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Cesar Chavez: When Your Guru Goes Gaga

Once upon a time, members of my generation broke free and created what was labeled a “counter culture.” Because the surrounding culture was not living up to our young ideals, we began creating our own work, our own services, our own communities… and began supporting various causes.

The sixties and seventies, for me, were not about selfishness and doing our own thing, an interpretation that has been perversely sensationalized by the media. Those years were delightfully exuberant with passion, idealism, and work from the heart. Alienated by the rugged cowboy models of isolated, independent manhood, many of us practiced tribal values of mutual aid and support, the common good in community, and the use of our skills, gifts and creativity for others.

The Farmworkers Movement

During those years, from 1968 to 1973, I worked for Cesar Chavez, the charismatic Ghandian practioner of nonviolence, boycotts, and public fasts who founded the farmworkers movement and the United Farm Workers Union (UFW). After volunteering on the boycott around the Palo Alto area for a year, I was hired by Cesar to come to UFW headquarters and computerize the growing movement. The poverty wages of almost all volunteers and staff was room, board, and $5 a week. Like many others who were involved, those were the best years of my life in terms of single-minded dedication and perseverance in support of a cause and its leadership. I have nothing but the fondest memories of my time spent there.

Programmers Fred Patch, Paul Jacob, and Dave Smith
Programmers Fred Patch, Paul Jacob, and Dave Smith

Earlier books about Cesar and the farmworkers movement by Jacques Levy, Peter Matthiessen and others painted the picture as I experienced it: a modest, self-sacrificing hero, his movement, its strikes and boycotts, its breakthroughs, its political and celebrity supporters, its spectacular growth in membership, and its bright future.

More recently, there is a spate of new books and articles about the farmworkers movement. A new Hollywood film, overseen by the Chavez family, continues the glorification and sainthood of its founder. But the new books and articles are telling us of both its rise and its subsequent dark and tragic fall. From only a few thousand members it climbed to more than 50,000 at its peak. Its membership now stands at only a few thousand and, after the death of Cesar Chavez in 1993, and with strikes and boycotts a distant memory, it is now a fundraising conglomerate of million-dollar non-profits built through the years of its former success from union support, grower contracts, membership dues, and supporter donations… controlled by the Chavez family.

Violence and Nonviolence

My main responsibility with the union was to design and implement a computerized system for its service center to run the membership and medical plan. A couple of Stanford MBA candidates and their professors had proposed a model computer system and the union had just started looking for someone to adapt and implement it. My job application to become a supported community organizer had coincidently arrived on Cesar’s desk. Seeing my background in computer systems development, he invited me to come and head up the project. After arriving in Delano in 1968, I hired four computer programmers to develop the systems that created bilingual reports for use by the service center offices as the migrant farmworkers followed the harvest from southern California to Washington State.

In 1969 we moved headquarters to the hills above Bakersfield near the town of Tehachapi. A former tuberculosis sanitarium had been purchased by a Hollywood movie producer and donated to the union. The compound of ramshackle buildings and mobile homes was named “La Paz.”

Cesar with La Paz kids
Cesar with La Paz kids

In the early seventies, at the peak of success and union membership growth, the Teamsters Union, threatening and using violence, began competing for union contracts in the fields. Because of threats to his life, Cesar was forced to live with twenty-four-hour bodyguards and two trained German shepherd guard dogs he named Boycott and Huelga (Spanish for “strike”). He always traveled with his bodyguards in a two-car convoy.

As problems escalated between the two unions, we began hearing rumors, verified by the police, that a contract had been put out on Cesar’s life. At a meeting called by the head of security at La Paz, we learned that law enforcement had notified us that our property could be invaded, with the goal of rubbing out Cesar. We were given guns and ammo to keep in our homes, and we began taking target practice with revolvers and shotguns at the nearby shooting range maintained by the local police department. We took turns standing watch with the regular security staff, driving around the perimeter of the grounds throughout the night.

Needless to say, this armed response to threat conflicted with the philosophy of nonviolence espoused by the union, and by most of us personally. I was puzzled at the lack of any challenges to this policy — including my own silence. Our families, our movement, and our leader were being threatened, and we were preparing to defend ourselves by violent means, regardless of our philosophical dedication to nonviolence. Were we helplessly weak and naive to believe in values that, when push came to shove, we would simply forget?

Although I regularly worked with Cesar, his wife, Helen, and projects with Dolores Huerta, I was not part of the inner circle that made major policy decisions. I don’t know personally whether Cesar knew about the arming of headquarters staff, but I assume he did. In either case, knowing him, I am quite certain he would never have made such a decision in order to save his own life. Rather, it would have been a responsible decision made to save the union and the people he cared for. When Gandhi was killed, his movement died. When King was killed, his movement lost its momentum. Cesar was not going to let that happen to his movement and the hopes and dreams of farmworkers, even if it meant his personal beliefs were violated.


This brief episode of armed vigilance ended suddenly one day, when the guard at the front gate of our compound got into an argument with a rancher who had access rights through the property. As the incident was described to me, the argument escalated and our guard pulled a shotgun and leveled it at the rancher. No shots were fired, but as the reality of what could go wrong when loaded guns are available to poorly trained volunteers sank in, it became too obvious a risk to the union’s image. All the guns were quietly confiscated, and we once more became nonviolent pacifists.

Fighting For Our Lives

In 1973, shortly before leaving the union, I volunteered to work briefly as a sound man (I held the microphone) on a film about the union, Fighting for Our Lives, which later was nominated for an Academy Award. The producer/cameraman and I posed as TV station reporters from Bakersfield to get footage from behind the Teamster lines, out in the fields. We thought we were pretty clever until we were told that a carload of Teamster goons with baseball bats had found out we were actually from the union and were hunting for us. Not wanting to test our nonviolent mettle yet again, we left town.

Together with the growing unhappiness of its membership with UFW operational mismanagement, and the "sweetheart" contracts that the Teamsters were signing with growers, the United Farmworkers lost 80% of its membership. During the chaos that followed, Cesar began a series of purges by firing a key accounting manager, and good friend of mine, for essentially doing what he had been assigned by Cesar to do. I wondered to myself, "is that who Cesar really is?..." and I resigned and left soon after. The computer system, designed for a large, growing membership, was operational, but no longer essential. A 5,000 member union can be run with a couple of boxes of 3x5 index cards. I went on with my life. Over the next years, it regained some of its contracts and membership through strikes and boycotts, but continued to flounder from internal fighting and poor management.

The more recent, well-researched books make it abundantly clear that Cesar was primarily responsible for gradually destroying what he built. There were rampant paranoia-driven purges, led by Cesar, of almost all of the key, loyal, talented players — anglo, hispanic and filipino — responsible for its enormous early success. It rumbled on through the boycott volunteers around the country and through the entire staff and workers that had been assembled at La Paz. Those purges were based on flimsy, petty, unsubstantiated rumors, gossip, and innuendo. Only one fought back. David McClure, a recently employed plumber, was called out and accused of being an agent conspiring to destroy the union. He had been talking daily to the local plumbing consultant based just north in Tehachapi. Unfortunately, the engineer's name was Hayakawa and Cesar had the phone records to prove that he was conspiring with the conservative senator S. I. Hayakawa. Despite his loud protestations that it was "Not that Hayakawa!” he was thrown out with the rest.

There was also Cesar's infatuation with the spectacularly inappropriate practice he brought to union headquarters, "The Game" — otherwise defined as "verbal attack therapy" — created originally by the now-discredited founder of Synanon, Charles Dederich, to control his drug-recovering acolytes. For many months Cesar tried to institutionalize the game by insisting that those who didn’t play were disloyal.

What Happened?

From the beginning there had been an internal contradiction between the idea of building a "movement" and the reality of building and operating the necessary union bureaucracy. Cesar's heart was in the movement: living in poverty for the cause, fighting the growers, boycott and political campaigns, fasting against injustice... and his enjoyment of being lionized by volunteers, celebrities, priests, and politicians. As the union became successful winning contracts that had to be organized and maintained with service centers, membership dues, and medical plan benefits... and as those former enemies became people that staff had to cooperate with to make the union work and its benefits available... and as empowered workers started questioning procedures and demanding democratic input to decision-making... the realities of transitioning from a movement to a union began to sink in... and it was just not fun anymore.

Why did Cesar react so destructively as they wrestled with becoming the real union of their dreams? Simple layoffs would have been sufficient to save money during periods of membership loss. One of Cesar's closest associates, most talented organizer, and Board Director, Marshall Ganz now says "he went mad." His brother and Board Director, Richard Chavez, called him "nutso." Key player and Union Medical Doctor Marion Moses said he "stopped listening." Another union leader said "he didn't want comrades, he wanted disciples." The three power centers that had created its success — the strike, boycott, and legal departments — were dismantled and crippled by purges and dissension.

Instead of moving from a tightly-controlled, top-down “dictatorship” by the founder to a hierarchy of trained, trusted and empowered middle-managers, Cesar, unable or unwilling to delegate, could not let go and insisted that all decisions would still go through him. This is often the behavior of entrepreneurial founders facing small company growth, and if they are allowed to continue micro-managing, investors through a Board of Directors either force change, or the company fails. In this movement/union hybrid, whenever Board members began strongly disagreeing, Cesar would threaten to leave, end of discussion. Farmworker members themselves had no access to the Board or were not listened to by the Board or were overruled by Cesar. His hand-picked Board had allowed the union to become all about Cesar Chavez. It was Cesar's movement and Cesar’s union.

One Last Chance

Meanwhile, growing less and less enchanted and involved with everyday union business in the fields, yet still insisting on controlling it from afar, Cesar withdrew to La Paz. With the remaining staff, he developed a guru/commune environment with mandatory Saturday morning garden work and 25¢ fines when staff members failed to wear a union button at all times. Various management schemes came and went. His focus shifted to computer mailing lists and fundraising for the union’s various non-profit ventures and services.

Although the purges of skilled organizers and staff at the top and middle levels had destroyed much of the organizational leadership, the most devastating and final death throes were the final purging of farmworker rank-and-file leaders in the fields. The author of what is the best, most complete book about the union considers this as Cesar's greatest historical failing. Frank Bardacke, author of Trampling Out The Vintage, describes how the lettuce and vegetable workers in the Salinas Valley, with the organizational genius of Marshall Ganz, had developed new strike-created contracts led by democratically-elected farmworkers themselves. This was something new and more independent of the top-down organizational structure in La Paz. Instead of celebrating the new contracts and membership growth, its success and its leadership were viewed as a threat. It was now time for the purging of Marshall Ganz.

Bardacke concludes: [By] "keeping control of the UFW, he crippled it... he politically enfeebled its local leaders and divided its ranks... [he] smothered the farm worker soul of the union. The body would wither and die. Only the head would live on."

One Comment

  1. wRen Bradley September 13, 2014

    I worked for three years on staff with UFW in LA for Yes on 14 campaign, then to La Paz, then to Salinas 1976 to early 1979. I was the final Director of the health clinic in Salinas when Cesar made the tragic decision to close down the clinics….ay, what memories. I remember hearing your name and I clearly remember Dave McClure. He seemed to be a very decent, honest person.

    My capacity for making change was enormous in the UFW. In some ways, now that I am rank and file in a large union top down, I see little if any improvements in trade unions….in fact, the idea of rank and file driven union is extremely difficult since paid union officials appear to drive their own agenda.

    I never encountered difficulties personally with Cesar, but I definitely did things he would not have approved of now that I look back at them…I pretty much did not confront Cesar or put another way, I flew under the radar screen…

    I came upon your article as I am in middle of reading the newest book and your article popped up….there could be many books written…I am certain you must have read Marshall’s book.

    Ciudado, and by the way, weapons came back to La Paz!

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