Book Review: The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement

Book Review: The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement

81ypQ2EZYALBy Miriam Pawel (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009).

Reviewed by Ross Webb.

The story of the Farm Workers Movement (FWM) is an inspirational one. At the height of their boycott against California’s most powerful industry, seventeen million Americans stopped eating grapes so that farm workers could win better wages and working conditions. As a result, farmworkers gained a degree of dignity and a contract from a company that initially had no intention of ever recognizing a union. Cesar Chavez is the face of UFW, and he is celebrated for the gains he made as a unionist and social justice activist. His story is well known, and the history of the UFW is not only centred on the man, but told from his point of view. But the story ended with cynicism, disillusionment and defeat for some of those involved. When Chavez died in 1993, only one percent of the state’s farm hands were still under contract. This is the side of the story not many people know.

Miriam Pawel’s The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement is a stunning work of both journalism and history that explores the rise, fall, and legacy of the United Farm Workers movement (UFW) through the life histories of eight people. The book challenges our understandings of both the movement and Chavez himself and provides a unique insight into how people were impacted by their involvement. The eight people were not necessarily the most important, nor were they central characters, but they represented ‘the archetype of the worlds that came together in a unique collaboration’. There’s Gretchen Laue, who was ‘looking for meaning as much as a free place to live when she happened upon a sign soliciting UFW volunteers willing to work for room and board’; Jessica Govea, daughter of a cotton picker who became a member of the union executive board; Eliseo Medina, a young man who ‘didn’t know what a contract was’ who joined the union and within three months ran a boycott operation that was on the verge of shutting down grape sales in Chicago, the third largest market in North America; Chris Hartmire, a Presbyterian minister; Sabino Lopez, a worker who led a grassroots campaign within the UFW; Ellen Eggers, a 20 year old woman from Muncie, Indiana, who volunteered on the UFW boycott campaign; and Sandy Nathan and Jerry Cohen, both lawyers.

Pawel writes that these eight people ‘came into the movement from the fields, from the classrooms, and the churches; they left as organisers and activists, their lives irrevocably altered by the first successful attempt to unionise farmworkers’. At the same time, all of them also lost something, and the inability to pass their experience on to a new generation is something that all of them carry still decades later, ‘sometimes near the surface’, Pawel writes, and ‘sometimes deep down’. In the present, they all remain wedded to the ideas of the movement. Many are union leaders, community activists, labour lawyers, teaches, judges and environmentalists. For all eight, their time in the FWM remains one of the most important in their lives. It was, as Pawel writes, ‘where they met husbands, wives, and best friends. They found work that had meaning, and discovered hope, betrayal, and disillusionment’. Indeed, in tracing the lives of these eight individuals, it shines light onto the difficulties of organising and the challenges they faced, from lawsuits to wildcat strikes. It also details some of the shortcomings of Chavez himself who eventually called on the federal government to step up deportations of ‘illegal’ immigrants in the fields. Indeed, things turned ugly in the end as revelations emerged about the poor pay or union staff and lawyers and division within the union intensified. Chavez resented the autonomy and initiatives of his staff.

This book is thoroughly researched. It not only draws on oral histories, but also over 600 hours or tape recordings of meetings, and intensive archival research. It combines history and journalism, but in some ways it is closer to journalism than history. Close attention to details and personal stories, at times takes away from the historical context and the major developments of the FWU. For readers unfamiliar with these broader developments, it can be difficult to keep track. A timeline of the major developments in the back of the book provides some guide. Nevertheless, this is a thrilling read. It tells the story of how the movement impacted a range of people, but also tells the story of the behind the scenes of the movement, of how people from various backgrounds worked in solidarity in an inspiring movement for social justice and solidarity. And how this came apart.

It is also a book that is well worth reading for activists and organisers and raised some key questions. In his review of the book in Dissent, Jeffrey W. Rubin claims that the book raised the following questions for movements for social justice: How do you balance internal democracy with the need for quick and effective strategizing? How can extraordinary leaders be held accountable as they pursue visionary goals? What are effective ways to combine the kind of direct action that challenges the powerful with the long, slow work in institutions that often consolidates gains for poor people? And finally, should movements demand sacrifice and unlimited commitment from activists or should they make it possible for those fighting for social justice to lead sustainable economic and personal lives? (1) In raising these questions, Pawel’s book proves the point made by Kim Lacy Rogers that ‘activists’ lives embody traditions of protest, struggle, and faith’ and ‘by giving to the present our understanding of such political lives, we allow the voice of the past to empower the future’ (2).

Footnotes

1. ‘Shattered Dreams’, Dissent, Spring 2010.

2. Kim Lacy Rogers, ‘Memory, Struggle and Power: On Interviewing Political Activists’, Oral History Review, 15, Spring 1987, pp.165-184.