Saturday, October 8, 2011

Down at the Occupation

Got back a little while ago from spending some time in solidarity with the Occupation at Cesar Chavez Plaza and marching and videoing some of the march to the jail and back.

On the way, I had a wonderful chat with a marcher whose father, she said, was a labor lawyer back in the days when the UFW -- the farm worker's union that Cesar Chavez formed against an incredible level of violent opposition by farm owners -- and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board were riding high. As I've said in other posts, conditions for many farm workers in California have deteriorated alarmingly since the days when they were actually being improved thanks to the efforts of the UFW and the enforcement of agricultural labor laws.

The UFW still has to march on Sacramento to get any kind of attention at all, and the frequent indifference here to the plight of farm workers is sickening given the sacrifices that were made to bring hope and uplift to so many farmworkers in the past.

A big part of the legacy of Cesar Chavez is that of nonviolent protest modeled to a degree on that of Gandhi and King, as well as on the Catholic Church's call for penance. It is a call that resonates even with lapsed Catholics. I posted earlier regarding the Naomi Wolf quote in which she commands, DO NOT MARCH, and I wonder what Cesar would think about that. The march was integral to the UFW's activism, but it wasn't the only thing. Cesar and others in the UFW would engage in public prayer, in fasts and hunger strikes, they would call for worker strikes of uncooperative growers, they led informational efforts and boycotts of certain agricultural products (remember not buying California grapes or lettuce?), and they had a very active legal and legislative team working both the courts and the legislature. Ultimately, they were very successful.

And yet there has been such backsliding since.

Backsliding one of the consistent problems of successful activism; success has its own hazards. In the farmworkers' case, it's a complex situation. Many, many opportunities were opened to farm laborers and especially for their children as a consequence of the success of the farmworkers movement. Educational and employment opportunities and a far better standard of living made possible by higher wages and basic employee benefits won by the UFW and widely adopted on behalf of even non-unionized farm workers meant that they wouldn't have to work the fields any more. They could do almost anything they wanted and had the ability to do. For the first time. California had an awful reputation for racism and discrimination that kept the farm workers very strictly in their "place," and when they started to get uppity about it, there were a number of still unsolved (I believe) shootings in the fields and murders of organizers to, one would think, "teach them a lesson."

That tactic didn't work, but the fact that growers would engage in or allow such things -- even if they claimed to know nothing about it -- shamed the entire industry in the eyes of the nation, and in the eyes of many Californians.

The UFW still fights for farmworkers' rights, to improve their pay and working conditions, and to bring attention to the plight of many of today's farm workers. I've seen for myself that plight. One example was in the Napa Valley during the early 2000's, where the vinyard workers were literally living in their cars because there was completely inadequate housing for "their kind" in the valley, and at the time, some growers were fighting the idea of providing decent housing for farmworkers in the wine country -- because it might cost them something on the one hand, and it might interfere with the "beauty" of the region and the tourists' appreciation thereof. As if farmworkers sleeping in their cars or crammed into deteriorated rooming houses and apartments was somehow OK? Eventually, due to pressure by other growers and the heightened public consciousness of the shameful conditions under which farm hands were forced to work and live in the valley, the objectors relented, but it was a fight that was unnecessary if the growers had been doing the right thing to begin with, and it is only one of so many outrages that go on day in and day out in the fields and through the disinterest of some of the growers and of regional elites.

The success of the UFW and the farmworkers' movement got them a seat at the the table years ago, and for a time, having a seat got them improved living and working conditions. But over the years, that table turned into a grower-dominated confab that left the farmworkers' interests in the dust. This is what can happen with "success." Cesar Chavez worked tirelessly till the end of his life to advocate the interests of workers, and the UFW continues that work, but it is still an uphill battle.

What do you do when the institutions that were established to protect your rights and interests are taken over by those who want to limit, control or destroy those rights and interests? And how do you find balance between competing interests?

That is the continuing struggle that those who have been fighting the good fight face, always. The tactics, tools, and ways of the past are useful, and I wouldn't throw them away just because there is a new movement or new fashion in movements. On the other hand, having seen and experienced what happens if the movement is a success, I think it is important to realize from the outset that reaching a stated goal or achieving a particular demand cannot be the end of the struggle.

This is something the Occupations are learning -- pretty much on their own -- as they expand, mature, and find their way forward. The Occupations are "beginnings." The Occupation in Sacramento is developing in its own way; it's not quite like that of any other city in part because Sacramento is not quite like any other city in California. But the struggle to be heard and to have some kind of functioning democracy through which to work out the needs of the People and come to some consensus on the way forward -- and to demonstrate how to do it and why -- is as important here as anywhere else.

I hope and believe the spirit of Cesar Chavez is smiling on the efforts of those in the central Plaza in Sacramento named after him. They aren't doing it just the way he did, nor should they. But they are carrying on in his honored memory, in the shadow of his statue and image, even if some of them are unfamiliar with who he was and what he did.

¡Sí, Se Puede!

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