The Undefeated Leader of the Migrant Farm Workers

Cesar Chavez — In His Own Words

In 1973 the International Brotherhood of Teamsters invaded the agricultural valleys of California. Their mission was to help the grape and lettuce growers crush Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers.

They had political support (Nixon let Jimmy Hoffa out of jail). They had money to buy high-powered public relations men (stories appeared questioning the ability of Cesar Chavez and his fellow workers — those gutsy, ignorant, well-meaning little guys — to run their own union). And, of course, the growers were eager to throw out the UFW and welcome the Teamsters as saviors. Needless to say, the Teamsters had the usual advance phalanx of thugs breaking heads right in front of the admiring eyes of the cops.

By the fall of 1974 the Teamster invasion had stripped the UFW to eight thousand members, and only seven of their contracts were still in force. The little guys were nearly wiped out. But not quite.

Chavez and his people beefed up their picket lines along the country roads. In seventy-five cities in North America and Europe the boycott of grapes, head lettuce, and Gallo wines was intensified. According to UFW figures, the growers had been forced to put 40 percent of the grape crop into cold storage as compared to an average of 9 percent in the years when they held UFW contracts. Galloan early Teamster convert-reported wine sales down by as much as 13 percent.

Why should we believe the UFW and their statistics? Easy. Chavez has never lied to us. The worst crime Chavez ever committed was criminal trespass — he set foot on the sacred soil of a grower. But look at the proud record of the Teamsters. Two of their presidents have served jail sentences: Dave Beck for his casual treatment of union funds, and Jimmy Hoffa for jury-tampering. Who would you believe?

Cracks are already beginning to appear in the solid front the Teamsters claim they have constructed. Their first local, chartered in Salinas, California, is reported to be in chaos. The man charged with administering it, Cono Macias, says the Teamsters are trying to disband it. This dissolution is apparently the first step in a plan for the Teamsters’ locals to assimilate the Mexican-Americans, nullifying their power and removing them as a threat to the growers. The Teamsters deny everything.

In Cesar Chavez, the UFW has one of the great organizers in the history of the American labor movement. He is one of the few uncorrupted heroes we have left.

After almost twenty years of union organizing in California, Chavez attracted national and international attention in 1965 when the UFW grape strike began. For eight years thereafter, he waged strikes and led the first nationwide boycotts. He went on four protest fasts, one lasting twenty-five days. In the end he won more than 300 contracts from the corporate monsters and feudal-throwbacks who dominate our food supply. He did it once. He is confident he can do it again.

Cesar Estrada Chavez was born on March 31, 1927, on a small farm near Yuma, Arizona, which had been purchased by his Mexican paternal grandfather in 1889. In 1937 the farm was lost because of taxes. Ten-year-old Cesar hit the road, doomed to the life of a migrant laborer. He attended more than thirty school, managing to finish the seventh grade.

He served for two years in the navy, seeing active duty on a destroyer in the Pacific during the closing months of World War II in 1947 he married Helen Fabela whose father had been a colonel under Pancho Villa. They have eight children, four of whom live at home in a modest two-bedroom house in Delano. His parents, now in their eighties, still live in San Jose in the Chicano ghetto called Sal Si Puedes (Get Out … If You Can).

Chavez is five feet, six inches tall and weighs a lean 140, having lost 30 pounds during his fasts. He wears his black hair neatly parted far over on the left. He has the dark, steady eyes and the curving nose of his Indian forebears. He wears plain work trousers and a plaid shirt — the uniform of those who work for La Causa.

Chavez’s following has been described by journalist Rick Beban as “more than a union, more than a social movement; at times … a religion of its own.” These people eat beans. They sleep three, five, or even eight to a room, when they must. They ride to work, or to the picket lines, in cars and trucks which look as if they have been handed down by those legendary migrants, the dust-bowl Okies of the thirties. They do not give up.

Wittingly or unwittingly, some of the liberal press are helping the Teamsters in their efforts to seal Cesar’s tomb. On September 15, 1974, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Winthrop Griffith, who is a free-lance writer based in northern California. Griffith acknowledges that the Teamsters have been playing rough, but he leaves you with the impression that it’s all more or less God’s will.

He writes, “The ascendancy of the Teamsters over the UFW indicates that maybe the passionate visionary, who was once victorious, must inevitably give way to the cool technicians of an entrenched organization.”

Cesar may be a saint to the New York Times, but it’s almost as if they resent his letting the Teamsters move in. Now they have to go back to reporting the same story which they thought had ended. So the Times heaves a liberal sigh and murmurs a few kind words over the body before moving on to fresher copy. It hurts their heads and bores them silly to keep writing about good guys who are slow to get computerized and who can’t even learn how to put in the fix, for Christ’s sake. If only the UFW would stop acting human and become “an entrenched organization” with “cool technicians.” Well, what can you expect from a bunch of peons?

And that is how big media, big business, big labor, and big government batter and defeat the little man who has a just cause. People rally to the underdog but the big guys figure that if they are patient, if they spend enough, if they keep hammering long enough, maybe the underdog’s supporters will quit. The lawyers may stop contributing free legal services. Housewives may abandon the boycott lines and even buy the lettuce, grapes, and wine.

Eventually, maybe even the New York Times will come up with a piece which asks, “Is Chavez Beaten?” and then spend several thousand words assuring us that sadly enough, he’s through and though we can’t help, everything might work out for the best.

(The Times did come back with a more accurate story. On February 8, 1975, they printed a short report by Ronald B. Taylor, an author who has specialized in the farm-labor story. But it could hardly balance the heavily weighted piece in the Sunday Magazine.)

Though pronounced dead by the Teamsters and their friends, the UFW corpse has proven very lively. Last March, after a seven-day, 110-mile long march from San Francisco, more than 15,000 people showed up at Gallo wine headquarters in Modesto to challenge Gal lo to hold the free elections the company has constantly avoided.

Then, the week of May 4 was named National Farm Workers Week, not only here but in Canada and Western Europe. On the agenda were special church services in major cities, the premiere of a new documentary on the farm workers, and concerts (including one from Madison Square Garden) featuring major stars of the entertainment world.

It is a travesty to view Chavez as merely a brave man who organized a union for poor people. He is a continuing inspiration to common people everywhere who are being ripped off — physically poisoned and spiritually raped — by mindless corporations and out-of-control unions, unresponsive to the needs of humanity.

Chavez is not a minority leader. He is a majority organizer. His boycott is a way of rallying the consumer — victims against the plunderers of the earth and giving them a new incentive to fight for their lives and the lives of their children.

This interview was conducted by the author, a Penthouse contributing editor, in New York City and was followed up with several brief conversations with both Cesar Chavez and his brother and co-worker, Richard. — Richard Ballad.

You have endured physical deprivation, insults, persecution, beatings, jailings. What are your personal feelings about all that has happened to you?

Chavez: I don’t like to talk about what has happened to me. I am merely typical. So many others have endured so much more. That’s why when I have been in jail we have had no “Free Chavez” campaigns. It’s the union that counts. Concentrating on getting one man out of jail, that’s what they’d like us to do. Then they could say, “You see, Chavez is worrying about himself.”

But you must have some personal emotions about all this?

Chavez: Yes, of course I have personal emotions. I feel for all who are suffering and I feel for the ones who suffered in the past. The older ones. My father. I remember the signs, No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed. You think you ever forget that?

I remember one time when I was a little boy my father stopped our car at a broken-down cafe. It was such a beat-up place he hoped they would forget they hated us and be happy to get some business. But when my father said, “Please, could I get a jar of coffee?” they said, “No. Get out! We don’t serve any dirty Mexicans here.”

Okay. That’s the past. Gone. But I can’t forget. It still hurts. It still hurts when I hear the word greaser. Not the kids. It doesn’t bother them. They can laugh at it. But I can’t. Well, maybe sometimes when the person saying it or the situation is just ridiculous. But I can’t really laugh.

What about the events since you started the union? What are your emotions about your whole struggle?

Chavez: Well, I remember people who have been hurt. Like a man named Hector Abeyia. He had an artificial leg and a grower beat him up. We had to go through a lot and call on state authorities before anybody would arrest the grower. After they did, he got a ten-dollar fine. I guess that was a victory.

I remember a girl named Magdalene who was working in the fields and who breathed insecticide and fell down unconscious. Later she got headaches, and nose bleeds, and her lungs hurt, but she could still smile and continue to work for the cause.

And there was a man named Chapa whose little boy fell between the rows. Nobody saw him lying there. The digging machine came along and killed the child. And ·a couple of years later his little girl drowned in an irrigation canal. California has child-labor laws — but the little kids come in the fields with their parents and there is no law against that. When the family is scrimping and trying to make a living on piece work, the temptation is to let the kids help fill the boxes. And who enforces child-labor laws, anyway?

In August 1966, in San Diego County, you, two clergymen, and several workers were arrested, abused, chained, and stripped of your clothes. If you won’t talk about what happened to you, tell us what happened to your comrades who shared that experience?

Chavez: [Laughs.] I guess you figured out a way to get around it. Well, it happened at the Borrego Springs ranch. It was owned by the Di Giorgios. I was with the Reverend Chris Hatmire, who headed the California Migrant Ministry, and Father Salandini, a Roman Catholic priest. We had persuaded the people to strike, and we’d gone back to the ranch with them to get some belongings. The company guards grabbed us and made us get in a closed truck. It was 115 degrees outside and it was about three in the afternoon. They kept us in there for about four hours. Then they took us to a sheriff’s station where the officers stripped us naked and gave us the most intensive body search I’ve ever experienced. Then they chained us together, hands and feet. They were trying to degrade us, to humiliate us.

We came to trialln this little town — I think it was Ramona — and the judge said we were three of the most dangerous criminals he’d ever seen. As bad as things were, I had to smile at that. He gave us a two-year probation. A week later we met with Governor Pat Brown. He said, “My God. They didn’t use chains? I can’t believe they did that in the state of California.” Well, they did.

Let’s talk about the current battle with the Teamsters. How do they get the workers?

Chavez: Well, it’s just plain and simple intimidation. They tell the workers, “If you don’t pay dues to the Teamsters you won’t be able to work anywhere else, because even though we may not control other jobs, we control all transportation. Without wheels we can force this country to come to a stand-still” — the Teamsters are supposedly the richest union in the world — “we can buy anything and anybody. If you join the United Farm Workers, you’ll be blackballed.”

You see, if you know the labor-contractor system — and it’s a rotten system-you know that these men are experts at threatening people. The labor-contractor is the lickspittle of the bosses. He does the dirty work and gets his cut. He is supposed to hire the people, keep them in line, see that they keep working no matter what. That’s what the labor-contractor does. And that’s the system the Teamsters endorse.

Give me an example of an unfair election.

Chavez: Well, there was only one election and that was a fraud. It was on the Larson ranch in the Coachella Valley. Our contract was about to run out. We were getting ready to renegotiate it with Mrs. Larson. She met with us and the priest who had been agreed on by both sides to supervise the negotiations.

Okay. So we told her right then that the workers’ committee was ready and willing to consider her suggestions and objections. Well, she’d been acting very nervous — at that point she began to cry. She said, “Cesar, something very awful happened to your union this morning.” I thought she was referring to an accident or something. I didn’t know what to think. Then, with tears running down her face she said, “We had an election this morning and your union lost sixty-two to twenty-eight. But don’t blame me.”

I was stunned. There we were, negotiating in good faith. So I said, “What election? We weren’t told there was going to be an election. We still have a valid contract with you for another month. We still represent those workers. What have you done?”

She was so choked up she couldn’t speak. She just looked at me, still crying, and then she jumped up and darted off.

Her husband had used her to stall you?

Chavez: I don’t know. We do know he didn’t have the guts to face us. Then we found out what had happened. They had fired our top men on the ranch two days before. Then they sent their contractors into the fields to tell the workers if they voted for the UFW they’d be fired.

They told the workers if they voted for no union, they’d get a health-and-welfare program bigger than what the UFW could offer. That their wages would be increased and they’d save money by not paying dues. They scared hell out of them. None of our people were there to give our side of it. So they voted for no union. Then, two days later, the Larsons brought in the Teamsters — straight, lousy union-busting.

And there is no way for you to get a fair election under any existing state or federal laws?

Chavez: Right. We’re not covered by the National Labor Relations Act and there is no state agency to supervise elections. The union and the growers have to agree on some third party to supervise the balloting.

And, of course, if our field-leaders are fired before the election there is no place we can go for help. That’s one of the ways the Teamsters and growers try to break us. That’s why the strike and boycott are our best weapons. That, and the courts. But our real allies are the people, the consumers.

The growers and Teamsters are afraid of that, I can tell you. When I went to New York to organize the boycott, I received fifteen telephone threats.

What about the Chicanos who work as Teamster organizers?

Chavez: I can tell you that none of them, or very few of them, are farm workers. Some are ex-policemen. At least two or three are former labor-contractors or supervisors from other ranches. A lot of them are young men who were recruited in the cities. Of course, they are all paid very good wages.

Are the Teamsters still employing goons?

Chavez: Not as much lately. But if the boycott really becomes unbearable, you can be sure they’ll hit the ranch picket lines. I doubt they’ll risk using goons on picket lines in the big cities. The whole world would be watching that.

What about the illegals, the Mexicans who have sneaked across the border to work?

Chavez: The big reason we have a boycott is because of the uncontrolled number of illegals being brought in to break our strike. In May 1974 we took 300 men out of the strawberry fields in Watsonville, California. Less than twenty-four hours later the grower had 400 illegals in there. They’d been smuggled across the border.

I wonder if smuggled is the right word. Smuggled means fooling the authorities. How can you bring 400 illegals in so fast, transporting them several hundred miles? We called the U.S. Immigration Service and gave them specific facts — how many illegals were involved, where they crossed, and who brought them in. You know what they said? “No, sorry, we can’t come to check on it. We don’t have the manpower.”

But yet the illegals live in fear of deportation.

Chavez: Sure, that’s the way the Teamsters control them. If they don’t do what they’re told, they’ll be deported. That’s what they tell them. That’s the way you control the poor and the people without property.

We had a real fight with the immigration authorities back in 1968. I think all my frustrations against them really came out. I call them the Gestapo of the Southwest. And when I say that, I am really expressing feelings which go back many, many years.

You see, my mother and dad were immigrants. Although they had been here since around the turn of the century, my mother was always deathly afraid of the Immigration Service. When she came here there was no such thing as an immigration visa. You just paid a penny to cross the bridge from Mexico and that was it. Every time we went through those immigration check-stands on various roads, you had to have the proper papers. My dad didn’t have any immigration papers either. But he did have a letter from a friend, a superior court judge in Yuma. That letter became his passport. He used to show it, the immigration people would look at it, think awhile, and then they’d say, “Okay.”

My mother, to this very day, is frightened that they’ll come to her house some night and make her go back across the border. And she’s eighty-four.

You mention immigration check-stands. Are these still in operation?

Chavez: Not since we went on strike. That’s interesting, isn’t it? They don’t want to catch them now. So we’ve set up our own check-points, at least in Arizona.

But, that’s an example of how a bad administration can really frustrate your efforts. If we’d had a good administration, a good president instead of Richard Nixon, this wouldn’t be happening now.

Is President Ford making any difference in your struggle?

Chavez: No. He met with Mexican President Echeverria and from what I can see it looks like they’re going to try to reintroduce the old bracero program, legalizing the illegals. You’ve got a nice circle here. The oil companies who own so many of the big ranches … Tenneco, for example, which owns land equal to the size of the state of Rhode lsI1nd, and Superior and Getty and Southern Pacific their friends … these are the people who will be pressuring the government to make concessions to Mexico to permit illegals to come in. They get thousands and thousands of Mexican slaves to work on their ranches, and they would get a crack at developing that new Mexican oil.

They win two ways. Wouldn’t that be just beautiful for them? But, of course, if they try it the AFLCIO is going to fight it very hard because the illegals would be moving into lots of different jobs — not just into farm work. With the unemployment we’ve got now that would mean real trouble.

What about the courts, and the judges. How do they treat you?

Chavez: On the lower levels, in heavily agricultural counties, strange things happen. For example, Superior Court Judge Frederick Jacobus, of Tulane County. He was the former attorney for the Agricultural Workers Right-to-Work Committee. Whenever you hear about somebody demanding the workers’ “right to work” you can bet he’s not a worker. Anyway, he was an attorney for this progrowers’ organization. Then he becomes a judge and he turns around and rules on cases involving agricultural-labor disputes. Clearly, he should have disqualified himself.

There are several like him. Judge E. J. Leach, of Monterey County, is another example. He’s also a superior court judge. He represented the growers as an attorney in 1970 in getting injunctions against us, which the California Supreme Court later threw out. Then, when he became a judge, he, too, began ruling against us when he should have disqualified himself.

What about the people in state government? What about former Governor Ronald Reagan?

Chavez: His attitude was bad. He made an awful lot of public utterances against us. He was one of two very high public officials who posed for the cameras, eating grapes, while we were striking and boycotting grapes. The other man who didn’t like us was President Nixon. He posed eating grapes in 1968.

Reagan, as you know, is extremely reactionary. He viewed our movement as something very detrimental to society. Under his administration no California state agency ever contacted us for anything except to harass us. There was no cooperation. So far as they were concerned we didn’t exist. Both the state and federal administrations have been totally against us — the growers, the Teamsters — all against us. But that’s going to change. Under the new governor, Jerry Brown, I think we’ll have improvements.

Do you think President Nixon personally ordered the army to buy up large quantities of grapes to help break your boycott back in the sixties?

Chavez: I don’t know that he personally ordered it — but it was done. We found out about that because my nephew was in Vietnam at the time. There were a lot of our kids in Vietnam in those days. Well, the first time a big load of grapes arrived at his base the sergeant came out and said, “Boys, we’ve got a lot of grapes here. Eat all you want.” Now that was unusual. ln the service you can never get all you want of fresh fruits and vegetables. So my nephew wrote home and said, “There’s something wrong over here.” We investigated and found that the Pentagon was buying grapes like crazy. Their purchase of grapes had increased 800 percent! They were literally dumping those grapes in Vietnam, at taxpayers’ expense, just to break us.

Let’s get back to your basic quarrel with the growers and Teamsters. Your union did away with the labor-contractor. You substituted the hiring-hall system, where workers check in and are dispatched to jobs according to seniority. I talked with some growers and some workers and they said your hiring halls favored longtime union people — your friends — and discriminated against others. They also said you broke up families who wanted to work as a unit. What about those accusations?

Richard Chavez: I can answer that. I was in charge of the hiring halls during the life of the contracts. I was a field-office administrator. If we were ever guilty of splitting up families, it was only because we made the kids who were twelve or fourteen go to school. Now the Teamsters don’t care how many children they put into the fields. Here’s a leaflet they put out in 1973. It talks about working permits and it says a minor can be employed in farm labor if he is twelve or older. But if he is under sixteen he can’t work more than eight hours a day or more than forty-eight hours a week. Now that’s bullshit because once he’s working they don’t give a damn how long they work him. And listen to this: “ … work must be performed between the hours of 5 AM and 10 PM unless the minor is under fifteen in which case work must be performed between the hours of 7 AM and 7 PM.” [Laughs.] Do you think the Teamsters care, or the growers care, how long these kids work, or how late or how early, once they’ve got them out there? Do you think they walk up and down the rows saying, “It’s 7 PM now, so everybody under fifteen has to stop Working”? The hell they do. They’ll let them work until they drop.

So they now have the Teamsters, and the hiring hall has been abolished. They’re back to using the labor-contractors.

Richard Chavez: Right.

But the fact remains that there are some workers who aren’t illegals, and who speak out against you, and who have joined the Teamsters willingly. How do you account for their opposition?

Cesar Chavez: Look, you see, this group which makes all the charges against us are the same people who scabbed against us in 1967. That’s when we were striking and boycotting the first time around.

They were hard-core scabs. But when we won the contracts, we didn’t punish them. We said, “Look. Everybody is forgiven. Let bygones be bygones. We’re all brothers.” We thought we could convert them into good union members, but they just kept on fighting us. These are the ones who are out there now screaming about the hiring hall.

What about the seniority system. Is it fair?

Chavez: Sure it is. If you worked on a ranch for years you deserve priority over people who haven’t worked as long. Yet these former scabs would come out and demand jobs ahead of people with greater seniority. They tried to disrupt the whole thing. They say we blackball and show favoritism. It’s just not true. Ninety-eight percent of the people want the hiring hall. At the hiring hall it doesn’t matter if you’re young, old, black, white, male, female — you are hired according to ranch seniority. Not union seniority. It’s how long you’ve worked, not how long you’ve been in the union.

Father Richard Humphrys is a Catholic priest who was used by the Larson ranch to oversee the election which you have previously said was unfair. In defending the growers he says “heavy penalties” are imposed if the growers don’t provide such amenities as drinking water and toilet facilities.

Chavez: Father Humphrys doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Let’s take just one example. The contractor makes money off the workers by taking soda and beer into the fields and selling it to them. When the workers ask, “Where’s the water?” they’re told, “Oh, it’s coming. It’ll be here later. It’s coming.” And then it never comes. Or it comes very late and everybody is thirsty from bending and straightening and bending and straightening in the valley sun. Pretty soon, your tongue’s hanging out. So you buy his beer or soda even if you can’t afford it. There are a lot of rackets like that. These state laws providing “heavy penalties” have been on the books since 1946. They are there only to make the legislators feel good and to ease their conscience. Actually they are worthless because they are simply not enforced. County and local authorities aren’t going to penalize the growers. They are growers themselves, or related to growers, or business associates, or dependent on them in some way.

In a position paper defending the growers Father Humphrys claims there were no farm-worker deaths from pesticides in California in 1973 and “only ten deaths” in the past eleven years.

Chavez: Only ten deaths! Well, the Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor reported that, in 1972, more than 75,000 farm workers suffered acute poisonings as the direct result of the use of pesticides. In addition, up to twelve hundred fatalities are believed to have resulted from agricultural pesticides. What more can I say?

But Father Humphrys also wrote that less than 3 percent of California’s commercial farms are corporation-owned.

Chavez: That’s a tricky statistic. That’s the percentage of farms. But what counts is the total acreage and who controls it. Actually, one half of 1 percent of all U.S. farms control 25 percent of our farmlands. In California, 1 percent of the farms owns 40 percent of the cropland. And those are 1970 figures. It’s probably worse by now.

You see, they’re not just hurting the farm workers or the migratory laborers. They are destroying the small farmers and even the small towns. Eating them up alive. Small farms have shut down at the rate of more than two thousand a week during the twenty years between 1950 and 1970! Look it up. We had 5,400,000 farms in 1950. By 1970 that had dwindled to 2,900,000. Just think of that.

Time and again I have read, in small California newspapers, that your people have blocked legislation that would have helped farm workers. Here’s a story from the Redwood City Tribune, raking you over for stopping the Corry-Wood bill.

Chavez: Of course we fought it. It was a bad bill. Look at some of the provisions. In order to vote you had to work 120 out of the previous 180 days or fourteen out of the last thirty days. Well, that would have eliminated the migrants. And it also would have prohibited the possibility of strikes at harvesttime.

Jerry Cohen, our general counsel, spent all last summer in Sacramento fighting for another bill, a good bill. We wanted the elections held at a time when the majority of workers wouId be present to vote. The Teamsters and growers have always wanted the vote in the dead season, when a few Anglos on tractors could control the destinies of thousands of workers who wouldn’t be there to cast their ballots.

Our bill provided for peak-season elections to be held within a seven-day period. The migrants could then vote and move on. Also, the bill provided penalties for discrimination. And it remained silent on the issue of the boycott.

The Teamsters and the growers lobbied against it, naturally. Despite that, despite all their money and influence and contacts, we got it out of the state assembly. They killed it in the state senate which is a bit more conservative. But we’re making progress. You can’t keep the truth buried. An arm or a leg always sticks out.

You’re waging three or four separate legal battles right now. How do you get the money to keep appealing to higher courts?

Chavez: We get lawyers who don’t charge anything. It’s amazing. That’s what I mean when I say that the power of the truth is so tremendous. People get upset — good people — and they come to help us. The media has helped us. We have told the truth … they have reported what we have said and what they have seen.

Being realistic, the Teamsters have about 90 percent of the contracts and they run until 1977. How are you going to force them to hold new elections before that time?

Chavez: By using the strike and the boycott we can make things very hard on the growers. When things get hard enough, they will have to get the Teamsters out and hold new elections.

How can they tell the Teamsters to get out? They were elected, weren’t they?

Chavez: We have reason to believe that the growers have a deal with them. If the Teamsters can’t maintain order and hold the allegiance of the workers — in other words if our strike and boycott really begin to hurt — then the Teamsters will pull out when the growers tell them to go.

What are you doing to try to win the workers back?

Chavez: First of all, when we start concentrating on a group of workers we know that in their hearts they realize we are right. We know this because every time we win a strike we ask the former strikebreakers to join our union. And we always question them very closely so that we can learn their psychology and how to deal with it in the future. Virtually 99 percent of them tell us, “Look. We knew you were right. But we couldn’t leave. We were afraid of losing our jobs, and we didn’t have enough money to survive.” Or, maybe they will tell us they just didn’t understand all the facts at first. Anyway, the point is that we have a moral advantage because we know and they know that we are in the right.

But how do you get to them? How do you communicate your arguments?

Chavez: Our picket lines are usually equipped with large bullhorns — or even public address systems. We read to them from our own paper, El Macriado. We get material from other labor newspapers and report their stories to the workers. We read from the Bible. We read from our contracts. We talk about pesticides and pollution. We talk about health. You name it. We half-drown them with the truth. It’s a constant eight to ten hours of information we broadcast to them from our picket lines.

Then, when they go home at night, we ask them if they will invite us in to talk. Nine times out of ten, when we talk with them in the privacy of their homes, we can make deals. We say, “Why don’t you work the rest of this week, get paid, and then quit? We know where they are hiring in other places where there are no strikes, and we’ll help you get new jobs.”

“Our people are so proud that they are willing to starve, if they have to, to win this fight. They’re amazing.”

Also, we can do other things which are very damaging to the employers. We can talk the workers into staying at their jobs but lowering production, lowering the quality of the work. You don’t have to get them striking if you can organize them inside, get them to slow down.

If the employer is paying an hourly rate and he sees the slowdown he’ll switch to a piece rate. Then we say, “Okay. Go ahead and work like crazy. Make all the money you can. But now cut everything and throw it in the box. Grass, roots, weeds, dirt, anything.” That gives the grower a high production rate, but he’s producing very badly packaged produce. It hurts him. In turn, bad quality grapes are easier to boycott.

Another thing we developed since we started fighting the Teamsters is to call a work stoppage. Even though the workers are technically Teamsters, we often get them to stop work for one day in protest. Then, when they go back, if one is fired, the whole group strikes. You see, because we don’t have any money, that’s the way we have to fight. We constantly have to adjust the number of pickets in our picket lines. Every Monday morning we look at our treasury. If we’re low, we have to reduce the picket line. If things pick up next week, we put on more pickets.

What does the money go for?

Chavez: Well, we have to feed these people. We need gasoline, we use. an enormous amount of gas9line. And that costs a lot now — thanks to the big oil companies, many of whom also own these farms. Also, our old cars break down. We’re driving heaps, some of them fifteen years old, you know. And then, too, we have to take care of the people who get sick.

How do your people survive?

Chavez: We survive because we’re freaks about organizing. That’s one thing we know. We know how to pull things together.

We have a central lnformation bank, where we get word of where jobs are, and from which we can dispatch workers. We might take a busload of people from Delano into Los Angeles and get jobs for them there for two or three days through a friendly union. Or we may know a grower a hundred miles away who, even though he is not under contract with us, is not being struck. So we send workers to him.

And then, too, we have people who are so proud that they are really willing to starve, if they have to, to win this fight. They’re amazing people. Very simple people but tough in a very loving kind of way. Very poor — but a lot of honor.

Have you been jailed or physically beaten?

Chavez: Not lately. I’m too visible now. But in the beginning, in the first strike and even before that, yes, I was beaten. But since we’ve become better known, with better press coverage, they stay away from me.

What about the other members of your family?

Chavez: Oh well, Dolores, my sister-in-law, she holds the record. She has been in jail more than anybody. Many times. My brother, Richard, has also been jailed time. after time. Most of the time they make up phony trespass charges. Criminal trespass they call it. A county road is maybe sixty-five feet wide, including the unpaved shoulders and there is a line where the road property ends and private property begins. Sometimes you may accidentally put a foot on the private property. That’s criminal trespass.

In addition to all the picket-line violence haven’t there been times when the police would burst in to arrest people in their homes in the middle of the night?

Chavez: Yes, they’ve done that. When we were breaking the injunctions against striking, we told the judge and the sheriff that we were going to break the injunction. And if they arrested us, we would have the captains get the people to climb into the vans in an orderly way and go to jail quietly. Well, they didn’t want to do that, in front of all the cameras, you know. So they would spot the leaders and then go to their homes at two or three in the morning, literally burst in the doors, drag them out of their beds, and throw them in jail. It was just plain harassment. They had warrants. They could have arrested them in a civiIized way. They just enjoyed using terror tactics, that’s all.

In August 1973, one of your workers, a Yemenite named Nagi Daiffulah, was involved in an altercation with deputy sheriffs. He was killed. What ever happened to the deputies involved?

Chavez: Nothing. The explanation was that he did not die from the blows of the police, but that he struck his head on the pavement when he was knocked to the ground.

Are any of your workers ever chosen for jury duty?

Chavez: Never. Once my sister-in-law, Dolores, was charged with trespass and a Chicano woman was on the jury. She held out against conviction. That was the first and last time any of our people were selected for jury duty.

What about the plot to kill you in 1971?

Chavez: Well, my knowledge is very general. But then our attorney, Jerry Cohen, explained it to me like this. The people from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Fire-arms [a division of the Department of the Treasury] tipped us that they had a picture of a hit man who had been given $45,000 if he would kill me. This guy was an expert in explosives and incendiary devices as well as guns.

A few weeks after the alert, he was picked up and convicted of murdering a man in Visalia, California. That seemed to end it.

But then a guy showed up who said that for $10,000 he’d tell us who was supplying the money for the hit man. The go-between was a narcotics pusher and con man from Bakersfield. Cohen said he was a shrewd, cold, vicious man. Anyway, this guy said he’d been given the money by the son of one of the growers in Delano.

Well, the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms people kind of let the case peter out. They said the grower’s son denied everything and the informant couldn’t be trusted.

However, Jerry Cohen found a closing report on the case in which there was a transcript of a recorded conversation between an undercover government agent and the go-between. In the transcript they talk about plans to kill me. Now the ATF never knew we had that report. So they lied to us.

Robert C. Mardian, one of the convicted Watergate defendants, who was Assistant Attorney General for Internal Security, knew about the case and requested the ATF people to keep him informed about all stages of the investigations. Did Mardi an have anything at all to do with stopping the investigation?

Chavez: That’s something we don’t know.

Do you fear death?

Chavez: It’s not a reality to us. We’re so busy with work we haven’t time to think about it. We know there’s danger involved, but the pace is so fast we can’t take the time out to worry.

How far do you carry nonviolence? Is it more important than winning?

Chavez: Nonviolence is simply a method. Of itself it won’t change conditions. It has to be coupled with positive action. There are two traps we can fall into. One is to want to be nonviolent at the expense of not doing anything for anyone. You just lie there and take a beating. At the other extreme you have people who blame nonviolence if they’re defeated.

What you do is to commit yourself to non-violence and get a similar commitment from your people. It then becomes a lifelong commitment to win. You commit yourself to working around the clock, not taking vacations and being a servant — not just being of service. You have to accept criticism. You have to get suggestions from people. But you have to win.

Your people aren’t always non-violent. You had a case where you paid the Teamsters damages because one of your people shot and wounded a Teamster organizer.

Chavez: Yes. It happened. Our man had been beaten up very badly by two Teamsters. There was a history of fistfights involving these men. Finally, he did shoot one of them. We pulled him out of the picket line and paid damages — even though we would not have been legally responsible. It was an unfortunate incident but sometimes when a man is beaten enough he loses his temper and forgets. But you don’t find much of that among our workers.

You’re usually called a minority leader but you’re really a majority organizer, aren’t you?

Chavez: You’re the first one to pick up on that. It seems like a contradiction because so many farm workers are minority people. So you may jump to the conclusion that we are a minority group. But we don’t operate as a minority for two reasons. First, we consider that our union is for everybody in America. Second, the problem of farm workers is not a problem that was made by us and it can’t possibly be solved just by us. It must be solved by the whole society, by consumers, by citizens all over who know how it feels to be ripped off by powerful groups.

How much are you paid?

Chavez: For myself and my four kids at home — the others are married — we cost the union $2,300 in 1973.

How can you live on that?

Chavez: Well, we have no time payments. No bills. You see, it goes back to the 1950s when we first started to think about organizing. We had to decide between raising a lot of money — which we couldn’t do — or doing it without a great deal of money. So we committed ourselves to a very frugal life.

If I ask to see the books for your union, would you let me?

Chavez: Sure. We have nothing to hide. I will show you everything — my house, my garden, my Cadillac, my yacht! [Laughs.]

I know you don’t like the term, but a mystique has built up around you ….

Chavez: Well, I don’t think it’s a mystique. It’s a matter of friendships, of knowing the workers and of being with them. I was the first member of the union. I organized it. I consider myself more an organizer than a leader — though it’s impossible for me to tell you how I make that distinction. But I do. In the beginning it was just an awful lot of hard work and planning and plodding. I was scared when I tried to speak at my first meeting. Awfully scared. But eventually, I learned. And I met an awful lot of workers. I know thousands of them, personally. So a lot of things happen because of friendship, not because of any mystique, or secret power of personality, or any of that stuff. It’s all very flattering, but it’s not true.

Defending the farm workers to his last breath, Cesar Chavez dies in his sleep in 1993. The following year, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded him the Medal of Freedom, which remains our nation’s highest civilian honor — even though sometimes it seems as though we hand them out like candy at Halloween.