Frank Bardacke: Farm workers unions became dependent on Democratic Party politics
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Welcome back to our interview with Frank Bardacke. He’s the author of the book Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. And we’re talking about farmworkers and the struggle of farmworkers for their rights in California and across the country. Thanks for joining us again, Frank.
FRANK BARDACKE, AUTHOR: Yeah, I’m glad to be here.
JAY: So we left off part one of the interview talking about what had happened with the struggle of farmworkers and the farmworkers union in California. And I know you’ve–you spent–what is it?–15 years working on this book, and it’s a complicated story, but what are the basic elements of why there’s not very much organizing going amongst farmworkers in the fields today?
BARDACKE: Well, the first thing you have to understand is the power of the growers. The–even at the height of the UFW’s power, they only had a third of the vegetable industry organized. Two-thirds of the vegetable industry was still nonunion. And they were in a situation where the union either had to grow or it was going to be defeated, and it didn’t grow. And the reason it didn’t grow was because the growers were able to–the growers that were unionized were able to pass their work on to nonunion companies. And the reason they could get away with that was because there was an internal fight inside the UFW prior to the grower offensive, which debilitated the union. That fight is a very complicated one and very hard to explain in just a few minutes, but I’ll do my best here. The UFW was a kind of strange organization, in that there was no–farmworkers didn’t have any ability to elect people onto the UFW staff. There were no locals in the United Farm Workers union. Anybody who served, like, in a local office, which they called field offices, was appointed by the top, appointed by the executive board of the union, ultimately by Cesar Chavez. So the folks who were the union officials owed their jobs to the people above them, not to the people below them. And the staff as a whole became more committed to the boycott and to organizing supporters of farmworkers than they were committed to organizing farmworkers. And there were reasons for that, because to a large extent the boycotts were powerful and the boycotts were responsible for winning the early contracts that the union won. But because farmworkers couldn’t elect people onto the staff and because the staff was committed to the boycott, eventually there became a struggle between farm workers who wanted to take some power in the union and wanted to orient the organizing towards farmworkers rather than towards their supporters. There was a conflict between those people and the people in the union who wanted to put their emphasis on the boycott.
JAY: And what was the relationship to the Democratic Party, and how much did it have to do with this?
BARDACKE: It had a lot to do with the Democratic Party, because the union came to believe, after the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, which gave the farmworkers the right to elect the UFW to represent them–and there was a tremendous amount of reliance by the union on their friends in the Democratic Party to try to get the Agricultural Labor Relations Act interpreted in a way that would be powerful for farmworkers. And there was a period in UFW history where, in the late 1970s, the main thing that they did was work for politicians in Sacramento. And it was another way that they ignored workers in the fields. And eventually there was a struggle where the workers in the fields attempted to win for themselves some permanent power inside the union, and the top officials of the union interpreted that as a threat and as a threat to the union, and there was a struggle between the top and between the leaders of the rank-and-file. And the top won, and they managed to exercise–to keep control of the union. But in the process of that, they debilitated it. And when the grower–and when Deukmejian was elected governor, the Republican candidate was elected governor in 1982, [it] was right after this internal struggle. And that began the grower offensive, and the union was really defeated. It’s a very complicated story. If you want to–I think it’s a fascinating story. It’s a sad story. It’s a tragic story. But if you want to understand it in depth, you’ve got to read my book.
JAY: We’ll make it easy for people to read the book. We’ll tell you the title again. It’s Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. But let me ask you another question here. How big a factor is this anti-immigrant, anti-immigration mood in some of the country? Some of the legislation that’s been passed, like in Alabama, and even under the Obama administration, if I understand it correctly, a record level of deportations, does this have an effect on the organizing possibilities?
BARDACKE: Well, I mean, Alabama’s instructive, what happened in Alabama’s instructive, because in reaction to the anti-immigrant law in Alabama, a whole lot of Mexican farmworkers left the state because they were worried about the education of their children and they’re worried about the fact that any time that you were stopped in Alabama by a policeman, he could have the right to demand your papers. So people left the state. And what happened was the growers lost their entire watermelon harvest, because in fact it’s actually very difficult to pick and pack watermelons, and it takes a lot of skill and a lot of knowledge and a lot of know-how in addition to willingness to work very hard, and they could not replace the workers who left, they could not replace them with domestic workers. And so they lost a hell of a lot of money. Some people don’t want immigration and some people want to stop it, but the growers, they need it, they need folks to come to do the work.
JAY: There’s been a fight in California recently for a farmworkers bill of rights. I think something passed recently. Is that going to have some real effect?
BARDACKE: After Cesar Chavez died in 1993, the United Farm Workers union really tried to get back into the fields. They had been defeated in the mid ’80s, and they made a real attempt to get back in the vineyards a couple of years ago. So far, by and large, they have been pushed back. It’s not been successful. But–and then, as I said, they’ve become kind of an advocacy group, and because they’re–they have the franchise on California farmworkers, to a certain extent [incompr.] they’ve stood in the way. But, you know, the UFW also responds to pressure, and they would like to expand as a union. So, you know, it’s a possibility, I think, if some rank-and-filers get together and want–want to get organized, that it’s not inconceivable that the United Farm Workers union will help them and try to do it.
JAY: But the bill of rights that was passed recently in California, will it be effective?
BARDACKE: Well, it makes makes it easier to organize. It’s–it didn’t give the card check, which is what the UFW wanted, but it does make it easier to organize. And once you win a representative election, it forces the growers to negotiate in good faith. And if they don’t negotiate in good faith, a contract can be imposed. So it makes it easier to organize. Whether that means that the organization is going to happen, nobody knows, but it is easier.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Frank.
BARDACKE: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
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