From the Jaws of Victory by Matt Garcia (A Review – #AMST 525)

In the tradition of Charles Payne, Barbara Ransby, and Chana Kai Lee, Matt Garcia chronicles the history of the United Farm Workers (UFW) from an organizing perspective.  Quoting Jerry Brown, Garcia highlights the importance, the principles, and the requisite grind the includes organizing: Fred “Ross never lectured about organizing.  He believed that one could only learn to organize by doing.  He would point out there was nothing romantic organizing, and this it required mainly common sense, meticulous planning, hard work, and a great deal of self discipline” (63).  Whereas much of the public memory of Chavez and the UFW has focused on marches, hunger strikes, and confrontations, Garcia brings to life a history of “slow and respectful work.”

From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement highlights the use of three principal tactics within the UFW: the strike, the march, and the boycott.   While each served a distinct purpose, exerting different levels of pressure on the agricultural industry, Garcia pushes readers to see the significance of the boycott not only within the United States but also across the globe.  In many ways, From the Jaws of Victory is a story of the grape boycott.

Although documenting the efforts to organize the farm workers themselves, Garcia spends many pages of From the Jaws of Victory highlighting the many ways that UFW organized the consumer boycott.  As a child I still recall, the “don’t buy grapes campaign,” which in many ways impacted by own politicization, identity, and understanding of justice.

To work alongside of those withholding their labor, the UFW organized consumers to withhold their dollars, to punish grape growers for their failure to provide adequate compensation and working conditions.   While Chavez was “reluctant to embrace the boycott … given the difficulty of maintaining such a campaign well beyond the primary site of struggle” (46), the boycott proved important in generating public participation.  Despite apprehension, the UFW, with the assistance college students and other nonpaid volunteers, tried to cut off the demand for grapes.  Educating consumers, pressuring markets, and disrupting supply chains, the UFW took the boycott to Los Angeles and New York, to Toronto and London.

Garcia chronicles the depth of this organizing and the extensive networks required to disrupt the supply chain at a global level.  They created boycott houses; they lobbied other unions to refuse to transport grapes; and they shamed any who aided and abetted the global sale of grapes.  Here the book emphasizes how the UFW utilized the media, and deploys particular frames to galvanize support, offering a dynamic and engaging look at the UFW as a social movement, as a space of organizing.

A wonderful expose of organizing, agitation, and the challenges of a global economy, From the Jaws of Victory pushes the conversations beyond the UFW, beyond Delano, beyond Delores Huerta and beyond Chavez, who is “saintly” status is complicated and problematized in significant ways.  While critical, Garcia highlights the contradictions and shortcomings of Chavez and others within the movement.  Yet, his focus is on the organizing and on the organizational tensions that is both a strength and source of weakness for the movement.

In this respect, Garcia chronicles the work Marshall Ganz, Elaine Ellison, and Jessica Govea, each of whom organized throughout in different parts of world as part of a global grape boycott.  He recalls a meeting between Leon Weinstein, a Toronto grocer and UFW organizers Manny Rivera, Jerry Brown, and Juanita Brown:

Weinstein prided himself as a fair-minded entrepreneur with the power to disarm those who questioned his business practices.  Jerry Brown recalled, ‘He [told] us how he would not have grapes in his home, how he supports the farm workers’ cause, but he is the president of a large chain, and the consumers have to have free choice, so he cannot publicly support the boycott.’ Weinstein also made a peace offering of Cuban cigars to Ribera, who accepted the gift and came ready to reciprocate.  ‘He hand[ed] Leon a farm worker calendar,’ Brown remember, ‘every month of which ha[d] a picture of the travails in the fields – you know, hungry, children, child labor, tired workers.’  ‘I’m going to give you… our calendar,’ Rivera told Weinstein, ‘and I hope you’ll put it on the wall, so that every day you look at it, you’ll be reminded of the suffering you’re causing our people by carrying grapes in your store” (88).

Such details, and compelling narratives are at the core of From the Jaws of Victory.

While the boycott proved to be important in terms of education, in terms of increasing leverage and visibility for the union, and ultimately securing a contract, the focus rests with the boycott, which “required organizers to move away from the cradle of the movement to live in far-flung cities with few connections to Delano” (62).  These demands and the emphasis on producing boycott from supermarkets and others who would potentially sell grapes, alongside of the racial and class dynamics of the organizing class, contributed to disunity at times.  Yes, class and race mattered, but the interface with tactics, was the true story.

One of the prominent themes of From the Jaws of Victory is the tension – ideological, tactical, organizational, and political – that results from the yearning to become a union and a social movement.  The goal of becoming a union, negotiating contracts and representing farm workers – and the desire to build a movement dedicated to social justice and empowering workers was at times competing; at other times, these goals were irreconcilable. Garcia highlights these debates and the difficulty resulting from the “institutionalization of social justice.” According to Garcia, the failure of Chavez and UFW is not surprising given the history of social justice:

In the end, Chavez’s greatest failure may not have been his flirtations with communal living, creating a new religion, or attempting to control the minds of his followers through a bevy of devices borrowed from self-made prophets.  Rather his failures were quite familiar to social movements that harbored a dream of institutionalizing social justice: Chavez failure to adapt his strategy to fit the demands of a dynamic situation.  The ability to move the locus of power from the strike to the boycott in the earlier days was not matched in the late 1970s by an equal ability to move from the boycott to a fight for victories in ALRB election and arbitration and, if necessary, California courtrooms (287)

Garcia not only elucidates the struggles that resulted in waning power and influence of Chavez and UFW but provides a larger lesson regarding the pitfalls, possibilities, and potential problems when trying to “merge a social movement with the requirements of becoming a state recognized union” (284).  These shortcomings are not just for the record books but felt by “the health and security of the farm workers” (295).   The legacy is not simply to be debated among academics or memorialized within Hollywood but can be seen and felt in the continued struggle for farm workers’ rights.

Garcia pushes the conversation beyond Chavez, beyond the sensationalism, and beyond Hollywood representations, to look at the complexities and contradictions, a history of organizing and dreams incomplete, which given the persistent injustice remains as important as ever.

 Questions

  1. Why so much tension between developing a union and a social movement
  2. How does the demands of a union versus a social movement impact identity, tactics, and politics
  3. What was role of community in development of UFW; how was this a strength and also a source of weakness
  4. How did race and class play into the development of UFW
  5. Is the solidification of agriculture business/rise of corporate farms an unintended consequence of unionization
  6. In what ways did UFW embrace a transnational strategy alongside of one based in local politics, histories, and community formations?
  7. Why was organizing farm workers so difficult
  8. How did the intellectual work lay a foundation for organizing and activism
  9. Why do you think there has been some resistance to the narrative offered in From the Jaws of Victory
  10. Why limited coalitions and connections to other industries such as meatpacking?
  11. Was the embrace of potential sexism from those being organized a smart strategy or short-sided (93)?
  12. Has the multiracial nature of struggle and the importance of “allies” been over emphasized or erased from historiography
  13. How is framing important in understanding history of UFW?  What role does the representation of Chavez play in contemporary framing

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