CESAR CHAVEZ -- HIS LIFELONG LINK WITH COOPERATIVES When Cesar Chavez died at the age of 66 on April 23rd, 1993 the cooperative movement lost one of its great believers. From the moment Cesar became an organizer in his early 20's until the end of his life he was a strong supporter of cooperatives and credit unions. Were it another era and were it not for the tremendous toll of time imposed by the everyday needs of the United Farm Workers Union Cesar would have been a co-op leader.
Fred Ross, who spotted Cesar's organizing potential early on, remembered a house meeting he attended in 1962 where Cesar outlined the need to organize. Ross recounted that moment in the prologue to Jacques Levy's, book " Cesar Chavez: autobiography of La Causa". When one of the farm workers at the meeting asked how they could get through the winter with plenty of bills and no work, Cesar replied. "We could have what they call a credit union. It's just like a worker's bank. During the season, each worker loans a little to the bank and learns to save that way, even if it's only a tiny amount. Then in winter, the bank makes loans to the worker at a very low interest."
The next question was to do with death and the cost of burials. Cesar answered. "For that, there could be group burial insurance. There is a law now where a lot of people all doing the same kind of work can all join a burial plan together through their own organization and pay a little each month to cover all the members of the family."
Later that year, Cesar, brought to an end the first stage of what would be called La Causa (the Cause). In 86 days he had covered 14,867 miles and met with 2000 farm workers in the fields and in their houses. It had been a dry and dusty sample of almost every town in California’s Central Valley.
The next step was to hold a meeting and invite everyone he had talked with. Thus, in 1992, the National Farm Workers Association, a service cooperative for farm workers was formed in Fresno. Over 200 farm workers attended to approve a constitution that placed heavy emphasis on '...building a credit union, cooperative and other self-help projects.' Cesar believed that farm workers would rally around an organization which provided needed services and was not just a union. He always had a vision of self-help and community.
Cesar and his wife Helen chose to begin to organize in Tulare County and to set up services such as a death-benefit program, a credit union and a co-op. Helen worked at the co-op counter and would sell oil and tires to the members cheaper than anywhere in Delano.
In the final chapter of Levy's book. Chavez talked about the future. "After we've got contracts, we have to build more clinics and co-ops and we've got to solve the whole question of mechanization". Later in the chapter he added, "But political power is not enough. Although I've been at for some twenty years, all the time and money and effort haven't brought about any significant change whatsoever. Effective political power is never going to come, particularly to minority groups, unless they have economic power. And however poor they are, even the poor people have to organize economic power."
"Political power by itself, as we've tried to fathom it and to fashion it, is like having a car that doesn't have any motor in it. it’s like striking a match that goes out. Economic power is like having a generator to keep that bulb burning all the time. So we have to develop economic power to assure a continuation of political power."
"I'm not advocating black capitalism or brown capitalism. At the worst it gets a black to exploit other blacks, or a brown to exploit others. At the best it only helps the lives of a few. What I'm suggesting is a cooperative movement."
In the spring of 1992, Cesar was invited to Madrid to be honored for his work by the Spanish Government. While in Spain, he visited the successful Mondragon Cooperative system, which thrives in the once economically neglected Basque province. Begun in 1952 by a Catholic priest, the Mondragon co-ops today employ over 80,000 people in over 200 different cooperative enterprises which do about 20 billion dollars in annual sales. The Mondragon cooperatives are the largest business in the Basque Country and one of the stars of Spain's economy. Cesar had been interested in the Mondragon system because it paralleled his own thinking about how you raise the economic standards of poor people through organization and cooperative economic development. Prior to his visit he had spent some time with Don Villarejo, Director of Davis, California based Institute for Rural Studies, a long time activist in rural California. Villarejo asked Cesar what would be on his agenda when the union phase was complete.
Cesar replied. "Cooperatives." However, Cesar spoke to Villarejo not of cooperatives of farm workers continuing to do stoop labor. Cesar advocated cooperatives taking advantage of technology and machinery to raise their standard of living. Cooperatives like Mondragon where they are an integral part of community life. Cooperatives which focus on technical education to get their members the best opportunities. Cooperatives which highlight the culture and strengths of their people. Mondragon had become Cesar's model of how a cooperative society should develop its people.
My own long-term relationship with the United Farm Workers Union and Cesar Chavez began by fate the night Robert F. Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles in 1968. Days later, the key volunteers (I was on Kennedy’s security team) on the Kennedy campaign gathered to mourn together and consider the future. What could we do to further the aims of social justice that Kennedy had so fervently served during his life?
Eventually the choices came down to either working for a gun control initiative that was on the ballot or work for the UFW. We agreed that everyone should make his or her own choice as to what group to join. There I was a recent immigrant from England who knew no Spanish. I had been in California only three years and knew absolutely nothing about California agriculture.
That night I chose to commit myself as a volunteer to the UFW. It was a decision, which would change my life and my understanding of America. I felt that Kennedy would say without question help those who need the most in our nation. In my head was the picture of the humble farm worker leader, Cesar Chavez breaking his 25-day fast with Kennedy.
All through the spring of 1968, the farm workers had been in the news with their marches and demonstrations. On March 10. Chavez ended his long fast with Robert Kennedy and his family at his side. On March 24. Chavez announced the worldwide boycott of California grapes. In the land of sunshine, motion pictures and the good life there was also forming a picture of the poverty of those who worked in the fields to feed us.
I had served on the security team for Kennedy whenever he visited Los Angeles during the last weeks of hectic campaigning for the California primary. On that fatal night I was off because, the next day I had a series of college finals, which I needed to study for. That last weekend of campaigning had the security team spinning. The highlight being a massive campaign finale in Los Angeles with over 18,000 people screaming Kennedy's name.
A month later, away from the roaring crowds and the film stars I sat with the UFW organizers in West Los Angeles in an unfurnished, donated office. The influx of Kennedy organizers had boosted the capacity of the UFW. We began planning the first picket line in LA for the UFW grape boycott. Our first location was Gelson's Market, an upscale chain in Century City. From there the boycott grew, the volunteers increased and the picket lines spread to Safeway and other supermarket chains. I led the first picket line in LA at Gelson’s Century City for many months.
On August 14, 1968 I committed myself to not drinking alcohol until the strike was won. Grapes were made into wine; therefore it seemed a likely daily reminder to me of the lot of the farm worker. If I had known that the strike would not be called off until 20 years later I may not have been so daring. However. I did keep my commitment and to this day have never had another drink.
On Labor Day weekend, 1968 I was back on the security team for Cesar as he toured Los Angeles County to attend the numerous Labor Day picnics. This time it was a little different. Because the UFW was an organization committed to pacifism we all went through specialized training. Our job was not to harm anyone who wanted to harm Cesar but to hold them so they could not act. I used to call it the art of providing submission hugs. On my part my size and humor helped. From then on I was often asked to serve on Cesar’s security team.
For about five years I spent most weekends and many evenings on the picket lines and at rallies on the security team. At the time, I was also becoming active in the food cooperative movement. Thankfully, the Santa Monica Co-op of which I was a board member was the only market in the entire Los Angeles region, which promoted UFW products. I used to love asking the people at the West Los Angeles Safeway to go down Barrington Avenue to shop at the Co-op. In fact, the co-op used to sell crafts made by Dora Keysor and other members and give the proceeds to the UFW. Later, it was the food co-ops in the USA. Canada. Britain and Sweden that were the only supermarket chains to inform their members about the grape boycott and then the Gallo wine boycott.
In 1979, came the great Peace March in San Francisco. As Vice President of the Los Angeles Coalition of Student Governments of Junior Colleges I was heavily involved in organizing the junior college contingent. We eventually signed up over 400 people to join the march. We hired 11 school buses to get us to San Francisco. It occurred to me that we could do a little education on the way. Here we had over 400 city folks who were also activists. Why not stop in Delano at the UFW HQ for an educational dinner on the way. I called Cesar with the idea. Of course he loved it. Cesar agreed to welcome us and organize a program of education about the UFW partnered with a concert of solidarity music. We scheduled our arrival at “Forty Acres”, the UFW’s Delano HQ for 7pm on Friday and agreed that everyone should pay for the cost of the dinner and make a donation to the UFW.
That Friday in LA, there were rallies on each of the campuses and then a joint rally at 2pm at the Federal building in West Los Angeles. At one point there were over a thousand people holding hands in a circle around the Federal Building. The speeches were great and the spirits high. However, unbeknownst to us our travel plans were being undermined. At 3pm the buses were a no-show. Someone had politically pressured the school bus company into canceling the contract. We did not know until we called that there were no buses heading our way. Fortunately. John Pratt one of our top advisors and a skilled civil rights lawyer was with us at the Federal Building. After four hours of negotiation from a pay phone inside the Federal Building, a judge ruled that the bus company had to uphold the contract.
In the meantime, there were 400 of us getting lonelier and colder by the minute outside the Federal Building. Dusk came, and one by one the office lights were turned out. Finally, at 9pm, a line of yellow buses streamed into the parking lot. A tired drained group of activists boarded silently. However, the arrival of the buses momentarily raised our spirits and the busses started off with a rowdy sing along. We were in strong voice as we moved onto the freeway for our long slow journey north. A few hours later, the long day, the hard seats, no bus heating and the 45-mph drone of the school buses took its toll. By the time we began our descent down the Grapevine into the Central Valley, almost everyone had fallen asleep exhausted.
During the long wait at the West Los Angeles Federal Building. I had maintained hourly contact with the UFW in Delano, letting them know that we would not be there at 7pm or at midnight. Finally. I told them, the buses are here, we'll probably see you at 1pm. Was it still okay.” Yes", came the answer. Was it too much trouble? "No", was the reply. However, Cesar would not now be able to greet you; he has to leave later this evening for another event."
At 2pm. eleven school buses meandered through a quiet sleeping Delano in search of the UFW Hall. We arrived, but the gates to “Forty Acres” were locked, there were no lights on and it looked like everyone had gone home. On the bus, everyone was tired and unhappy and for all our extensive discomfort the war had not ended. This whole idea which started out as a great experience felt like a failure for most concerned.
Suddenly, a light inside the hall turned on, people began to emerge from the shadows, more lights got turned on, and the doors were opened. Out poured a group of about fifty people singing "De Colores", one of the UFW anthems. One by one the students got off the buses, to be greeted by the applauding farm workers. One by one people joined in the rhythmic clapping until the huge crowd of about 500 people was swept inside the hall. A moment before, the two groups were sleeping. Now they filled the hall with song and enthusiasm. There were speeches, songs and solidarity. There were also sandwiches and sodas for a very hungry group. One of the UFW leaders leapt up onto one of the dining tables and gave an inspiring speech. I think it was Gilbert Padilla, a vice president of the UFW. The students responded by pounding on the floor with their feet and the tables with their hands. The speech ended in an awe-inspiring crescendo and the rhythmic beat of hands, feet and voices.
The hearts and minds of the urban peace activists and the farm worker were joined together that night in a common yearning for peace and justice. "Don't forget us and our cause", the UFW workers said as we filed back onto the buses. "We won't", we said. Years later, people who went on those busses still tell me the greatest moment of the San Francisco Peace March was actually their stop in Delano.
Another memory of the UFW was the statewide campaign on Proposition 14 in 1976. The proposition was critical for the UFW because it would provide for an independently funded mechanism to regulate union elections in agriculture. During this campaign I helped institute the first freeway human billboards and spent every morning and evening rush hour perched with our placards at freeway on ramps.
At that time, the old Santa Monica Co-op had closed the store and four of us had started Coopportunity a new co-op nearby. I was able to get the existing Santa Monica Co-op board to agree to let the UFW use the empty supermarket for free for their Los Angeles headquarters while the store was still up for sale. It was both a sad and a proud moment to go into the empty Co-op supermarket. It was sad that the Co-op had closed after 40 years. At the end of that campaign, the UFW statewide staff gave me the "Best Volunteer" award. Although the union lost the election it was not in vain. Prior to Election Day, the growers accepted a legislative compromise, which brought many benefits to the UFW.
In the mid 70's I was asked by Cesar to help a small group of farm workers near Dinuba organize a food co-op. I drove up from LA and met with them in a deserted market at a crossroads where there seemed to be no traffic. Their leader. Hinijio Rangel was a wise and resourceful fellow and a great organizer. "What do we need to turn this into a store?" he said. "Equipment, inventory and customers." I replied. "How much do we need for equipment and inventory" he asked. "At a minimum. $20.000". I replied. "By the way, how much money do you have"? I asked. "Nothing, but we have Cesar and the Union." "Will they invest money"? “No. but they will help us.”
I suggested that they call Cesar and get him to ask some Hollywood types to do a big fund-raiser concert in LA. They didn't want to do that; it would be a lot of work and no guarantee of money. They said they'd rather do a Mariachi concert in the field behind the store. Their enthusiasm was contagious but not convincing enough for me. I drove back to LA, shaking my head for almost two hundred miles.
I called weekly to Hinijio to find out how they were doing. Each week the news from them got better. “We're doing great. Cesar is telling everyone to come and he is coming, we now have ten Mariachi bands booked. We have posters up all over the valley, lots of people are coming."
"How much are you going to charge for people to attend the concert?" "Nothing." “Nothing”. I repeated in dismay. “We'll sell the beer and food and ask for donations”, said Hinijio. How are you going to buy all of that.”?”We're not going to buy anything we're going to ask stores and distributors to give us everything we need. "How much will you raise?"
"David”, said Hinijio, stop worrying and get here soon." I turned up two days before the event. The once empty store was now stacked to the roof with everything they had asked for, all that they needed and all for free. There were hundreds of volunteers, and many barbecue grills set up all over the dirt parking lot.
The Saturday arrived and with it about 5,000 farm workers and their families. The Mariachi bands played non stop from 9am to 2am. Cesar arrived in the back of a truck about 2pm amidst a crowd of honking pick-ups jammed full of people and swirling red and black UFW banners. He spoke about the need for people to support the co-op and about economic democracy being a foundation for social justice. As always he was there to listen to the needs of his people. He spent hour after hour listening until I'm sure he'd heard from all 5,000 people and only then did he go home.
By 3am, everyone had gone, a full moon lit up the deserted parking lot and the field beyond. Once again, the store was completely empty and the crossroads deserted. There was an eerie “Field of Dreams" feel to the whole thing. Hinijio, the co-op founders and I sat in a circle of old car seats in the small office and talked about the glorious day.
Hinijio like a good organizer asked that we go round the room and everyone had to tell a story about their best part of the day. I of course had to admit to being a Doubting Thomas who needed to apologize. My admission met with a hearty round of laughter and ribbing. We were dead tired but not yet ready to sleep. After all we had witnessed a miracle of belief. Someone suggested we should get a few hours sleep because there was a lot of cleaning up to do tomorrow. As everyone else left the office. Roberto, the young store manager asked me to stay behind in the office.
He closed the office door behind him and turned around with a gun in his hand. I stood there frozen. Suddenly he smiled, was I thankful. "Here hold this." he said as he put a loaded revolver in my hand". "And keep this in the other hand", he suggested, as he handed me a big brown paper shopping bag stapled closed at the top," Roberto, I said. "What's going on?"
Well", he said, " We're all UFW members and sworn to practice non-violence. None of us can use a gun to protect the money we collected today. You're no longer a UFW staff member and therefore you can use the gun. Everyone in the area is going to know that we have a lot of money from today and it might be tempting for someone who knows we're non -violent to come here and take the money. You're our only hope to protect the co-op's money."
"Roberto, how much is in this bag". The door opened and Hinijio came back into the room. "What you told us we needed". he said with the brightest beam of a smile I'd ever seen on his sun etched face. "Compadre, today we raised $23.000 to start our co-op. isn’t that what you said we needed, we did it." Hinijio gave me a great hug and one hell of a wink.
The co-op organizers made a wise choice. With a loaded revolver in one hand and $23.000 in dollar bills in the other I never slept. On the other hand, the co-op board and supporters slept well and dreamt of their co-op. It truly was a “field of dreams”.
The group did open their co-op. it prospered for a number of years but like so many co-ops it lacked a good manager, access to joint purchasing and contacts with other food co-op managers and leaders. They called me many times for advice and I visited them a number of times. However, about five years later the co-op quietly closed.
In the 1980’s, I met with Cesar. to ask him about his interest in cooperatives. He told me it had been a long time dream of his. During the 1950's he and his wife Helen had organized co-ops and credit unions in Tulare County while working for CSO (Community Service Organization). He had read everything he could about cooperatives and supported them whenever asked.
In the 1980's, the Union supported the development of four new farm worker cooperatives in the Salinas Valley. The leaders of the cooperatives all came out of the UFW organization. They too wanted to go beyond working for nothing to being their own boss. Although none of the co-ops survived for longer than five years they did prove that they knew how to farm effectively. As Regional Director of the Co-op Bank at the time our office was able to make key loans to three of the co-ops. We did our best to ensure their success and most of the loans were repaid. However, their key problems were too little capital, the sizable cost of startup and the limitations of creating a new organization to do cooperative farming. It was clear from what Cesar said and did that economic self-help was the next step for the members of the union. However, organizing them into a union had to come first. Without organizing their labor there would be nothing.
My last lengthy visit with Cesar was in 1985. I had been doing a lot of work with affinity marketing and socially responsible investing. I had been associated with the founding of Working Assets and sat on their initial advisory board. I thought I might plug the UFW into some of the programs being developed by other organizations around the US.
I drove down with Luke Watkins (my business partner in Neighborhood Partners, LLC, who works with me on nonprofit and cooperative housing developments in Davis) to La Paz, near Bakersfield where the UFW had its central compound. We spent almost the entire day with Cesar discussing credit unions, co-ops, farm worker housing co-ops and alliances with other progressive organizations. We met with the senior staff members and shared names, ideas and potential projects. As always, Cesar’s thoughtfulness and vision struck me. He'd been to scores of elementary schools but never completed high school. On the other hand. he had a mastery of economics and business that would have made him a candidate for running a Fortune 500 company.
Cesar Chavez always had his eye on the future. He talked about how he hoped to get farm workers into cooperative enterprises. The next step was to organize worker cooperatives in those agriculture crops that were much more hi-tech. He would bring the Mondragon idea to America and infuse farmworkers with the unity of a community of cooperative enterprises that was flourishing in the Basque Country of Spain. That next stage was not however to be. Cesar was taken from us in the midst of his thinking. His important journey came to a premature end.
Cesar was a man surrounded by controversy who always seemed directed by an inner peace. He appeared shy yet he had the charisma to keep people going against all odds. It occurred to me that a man who lived like a saint, led a social movement and was an administrator of a labor union would not be perfect. Cesar had his failings and they had their consequences. In turn, the UFW has had its share of ups and downs.
The measure of this man is in how he lived his life and whom he lived it for. He cared for his people, those in poverty who worked daily in the fields of plenty to feed us. He gave his life to the cause of social and economic justice. He dreamed of a better life for farm workers and their families and would not rest. He always hoped that the next positive step for farmworkers would be through credit unions and cooperatives. He aspired that people would be able to work together as families, as union members and as neighborhoods and communities. He urged them to pool their resources to increase their standards of living. He never thought of his people as poor only as people poorly organized. The job of organizer was the job Cesar gave himself. He will always be remembered because he gave millions of people pride and hope.
Each day. for a number of years I was reminded of that thirty-year history as our daughter Hatley Rose attended Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Davis. California. It is a Spanish Immersion magnet school that is preparing Californians to speak. read and write in Spanish so they can participate in and contribute to California’s multi-lingual diversity. Almost every school day I passed a wonderful mural depicting Cesar sitting under a tree reading to the children. With a smile. I nodded to Cesar as I passed him. I feel honored that Cesar’s legacy impacted my daughter as he impacted me. “Si se puede.” Yes we can.
David J. Thompson has been active in the cooperative movement in the USA since the late 60’s. He is President of the Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation. He is author of “Weavers of Dreams: The Making of the Modern Cooperative Movement.” and over 300 articles about cooperatives and community development. Along with his business partner, Luke Watkins,they developed Cesar Chavez Plaza, a 53 unit affordable housing community in Davis, California which opened for occupancy in fall of 2007.