days a week. We were paid $5/week and hustled donated food to eat. Once we were burned out, the UFW happily replaced us in a process Chavez once compared with pumping water. At any given time during large boycotts, hundreds of young people slaved on the campaigns for months and sometimes years. Staff at headquarters (located in the small misnamed town of La Paz), were likewise furnished with living quarters, food, and a minuscule stipend. Chavez personally approved all expenses. From here, it looks like a cult – although from inside the cult, it looked like La Causa and stands today as some of the best work many of us ever did. Regardless of how it feels or looks however, and regardless of the ethics of exploiting volunteers on behalf of underpaid farmworkers, an organization without a core of talented, motivated leaders simply does not scale. Volunteers are not enough -- and finding people like Marshall Ganz and Eliseo Medina to fight year after year for farmworkers without paying them even farmworker wages is simply unrealistic.
Bardacke does not go deeply into union economics in part because there is a much bigger tension restricting growth: a command and control organization. Chavez not only micromanages, but much worse, he prohibits local labor or boycott operations. Centrally led boycott operations could work: boycotts demand a consistent message and negotiations with a single adversary and since allied organizations delivered most of the volunteers with help from a skeletal UFW staff, there were relatively few local issues to resolve. But labor organizations are built in hundreds of unique workplaces. This is in part due to the work itself: Bardacke shows in memorable prose that the problems of lechugueros are simply not the same as tomato workers or lemon pickers. More important however, is that without elected reps, stewards, and ranch committee members, contract negotiations suffer because strike threats lose credibility. Without a credible strike threat, backed in this case by a credible boycott threat, growers rationally refuse to negotiate.
Chavez tried to run the union from the top, like he built and ran the boycott. When George Meany and others derided the UFW as “not a real union”, they were wrong at the level of the fields. But in their description of La Paz, they were right. Bardacke reveals Cesar Chavez to be a brilliant community organizer who campaigned for farmworkers but did not empower them. Bardacke plots the tragic trajectory of the UFW from an authentic movement led by a charismatic leader to one paralyzed by demoralized staff that could see no way to grow a union beyond the constraints imposed by its increasingly unstable founder. Chavez died afraid of his own organization, which he had shriveled into a family business devoted to nonprofit services, La Raza not La Causa, and promoting the Chavez legacy. The union was all but gone.
Bardacke masters an enormous amount of material to relate these events skillfully (Google Bardacke Stanford to review the astonishing amount of archival material that went into this book, now at the Green Library). He salts his prose with stories and characters straight out of Steinbeck. Frank rarely leaves the reader guessing about his point of view. Walter Reuther, the brilliant activist who built the United Auto Workers (and marched with Cesar in Delano) is a worthless hack because he voted against seating the Mississippi Freedom Delegation in 1964 and drove communists from the union. Those who cross the US border illegally are noble immigrants deserving of union embrace; those who cross picket lines legally are scabs deserving of UFW tire-slashing and intimidation (but not of UFW efforts to call La Migra and send the illegals among them home). Teamster and grower goons are thugs; Manual Chavez, designated hitter for his nonviolent cousin and other UFW punks are charming rogues who firebomb field sheds and beat their opponents. Those who seek to impose Synanon’s destructive ideology on the UFW are obviously crazy and should be driven from the union; those who seek to advance various communist or nationalist ideologies within the organization are dedicated activists who should be protected. Trampling Out the Vintage is a beautiful work despite these caricatures; it would be even stronger without them. It is a book that deserves a wider distribution and better copy editing than Verso, a niche left publisher, can provide. It would also be nice had Verso published the book electronically (then again, Frank confesses in the postscript that he composed the early chapters of the book on a typewriter!)
Overall, this book deserves the widest possible readership. If you care about labor unions, Cesar Chavez, or progressive politics, you are in for a huge treat. Enjoy.
(Day is the author of Forty Acres: Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers, Praeger: 1971)
Do a friend a favor, do yourself a favor, and buy it.