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

Randy Shaw

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.

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

Knowing that Latino voters would strongly oppose Prop 22, the UFW targeted this constituency by establishing precinct operations in East Los Angeles and other Latino communities across the state. In East L.A.’s Lincoln Park, the union set up a tent city to house the hundreds of farmworkers coming from the fields to help the campaign in the month before the election. Boycott staff across the nation had also been redirected to the campaign. 

Although Chavez was still recovering from his Arizona fast, he toured the state attacking Prop 22 as a fraud which would destroy the farmworkers union in California.” The UFW had strong backing from the Democratic Party, the AFL-CIO, California’s Catholic bishops and Secretary of State Brown. Growers spent nearly $500,000 (a large sum by 1972 standards) on television ads supporting Prop 22, but they were outmatched by the UFW’s massive grassroots effort. The initiative was defeated by over 1 million votes, 8 percent to 42 percent, despite California voters’ strong support for pro-grower Republican Richard Nixon over pro-UFW Democrat George McGovern on the same ballot.

The UFW’s defeat of Prop 22 in 1972, its key role in the election of Jerry Brown in 1974, and the enactment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975 enhanced Cesar Chavez’s confidence in the union’s ability to win California elections. This led him to promote a farm labor initiative on the November 1976 ballot primarily aimed at preventing legislative interference with the funding of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. Although some of the issues the initiative addressed were quite technical, Chavez was so confident that the voters who had backed the UFW in 1972 would do so again that he vowed, We’re going to teach the growers a lesson they’ll never forget once and for all.” 

The union collected 720,000 signatures on initiative petitions in just 29 days, a remarkable show of strength for an all-volunteer effort. Most California initiatives reach the ballot by partially or entirely relying on paid signature gatherers. Growers were so impressed by the UFW’s display of grassroots mobilizing that they soon agreed to most of the provisions included in the ballot measure. Nevertheless, Chavez was tired of having to fight over implementation of the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, and Proposition 14 proceeded to the ballot.

In many ways, the campaign was a remarkable tribute to the grassroots political machine Chavez and the UFW had built. Prop 14 volunteers were seemingly everywhere, and the campaign exceeded the successful Prop 22 effort in money raised and volunteer hours spent. Prop 14 volunteer Larry Tramutola, who had worked for the UFW for years and later became a leading California campaign consultant, described the effort as probably the best statewide grassroots campaign you can imagine.” 

Marshall Ganz, by now recognized as one of the nation’s leading political strategists, managed the campaign. Prop 14 brought virtually the entire nationwide staff together for the first time, and the national UFW boycott structure was transformed into a statewide political operation. The campaign also built working relationships among boycott staff that would later benefit the labor movement.

Although the Prop 14 campaign enhanced activists’ electoral skills and established long-term working relationships among UFW veterans, the measure suffered a landslide defeat. Some voters were simply unwilling to make changes only a year after the ALRA’s passage. But Prop 14 was hurt most by a provision granting labor organizers a constitutional right to enter fields to meet workers. Opponents ran television commercials in which a farmer and homeowner expressed fear for his daughter’s privacy and safety if union organizers – assumed to be nonwhite – had unrestricted access to their property. 

Even more effective were statewide newspaper ads offering the passionate testimony of a Japanese-American farmer who had been sent to an internment camp during World War II. The farmer, whose photo appeared in the ad, linked his wartime deprivations to the battle against Prop 14: I was 20 years old and I gave up my personal rights without a fight,” he said. Never again.”

Despite Prop 14’s defeat, Chavez and the UEW in the decade from 1966 to 1976 developed a model for labor and Latino political involvement that laid the framework for today’s grassroots campaigns. The farmworkers movement brought community organizing tactics and strategies – voter registration drives, mass petition drives, intensive door-to-door and street outreach, public visibility events to catch the attention of voters and the media, and election-day voter outreach efforts – into the electoral and legislative arena. 

In contrast, mainstream labor unions did little to mobilize their rank-and-file members. As one union member described it, while the UFW was running grassroots electoral campaigns, other unions’ political programs focused on writing checks to political candidates and party organizations, lobbying entrenched members of Congress, and – shortly before Election Day – sending mailings to union members informing them of our endorsements.”

Cesar Chavez and the UFW laid the groundwork for California’s increase in Latino voting, and Marshall Ganz and other UFW veterans then refined and expanded the UFW model in a series of 1980s campaigns. After Miguel Contreras and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor found success using this approach during the 1990s, this grassroots mobilization and voter outreach model spread throughout California through labor-backed organizations, fueling the transformation of California politics. 

These efforts continue to expand nationally as SEIU and other unions build their presence in Colorado, Florida, Arizona, Texas and other states where greater Latino voter turnout is boosting progressive candidates and issues. To the extent that much of America’s Latino electorate was once described as a sleeping giant,” its awakening depends not on reacting to a hostile political environment, but rather on the spread of a UFW organizing model that has proven successful for over 40 years and is advancing the struggle for economic justice across the nation.

[Editor’s note: This article is drawn from Shaw’s new book Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press). You can purchase the book here.]

Randy Shaw is the editor of Beyond​Chron​.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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