Union Uses Cesar Chavez Memory to Create Nonprofit Fiefdom

cesar-chavez“Si, se puede.” — “Yes, it can be done.” The phrase adorned any number of placards at dozens of rallies across the U.S. in the past several weeks to promote amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants, especially those from Mexico. It’s also the longtime slogan of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), the union co-founded by Cesar Chavez in the mid-60s. Like its trademark black eagle logo, it symbolizes a call to action. Chavez, who died in 1993, was a driven man. Autocratic and at times even paranoid, he notwithstanding was an enormously gifted, tireless leader who succeeded in rallying nationwide support for the plight of California farm workers with strikes, boycotts and pickets. Deliverance came in 1975, when Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation guaranteeing farm workers collective-bargaining rights. But in the subsequent three decades, the union has shown an inability and a reluctance to act as a bargaining agent. And a lengthy four-part expose this January by Los Angeles Times reporter Miriam Pawel revealed something else: The union is enjoying a high profile courtesy of the taxpaying public and farm laborers.    


Cesar Chavez is more than a legend; he’s a marketing device. And his union and more than a dozen spinoff tax-exempt nonprofit organizations know a niche market when they see one. Collectively known as the Farm Workers Movement, these nonprofits now rake a combined $20 million to $30 million a year, with a payroll in excess of $12 million. Chavez’s surviving family members and in-laws, most prominently son Paul Chavez, run the operation. Their unstated mission is to parlay Chavez’s renown as a labor and civil-rights leader into personal and organizational enrichment. Where do farm workers, the people they are supposedly representing, fit into all this? That’s a good question. That current UFW President Arturo Rodriguez happens to be a son-in-law of Chavez doesn’t help the union’s credibility in providing an answer.          


The United Farm Workers hasn’t been able to point to too many organizing successes recently. Current total membership reportedly is down to 7,000, a tiny fraction of the roughly 450,000 farm laborers who work California orchards and fields during harvest season. By the start of this year the union did not have a single contract covering workers in table-grape vineyards in the state’s Central Valley, the birthplace of the union. Farm work in these parts remains pretty much grueling and exploitative. And much, if not most, of it is being done by Mexicans who are illegally in this country. The tide of illegal immigration has been the primary reason why despite the UFW being on the case, wages have remained low, benefits negligible, and living conditions appalling. The 1975 California law, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, might as well not even exist at this point. Yet the union’s leadership is doing pretty well for themselves when it comes to fundraising. And the union’s pension plan, with more than $100 million in assets, isn’t about to go broke with liabilities for a mere 2,400 or so retirees.


Unable to expand membership or deliver contracts, the UFW and its Farm Workers Movement are focusing on what they do best: cashing in on the memory of Cesar Chavez. In the process, the union has raised concerns about how it goes about raising and spending money. Private donations have been substantial, with about $3 million alone coming from a nonprofit group, The California Endowment. Even the small stuff can be spun into solid gold.  Last fall the Kellogg Co. donated $25,000 to the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation so it could put his likeness on a cornflakes box just in time for Hispanic Heritage Month. As for individual donations, they generate about $2 million a year, more than member dues at this point. 


It is California taxpayers who seem to have done a lot of heavy lifting for Clan Chavez. State support over the last several years has exceeded $10 million, with about $2.2 million going to a Texas-based affiliate, La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), ostensibly for adult education. State officials waived competitive bidding requirements for the grant, saying the group’s extensive community network in eight counties made it the only organization equipped to do the job. In fact, as the L.A. Times discovered, LUPE did not have an office in any of those counties. LUPE’s main achievement seems to have been to serve as a conduit for the Farm Workers Movement; nearly 40 percent of its budget in 2004 went to various Movement organizations. About $5 million in state funds have gone to the La Paz National Chavez Center in the Tehachapi Mountains, about a half-hour’s drive out of Bakersfield, long the UFW’s headquarters. Much of the money went to create a memorial garden around Cesar Chavez’s grave. The project ran 50 percent over budget, yet state auditors weren’t alarmed. To complete the project, Governor Gray Davis during his last days in office ordered an extra $600,000 contribution.      


Much of the Movement’s income is generated by the National Farm Workers Service Center, which in 2003 collected $10.8 million from real estate operations and another $6.8 million from its various radio stations. Radio has been lucrative enough, especially as “public service announcements” over the airwaves have raised funds for UFW-related organizations. The Center pulls in even more dough through real estate, especially the Vista del Monte apartments in San Francisco, a building with 104 dwelling units and a great view of the bay. The Service Center bought the structure with a low-interest loan from the California Housing Finance Agency, but needed an additional $1.2 million to complete the sale. So the Center, headed by Paul Chavez, borrowed at an unusually high 11.75 percent from the Cesar Chavez Community Development Fund, also headed by Paul Chavez. With the state HFA already having sunk $11.4 million in the project at 5.9 percent interest, it requested at least a temporary halt to further work; the project already was over budget. But the Service Center persuaded officials of the necessity of these costs, much to the chagrin of a former UFW leader, Rosario Pelayo. “It’s the money that was paid for our work,” she complained. 


The union also has attracted political action committee (PAC) money. Since 2000, the union and several related nonprofits have received close to $1 million from various PACs, including its own. Rather than contribute money to candidates, as is typically the case for labor PACs, United Farm Workers PAC donates to the UFW. “We’re unusual in that we actually get paid to run campaigns,” said UFW Political Director Giev Kashkoori. The PAC’s successes appear primarily to be slam dunks – races where the union-backed candidate already had been well ahead in the polls.


The Cesar E. Chavez Community Development Fund, founded in 1976 (and named, at the time, for Martin Luther King, Jr.), was intended to provide health care and other services for union members. Despite an endowment of some $10 million, the fund’s health care programs don’t have much to show except a weekly radio-call-in show on health issues and a physician’s assistant who comes in by van every few months to serve a large migrant camp. The fund, records show, also has moved a lot of money into the National Farm Workers Service Center. 


It is ironic that the UFW motto, “Si, se puede,” has become a reconquista chant. Much as it may pain UFW leaders and supporters to be reminded of the fact, Cesar Chavez, a third-generation U.S. citizen from Yuma, Arizona, was an unabashed champion of immigration restriction. He knew, as did virtually all union leaders up until a generation ago, that a large and growing supply of unskilled labor in any industry drives down wages. In 1969, he and other UFW members organized a march through California’s Coachella and Imperial Valleys to the Mexican border to protest growers’ use of illegal immigrants as strike breakers. Chavez at one point offered the INS the services of his staffers as volunteer border guards to keep Mexicans from sneaking into California. That such illegal entries since have turned into a flood is in fact the chief explanation of the union’s sorely diminished bargaining clout. If union top brass and their friends really were true to the memory of their founding patriarch, not to mention the interests of hundreds of thousands of farm workers, they would chuck their nonprofit network and take to the streets to demand the deportation of all illegal workers. (Los Angeles Times, 1/8/06-1/11/06; other sources).   

Postscript:  The United Farm Workers were not exactly a happy bunch of campers once the L.A. Times had run its four-part series on the union. The union issued a lengthy written denunciation, threatened a lawsuit, and confronted the paper’s editors in an acrimonious face-to-face meeting, accusing Miriam Pawel of numerous distortions and inaccuracies. The most they could pin on her, however, were a few minor errors of fact that in no way undermined the validity of her reporting. A fellow critic of the union, progressive-leaning journalist Marc Cooper, wrote in L.A. Weekly: “The union itself…has responded in the worst way possible. Instead of taking any of the very valid press criticism to heart and conducting some minimal good-faith reexamination of its own work, it has, instead, bunkered in and lashed out wildly at its critics…If the UFW would spend as much energy organizing farm workers into unions as it is now investing in its campaign to shut down reporters who criticize it, we would all be better off.” Such support wasn’t enough to save Pawel’s job. She took her paper’s offer of a buyout. Times management insisted union pressure had nothing to do with her decision to leave. It’s a claim that strains the imagination. Normally, any reporter basking in the afterglow of a single-byline, four-part blockbuster series can write his or her own ticket. The message of the UFW was clear: “You mess with us; we’ll mess with you.”