Cesar Chavez Day is a state holiday in California. His labor movement's trademark motto – "Sí, se puede!" – was repurposed for a presidential campaign. And he's perhaps the most famous Hispanic man in American history.
But there's a big gap in knowledge about Chavez. Few seem to know that his once-influential United Farm Workers union fell apart. Or that his management style could be vicious and dictatorial. Or that his inspirational powers were matched by tactical brilliance.
Journalist and historian Miriam Pawel understands Chavez's complexity. Her 2009 book "The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez's Farm Worker Movement" is a remarkable account of the union's rise and fall. Now, just as an unrelated film about Chavez hits theaters, she's out with a new book called The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography.
In an interview, Pawel talks about Chavez's internal blend of savvy, guts, and frustration.
Q: You've already written about the United Farm Workers movement. What made you decide to focus on Chavez specifically?
A: He's never been portrayed as the complex, multifaceted leader that he was. Nor in a way that takes into account his failures as well as his successes.
Q: Did he grow up in a farm worker family?
A: He grows up on a farm that his family owns. It's not a terrible existence, but they lose their house and their land in the Depression.
In 1939, when he's 12 years old, his family moves to California. They arrive about a month after the publication of "The Grapes of Wrath."
In many ways, the California that he first encounters is that of the Joad family. He begins to work full-time after he graduates from eighth grade. He's a farm worker in the fields with the exception of when he's in the Navy.
Q: Workers gained many protections in the first decades of the last century. Why were farm workers left behind?
A: Farm workers were not covered by the labor, health, and safety laws that most of the workers took for granted.
The one constant was that there was almost always a surplus of workers. Wages were very low. There were no bathrooms in the field – a particular problem for women. There was no clean water to drink, no overtime provisions, no protection from pesticides.
Farm worker housing, and this is still a real issue, was pretty dreadful. And in addition to all the physical deprivations and difficulties, there was a sense that the workers were interchangeable, as replaceable as tractors.
There was a real inhumanity about it.
Q: Were farm workers often forced to move frequently?
A: You followed the crops. As a result, to this day, farm workers are really hard to organize.
It's not like you can go to the plant and wait for everybody to walk out the doors. You don't necessarily know where they are. And a lot of people who are imported to do farm work don't speak English.
These were a lot of issues for unions to overcome and the supply-and-demand issues made it very difficult to convince workers that they should risk their jobs in order to support a union.
The other major problem is that farm workers are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act, which provides a mechanism for elections and, in theory, protections for union activity. Farm workers have none of that.
Q: What made Chavez such a force against such odds?
A: He had this indomitable will, incredible determination, and single-minded focus. He wanted people who were fanatics, who didn't let anything take precedence over their work.
Q: You write about his "organizational jujitsu" – his ability to turn an opponent's strengths into weaknesses. How did that play out when he launched the famous grape boycott?
A: Farm workers are exempt from the National Relations Labor Act, and that's seen as an advantage for the growers. But because they're not covered, they're not subject to any of the accompanying restrictions, such as not conducting what's known a secondary boycott.
This allows his movement to push for a boycott of not just grapes but of the supermarkets that sell the grapes. They were able to boycott entire supermarket chains and they focused on Safeway, Jewel, and Stop and Shop.
The supermarkets didn't need this hassle and lost business. It's their executives who turn back to the growers and say, "You need to solve your labor problems, or we'll stop carrying your produce."
Chavez understood that he didn't need to stop the sales of all grapes but instead make one of those shots in pool where you hit the ball and it hits another ball and makes the shot work.
Q: You write about Chavez's horrific management style, which included "encounter groups" in which workers brutally criticized each other. What else sets him apart in terms of how he ran his movement?
A: He created the union, and he is always the leader. In some ways it becomes a cult of personality.
It's a familiar theme: A charismatic leader who does a great job of building something but isn't the best person to run it.
Q: He didn't want to just run a labor union, right?
A: He wants to find a cross between a movement and a union.
But he sees the problem, and he sees it very clearly.
You have these workers under contracts. The contracts have to be administered, and the medical plan has to be administered. By the virtue of their own success, they've created an organization with a bureaucracy and needs.
In theory, that could exist with a grander movement of organizing a poor people's union. But the visions begin to collide more and more. They didn't have the staff to do both.
Q: What was his vision for the poor?
A: When you follow him from his younger years, you see how important it is to him to teach the value of sacrifice and how much disdain he has for middle-class values.
There's an inherent problem with a labor leader who's trying to convince workers they should support the union but also trying to make sure they don't become middle-class.
In fact, many workers wanted to be middle-class.
Q: What's the legacy of work as a manager of a movement?
A: A lot of people can identify with his frustration with democracy. These are important conversations for people to have: How do you run an organization democratically yet still get things done?
Q: What about his larger legacy?
A: He's a tremendously important historic figure, especially for the generation of farm workers who were touched by the union.
For 20 years, there were farm workers whose lives were significantly altered by the way he empowered people and gave them a sense of their own dignity. There's some of that left today.
But his ultimate legacy is not in the field.
Farm workers today have no idea who he is and much of what he fought for is no longer there. But there's a generation of organizers who learned how to do what they do in the United Farm Workers and there are still many of them working toward social justice causes in a whole variety of spheres.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.