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Origins of the Obama Machine

The farmworkers movement brought community organizing strategies to the electoral arena, writes Randy Shaw, in this excerpt from his new book

BY Randy Shaw

While the UFW was running grassroots electoral campaigns, other unions focused on 'writing checks to political candidates and party organizations'

During the United Farm Workers’ critical decade of growth, from 1966 to 1976, farmworker activists became experts in conducting voter registration among low-income and minority voters, and operating get out the vote (GOTV) drives to boost turnout in traditionally low-voting, working-class neighborhoods. The UFW responded to political attacks from growers by adopting innovative approaches for almost every type of electoral campaign. These strategies brought the union victories in statewide initiative contests, legislative fights and races for public office–and continue to set the course for today’s progressive election campaigns.

In 1966, the farmworkers movement had no more experience with politicians and elections than it had with boycotts. Cesar Chavez’s previous job as an organizer for the Community Services Organization had included voter registration drives, but the CSO did not make political endorsements or engage in partisan electoral work.

The UFW did have one experienced hand, however: Fred Ross Sr., who had become a legendary electoral organizer after running Edward Roybal’s winning campaign for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council in 1949. Roybal, who was president of CSO, was the first Mexican-American to win a Los Angeles city council election in more than 70 years, a victory described as marking “the birth of Latino politics in California.”

Ross used the same painstaking approach to voter registration and GOTV in the Roybal campaign that he later brought to the UFW’s first representation election at the DiGiorgio ranch in 1967, and his methods would soon become central to the union’s grassroots electoral approach. Using Ross’s lessons as a starting point, UFW activists were not deterred by their lack of financial resources or political experience; in fact, these circumstances forced them to pursue innovative electoral and legislative strategies.

Not all of these efforts succeeded, but by “pushing all kinds of buttons” and being willing to “try something else,” the UFW developed a model for grassroots voter outreach to Latino and other low-income and minority voters that has spearheaded winning progressive campaigns in subsequent years.

California’s 1968 Democratic presidential primary put Chavez and the UFW on the state and national political map. New York senator Robert F. Kennedy was a staunch ally, whose public support for Chavez and the farmworkers during Senate hearings in the fields in 1966 had greatly boosted national sympathy for the union, especially among Catholics. Chavez developed a close personal bond with Kennedy and considered it “heroic” that the powerful senator had publicly embraced the UFW without asking anything in return.

In April and May of 1968, UFW organizers spread throughout the state’s Mexican-American neighborhoods to build support for Kennedy. Chavez himself made as many as six public appearances a day on the senator’s behalf. Rallies were held across the Central Valley. In the long-ignored and politically disenfranchised Mexican-American neighborhoods of East Los Angeles, the UFW set up an electoral operation that included personal visits to all registered voters, phone banks, and walking committees. To build election excitement, the campaign even hired kids to hand out thousands of leaflets.

A key strategy the UFW developed during the Kennedy effort was the recruitment of volunteer organizers who could be counted on to turn out their neighbors to vote on election day. These volunteers were recruited at their doors by UFW campaign workers, who were simultaneously contacting voters, training them to conduct voter outreach on the spot, and enlisting them for GOTV efforts on Kennedy’s behalf. This emphasis on developing volunteer leadership was as central to the UFW’s electoral work as it was for the boycott, and it would become a major component of Latino voter outreach efforts in Los Angeles three decades later.

Marshall Ganz was the chief organizer of the UFW’s Kennedy campaign, and he later recalled the effort as “the model” for grassroots campaigns that the UFW and its alumni would run at the local and state levels over the next three decades. Journalist Sam Kushner observed that the UFW volunteers “worked as no other political activists. Hours meant nothing to them and they accepted hardships such as sleeping on floors in churches and meeting halls as a necessary part of the struggle.” Chavez later compared the experience to organizing a strike; the fact that the UEW assembled its campaign operation without much prior electoral experience likely contributed to its functioning more as a community organizing effort than a traditional political campaign.

The UFW was not the only organization helping to mobilize the Mexican-American vote. Kennedy – Latino activists such as Bert Corona, head of the national “Viva Kennedy” campaign, also played key roles – -but to Kennedy delegate Paul Schrade of the United Auto Workers union, “the farmworkers had made the difference.” Schrade’s conclusion was echoed by three journalists from the London Sunday Times, who wrote: “In the end, the votes of Chavez’s Mexican-Americans contributed most of the slender margin by which Kennedy beat McCarthy in California.”

The UFW was forced back into the California electoral arena in 1972 to face a political challenge that threatened the union’s very existence. Growers had tried to pass an anti-UFW measure in the legislature in 1971, but the union mobilized forty-five hundred people in a rally in front of the state capitol building to successfully defeat it. Farm interests then put an initiative on the ballot, known as Proposition 22, that included the standard provisions forbidding boycotts and strikes and added such extreme provisions as barring farmworker unions from bargaining on work rules.

The No on 22 campaign initiated a new approach to electoral politics that would become a prototype for the successful grassroots labor campaigns that began reshaping Los Angeles and California politics in the late 1990s. In many respects, the UFW’s model replicated on a larger scale the detailed approach that Fred Ross Sr. had developed for winning the union’s first representation election at DiGiorgio farms. Ellen Eggers, who extended her summer stint with the UFW in Los Angeles to help fight Prop 22 and ended up staying on with the farmworkers for fifteen years, describes the incredibly tight organization of the campaign:

We always kept totals of what we did and reported in to our coordinator. Whether it was bumpers “stickered,” leaflets passed out, voters registered, or declarations signed, we always kept accurate tallies. The numbers were turned in, added up, and reported on, probably to Cesar and LeRoy, but always, also, to those of us who were “out there.” The union leadership was excellent about this. Always keeping us going and lifting our spirits by showing us that our little piece of the puzzle was important. Each of us was doing our job, and as grinding and boring as it could be at times, we knew we were part of something much larger.

At the end of each day’s billboarding, the Reverend Chris Hartmire announced how many cars had seen the signs, a number based on UFW research on traffic patterns at the various intersections. This record-keeping reinforced the importance of the volunteers’ efforts, a critical encouragement for an activity that required people to wake up at 4:00 a.m., be out on freeways by 6:00 a.m., and then continue working into the evening. Boycott volunteers normally worked six days a week, but the Prop 22 campaign required an all-week, morning-to-night commitment.

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Randy Shaw is the editor of BeyondChron.org and author of the newly released Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press).

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