If Past Is Prologue: Americans' Future "Guilt" about Today's Use of Low-Pay Immigrant Labor
Murphey, Dwight D., The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies
One of the major arguments made by those who support today's massive immigration from Mexico and the Third World into the United States is that the immigrants, and especially those who come in illegally, are "doing work Americans won't do." What is not realized is that there is already an extensive literature, written mainly by activists for the immigrant ethnic groups themselves, that charges that the widespread use of low-pay labor from an impoverished immigrant underclass is "exploitation." The point of this article is that if precedents such as the widespread elevation of Cesar Chavez to hero status are any guide to the forces at work within the United States, the day will almost certainly come when mainstream American society will be caused by its opinion-makers in academia and the media to look back upon the current use of immigrant labor as reason for shame rather than self-congratulation, much as Americans have already been caused, through similar alienation, to reevaluate much of their country's history as carrying a heavy legacy of guilt.
Key Words: Immigration; Immigrant labor; Low-pay labor; Exploitation concept; Americans' feelings of guilt; Cesar Chavez; Japanese-American relocation.
In the United States, the debate over immigration is now as heated as it has ever been. Vast numbers of immigrants have come into the country, some legally and millions of others illegally, since the 1965 legislation that took away the preference for Europeans and opened the doors to the Third World. Although it is correct to think that much of this immigration has come from Mexico, the river has been fed by many streams.
Some of the immigration has been to fill high-pay jobs in, for example, engineering and the computer industry. Most of it, however, has been to find employment in minimum wage, or even sub-minimum wage, jobs in primarily the agricultural, construction, manufacturing, hospitality and domestic-work sectors. Although garment industry workers have been supplanted by outsourcing in most of the United States, such work has become a major part of the economy in Los Angeles, where tens of thousands of Latinos, many of them illegal immigrants, work for sub-contractors, mostly Asian, who in turn produce garments for apparel manufacturers of many nationalities.2 As one Latino columnist has said about low-pay work, "There's always a job waiting for those who will do the dirtiest jobs under the worst conditions for the lowest pay and the most paltry of benefits."3
The debate over whether the influx should be stopped, and over what to do about the illegal immigrants already in the country, has many facets. One of the more persuasive arguments made by those who look on the immigration favorably is economic: that the newcomers are "doing work Americans won't do" (or "don't want to do"). Many employers and individuals seeking domestic help welcome the presence of a vast pool of inexpensive workers. In so doing, they are by no means exceptional, given the history of economic systems. Low-pay labor has been typical, not atypical, in human societies from time immemorial. Until the beginning of the anti-slavery movement in England in the late eighteenth century, slavery was an accepted institution almost everywhere; and the equivalent of slavery has come in many forms, such as peonage in Mexico and serfdom in Russia. It is doubtful, however, that today's Americans who use low-pay immigrant labor see themselves as part of this tradition. Rather, the statement that "immigrants are doing what Americans won't do" is usually said in the most upbeat fashion, with the intimation that it is a happy fact for which the society can be thankful.
This is a felicity enjoyed in both the pocketbook and psyche of those benefiting, but it comes by way of ignoring several realities and storm clouds. The benefits are indeed widespread - to businesses and consumers, who are able to produce and consume cheaply. But there are costs, some severe. Because the purpose of this article will be to focus on certain aspects that are seldom thought of, we will for the most part leave to others an examination of the more frequently discussed negative effects, such as the offsetting social and infrastructure costs (such as to the health care, welfare and judicial systems) and the impact on indigenous labor, which is either displaced or sees its remuneration brought down to the level determined by the immigrant competition. Neither will we discuss here the vitally important issues of balkanization and loss of national identity.
The focus in the present article will, rather, be on the moral and ideological costs. These have received little attention. We have just mentioned how most Americans, whose mental world is preoccupied with the practicalities of daily life and who have little historical awareness, don't see their contemporary conduct in a long-term context. If one were to ask them about slavery, peonage or serfdom, they would unanimously express their abhorrence. There is a mental disconnect, of sorts. But this disconnect is at least debatable, since anyone who argues that today's hiring of immigrants in low-pay jobs in the United States is equivalent to slavery, peonage or serfdom will find reasonable people who will dispute his premise.
What is clearer as a "moral or ideological cost" is something that will surprise most Americans, but that should be apparent if precedents are any indication. The precedents point to forces that are still at work in American society. The surprising cost is this: that most Americans will in a few years come to see the conduct of today's Americans as deeply shameful. The mainstream of Americans themselves - of whatever ethnicity - will perceive the present period as having been racist and exploitive. They will then consider the argument about "jobs that Americans won't do" contemptible. The happy gloss will be off.
Americans are already given to feel guilt over the pre-Civil War history of the United States, as having been deeply stained by slavery; and there is a similar repudiation of the post-Civil War period up to the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, as having embodied "white supremacy." As an example, we see that major league baseball before the Jackie Robinson era (when in the late 1940s blacks were integrated into the sport) is often looked upon today as having been perversely incomplete and unrepresentative, with the thought that perhaps the exploits of Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig should be marked with an asterisk.
The sense of guilt stems from a dramatic shift in "point of view." Americans before the Civil War would hardly have thought their society defined by slavery; rather, they tended to see it as a "great experiment in liberty" to which slavery was a regrettable exception. Thomas Paine boasted optimistically that "we have it in our power to start the world over again." Later, white post-Civil War Americans thought of blacks as peripheral to what seemed to them a satisfactory, albeit not perfect, social order. Blacks lived in pockets that had little to do with the country's self-perception.
To understand these tectonic shifts in perception, including the shift that will condemn what is today accepted as so natural about the employment of low-pay immigrant labor, it is essential of grasp certain features in the dynamic that has so long propelled American society toward rapid social and ideological change. This dynamic has had several components, most particularly:
(1) the long-term presence of an alienated intellectual and artistic subculture, which since early in the nineteenth century has found much to criticize (or, quite commonly, to excoriate) about American life;
(2) that subculture's long-standing search for allies to give it weight in its cultural, political and economic struggle, a search that at one time caused its members to provide ideological support for what they hoped would be a militant working class;
(3) the subculture's gradual disillusionment with the working class as an ally, and its shift after World War II to seeking allies among racial and ethnic minorities instead;
(4) the post-1965 influx into the United States of a very sizeable Third World immigrant population that is not easily assimilable with the population of overwhelmingly European origin that existed before; and
(5) at the same time, the relative absence of an unalienated intellectual, academic, literary and artistic subculture that would champion the mainstream (even as perhaps it would criticize and seek to uplift it). Because of the relative absence of an intellectual culture "appropriate to itself," the "silent majority" has long been a principal fact in American life;
(6) because of the presence of the alienated intellectual subculture and the absence of an appreciable unalienated one, the moral and intellectual weakness of the average middle-class American, who readily adopts the attitudes and intellectual fashions that are given to him to believe.
One result of these factors has been a reinterpretation of American history through a perspective that has combined (1) the intelligentsia's alienation with (2) seeing the world through the eyes of the minorities, now called "the peoples of color." This change in point of view has been acquiesced in by the erstwhile mainstream, which has accepted the premises of the new point of view and has not found it within itself to defend - and to defend precisely as moral - its earlier beliefs. In the face of each social change, its spokesmen have largely vanished, and those remaining have been marginalized and ignored to the point of irrelevance.
Because these elements in the dynamic of American social change are still present, and are being added to by the continuing growth of ethnic minorities through immigration and their high birth rate, there is reason to expect that the present will undergo a similar interpretation that will reflect both the alienation and the minorities' own perspectives - and, remarkably enough, that the erstwhile majority will itself quickly adopt that interpretation. It is to be expected that, as with the past shifts in outlook, there will be a great many people (who today see nothing to object to about the argument that low-pay immigrants "are doing work Americans won't do") who will, in fact, take personal pride in their new enlightenment. They will then look back and declare with vigor that they have a real moral stake in condemning the present period and anyone who would have the temerity to defend it.
Two precedents best illustrate the dynamic elements and their culmination in "American guilt." They are (1) the near-universal pride and sense of moral superiority Americans feel today in acknowledging American guilt for what they generally are convinced they know about the so-called "internment" of Japanese-Americans during World War H, and (2) the widespread elevation of Cesar Chavez to hero status - and especially as an ethnic hero - for having led a movement against the "exploitation" of mostly-Mexican immigrant workers in the grape industry a few years ago. We will note the facts about each, but will pay particular attention to the Chavez episode.
These precedents will be discussed as part of exploring the specifics that underlie the central point of this article. These specifics relate to:
1. Some illustrations of the satisfaction expressed today over immigrants' performing work "Americans won't do."
2. Examples of the current literature, much of it Latino, that already asserts that the United States is "exploiting" its immigrant labor. In this context, we will take time to discuss the concept of "exploitation."
3. The principal facts about the number and composition of post-1965 immigrants into the Unit'ed States, with some grasp of the economic situation and living conditions of the recent immigrants, examining the conditions under which they live.
4. Illustrations of the on-going "change in point of view" from that of the American mainstream to that of the "peoples of color."
5. The Cesar Chavez precedent.
6. The Japanese-American precedent.
Satisfaction Over Immigrants'
Performance of "Jobs Americans Won't Do"
The point that illegal immigrants are "doing work Americans won't do" is heard many tunes in conversation today, and just as often appears in print. So common is it that one of the most succinct statements of it appeared in a letter-to-the-editor of the Wichita Eagle in early 2006:
These immigrants take jobs that nobody else wants to do. They repair your roads, fix your roofs, do your landscaping and are the lifeblood of the service sector. I doubt that a teenager or a senior citizen would work 12 to 16 hours a day in these jobs for minimum wage and no benefits. If these immigrants were not in the country, you would pay more for goods and services.4
An op-ed columnist, Mary Sanchez, also expresses it in favorable terms: "The United States has a growing need for more low-wage, young workers than exist in our population."5 This is consistent with an editorial in the same newspaper that argued that "Hispanic workers help fill labor needs in construction, agriculture and other industries...."6
The point has been made for a long time. In a book published in 1970, the authors cite the argument and at the same time tell the economic reality that underlies it, referring to the effects of the guestworker "bracero" program that was in existence from 1942 to 1964: "Clearly, it was not farm work, as such, that 'Americans just won't do." Equally clearly, the change was in wages. Eighteen to twenty-five cents a box had been the rate in 1950, with most of the picking done by domestic workers. Eight years later, eleven cents a box was the prevailing rate, with virtually all the picking done by braceros." Cantaloupe pickers' wages were cut in 1951; and "since Mexican nationals could survive on this, while American citizens could not, local workers were rapidly being forced out of the area."7
The Already-Existing Literature Asserting "Exploitation"
The thesis of this article is that a pervasive sense of American guilt will before long come into being about what will by that time be considered to have been today's "exploitation" of immigrant labor. It is worth noting that as a prelude to this there is already in existence a vast outpouring of angry ethnic rhetoric claiming precisely that.
If they were to explore the existing literature, the advocates of virtually any mainstream American political or social viewpoint would be consumed with envy at the quantity of activist ethnic literature as compared to their own. Within academia and the university presses, an enraged ethnic viewpoint occupies something of a privileged position. In a review of Victor Davis Hanson's Mexifornia: A State of Becoming, Roger McGrath cites Hanson's observations about the abundance of ethnic studies courses at the University of California, Santa Barbara: "He notes 62 listed under Chicano Studies, including 'Methodology of the Oppressed,' 'Barrio Popular Culture,' 'Chicana Feminism'... Meanwhile, the history department offers another 13 classes focusing of Chicanos and several on 'race and oppression'...."8 So common has this become that we barely notice that there is nothing comparable for, say, "classical liberal studies" or "Burkean conservative studies." The few "American Studies" departments are swamped by the others.
The literature emanating from these programs and their publishers expresses a persistent sense of racial struggle, resentment and alienation. Seldom, if ever, does it voice gratitude toward the host American society. The editors of Latino Poverty in the New Century: Inequalities, Challenges and Barriers say in their Preface that "the Latino presence is felt in many ways, not the least of which is their status as an oppressed and exploited group."9 Jose Luis Morin attributes the mass immigration of Latinos into the United States to "the powerful forces of globalization," which "more often than not promote poverty and unfair treatment of Latin American workers, peasants, and indigenous peoples...." The result, he says, is that "Latin Americans will continue to try to migrate to the United States, where in turn, they are susceptible to exploitation as low-wage factory or agricultural workers."10 Joan London and Henry Anderson write about a century-long process in California of "opening up one pool after another of low-wage, semicaptive labor, usually foreign, pigmented, and non-English speaking."11 And an article by the United Food and Commercial Union says "employers ruthlessly exploit immigrant workers, who often have no understanding of workplace rights and who live in constant fear of deportation."12
We are correctly inclined to take for granted the fact that this activist literature is hostile, as we have just seen, to the host American culture. But that is itself a remarkable fact. One would think that those coming to the United States "for a better life" would have great affinity for the country they have adopted. What has happened is that the activism has imbibed the outlook of the Left, just as more than a century ago the revolutionaries in Russia drank deeply at the well of Marxist alienation. The immigrant ethnic literature, as well as the attitudes promulgated internationally on behalf of the "peoples of color," are profoundly influenced by the continuing phenomenon of what has long been an international alienated intellectual subculture.
We have given just a few examples of an immensely large literature. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the literature is homogeneous. As with the Left historically, it is subject to many factional splits. One of the authors believes, for example, as a Marxist, that a common class identity should be the thing that unites the immigrants and that it was a wrong turn for the Left to adopt racial struggle in place of class struggle. We are told that "nationalist Chicano ideology considered Marxism a Eurocentric ideology that had no bearing on the Chicano/Latino struggle." Another division is between Latinos and blacks: "The Pan-African Student Union and Chicano organizations [at San Francisco State] did not have a good relationship with each other because of mutual racial prejudice. In addition, Chicano nationalist ideology on one side and the Nation of Islam ideology among African Americans separated these potential allies." There has also been the rise of a separate Chicana feminist movement which sees itself as something quite different from a generalized Latino consciousness. Further, Martha Gimenez points to a lack of common origin: "This population is divided by class, socioeconomic status, language (not everyone speaks Spanish, and many who do don't speak English), and race/ethnicity. 'Hispanic'/Latinos could be of any 'race' and many are multiracial, from Native American, European, Asian, or African ancestry." Just the same, the editors of Latino Social Movements, published in 1999, reported that "over the past twenty years, we have witnessed a remarkable blending of what were formerly separate identities into a Latino consciousness...."13
The "exploitation" concept. We said earlier that in this section we would discuss the concept of "exploitation." It is a concept that has long been central to socialist thought's critique of a market economy. At the same time, it is thought fallacious by classical liberal thought. The author of this article has discussed it at length elsewhere,14 and so won't attempt going into such detail here.
The Left's concept of exploitation (which has been absorbed by most, if not all, "Latino" activists and spokesmen) arises from the perception that great masses of people are helpless in the face of entrapping circumstances, and accordingly need help from outside themselves in dealing with the exigencies of life and with those who would take advantage of their plight. Classical liberalism's denial arises from a perception that in a free society people cannot properly be seen as "entrapped," but rather have a de facto ability to handle their own lives and at the same time a moral imperative to make themselves fit for that purpose. (This ideology has long served as the underpinning of traditional American attitudes. It would be naïve, though, to suggest that philosophy controls everything. Economics propels much of what the business community does today vis a vis immigrants.)
In what we have quoted from the activist literature, we saw that the immigrants are perceived as victims of forces beyond their own control in Latin America (laid by the author we quoted at the doorstep of "globalization"), and then as victims of exploitation after they arrive in the United States. On the other hand, those who dispute that the immigrants are being "exploited" by working at low-pay jobs in the United States see them as coming voluntarily, frequently even in a rather audacious violation of American immigration law, and as then subject to the supply-and-demand determiners of their remuneration. They are seen correctly as better off than they were in their countries of origin. The question is asked, how can a migration that is made of their own volition and that improves their condition properly be said to be "exploitative"?
The interesting thing is that both views are right about the facts. There is indeed the pressure of poverty in the immigrants' own countries, making the United States a magnet in the individuals' understandable desire for a better life; they are caught in (or, more accurately, create by their presence) a situation of over-supply of labor (if we define "over-supply" as a labor market featuring near-subsistence pay and no contracted-for benefits); they did, in fact, "come into the United States voluntarily," being desperately eager to do so; and they are considerably better off even in their straitened circumstances than they were in their native countries.
The difference in interpretation of these facts stems in part from the long-running argument over entrapment as a part of the human condition, and in part from opposing points of view about whether massive immigration is appropriate for American society, particularly if it invalidates the fundamental premise of individual self-sufficiency which those holding to traditional American norms have long considered vital. The Left has always believed entrapment a given in the United States. It is an easy extrapolation of this belief for it to see entrapment and exploitation in the lives of the immigrants. Those outside the Left do not believe in "exploitation" under typical American circumstances - and see what appears to be exploitation as entirely the creation of circumstances brought on by the mass immigration itself. They would be inclined to deny that the low-pay labor is "exploitive" if it is seen by the immigrants themselves as bettering their condition; and they are inclined to add to this the feeling, in effect, that "it is intolerable that millions of people have come into our country uninvited and have created a pool of people for whom it can be claimed that they are trapped and taken advantage of. If in fact that is true of them, they (and those who have encouraged their immigration) have created a circumstance incompatible with the basic assumptions of the American way of life, and Americans have no occasion to blame themselves for it by applying such a concept as 'exploitation' to it."
This latter perception, we should note, is based on a "point of view" that voices the perspective of what has been the American mainstream. When we say that the average American will, before long, come to embrace the Left's own alienated perception and acknowledge guilt over exploitation, we are predicting that the average American in the future will have surrendered his present point of view and have adopted that of the newcomers and their spokesmen, including their ideological champions on the Left.
The difference over "exploitation" is central of our thesis, but it would be a mistake to see the difference as anything other than a sub-set of what is in essence an existential conflict over what the United States is to be. Who are the "American people"? Do those of overwhelmingly European descent who have heretofore formed the center of American gravity have a right, or the will, to continue to have "a country of their own"? Or is that society to pass into history, to be supplanted by another, though the name and institutional structures may stay the same? If the latter is to prevail, as it appears it very well may, the "point of view" will change to reflect it. In fact, the orientation has already shifted sufficiently to allow the mass immigration to happen.
The Number and Composition of the Immigrant Population
Steven A. Camarota tells of an analysis made by the Center for Immigration Studies of the U.S. Census Bureau's March 2000 "Current Population Survey."15
(Camarota was Director of Research for the Center.) It tells that:
* "More than 1.2 million legal and illegal immigrants combined now settle in the United States each year.
* "The number of immigrants living in the United States has more than tripled since 1970, from 9.6 million to 28.4 million.
* "The poverty rate for immigrants is 50 percent higher than that of natives, with immigrants and their U.S.-born children (under age 21) accounting for 22 percent of all persons living in poverty.
* " The proportion of immigrant households using welfare programs is 30 to 50 percent higher than that of native households.
* "One-third of immigrants do not have health insurance - two and one-half times the rate for natives."
In December 2005, the Knight Ridder Newspapers reported that "an estimated 6.3 million Mexicans are thought to be living illegally in the United States, part of a larger illegal immigrant population in excess of 11 million... Although illegal Mexican immigrants draw a median income [in the United States] of only $300 a week - less than half that of U.S. workers - those earnings easily surpass the $100 to $120 average weekly salaries they draw at home... At least two-thirds find jobs in four industries that traditionally are dependent on migrant labor: agriculture, construction, manufacturing and hospitality."16 The uncertainty as to the number of illegal Mexican immigrants is reflected in the fact that a Wichita Eagle editorial just three months earlier had said "an estimated 10 million undocumented Mexicans already live in the United States."17 This, of course, would be considerably more than the 6.3 million estimated in the Knight Ridder article. The truth is that nobody knows with certainty how many there are.
The typical condition of the illegal immigrants from Mexico is described by Victor Davis Hanson, author of Mexifornia, as follows: "The tragedy unfolds like this: Kids in their teens, at great peril, sneak into America from Oaxaca. They work hard for 30 years at roofing, picking, mowing, cleaning or cooking, and then often turn to state agencies when their backs give out or jobs dry up. Meanwhile, their children too often grow up in the barrios, not with the stern family ethic of Mexico, but instead resenting that their poorly paid and uneducated parents won no security during the decades of hard work." Despite this resentment, large numbers of these children don't pursue an education: "...four out of ten U.S. resident students of Mexican heritage are not graduating from California high schools, and less than one in ten are graduates from college...."18
Many of the needs of the immigrants are picked up through socialwelfare services paid for by the American public through taxes or increased health insurance premiums. We are told that "in 2002 alone Los Angeles County spent about $350 million providing health care for illegal immigrants. It is estimated that the state of California spends nearly $6 billion per year on services for illegal aliens."19
Illustrations of the Drive to Shift the "Point of View"
The Latino ethnic literature, taking a Third World view of American society, is already in place and should be understood as the forerunner of a more pervasively held change in point of view within American society if the immigration continues.
Consider the following not so much in terms of its content as in terms of its point of view, which stands outside the attitudes of the erstwhile American mainstream, seeing it unfavorably: "This 'new immigration'... has coincided with a surge of nativism and exclusionary efforts in the United States. The contemporary anti-immigrant climate, however, is nothing new... Anxieties about who 'belongs here' and what the American self-image ought to be have cropped up throughout the history of this country... Throughout the existence of the United States, the dominant white population has used nativist and racist beliefs to support exclusion...."20
An underlying premise during the centuries of the Age of Exploration, of conquest in places like Peru and Mexico, and of colonization around the world was that European civilization was, indeed, at a higher level than that of the world's other peoples. Americans of European extraction, as they spread across the North American continent displacing the American Indians, took it for granted that farms, schoolhouses and villages were a morally defensible replacement for what they saw as primarily a pre-Neolithic huntergatherer society. It is "politically correct" now to assert that that claim of European and American superiority was unjustified; and this "politically correct" perception is itself a seismic shift in "point of view." It is a shift very much embraced by the ethnic literature.21
We notice that the change in point of view has come so far as to deny that "white Americans" have a right to have, and to seek to maintain, their own identity or "a country of their own." This denial is basic to the quotation we cited two paragraphs ago pointing with disgust at "nativism and exclusion."
"If Past is Prologue": The Cesar Chavez Precedent
Cesar Chavez has come to be honored as a hero of ethnic struggle, with virtually no dissent from that perception articulated anywhere in the United States today. We are told that "in California, only three birthdays are official state holidays: Jesus Christ's, Martin Luther King's, and Cesar Chavez's."22 Sacramento has a "Cesar Chavez Park"; San Francisco State University a "Cesar Chavez Institute for Public Policy"; UCLA a "Cesar E. Chavez Center for Chicana/o Studies"; and at a White House ceremony on August 8, 1994, Chavez's widow accepted from President William Clinton a Medal of Freedom on behalf of her deceased husband. One can walk into the lobby of a major hotel in downtown El Paso and immediately come upon a large framed portrait of Cesar Chavez, along with others of Martin Luther King, Jr., Pancho Villa and Che Guevara.
The importance of Cesar Chavez's career in the context of this article is that he is seen as a champion in the fight against the "exploitation" of immigrant labor and that now, after a few years, his elevation to hero status is acquiesced in by the majority society. Here we have an example from the 1960s and 1970s that exemplifies perfectly the point we are making: that over time the majority American society comes to accept its "guilt" and the point of view held in common by the Left and ethnicity's alienated spokesmen.
We will recount some of the detail of Chavez's career to provide readers with a more complete realization of what his precedent consists of, but the essence of his career and his symbolism today can be stated very simply: His grandparents entered the United States illegally; the Chavez family survived on a marginal basis for a number of years; in the third generation, Cesar became an activist as part of Saul Alinsky's militant conflict movement; beginning in 1961, he headed a crusade claiming the exploitation of immigrant grape pickers in California, featuring a strike and several national grape boycotts; his activities were either genuine, with him as a saint-like persona, or were fakery backed by much propaganda and leftist puffery, depending on whose account you read; he received fervent support from the New Left at its height, and from the opinion-forming elite in the United States and the world even long after his death; and as a result he is now a universallyacclaimed ethnic hero.
His origins. Peons in Mexico in the 1880s "were paid low wages and lived in tiny shacks," in a condition where "the owners... treated them like slaves."23 One source says the elder Cesar (the grandfather) took "his family across the border into what was known as the Territory of Arizona in 1899," going a few miles north of Yuma to build a home and raise livestock.24 Elsewhere, however, we are informed that "the Chavez clan, headed by Cesar's grandparents, came to the United States as refugees from the Mexican revolution" [that began in 1910].25 (Which is correct is of little significance to us here.) The Cesar Chavez we know was born in Yuma on July 31, 1927. After his father lost his 160-acre farm in the Depression, the family didn't return to Mexico, but instead remained in the United States to become part of the migrant labor force. The young Cesar attended school only into the eighth grade (dropping out after his father was hurt in an automobile accident), but he is said to have achieved further education through self-study. He married Helen Favila, "daughter of a zapatista hero of the Mexican revolution," and "in 1949, the first of eight children was born."26 They settled in San Jose, California, with Cesar making $150 a week as a farm worker in apricots and other crops. [Those who question the charge of "exploitation" will wonder about the choice of having eight children while making so low an income. Others will counter that for the "downtrodden" to have a large number of children isn't a consciously made choice.]
His years as a SaulAlinsky activist. Chavez's life took a fateful turn in 1952 when a priest brought him into contact with Fred Ross, who Ralph de Toledano says was "a graduate of Saul Alinsky's school for professional revolutionists in Chicago, the Industrial Areas Foundation." Toledano describes Alinsky accurately when he says that "Alinsky, though a hard-core Marxist-Leninist, was not a Communist Party member. In fact, he despised the Communists because of their lack of flexibility." Alinsky's goal was to establish "peoples organizations" that were "to precipitate the social crisis by action, by using power."27 In his 1946 book Reveille for Radicals, Alinsky had explained that "a People's Organization is a conflict group. This must be openly and fully recognized. Its sole reason for coming into being is to wage war against all evils which cause suffering and unhappiness... A war is not an intellectual debate, and in the war against social evils there are no rules of fair play... [M]any well-meaning Liberals look askance and with horror at the viciousness with which a People's Organization will attack or counteratack in its battles."28
Alinsky had dispatched Ross to southern California to set up a "community service organization" (CSO). In 1952, the CSO hired Chavez, who worked for it for ten years. By 1958, Chavez was the national General Director, with a headquarters in Los Angeles. He resigned, however, in 1962, giving as his reason that "they got pretty middle class, didn't want to go into the fields."29 This reflected frustration over the fact that "for two years he had tried to get the CSO executive board to support an organizing project among MexicanAmerican farm workers but had been turned down."30
Chavez's leadership of the farm-labor movement - a timetable. Having left the CSO, Chavez created and led a farm-labor movement of his own. A capsule-summary of the movement that gave him the heroic status he enjoys today is best given as a timetable. Although this will be bare-bones, it will be followed by a discussion of several aspects of his career that will flesh out more of its substance. The reader will notice that the movement went under a variety of names and organizational formats as it developed.
* 1961-2. In The Politics of Insurgency, J. Craig Jenkins tells how "in the spring of 1961 a young community organizer named Cesar Estrada Chavez set out to build an organization of Mexican-American form workers" under the name "National Farm Workers Association" [NFWA].
* 1965. NFWA joined in a strike called by a Filipino farm workers organization, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee [AWOC]. With financial support from labor leader Walter Reuther, Chavez initiated an international consumer grape boycott in December. This was the first of the Chavez grape boycotts.
* 1966. That spring, Chavez led his famous "March on Sacramento," called the "Peregrinacion" (Spanish for "pilgrimage"). London and Anderson give this description: "At high noon on Easter Sunday, the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe extending a benediction over all, more than ten thousand persons stood on the steps and adjacent lawns of the state capitol."31
AWOC and NFWA merged in August, affiliated with the AFL-CIO, and became the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee [UFWOC], with Chavez as the director. "In time," we are told, "this new union... would become known as the UFW" [United Farm Workers Union].32
* 1967. The grape boycott for which Chavez is most known began in August as a boycott against one main vineyard, but was extended to include all California table grapes (with one exception where a vineyard had signed a contract with UFWOC). The activity this year included picketing the vineyards, conducting secondary boycotts against supermarkets that refused to join the boycott, and using barricades to prevent San Francisco longshoremen from loading grapes on ships.33
* 1968. In February, Chavez announced a "Lenten fast," and "on March 10, Chavez [after 25 days] ended his fast by breaking bread with Robert Kennedy and thousands of workers in Delano's Memorial Park."34 His movement was by now receiving enthusiastic encouragement and support from the American Left during the time when the New Left was at its height. At one point, Chavez toured several cities to gamer support for the boycott, starting in Washington, D.C., with a speech to 2,000 supporters in the Washington National Cathedral.35
* 1970. This was the year the growers finally either conceded to Chavez's boycott and signed agreements with him, or signed contracts with the competing Teamster's union. Chavez declared the Teamster's competition "an act of treason against the legitimate aspirations of farm workers," and called for "allout war between the Chicanes and Filipinos together against the Teamsters and the bosses."36
In October, a grower obtained an injunction against the nationwide boycott. In December, Chavez spent twenty days in jail for contempt of court after refusing to terminate it.37
* Mid to late 1970s. The Teamsters led the competition during the early 1970s, but eventually gave way to the NFWU. Toledano says "George Meany put pressure on the national officers of the Teamsters to call off their organizers in California."38 The result was, as Jenkins tells us, that "in March 1977, the Teamsters announced that they would no longer contest elections and would allow their existing contracts to expire...."39 A "peace pact" was entered into between the two unions.
* 1980s. Gonzalez explains that after the pact expired in the early 1980s the Teamsters "again began recruiting field workers... Throughout the 1980s, the Teamsters number grew while UFW membership declined. By the early 1990s, about twenty thousand people belonged to the UFW, a dramatic decrease from the 1972 peak of nearly one hundred thousand."40 It is perhaps not coincidental that Chavez's movement prospered most while the New Left was burning with intensity, and went into eclipse with the decline of support from large numbers of student radicals, celebrities and leftliberal politicians.
Despite this decline, Chavez in 1987 called another boycott, this time against grapes sprayed with pesticides declared harmful by the Environmental Protection Agency. He dramatized this cause the next year with a 36-day fast.41
* 1990s. California state flags were lowered to half-mast after Chavez died in his sleep on April 23,1993.42
Aspects of Chavez's Crusade:
1. Support from the American Left. Jenkins explains that "the UFW made extraordinarily effective use of that distinctive ruse de guerre of the sixties movements - protest actions designed to mobilize external support and push forward the development of generalized political turmoil." Chavez was able to do this even though "farm workers are a relatively advantaged segment of the American underclass."43 "When the Delano grape strike made the headlines, student activists at Berkeley who had been involved in the Free Speech Movement and the civil rights organizing in Mississippi in the summer of 1964 immediately flocked to Delano... In short, the external support was unprecedented. The union was able to continually add new staff... and simultaneously launch a nationwide boycott, all without the luxuries of union contracts and, at least initially, a stable mass membership."44
Support came from the National Council of Churches' "National Migrant Ministry," from the federal government's Office of Economic Opportunity, and "from several private foundations, the Catholic Church, liberal politicians, and several other social movements of the period." The March on Sacramento started with 75 marchers "carrying U.S., Mexican and the black eagle union flags, headed by a staff bearing the Virgin of Guadalupe... The 300-mile march gave sympathizers a rallying point. Priests, Protestant clergy, students, and radical unionists flocked to the closing days. As the procession advanced on Sacramento, it swelled from seventy-five originales to over 5,000." [We were told 10,000 by London and Anderson; see the entry for 1966 in the time-line above.] The Franciscan Brotherhood provided a $150,000 loan. In December 1970, Chavez was visited in jail by Coretta Scott King and Ethel Kennedy.45
The media amplified Chavez's message while blacking out news about his opposition. Toledano tells of an opposition meeting of 3,000 pickers and their families on June 9, 1968, and says that "the national press and the TV networks, although they had been informed days before, ignored the meeting." Then, he says, "on July 14, an estimated 5,000 pickers congregated in Bakersfield's Hart Park," but "none of the national media" were there.46
Pitrone reports that the boycott was supported by "people prominent in the entertainment and society world as several major fundraising bazaars for the benefit of the grapestrikers were held in the New York area. Alan King and Peter, Paul and Mary entertained at one such program that was attended by numbers of celebrities."47
And there was much, much more. A book could be filled describing the support. The backing even came internationally, with "British dock workers refusing to unload more than 70,000 pounds of California grapes," the World Council of Churches declaring its support,48 and Chavez in 1974 even receiving an audience with Pope Paul VI.
It shouldn't be overlooked that Chavez not only received the support of the Left, but was himself a creature of it, fully in tune with it. He was active on behalf first of Robert Kennedy and then of Hubert Humphrey as candidates for president.49 He added his name to the Vietnam Moratorium.50 And when the New Left turned away from mass protest and toward inward quasi-religious introspection in the early seventies, Chavez was a part of that: Gonzales tells how "he experimented with yoga, personal encounter programs, holistic medicine, and meditation."51
2. Chavez's use of "theater." The New Left was noted for its use of fanciful theatrical devices in the Dadaist mode, for which the inspiration was most likely gleaned from earlier leftist movements in Europe. Cesar Chavez was a master at such devices, and it is this that most explains his ability to amplify his activities through an enthusiastic media and the omnipresent radical fervor of that period. "The key," Jenkins says, "was staging dramatic protest events that captured media attention."52 (And, of course, having a media that was eagerly disposed to amplify the drama.)
Thus, Jenkins reports, Chavez's 25-day fast in 1968 "became a mass media event, capturing national political attention. Chavez went on fasts, led religious pilgrimages, and staged arrests to protest repression." The spirit of Chavez's Alinsky-like methods is told by Jenkins, who, despite the revelations his book contains, is not one of Chavez's enemies: After an injunction was entered against the strike, 44 pickets set out on a caravan to violate the court order. As they "chanted in unison: 'Huelga! ["Strike"] Huelga! Huelga!'," cameramen "scrambled around, taking every conceivable shot." The pickets were then arrested, and "the arrests gave Chavez the needed ammunition. Speaking that afternoon on the steps of Sproul Hall at Berkeley, he described the arrests and appealed for contributions and volunteers... That weekend carloads of students showed up in Delano to volunteer for the new cause...."53
Similar theater occurred during Chavez's 20-day incarceration in October 1970. Pitrone recounts how the strikers conducted a 24-hour vigil. Setting up an altar on the back of a truck, "they draped the altar with a black cloth, then with the flags of the United States and Mexico and with the UFWOC black eagle, adding daisies, red geraniums, votive candles and a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe.... Photographers took pictures of the prayer vigils in the parking lot, and took more pictures as two widows, Ethel Kennedy and Coretta King, joined some 2,000 supporters for a candlelight mass in the parking lot."54
3. A genuine hero - or was it smoke and mirrors? There is much reason to suppose that Chavez's reputation is a construct formed out of repetitive leftist rhetoric, media hype, a fervent ideological alienation against business and the American mainstream in general, and racial tribalism. He is a hero of the Left, and the fact that he is accepted as such by American society today illustrates the point we are making in this article - that over time the American people come to embrace the symbols, concepts and heroes of the alienation, adopting the point of view of their harshest critics, even though much of the basis for denunciation has been manufactured.
The presidential citation when Chavez was awarded the Medal of Freedom said "he was for his own people a Moses figure." This captures the degree to which he has been elevated to being virtually a religious icon, and how much he is seen as a racial hero. Although his use of Mexican symbols such as the Mexican flag and the Virgin of Guadalupe gave his crusade a strong ethnic dimension from the beginning, his role was actually more complex. It was consistent with his identification with Saul Alinsky and with his place within the American Left that he saw himself as a crusader not just for immigrants from Mexico, but against "exploitation" throughout American society: "We are concerned," he said, "that our victories be of the kind that can be the foundation for future victories for others who are oppressed in other parts of our nation."55 And during the first years of his union crusade he positioned himself more as a labor advocate than an ethnic one. Since the main cause of low wages was an over-abundance of labor, Chavez for quite a long time was a determined opponent of continued immigration from Mexico It was the Left itself that campaigned against the "bracero" guest-worker program, highlighting its "exploitation";56 and when illegal immigration began to overwhelm the labor pool, it was Chavez who "in 1969... led a march to the Mexican border to protest illegal immigration." As late as 1979, Chavez complained in Congressional testimony that "employers go to Mexico and have unlimited, unrestricted use of illegal alien strikebreakers."57 Chavez's change toward a more unmixed ethnic posture came in the 1980s, when, as Steven Sailer explains, "losing interest in the gritty work of organizing, the aging Chavez began to back mass immigration as he became a symbol of Latino identity politics."58 The UFWU even began "openly organizing sindocumentos" [i.e., "undocumented" - illegal immigrants].59 Chavez's shift on the issue of illegal immigration coincides with the Left's own shift. We have mentioned how one Marxist author decries this move from class struggle to ethnic struggle.
There is thus some subtlety to the question of just what sort of hero Chavez was. But a hero he clearly is, at least within today's conventional wisdom. Let's look now at some of the points made (by both friend and foe) that would raise the question of whether it is not a matter of "smoke and mirrors" - with his status being an artifact of propaganda.
The image is that Chavez conducted his campaign in a location where workers were impoverished and beaten down. Accordingly, we are surprised when we find London and Anderson, who though strongly pro-Chavez are also honest scholars, saying that "the farm labor movement has its own countermyths. One is that conditions are particularly intolerable in California... If the comparison is with industrialized agriculture in other parts of the United States,... the myth cannot be sustained. Farm labor conditions in California are, in that perspective, unusually good." They go on to explain that "the oftenoverlooked truth [is] that most farm work in California is highly skilled" and that "contrary to popular assumption, relatively few California farm workers were migrants."60 Pitrone, also pro-Chavez, acknowledges that "most of the field workers in the Delano area were not migrants, and their average yearly earnings of $2400 were much higher than the earnings of the average migrant in other places."61 We have reason, then, to credit what Toledano (a foe) tells us when he says about Delano that "almost ninety percent of its work force lived there permanently owning or renting, driving their own cars, and enjoying the highest farm pay in California, which in turn earns the highest in the continental United States according to the Agricultural Department." He says "their relations with their employers were amicable. And they knew that, year after year, they could get reasonable wage increases."62 He refers to the "Chavez propaganda line" that the Delano workers were making only $1.20 an hour, whereas this "ran strangely counter to the certified figures from Schenley [one of the growers] - which had paid no more than the rest of the grape growing industry - of an average wage for pickers on $2.77 an hour for men, $2.54 for women...."63
There is reason to question how much support Chavez actually received from the grape pickers. We have noted that the media ignored large anti-Chavez meetings held by pickers and their families. Toledano says that when the March on Sacramento started on March 17, 1966, "the media seemed to outnumber the 66 marchers that Chavez had been able to gather." He says that "between 1,000 and 1,500 students and other sympathizers... descended in busloads on the state capital" for the end of the march on April 10. "It was this crowd which TV commentators... hailed as striking grape pickers who had walked from Delano." He adds that "even had all 66 of the 'strikers' from Delano been able to make it, their numbers would have been pitifully small compared to the many thousands who continued to work"64 Jenkins (a friend, but who doesn't hesitate to point out facts that contradict Chavez's image) corroborates the main features of Toledano's account, although he says, as we have seen, the beginning number of marchers was 75 and that "priests, Protestant clergy, students and radical unionists" swelled the final crowd to 5,000.65 London and Anderson, as we've also seen, put the final crowd at 10,000. What is clear is that few were grape pickers.
Toledano says that when AWOC and Chavez's NFWA joined forces m 1965 to call a "strike" in Delano, Chavez followed the advice, given in Saul Alinsky's manual, to import pickets. "What amounted to a shuttle service between San Francisco and Delano was set up, bringing busloads of students, some professors, and others ready to pose as strikers...."66 [Our emphasis.]
What Chavez essentially did was to bypass the workers and force compulsory unionization by a campaign directed at the growers who employed them. Years of boycotts, secondary boycotts, marches and massive publicity caused the employers to capitulate, and it was that that brought in the workers, who then had no other choice. This is Toledano's thesis, and it seems supported by the facts we have recited. "Chavez wanted all hiring to be done through 'hiring halls," Toledano says. "He called for a closed shop. This, of course, is what the boycott was all about. The strike having failed, as Chavez readily admitted, it was necessary to by-pass the workers by putting unbearable economic pressures on the growers."67
There were various ways a fraud was worked on the American public through massive propaganda. The media were complicit when they represented thousands of New Left student protestors as grape pickers. This, of course, made the March on Sacramento a spectacular charade. When Chavez and the media depicted the workers in Delano as impoverished migrants, that too was a fraud. Toledano tells how "at 5:30 on a Sunday morning, Cesar Chavez stood before CBS television cameras in front of a shockingly decrepit hovel, to expose the condition of life in Delano. He pointed to the deserted streets to show the effectiveness of his 'strike'... There were two main catches. To begin with, the hovel was a condemned building - and no one had lived in it for many years. And, of course, the streets were empty of traffic as they always were and always will be on that day and hour."68 Toledano even finds reason to suspect that Chavez's fasts were dishonest: "He goes on a twenty-five day fast, and the nation holds its breath; he emerges in perfect health, and no one asks embarrassing questions." He says "the grape pickers of Delano insist that Chavez never fasted - and even some of the union volunteers claim that it was a 'fraud.' A reporter who had covered the fast told me, "I saw Chavez in January and I saw him in March. He hadn't lost weight. In fact, he hadn't been on a fast because I saw him eating.'"69
Chavez is said to have been deeply committed "to the non-violent policies of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."70