Penthouse Retrospective

by Richard Ballad Originally Published: July, 1975

Cesar Chavez | 46-ish Years Ago This Month

They told the workers if they voted for no union, they’d get a health-and-welfare program bigger than what the UFW could offer. That their wages would be increased and they’d save money by not paying dues. They scared hell out of them. None of our people were there to give our side of it. So they voted for no union. Then, two days later, the Larsons brought in the Teamsters — straight, lousy union-busting.

And there is no way for you to get a fair election under any existing state or federal laws?

Chavez: Right. We’re not covered by the National Labor Relations Act and there is no state agency to supervise elections. The union and the growers have to agree on some third party to supervise the balloting.

And, of course, if our field-leaders are fired before the election there is no place we can go for help. That’s one of the ways the Teamsters and growers try to break us. That’s why the strike and boycott are our best weapons. That, and the courts. But our real allies are the people, the consumers.

The growers and Teamsters are afraid of that, I can tell you. When I went to New York to organize the boycott, I received fifteen telephone threats.

What about the Chicanos who work as Teamster organizers?

Chavez: I can tell you that none of them, or very few of them, are farm workers. Some are ex-policemen. At least two or three are former labor-contractors or supervisors from other ranches. A lot of them are young men who were recruited in the cities. Of course, they are all paid very good wages.

Are the Teamsters still employing goons?

Chavez: Not as much lately. But if the boycott really becomes unbearable, you can be sure they’ll hit the ranch picket lines. I doubt they’ll risk using goons on picket lines in the big cities. The whole world would be watching that.

What about the illegals, the Mexicans who have sneaked across the border to work?

Chavez: The big reason we have a boycott is because of the uncontrolled number of illegals being brought in to break our strike. In May 1974 we took 300 men out of the strawberry fields in Watsonville, California. Less than twenty-four hours later the grower had 400 illegals in there. They’d been smuggled across the border.

I wonder if smuggled is the right word. Smuggled means fooling the authorities. How can you bring 400 illegals in so fast, transporting them several hundred miles? We called the U.S. Immigration Service and gave them specific facts — how many illegals were involved, where they crossed, and who brought them in. You know what they said? “No, sorry, we can’t come to check on it. We don’t have the manpower.”

But yet the illegals live in fear of deportation.

Chavez: Sure, that’s the way the Teamsters control them. If they don’t do what they’re told, they’ll be deported. That’s what they tell them. That’s the way you control the poor and the people without property.

We had a real fight with the immigration authorities back in 1968. I think all my frustrations against them really came out. I call them the Gestapo of the Southwest. And when I say that, I am really expressing feelings which go back many, many years.

You see, my mother and dad were immigrants. Although they had been here since around the turn of the century, my mother was always deathly afraid of the Immigration Service. When she came here there was no such thing as an immigration visa. You just paid a penny to cross the bridge from Mexico and that was it. Every time we went through those immigration check-stands on various roads, you had to have the proper papers. My dad didn’t have any immigration papers either. But he did have a letter from a friend, a superior court judge in Yuma. That letter became his passport. He used to show it, the immigration people would look at it, think awhile, and then they’d say, “Okay.”

My mother, to this very day, is frightened that they’ll come to her house some night and make her go back across the border. And she’s eighty-four.

You mention immigration check-stands. Are these still in operation?

Chavez: Not since we went on strike. That’s interesting, isn’t it? They don’t want to catch them now. So we’ve set up our own check-points, at least in Arizona.

But, that’s an example of how a bad administration can really frustrate your efforts. If we’d had a good administration, a good president instead of Richard Nixon, this wouldn’t be happening now.

Is President Ford making any difference in your struggle?

Chavez: No. He met with Mexican President Echeverria and from what I can see it looks like they’re going to try to reintroduce the old bracero program, legalizing the illegals. You’ve got a nice circle here. The oil companies who own so many of the big ranches … Tenneco, for example, which owns land equal to the size of the state of Rhode lsI1nd, and Superior and Getty and Southern Pacific their friends … these are the people who will be pressuring the government to make concessions to Mexico to permit illegals to come in. They get thousands and thousands of Mexican slaves to work on their ranches, and they would get a crack at developing that new Mexican oil.

You may not be able to name every Medal of Freedom recipient in modern history, but you should know Cesar Chavez certainly. History counts.

Leave a Reply