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University of California Press
From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement

From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement

by Matthew Garcia
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520259300
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/28/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 6.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Matt Garcia is Professor of Transborder Studies and History at Arizona State University, where he also directs the Program in Comparative Border Studies. He is the author of A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970.

Read an Excerpt

From the Jaws of Victory

The Triumph And Tragedy Of Cesar Chavez And The Farm Worker Movement

By Matt Garcia


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95366-6


Birth of a Movement

FARM WORKER ADVOCATES have often contrasted visions of rural California as the land of milk and honey with the gritty reality of farm workers' lives. This, in part, was the approach that novelist John Steinbeck, photographer Dorothea Lange, and other agrarian partisans used in the 1930s to arouse the nation's appetite for reform. Their ability to undermine growers' idyllic impressions of the California countryside led to the creation of programs that brought temporary relief to field hands. Although the New Deal ultimately fell short, artists and union organizers proved that they could counter advertisements celebrating the bounty of nature and, for a time, shift the balance of power in favor of workers in the long struggle to end rural poverty in the Golden State.

Such a tactic was at the heart of a 1948 film, Poverty in the Valley of Plenty. A coproduction of the National Farm Labor Union and Hollywood filmmakers, the film drew attention to the anti-union practices of the DiGiorgio Fruit Company located in the lower San Joaquin Valley. An Italian immigrant, Giuseppe "Joseph" DiGiorgio, began modestly, growing fruit on 5,845 acres in 1919. By 1946 he had expanded production on thirty-three square miles worth $18.2 million, becoming the largest grape, plum, and pear grower in the world. According to NFLU organizers, much of this wealth had been built on the backs of laborers who lived in substandard housing. With the film and their activism, they sought to make the DiGiorgio Fruit Company more accountable to its employees.

In 1947 union organizers at DiGiorgio petitioned for a 10 cents per hour raise, seniority rights, and a grievance procedure. The company promptly responded by expelling striking workers and replacing them with several hundred Filipinos, undocumented workers, Tejano recruits, and 130 Mexican guest workers, known as braceros. The employment of the last group violated the agreement between Mexico and the United States that stipulated no foreign workers would be used during labor disputes. Members of the Hollywood film unions regarded DiGiorgio's reaction as so hostile that they waived all wage and pay contracts to get the film made.

The collaboration between the NFLU and filmmakers marked a new phase in the evolution of farm worker activism. Besides evoking the contrast between growers' wealth and farm workers' poverty in the title, they portrayed the stark differences between the natural beauty of the fields and the ramshackle homes of employees. The first thirty-seven of fifty-seven scenes accentuate this contrast, offering viewers a visual context for the last portion of the film, which is focused on the DiGiorgio strike. In terms of activism, the union paired Poverty in the Valley of Plenty with highly public appeals to consumers across the nation not to buy DiGiorgio's products. The first large-scale consumer boycott of its kind, the strategy worked, cutting deeply into the company's profits and provoking angry clashes between loyal employees and strikers on the farm.

If the NFLU's film and boycott signaled a new level of sophistication among farm worker activists, it also demonstrated the resolve of DiGiorgio to maintain the status quo. In addition to hiring a photographer and filmmaker to produce a visual counter to Poverty in the Valley of Plenty, the company unleashed a legal torrent on the NFLU, suing them for libel and fighting to suppress any further screenings of the film. Although an independent investigation by CBS News and Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas revealed the company's version to be false and the repression of workers to be real, DiGiorgio simply overwhelmed its opposition with images and lawsuits. Unable to match the wealth and power of the company in the courts, the NFLU agreed to destroy all copies of Poverty in the Valley of Plenty and end the strike and boycott in exchange for DiGiorgio's dropping charges against the union leaders. The settlement brought an end to the NFLU, which ceased to exist by the summer of 1950.

DiGiorgio achieved its intended goal of destroying the NFLU and ending the circulation of the film, but the episode signaled a core truth about agriculture: consumer opinion matters. The union's ability to engineer a boycott demonstrated to both sides that the conflict extended well beyond the fields, and that simply replacing workers at the point of production could not solve the conflict. Indeed, DiGiorgio's suppression of Poverty in the Valley of Plenty, even at the expense of free speech, demonstrated how seriously the company took this challenge. Although DiGiorgio won this battle, growers remained susceptible to such campaigns as long as they refused to take responsibility for solving the problem of rural poverty.

It took time for activists to recover from the collapse of the NFLU. Although Ernesto Galarza, a labor intellectual and the former director of education and research for the union, reconstituted the NFLU as the National Agricultural Workers Union (NAWU), the new union struggled as a consequence of the bracero program. Throughout the 1950s, the single goal of ending the program consumed farm worker advocates, delaying the use of tactics briefly employed by the NFLU. By the beginning of the 1960s, however, new voices emerged that revived some of the hope in the fields, where conditions remained as difficult, if not worse than they had been in the 1940s. Armed with new research and imbued with a sense of purpose, these grassroots activists hit the countryside intent on making a difference.


Those wishing to tackle the thorny issue of rural poverty have often begun their fight in the Imperial Valley. Its location in the most southern portion of the state made it the first destination for desperate Mexican immigrants crossing the border to apply their substantial knowledge to the state's massive agricultural economy. The tumult of the Mexican Revolution and the recruitment of Mexican workers by labor contractors during the first three decades of the twentieth century made Mexicans the preferred group in a racial-caste system that remained in flux until World War II. The flood of Mexican workers generated a surplus of labor that facilitated competition among a diverse population segmented by race and enabled growers to pay their employees below subsistence wages. As the first to employ farm workers for the season, Imperial growers often established the going rate for many crops in the state. The desert climate aided this process. An inversion of the typical North American growing season from a spring-to-summer to a winter-to-spring trajectory meant that Imperial growers could deliver warm-weather, drought-tolerant crops such as cotton, peas, melons, and lettuce to the market at a time of the year when such products were rare. When cultivation moved northward, so did wage levels and workers.

A researcher studying social stratification across agricultural sections of the United States in 1959 found that the Imperial Valley had a two-class system: a few farm managers in the middle class and a mass of laborers, mostly Mexican, in the lower class. These conditions strongly resembled those in the Deep South, where white landholding elites and farm managers profited from the labor of African Americans. In Tunica County, Mississippi, and West Baton Rouge County, Louisiana, for example, "lower class farm personnel," defined as "all those who perform only the labor function on the farms, plantations, and ranches in the United States," constituted approximately 80 percent of the workforce. By comparison, Imperial Valley farms employed 87 percent of their laborers at this level. Moreover, while all three counties employed a small middle- and lower-middle-managerial class, in the Imperial Valley these managers constituted a much smaller portion of the total population than in Mississippi or Louisiana. Such numbers suggest that the rural Southwest was a world as deeply southern as the South itself.

After World War II, many farm worker advocates accused the federal government of exacerbating the problem with the importation of Mexican guest workers. Begun in 1942, the bilateral agreement between Mexico and the United States known as the bracero program delivered Mexican nationals to rural California to harvest crops and maintain railroads. Although initially meant to be temporary, the program continued well beyond World War II. In 1951, agricultural lobbyists convinced Congress to pass Public Law 78, formalizing the bracero program, by making spurious claims that the Korean War had compromised the agricultural labor force and threatened domestic production.

Many scholars have documented the detrimental effect the bracero program had on farm wages and the employment of local workers. During the initial years of the program, between 1943 and 1947, California employed 54 percent of the Mexican nationals who came to the United States; however, by the late 1950s, most worked in Texas. Growers invested heavily in the program to take advantage of the discrepancies between the wages Mexican nationals would accept and what local workers needed to survive. Although the bilateral agreement required employers to pay braceros at or above the standard wage in a given region, in reality they earned far less than what their contracts promised and between 10 and 15 percent less than their local coworkers. The difference in the standard of living and wages between Mexico and the United States compelled Mexican nationals to come north despite receiving ill treatment and false promises from contractors and employers. Many braceros maintained families in Mexico with wages that far surpassed what they could have made by staying at home. Locals who had to raise families at the higher U.S. cost of living felt the pinch of the program's downward force on agricultural wages. By one account, the willingness of braceros to work at starvation levels widened the gap between farm and industrial wages by 60 percent.

California growers' dependence on the bracero program varied from south to north and from crop to crop. Throughout the twenty-two-year history of the program, reliance on Mexican nationals skewed southward toward the desert regions and the south coast of the state. By the last year of the program, 1964, 42 percent of the seasonal employees in the desert came from the bracero labor pool, compared to just 9 percent in the San Joaquin Valley. On the south and central coasts, where orange and lemon production dominated, braceros constituted 38 and 31 percent, respectively, reflecting the citrus industry's historic dependence on the program. In fact, California lemon producers, who accounted for 90 percent of the lemons grown in the United States, drew 74 percent of their labor from the program. In the desert, where a significant number of braceros worked, melon producers in the Palo Verde and Imperial Valleys drew 44 percent of their labor from Mexican nationals, while date growers located in Coachella Valley depended on braceros for 91 percent of their labor. In the San Joaquin Valley, melon producers were the biggest users of braceros, drawing 41 percent of their labor force from the program. Among grape growers, only those in the south coast region relied on Mexican nationals for more than half their labor needs, and in the San Joaquin Valley, they constituted a mere 2 percent of workers. Grape growers in the desert region had a slightly higher dependence on Mexican nationals, at 11 percent of the total number of employees, although California grape growers in general used the program much less than their peers in other crops.

In the San Joaquin Valley, farm worker advocates worried about the impact of the bracero program on wages, but other factors shaped poverty there. In a study of rural labor conditions in Fresno County over a six-month period, from January to July 1959, a team of researchers based at Fresno State College (which later became Fresno State University) found that braceros rarely totaled more than 1 percent of the labor force in the area and recently had been eliminated from the fruit harvest altogether. Instead, growers had become dependent on what researchers referred to as "day-haul" laborers: settled workers who brought in local harvests and returned to their homes each day. In some instances, workers traveled as far as Salinas, near the coast. Most San Joaquin Valley farm workers found ample employment in the crops immediately around Fresno, which enjoyed a harvest cycle that started in April and lasted until October, the longest in the country. According to the researchers, only a small minority of Anglo melon pickers based in the county followed a year-round cycle that took them first to the harvests in Arizona and the southern California deserts, up through Kern County, and back into Fresno. Known as "aristocrats," these workers often earned between $8,000 and $10,000 per year, making them the highest paid farm laborers in the county.

Most workers earned far less due to a system that facilitated constant labor surpluses and disrupted potential worker solidarity. Researchers found evidence of growers who had invested in labor camps for Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans but had recently abandoned these projects in favor of hiring through local labor contractors. Camps promised a more stable labor pool, though growers grew to resent the cost of maintaining such settlements. Most growers found it more convenient to outsource the hiring process to a third party that bore the responsibility of finding workers and making sure they got to the farms. The county Farm Labor Bureau, financed through tax dollars and grower contributions, served as one source, though researchers found that most growers preferred the completely independent labor brokers who operated without restrictions from the government. According to the authors of the report, "The farm labor contractors expressed the feeling that the Farm Labor Office [i.e., the Fresno County Farm Labor Bureau] does not play a role of significant importance in the present agricultural pattern."

The disparities in the cost of day-haul laborers compared to camp laborers encouraged this transition to labor contractors. Fresno State researchers found that growers paid labor contractors a going rate of between $1.10 and $1.15 per worker per hour. Contractors were expected to hire workers at an average of $.75 per hour, although frequently they increased their shares by driving down wages at the point of contract. In one instance, a contractor working to fill jobs at a nearby sugar beet farm arrived at the corner of Tulare and F Streets in Fresno to recruit among a large pool of unemployed men. The contractor offered to pay workers by the row rather than by the hour. One worker told the researcher, "The pay is $1.90 a row but the row may stretch from here to Sacramento." His friend had taken the same job the day before and "netted one dollar (for about ten hours' work)," while another, more efficient worker finished two rows, earning a total of $3.80. Although many balked at the wages, the informant told the researcher, "Guys will get hungry enough," and the contractor will eventually have his crew. The authors of the report alleged that workers could do better with contracts with the Farm Labor Bureau, earning as much as $6 to $7 per hour, though such opportunities were few and far between. In fact, the terms of contracts varied so widely that researchers were unable to offer an average in their report.

By comparison, workers found much better pay and living conditions on the few ranches where growers still maintained camps. At the Weeth Ranch west of Fresno, for example, thirty-five permanent employees lived in clean one- and two-bedroom units made of concrete block with functioning kitchens and bathrooms. Weeth attempted to pay his workers $1.10 per hour but found that they slowed their pace and did not complete the task in a day. When he increased their pay to $2.50 per hour, his work crews finished their tasks in five hours, earning approximately $15 per day. Although Weeth expressed satisfaction with his workers, he was doubtful that he could maintain this system, given the cost and competition from local growers who used contractors. He preferred machine labor, although researchers concluded that the cheapness of labor under the current system forestalled such developments.


Excerpted from From the Jaws of Victory by Matt Garcia. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1 • Birth of a Movement
2 • Capitalism in Reverse
3 • Workers of the World, Unite!
4 • Stuck in the Middle
5 • A Bitter Harvest
6 • Busy Dying
7 • Rotting from the Inside Out
8 • Some Were More Equal Than Others
Epilogue: Beyond the Legend

Selected Bibliography


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"A thorough history of the rise and fall of Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers labor union. . . . Meticulous and timely."—Kirkus Reviews

"Garcia has compiled the most comprehensive history on the United Farm Workers to date, with many new oral histories that will change how we think about the UFW."—Los Angeles Magazine

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