A thorough history of the rise and fall of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers labor union.
Garcia (Transborder Studies and History/Arizona State Univ.; A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Great Los Angeles, 1900-1970, 2001) provides an in-depth, scholarly account of the farm labor movement and Chavez, its activist leader. The narrative begins long before the UFW’s 1960s and ’70s heyday, documenting a long list of post–World War II labor abuses—among them, contractors’ manipulative hiring of day laborers by the row worked, rather than on an hourly wage. “The pay is $1.90 a row,” one laborer told a researcher, “but the row may stretch from here to Sacramento.” Such abuses led Chavez to fight back against the growers, whose profits continued to soar while exploited laborers’ wages remained stagnant. In 1962, Chavez formed the National Farm Workers Association (which became the UFW) and was joined soon after by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, creating the first “multiethnic union” consisting of both Mexicans and Filipinos. Their combined forces led farm laborers to many victories—most notably the Delano grape strike—though the union’s power later declined as a result of bickering and infighting. Garcia is at his best when he draws connections between the civil rights movement and the farm workers movement, both of which relied heavily on nonviolent tactics such as boycotts and protest marches to empower change against an established ruling class. Despite the author’s extensive research, the book occasionally gets bogged down by the movement’s policies rather than the people who fought so valiantly to enact them.
Meticulous and timely, but the story of the movement falls just short of moving readers’ emotions.