Randy Shaw’s new book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, has just been published by the University of California Press. Beyond the Fields reveals the farmworkers movement’s little-known but essential contributions to the progressive politics of the contemporary United States. In particular, Shaw traces a direct line from the UFW to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
Randy Shaw is the director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, the editor of the online daily newspaper BeyondChron.org and an occasional contributor to the commentary pages of the Daily Planet. Zelda Bronstein recently recently talked with Shaw about his new book.
ZB: You say you wrote Beyond the Fields because you wanted to change people’s understanding of Cesar Chavez and the UFW. What’s the change you hope to see?
RS: I was orginally motivated by the feeling that the legacy of Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement had been relegated to the history books. People know that Chavez fought for farmworkers, but they don’t really know anything more than that. If you’re a certain age, you say: Well yeah, I remember boycotting grapes, or my family wouldn’t eat lettuce. But if you talk to people under forty, all they know is the name. They don’t know how Chavez and the farmworkers succeeded or how they impact today’s social movements or the way we do grassroots politics.We have Barack Obama saying, Yes we can! Many people don’t know that’s from the farmworkers. The whole Obama electoral outreach program is based on the UFW electoral model. I argue that what the farmworkers did in the ‘60s and the ‘70s laid the basic direction for today’s progressive movements.
ZB: I was wondering if this historical memory loss has to do with something you said in The Activist’s Handbook: activists don’t usually write books.
RS: Yes, why was I the person to write this book? I was not in the farmworkers movement. One thing the farmworker alumni have almost universally in common is that they go out of the way not to promote themselves. The trainer of Cesar Chavez, Fred Ross, Sr., was, I think most people would agree, the most influential organizer of the twentieth century. But very people have heard of him. Everyone has heard of Sol Alinsky, who had nowhere near the impact of Fred Ross. Fred Ross, Sr., trained many of these guys and women, and his ethos was: the organizer doesn’t claim the credit. They’re busy organizing, and they’re having other people and organizations getting the credit.
ZB: Let’s talk about some of the UFW’s innovations.
RS: What people forget was that as late as 1972, there was one rule of national politics: it was all television advertising. Organized labor gave money to candidates. Their whole voter outreach program was calling their members or sending them a letter reminding them to vote. The farmworkers saw electoral politics as a community organizing strategy. They revived this pre-television way of doing electoral outreach. In 1968, the farmworkers got involved working for Robert Kennedy and pioneered the Latino outreach model that’s now used across the country. What they began in ’68 and then really refined and enhanced in 1972 on the statewide ballot measure [the growers’ anti-union/anti-farmworkers Prop 22] was the idea of precinct walking, door-to-door walking petitioning—all the stuff that we see now in the Obama campaign.
The real bridge is when Miguel Contreras becomes the head of the Labor Federation in Los Angeles in 1996, and then people start wondering: gee, in Los Angeles, Latinos keep winning, union members keep winning, they elect Villaraigosa as mayor—how did that all happen? The answer is: out of the model that Miguel Contreras learned in the UFW and imposed in Los Angeles. And then, Eliseo Medina [another former key UFW organizer], who was in Los Angeles, took that model statewide in California and then in 2006 brought it to Colorado and Arizona. Now he’s brought it to eleven states.
ZB: I was surprised to read about how Chavez and the farmworkers transformed the environmental movement.
RS: Some people do know the UFW led the fight to get rid of DDT, but they don’t
realize that the UFW had a major role in spawning what we now call the environmental justice movement. Labor at that time  was not aligned with environmentalists. We had a double standard: environmentalists were concerned with lakes and rivers—wilderness—not the fields. When Cesar tried to get allies for the lettuce boycott—the Sierra Club in particular—he had a hard time, because even though it involved pesticides, people saw it only as a labor issue. Out of the UFW experience, came the realization that the environmental movement needed to focus on environmental justice, on discriminatory lack of protection for low-income people.
ZB: You also emphasize the spiritual and moral dimension of the UFW’s work.
RS: Cesar is viewed as a very secular figure and the hero of Latinos. In fact, he was a deeply religious man. Chavez first got national attention in 1966 through his 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, his pilgrimage and penitence, with the Virgin of Guadalupe the whole way. And then in 1968 he did a fast, which he’s widely acclaimed for now, but at the time, a lot of the more radical members of the UFW and the secular types quit the union over that, because they were embarrassed.
Faith-based activists saw the way Cesar was living his own life, the poverty and the way he just sacrificed, and the high religious and spiritual commitment, and they wanted to be part of that. I do think that Barack Obama’s the most spiritual candidate the Democrats have run—I can’t think of the last one. He talks in terms of values—supposedly, only Republicans do that—other Democrats talk in terms of jobs and the environment. And, like Obama, Cesar attracted a lot of secular young people who liked that this was not just a legislative campaign; it was something bigger.
ZB: How did the farmworkers engage youth?
RS: In the early 70s, you couldn’t go anywhere in Berkeley without seeing a UFW person at a table. In the book, I tell about how Gary Gunthman walks on to campus one day and sees this farmworker table and signs up, gets a phone call that night—how many times do you sign up at a table and get a phone call right away? They called and asked him to sit at a table. They said: why don’t you stand up and try to be the barker? He starts doing that, and he thinks, great, I’ve done my part. They called him that same night: we need you to do security for Cesar Chavez. He says, I can’t turn that down—security for Cesar Chavez! So he goes out there, and he meets Chavez—here’s guy who one week earlier had never heard anything about the farmworkers, and suddenly, he’s devoting his life to it! And he’s been an organizer the rest of his life. Today a Gary Gunthman walking through Sproul Plaza wouldn’t find something to enlist in necessarily.
ZB: Why not?
RS: A lot of groups don’t prioritize recruitment the way the UFW did, and I think that helps explain why you don’t see more people getting involved in some of these groups.
ZB: So what does the UFW have to teach us about leadership and the future of progressive movements in this country?
RS: One of the great ironies of the farmworkers was that Cesar’s charismatic leadership certainly built that movement, and his charismatic leadership also caused its decline. By 1981there were no farmworkers on the farmworkers’ executive board, and when workers tried to get some representatives, Chavez called them out of order and fired those organizing it. This is often written out of contemporary histories of Cesar. It’s almost as if people are afraid to tell the truth about why the movement declined. Instead, there is an alternative myth: Republicans in the 1980s killed the UFW, when it fact almost all the leadership and all the people who made it successful were gone by 1981.
ZB: But some kind of leadership is essential.
RS: Right. Look at the Obama campaign—would all those people be together if there wasn’t Barack Obama? No. The question is, where do the Obama volunteers go after the election? One of the things I want people reading my book to think about is: You look at the UFW and how it was this amazing movement, and we haven’t seen anything like this until the Obama campaign. We don’t want all these people to just go back to law school and business school. I would not be surprised if Obama found a way to keep this thing together—which has never happened before. And many people might say: Wait a minute, I don’t want to be part of an organization controlled by a politician. But think about some of the big issues like health care and the environment and how we get support to pass these things. You can’t tell those people who’ve worked on the campaign goodby and depend on existing organizations, because they don’t have the people and the resources. I would expect that the Obama campaign is going to figure something out to keep people involved.
ZB: That’s certainly your hope—right?
RS: Well, I think they need to. One of my main motives in writing this book is to say: here we had this organization that got all these people who would not have otherwise been involved, involved not simply for three years but for the rest of their lives. Now, again, we’ve gotten people involved: how do we sustain that? The future of progressive politics in America depends on the answer.