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Power, Hope, and Struggle in César Chávez’s Farm Worker Movement

by Miriam Pawel

Pub Date: Oct. 13th, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59691-460-5
Publisher: Bloomsbury

The inside story of the first successful attempt to unionize farmworkers in the United States.

In the early 1960s, workers in America’s vineyards and lettuce fields lacked basic protections and rights, writes former Newsday and Los Angeles Times reporter and editor Pawel. Earning about $2,500 per year, they worked without drinking water or bathrooms, were often cheated out of wages and lacked unemployment and health insurance. In this extensively researched history of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, the author focuses on a handful of men and women who joined la causa of the charismatic César Chávez (1927–1993), taking part in strikes and boycotts to win bargaining agreements. Pawel deftly weaves their stories into a narrative of three turbulent decades of protest against California growers and the U.S. supermarket chains that sold their produce. The principals include teenage farmworker Eliseo Medina, who joined the nascent union movement in 1965 and eventually became a leader; Chris Hartmire, a former East Harlem youth minister who acted as a propagandist in what he deemed to be a moral crusade for the poor; and Ellen Eggers, a naïve young college graduate from Indiana, who went from “ignorance to outrage” in her work as a boycott coordinator. These deeply engaged workers and middle-class youths were among thousands who received $5 per week plus room and board as volunteer foot soldiers in a crusade that convinced 17 million Americans to stop eating grapes. Recounting strategizing sessions, dealmaking and internal squabbles, Pawel shows how the movement grew and won legitimacy as a union. The iconic Chávez is seen as a micromanager whose fasts and fervor galvanized others, but who could not tolerate internal dissent and failed ultimately to build a strong union. By 2005, the UFW had no contracts in the grape vineyards or the lettuce fields, but had “mastered the art of cashing in on Latino political power.” Meanwhile, a new generation of farmworkers toiled at minimum wage.

A revealing celebration of activists in the glory days of a movement for change.