Tuesday, April 8, 2014

New Cesar Chavez Film Stirs Memories from 41 Years Ago

Cesar Chavez as photographed by Cathy Murphy













Last Saturday, I saw the  film, Cesar Chavez, with my 32 year old daughter, Amanda.  I was moved to tears at several points.  My daughter, too, was emotionally moved although she was born many years after the events that were portrayed in the movie.  The film highlighted the life of the labor leader primarily between the years of 1962 and 1970 as Chavez struggled to establish a union for farm laborers in the California grape vineyards.  I thought it was a fair and accurate film that captured the spirit of the times and the character of the man.  I know this because I knew Cesar Chavez when I worked for the United Farm Workers and was part of that movement in 1973.


On December 9, 1972, I graduated from the University of California at San Diego.  I was 22 years old and I had watched the previous 4 years of tumultuous social change from a fairly privileged viewpoint, a beautiful campus in the beach community of La Jolla, California.   Many of my fellow students had dropped out to do something to change the world - finding their academic life irrelevant. I stayed the course knowing it was important to finish college because I was the first person in my family to get a degree.  It was a gift that my parents helped me materially to achieve.  

I had been an activist while I was in college. I had protested against the Vietnam war and frequently supported causes that fought social injustice, but now I was ready to take the next step toward becoming my own person.  I had helped the UFW in Los Angeles in the summer of 1972 on the "No on Proposition 22" Campaign.  I also had studied the theory and history of non-violent direct action in a course at my university and was impressed with Chavez' embrace of the principles of Mohandas Gandhi in forcing social change.  I applied to work for the United Farm Workers' Union and received a reply on January 18, 1973:



I was to be paid $5 per week (this was true for everyone working for the UFW, including Cesar Chavez), plus room and board (provided by a union house or host) and gasoline for my car if it was to be used by the Union.  

Initially, I was asked to start work as a community organizer on the Lettuce and Safeway Boycott in San Diego, under the direction of John Waite before the UFW could make arrangements to send me to Arizona to work on an organizing project.  John was a minister from Ohio who worked for Chris Hartmire and the Migrant Ministry.  He and his wife and family had been sent to San Diego from the midwest to help organize the lettuce boycott in San Diego.

Cesar Chavez and John Waite at a rally for the UFW

Jerry Robinett
In March, 1973, I was sent to Tucson, Arizona to help register voters and gather petition signatures to recall Governor Jack Williams who had signed a bill prohibiting farmworkers from striking or using the boycott tactic in Arizona. I was joined by Louise Caldes from Carlsbad, California and we were housed by the family of Jerry and Ellie Robinett in Tucson.  Jerry was an underground mining Electrician and a member of the UMW.  Both Jerry and Ellie were devout Catholics and strong advocates for justice for the poor and dispossessed, so offering us shelter in their home came naturally even though it was a burden on them and their privacy.  We lived at the Robinetts for more than three months. I loved this area of southern Arizona.and was able to get out and explore the beautiful desert and mountains on my one day off.

Living in Tucson, Arizona in the spring of 1973 

During those three or so months in Tucson, I worked with a crew of volunteers who also worked full time for the UFW.  We met each day at the Old Labor Council building.  We looked like a motley crew.  But everyone (and I am sorry I have forgotten some people's names) was dedicated, sincere and hard-working.  Cristoff was a conscientious objector from Germany sent to the USA for "alternative service" working for the Migrant Ministry. He had a knack for learning foreign languages and he quickly picked up Pima, Spanish, and Yaqui.  He was our "union car mechanic," keeping his favorite union car, "zee rocket" (an old rambler without a hood), running.

Here I am with Nellie, Cristof and Big Frank

Ruben and Sally

Margaret Cowan (left) was our leader
I worked 6 to 7 days a week, registered voters and gathered petition signatures.  I  had 3 years of academic Spanish in college and, because I had to speak Spanish everyday going "door-to-door" in South Tucson, I got very fluent. There were days that I took a little longer to talk with folks I met, especially the elderly, lonely and sick residents who answered the door and appreciated a visitor.  I remember one man with cancer with open wounds who was dying all alone.  I listened to him for more than an hour as he talked about his life. Our local leader, Margo Cowan, is still in Tucson, now a lawyer representing immigrants and fighting for immigration reform.  We turned in over 170,000 signatures to recall the Governor but the Recall Election was never held.  

After submitting the signatures, Cristoff (my German friend) and I headed for San Diego for a couple of days off.  He'd never been to California and I let him drive my car when we were pulled over in Chandler, Arizona, by a state highway patrolman when Cristoff passed him crossing a double line as the road narrowed.  I had both UFW and "Hit the Road, Jack" recall stickers on my back bumper and I was afraid of what might happen to us.  Cristoff handed the officer his driver's license and the officer asked Cristoff where he was from. Cristoff told him he was from Germany and he worked for the UFW.  I kicked his leg trying to get him to "shut up".  The officer asked: "What exactly do you do for the UFW?"  Cristoff said he had come all the way from Germany to help the farmworkers get rid of the governor of Arizona because he was against the right to organize for farmworkers. I thought to myself: "We're going to jail!" But the officer must not have liked Gov. Jack Williams either, because he simply gave Cristoff a warning and told us to be more careful and have a safe journey to California.

After the Arizona Recall Campaign, I returned to San Diego where I was directed to organize a Boycott of a Safeway store in Pacific Beach.  We then started the Gallo Wine Boycott. Portuguese and Mexican immigrant farm worker families who were strikers at the Gallo winery were sent to San Diego. We found housing for them. We had a huge old three story house in Logan Heights called "The Union House" where we and the striker families lived.  We spent everyday picketing liquor stores with leaflets asking people to boycott Gallo wines.  The rest of the time we were having community wide meetings to raise support.  

Cesar Chavez frequently met with our local boycott staff during the time I was in the UFW.  Most times we wouldn't get prior notice that he was in town but were told to come to a meeting and in walked Cesar.  He was a soft-spoken and humble person, never haughty or prideful although he was now internationally famous.  He was very inspiring to us staff and we would have done anything for him.  One day, I was told to take my car (now the "union car") and pick up Cesar Chavez at the San Diego airport and bring him to a meeting at Minnie Ybarra's house in Logan Heights. I was very nervous and it must have showed because his bodyguard, Richard Ybarra, took over driving as we sat stuck in traffic from the airport.  There were many death threats to Cesar's life and being stuck in the traffic was a potential security threat. 

Cesar and Richard Ybarra (Cesar's son-in-law and bodyguard)

September 21-23, 1973, I attended the First Constitutional Convention of the United Farm Workers National Union, AFL-CIO in Fresno, California.  We had addresses of solidarity and support from union leaders, religious leaders and Senator Edward M. Kennedy.  It was a wonderful and inspiring event that I am proud to have attended.  Here is the Agenda of items and speakers. 



I left the UFW in December, 1973. Inspired by the role of attorneys in the UFW, I took the law school exam (LSAT) in 1974, then applied and was accepted into the University of San Diego School of Law.  I withdrew after 6 weeks, however, when I changed my mind about the grueling study and expensive 4 years of attending Law School at night and working days.  

What I learned in the UFW made me a life-long supporter of worker's rights and the value of unions.  Both of my parents were workers but they were Republicans and never had anything good to say about unions. My year-long experience working for the UFW made me a believer that the only way poor people and workers could get justice was through organizing themselves.  I was working at an electronics manufacturer in 1976 and supported a union drive.  Then I had the opportunity to work at a large aerospace company represented by a union and I got hired there in 1977.  I joined the Machinists' Union and got an immediate negotiated "cost-of living raise" within two months of working "union."  I was a member of the Machinists Union (IAM&AW, AFL-CIO) for 19 years.  I was elected as a Union Business Representative in 1986 and served for 9 years as a full time union representative, defending workers at my company.  Today, I thank the union for my retirement pension which I was able to get at age 55.

In 1993, Cesar Chavez passed away in Yuma, Arizona.  I did not attend the funeral but my Vice President of the International Association of Machinists Union, Justin Ostro, was there.

Justin Ostro, VP of the IAM & AW, AFL-CIO with Delores Huerta, VP of the UFW, AFL-CIO at the funeral of Cesar Chavez
My experience with the UFW in 1973 was a formative time and made me who I am today.  I will never look at food without understanding how it was produced and how farm workers lived.  I will always respect a picket line.  I will always fight for social justice.  I will always respect the tactics of non-violence as a means of political struggle.  For this, I thank you,  Cesar Chavez.