Big Orchards and Tulare Dust

Fighting for Our Lives directed by Glen Pearey

IT HAS GOTTEN very difficult to write much of anything about the United Farm Workers any more. Not because there is any difficulty in getting information about their leaders, their policies, or their members. Not because the issues are too novel or subtle to understand or explain. Nor because it is hard to take a stand. The problem instead is to say anything that is not horribly cliched, because the farmworkers' fight against grape, lettuce and wine producers in California is a story that has had to be told in the country time and time again.

The story really is the fight of capital against labor, of an established ethnic group supressing newcomers, of those in power against those without power. The lines of class and race are drawn sharp out in the Coachella Valley, the phenomenally fertile section of California where the temperature gets as high as 125 degrees in the summer work season. The UFW is now fighting the growers and the Teamsters Union for the contracts the Teamsters stole in 1973. Since 1965 the UFW has been battling for contracts that will guarantee their members decent wages, safe working conditions, health and retirement benefits, and--perhaps most importantly--their own, democratic union. Since 1973, though, they have had to fight the growers and the Teamsters, who realized they would both be better off with the UFW out of the fields. But their combined power has not yet stopped the UFW, most of whose members are Mexican-Americans. As their leaders say, they live in those valleys and they will fight as long as it takes and they swear they will be there after all the Teamsters have left.

FORTUNATELY, almost miraculously, a documentary filmmaker named Glen Pearey followed the 1973 UFW grape strike in the valleys of California and has produced a moving, intelligent hour-long film called Fighting for Our Lives. Pearey, working usually with only one assistant to handle the sound, followed the UFW for five months--April to September, 1973--through the valleys, along the highways, and into the fields, showing the workers expelled from the fields, whispering about fighting back and finally organizing to get back the contracts. The organizing is crucial: not only is it the source for much of the film's impact but it is the subversive force the growers fear most. The film shows the extraordinary power of collective action through the union as poor and often unschooled workers see their own strength, as the strike grows and gains momentum, even as the summer gets hotter.

But Pearey has taken big risks: working in color, he has made a film that is polished without being slick; concentrating on faces he has handled an intensely emotionaly issue without getting sentimental or manipulative. When you see a grower, John Giumarra, ride out to the picket line to confront the UFW on a golf cart with dollars signs painted on the sides and front, you suddenly remember that he put those dollar signs there--not a director. Fighting for Our Lives is filled with moments like that. No one had to hire extras to play sheriffs in Kern and Tulare counties; they were out there in the fields clubbing down farm workers on orders from the growers. And the Teamster scabs weren't reading from a script when they stood across from the picketlines to taunt the strikers, calling them "commies" and "freeloaders." As in all documentaries, the hatred and violence are appalling not because they are "handled well" or "convincing," but because they were real in the first place.

But Fighting for Our Lives is also a beautiful film to watch. The film was shot mostly outdoors with the camera usually held at a low angle enough so that faces are set off against unbroken blue skies framing them, forcing you to study the weariness and determination of the workers. Here again, one is struck deeply by a very simple fact: the victims of this violent oppression are not crazies but workers. These are people who get up every day at what is the middle of the night for most students and work hard all day, stooping and stretching in the hot sun. They are reluctant revolutionaries, but the growers have forced their hand.

Finally the momentum of violence and the logic of events results in the death of Nagi Daiffulah, an Arab worker and UFW member who was clubbed to death by a Kern county deputy. One day later, Juan De La Cruz, a 60-year-old striker who had been with the union from its beginning, was shot through the heart by a strikebreaker. Pearey follows Juan's wake and funeral, showing the casket draped in a black flag with the red UFW eagle carried down miles of dusty roads past the fields he struggled for. Mourners stretch far down the road, each bearing grim testimony to the stakes involved in the fight over the fields. And after nearly an hour of watching these people take the enormous risk of walking out of those fields and organizing--getting up at 3:30 in the morning to stake out the fields for scabs, standing for hours on sweaty picket lines, learning that the growers want only profits from their labor and that the Teamsters are willing to oblige--when Joan Baez sings, at Juan's funeral, it's hard to be cynical.

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards,

Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit

To fall like dry leaves and rot on my topsoil,

To be known by no name except deportee,

It's hard to be cynical because this struggle is so old and is now so close to success. For more than eighty years, workers in California fields had tried to organize before the UFW began in 1965. Woody Guthric wrote "Deportee" about that same struggle decades ago. Long after many industrial workers in this country had formed unions and most other non-union workers began to benefit from unions in their industry, the farmworkers in California. New Mexico and Arizona were still fighting the growers and the courts for the basic right to organize. Divide by migratory work conditions, torn by racial and ethnic suspicions, and attacked by hired goons, the farmworkers were still on their backs in 1965. Long hours, pesticides, child labor, and dangerous working conditions shortened many lives is those valleys before Chavez and the UFW began organizing.

And in the history of this movement--as in Fighting for Our Lives,--a special place is reserved for the scabs, workers hired by the owners to break and to dismantle the strikers. Scabs are, of course, both villians and victims--they are tricked and used by the growers to take jobs away from other workers--but there is a special sense of betrayal when a scab like the six-foot, four-inch, 300-Ib Mike Falco assaults a 65-year-old striker.

The film ends with the narrator explaining the decision to extend the fight to a nation-wide boycott as carloads of union members crowd into old Chevies heading out of California. The point is that the UFW has staked all in this struggle; to back down, to call off the boycott would discredit them forever. And this is where things stand now: Chavez vows to break the growers and the Teamsters and the growers seem determined to use the Teamsters to drive, the UFW out of existence. And seen though Pearey is uncritical and uncomplicated in his approach you can't really fault him. When the lines are drawn so clearly, a person has got to decide to take a stand.