Why David Sometimes Wins

By Porter, Ethan | In These Times, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Why David Sometimes Wins


Porter, Ethan, In These Times


Barack Obama's victory last November, improbable though it was, did not come out of nowhere. Rather, his campaign was indebted to the lessons and traditions of community organizing. Of course, before he became a politician.

Obama organized the churches of Chicago's South Side. But there's a longer lineage. If the new book by organizing guru and former Obama advisor Marshall Ganz is any indication, it's clear that the Obama campaign was influenced by the 1960s and 1970s organizing efforts of Cesar Chavez.

In Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement (Oxford, June), Ganz details how Chavez emerged from nowhere to lead the fight to unionize farm workers. The similarities between Chavez's campaign strategy and Obama's are striking. You could say that Chavez provided Obama with a first draft.

Ganz's personal history and strategic insights make his argument for him. In 1964, Ganz dropped out of Harvard, and a year later he joined Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association in California, where he soon ascended the leadership ranks. Decades later, things came full circle when Ganz returned to Harvard as a teacher, preaching the gospel of organizing to the American elite. In the summer of 2007, he was recruited by the Obama for America campaign. At several "Camp Obama" retreats for staffers and allies, he explained the principles of community organizing- principles that would later lead Obama to victory against Hillary Clinton and then John McCain.

Why David Sometimes Wins is a look back as well as a look forward. Ganz recounts the gripping story of Chavez and the farm workers and synthesizes Chavez's lessons to explain why the farm workers triumphed against the odds. He distills community organizing to its most fundamental, and effective, principles.

Ganz places special weight on the biblical story of David and Goliath, in which David, the meek shepherd, defeats the hulking soldier Goliath. In Ganz's telling, David prevails not by emulating Goliath, but by wisely using the tools that are available to him. While Goliath arrogantly depends on his physical strength, the strategically cunning David shoots Goliath down with a stone. The moral: A well-implemented, original strategy can overcome innate disadvantages.

"The likelihood that a leadership team will devise effective strategy depends on the depths of its motivation, the breadth of its salient knowledge and the robustness of its reflective practice," Ganz writes. At the height of its success, Chavez's team combined all three. Since the turn of the 20th century, efforts to organize farm workers had not achieved lasting change. The workers- who were exempt from many labor law protections- faced brutal poverty. They worked without anything resembling a contract and faced exploitation by farmers and ranchers. A child of migrant workers himself, Chavez was so deeply committed to the cause that he often worked for little or no money. He often convinced his team to follow suit; they had to "suffer" for the cause, he would say.

The National Farm Workers Association (which would later become the United Farm Workers) coupled their motivation with a keen awareness of the farm worker community's character. Unlike previous attempts to organize workers, Chavez's union colored its efforts in overtly religious themes. Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Mexican religious symbol, was a fixture in the union's promotional materials; during one strike, when the court prevented NFWA from picketing, the union held a religious vigil instead.

Finally, the union's "reflective practice" was robust. Chavez held townhall-style meetings among union members, and in leadership meetings he demanded input from everyone. For the NFWA, "open deliberation" were words to live by.

The results, for a few fleeting years, were pure glory. Despite having minimal experience, the NFWA improvised its way to a 1970 victory against the powerful grape growers of Delano, Calif. …

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