SEVERAL YEARS AGO it became increasingly difficult for American farm workers to get much attention about their struggles for a better life. By any legitimate news standard the stories were there - strikes, boycotts, violence, important economic issues - but the media weren't buying. As a reporter at that time, I was given an interesting explanation by one editor about why he didn't want to run a farm worker strike story. "Chavez and all that radical chic stuff isn't news any more," he said.
This editor somehow equated the struggle of farm workers to unionize and improve their hard life with a phenomenon of the 1960s, when rich folks boycotted grapes and gave garden parties in East Hampton to raise money for Cesar Chavez. But that period had passed, and the new news chic was to point out the hypocrisies of "limousine liberals."
I cite this news business incident not only to illustrate the gross trendiness of the media in its interests, but to point out the almost total lack of any historical sense in this country of our own tradition of radical struggle for social and economic justice. We do not have a body of popular literature, certainly none that can be readily summoned, that provides a sense of the unending battle since the founding of America to achieve minimum justice for certain groups in our society, farm workers among them.
There is no magic cure to this dilemma - we are very selective in what we choose to see about ourselves - but Dick Meister and Anne Loftis have provided a fine historical contribution with their scholarly yet highly readable account of the century-old effort to unionize American farm workers. Their book ends on a note of optimism, as reflected in their title, A Long Time Coming. They assume that the union, the United Farm Workers of America, is here to stay. They conclude quoting Chavez: "Si se puede. It can be done."
Historian Loftis and labor reporter Meister may be right. One would certainly hope so. The country's 2.8 million farm workers still average less than $2000 annual wages, get work only 114 days a year, and 1.6 million of them can't find other jobs when they are not needed in the fields.
But the broad historical sweep of their book, their analysis of agriculture economics, and their comprehension of rural American power politics would argue for a far more cautious verdict. Namely, the union now has a foothold, but history indicates it is a precarious one. I would title their book: "The struggle goes on, and on, and on, and on . . ." And that, I think, is its most important message and contribution.
One half of the book is about the Chavez movement of the last 15 years and that is an important story, far too little understood despite Chavez's sometim vogue as a folk here. But it is the earlier part of the book that provides a historical perspective which we badly need. The authors show in great detail that struggle for justice for farm workers - you could substitute "blacks," "women," "poor" - goes through repeated cycles of progress and hope, followed by repression and despair. Farm workers organize against great odds, win a few benefits and then are broken. Writers, reformer and film makers expose horrendous and film makers expose horrendous conditions in the fields, the government investigates, reforms take place, and then the reforms are wiped out. In another scenario, workers mount protests to improve their lot, growers protest, and government - state, local, and national - responds to quash the worker movement.
If all this sounds repetitious, the book does not read that way at all; it provides a richly textured fabric, out of which comes a great deal of meaning. Take the history of importing foreign workers to provide ever cheaper labor than can be gotten at home. First the growers brought the Chinese in the 1870s, but when they proved troublesome, the growers then brought the Japanese in the 1890s.
After the Japanese came the Filipinos in the 1920s, and after them the "Okies" from the midwestern dust bowl in the 1930s. When these mostly white workers proved troublesome, the Mexicans were brought in during several different waves from the 1930s on into the 1960s. The process continues. When the Chavez union showed strength in the 1970s, the California growers brought more than 1000 workers from Yemen in the Middle East. And always the growers tried to divide the different nationality groups against each other.
But then there is another phenomenon. Those oppressed workers brought here from other lands quickly picked up the American thrist for freedom and equality. The Chinese workers struck in 1884 in Kern County, California. The Japanese workers struck in 1903. The Filipinos and Mexican-Americans formed their own unions and staged their own strikes in 1920 and 1928. And when the unionization battle got bloody in 1974, Nagi Daifullah, 24, of Yemen, joined the worker cause and got killed.
Government has helped or hurt the workers' cause, depending on the political winds. The International Workers of the World (the Wobblies) organized thousands into the Agricultural Workers Association and in 1914 California Governor Hiram Johnson responded with reforms - better housing, drinking water, toilets. Workers got better pay when food was needed during the effort of World War I. But by the late 1920s the IWW was dead and wages had dropped by 50 per cent. As the authors state, "It was almost as if the Wobblies had never existed. They had vanished as swifly as the reforms they inspired." Governor Culbert Olson temporarily revived some of the reforms in living conditions in 1928, as did Governor Rolph after another investigation in 1933. And on to the present with a Ronald Reagan trying to break the union and the present governor Jerry Brown helping enact a law to aid the embryonic union.
There have been some bright spots in the role of the federal government - the LaFollette Committee investigations of 1939-40 - but its record is mostly an ignoble one. The Agriculture Department, caught in collusion with growers to deprive sharecroppers of their share of government price supports in the 1930s, is caught at the same game in the 1960s. And from 1942 through 1964, the U.S. government countenanced blatant illegalities in the bracero program, depriving both American citizens and imported Mexican workers of their rights. The government helped a bit when Lyndon Johnson was President, but those efforts were erased as Richard Nixon used the power of Defense Department purchases of grapes (which were doubled in one year) to try to break the union's grape boycott. Even today the federal courts are needed to make the Labor Department obey farm labor laws.
The record of the American labor movement in supporting farm workers is mixed. Samuel Gompers broke up one union effort in 1902 because he couldn't tolerate the idea of Japanese joing the union. The Teamsters Union's complicity with growers in sweetheart contracts dates back to 1940. George Meany has been alternatively supportive and cool. Those labor leaders who represent modern "business unionism" scorn Chavez and his "cause." Those who believe in labor's tradition of social justice realize that labor's idealism and vibrancy will be lost if support is not given to farm workers, poorly paid unorganized textile workers, and others at the bottom of the American ladder.
The media look at this American problem only onccasionally. But a Steinbeck writers The Grapes of Wrath, Carey McWilliams a Factories in the Fields and there are books like this one. On film there was a brilliant March of Time documentary in the '30s, Edward R. Murrow's Harvest of Shame in the early '60s and Martin Carr revisiting the same scene on NBC ten years later. As the same essential story is retold every few years by a writer of conscience, there is a predictable public reaction: disbelief, shame, investigation, temporary reform. (Coca-Cola cleaned up its migrant camps for Florida orange workers following the NBC expose.)
And finally the public. It can be moved. Cesar Chavez won his grape and lettuce worker contracts partly because (according to a Harris poll) 17 million Americans stopped buying grapes, and 14 million boycotted lettuce. There are people like the crippled 60-year-old lady in Saginaw, Michigan, who would go into grocery stores "shake hands with the grapes," squeeze real hard and sa y "I give you regards from Cesar Chavez."
The struggle goes on and on and if it can't ever be won entirely, this book at least provides ample evidence that there is a thin line of people from generation to generation who believe in justice and won't quit.