Magazine article Monthly Review

Trampling out the Sanctimony

Magazine article Monthly Review

Trampling out the Sanctimony

Article excerpt

Trampling Out the Sanctimony Frank Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (London: Verso, 2011), 848 pages, $54.95, hardback.

This big book is great U.S. history. A solid, comprehensive, richly detailed, brilliantly composed study of a major post-1960 movement in U.S. labor, it is also a dramatic narrative vivid with critical analysis of the movement's developing strengths and faults, and thick with lessons for the struggles of today's left.

The author's critical and analytical powers are remarkable, undoctored by any academic department. Bardacke began his critical education in school, but off-campus, as a Southern California kid at Harvard picketing in Boston for SNCC in 1961. As a political science grad student at Berkeley fighting for the Free Speech Movement and against the Vietnam War, he was one of the Oakland Seven against the draft in 1967. He learned from Maoist students supporting the Black Panthers and soon went onto organize the Bay Area Revolutionary Union (BARU). Still in Berkeley in 1969, a leader at People's Park, he learned more at the Battle of Telegraph and Haste, when the law used shotguns on a rebellious crowd. He later got a different education in the military town by Fort Ord, when he tried to organize soldiers against the war at the local G.I. coffee house. If Berkeley taught him that the U.S. working class was hopeless, in Seaside he learned that white guys like him could not move black Vietnam vets. But life and his Oakland-Berkeley police record soon caught up with him and drove him into the education he would get from having to make a living. Almost thirty and now a husband and father, he went looking for work - not to do politics, but simply to support his family. East of Fort Ord lay the Salinas Valley, where a year before the United Farm Workers (UFW) had won the biggest farm-worker strike in California history. The union gave Bardacke a job on an otherwise all-Mexican crew hoeing lettuce, and in the fields he began his serious analytical education. From 1971 to 1979 he worked as a UFW member for six seasons in the fields, learning lettuce, celery, broccoli, and cauliflower; the tools, skills, and order of the work; solidarity; and the main language, Spanish. On the side of the union betrayed by the executive in the 1979 strike, he quit the fields and turned to a farm town twenty miles north. He worked plant jobs there for a few years, then in 1983 settled into teaching English as a Second Language at the local "adult school." There he continued his education about the fields and the people in them, learning from the farm workers and their children who took his courses.

By 1993, when Cesar Chavez died, Bardacke knew enough for his first broad publication (in The Nation) on the reasons for the UFW's rise and fall. His work on the subject over the next fifteen years was immense, spanning twenty archives, eighty-odd interviews, and many books. It proves him to be a master of historical inquiry, research, examination, exposition, and explanation. It is a history of individuals, farm work, organizations of labor and of capital, local and national class struggles, political cultures, and politics. Its questions are clear and sharp, its conclusions balanced, and it has no academic jargon. All told it is a fascinating read, and it will long remain the definitive study of the UFW for the period of 1960-81.

Its theme is the dialectic between the UFW's "two souls," or social forms, a movement and a union. The movement came from an Alinskyite organization in postwar California for Mexican-American civil rights. This organization made gains in the 1950s, but regarding MexicanAmerican farm workers it tried to operate without its best organizers, who cut loose and seized the lead in farm towns and fields. In the 1960s the UFW developed a bi-animated force: both as a movement (an intermittent organization of staff-directed volunteers devoted to national boycotts, rousing liberal charity for poor brown citizens), and a union (a durable organization of California agribusiness's workers, for grievances, strikes, elections, contracts, laws, and the courts). …

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