The Docks of Delano


Chavez forces me to join union. This year I make $1400 less than last year. --Giorgio Aglipay, farm worker

AFTER A LONG boycott campaign, Cesar Chavez finally got enough public support to force many growers to sign contracts with his United Farm Workers Union (UFW) in 1970. The growers signed even though Chavez did not have the support of the workers and even though he had misrepresented the facts to gain public support.

Those who joined the boycott must have felt that the farmworkers had won a great victory and that their living standards would improve. But the truth is that supporters of the boycott had forced farm workers into the UFW where Chavez hurt them both personally and financially, ultimately causing the living standards of many farmworkers to decline rather than improve.

The problems began with the UFW contracts themselves. Chavez contracts required growers and workers to use a hiring hall system. Under the plan, growers could not hire workers. Instead they would notify the UFW of how many workers they needed and when. Meanwhile, anyone who wanted to work would go to the hiring hall where the UFW would pass out assignments. This meant that a worker could only get a job through the union, worker could not get a job through the union, establishing a closed shop. The closed shop is illegal under the Taft-Hartley Act, but the act does not cover farm labor. The closed shop hiring hall gave Chavez tremendous power over the workers. He could now simply withhold assignments from anyone who didn't behave. The work was now Chavez's to distribute, and those whom he disliked would be the last to work, if they got to work at all.

Furthermore, the contract made it clear that there was to be no limit to Chavez's discretion in assigning jobs. One of the conditions for working is that a worker must be in good standing with the UFW. The term good standing is not explicitly defined. But as a hint the contract reads, "The union shall be the sole judge of the good standing of its members," and also, nothing in the contract "is intended to limit the grounds for determination of good standing."


Note that this is not the way other unions operate. In other industries the employer hires the employee and if he continues to work he must join the union. (Unless he lives in a state with a right-to-work law. Then he has the choice of whether or not to join.)

But Chavez's contracts left the workers defenseless. If anyone wanted to work he had to be in "good standing" with Cesar Chavez. As one Washington columnist wrote, "These glorious contracts reek of the docks--the docks of Charleston and New Orleans 120 years ago. Like slave traders and plantation owners, Chavez and the growers are buying and selling human beings."

In a secret memorandum of agreement that Chavez signed with growers, he explained how he planned to use this power. "It is agreed between the company and the union that there are certain employees who the union claims have impaired its unionizing activities. Therefore, the company agrees to explain to said employees that if they continue to do so, they will be immediately fired."

The agreement goes on to say that the UFW will be the sole judge of what constitutes impairment of its activities. As it turns out, it meant refusing to take time off work to man the boycott lines or refusing to drive boycott pickets to San Francisco. But most importantly, it also meant speaking against the union to reporters and outsiders. This agreement was devised to intimidate and silence the great majority of farmworkers that Chavez and the growers had forced into the UFW against their will.

The farmworkers themselves will tell of their experiences in the UFW if only people will listen. In one California paper, for example, a worker reported "some people go to the hiring hall and pay through the back door and get sometimes 40 assignments while others wait for days. The people in the hiring hall say they only get $5 a week so they say 'you give me a hand and I'll give you an assignment.' You see, they're blackmailing the people." Another worker reported "certain laborers found they had to wait three or four days for an assignment while some fared better, if they could pay the price."

In a personal interview, one worker said, "We often waited days and days sitting in a UFW hiring hall waiting for an assignment, while the crops were rotting in the fields."

Richard Chavez, Cesar's brother, boasted immediately after signing the contracts that anyone who said a word against the UFW would be fired. Later, three workers who had filed suits against Cesar reported that the hiring hall bosses could no longer find assignments for them.

Other workers reported that the hiring hall officials forced them to pay "back dues" before giving assignments. One worker said he had to pay over $100 in so-called back dues to get an assignment for his wife who hadn't worked in two years.

Many farmworkers also complained that the hiring halls gave no consideration to ranch seniority or traditional working habits. Members of the same family with one car were assigned to different ranches miles apart. Many grape pickers who had worked on the same ranch for years now saw UFW favorites assigned there while they had to wait. Instead of being able to work permanently with a single employer, workers were sent to many different ranches through the year.

One woman who had worked 16 years in the fields described her experiences in the Bakersfield paper, saying, "The hiring hall bosses would tell us, 'we'll give you an assignment when we feel like giving you one. You can get on your knees and beg.'"