Penthouse Retrospective

by Richard Ballad Originally Published: July, 1975

Cesar Chavez | 46-ish Years Ago This Month

The Teamsters and the growers lobbied against it, naturally. Despite that, despite all their money and influence and contacts, we got it out of the state assembly. They killed it in the state senate which is a bit more conservative. But we’re making progress. You can’t keep the truth buried. An arm or a leg always sticks out.

You’re waging three or four separate legal battles right now. How do you get the money to keep appealing to higher courts?

Chavez: We get lawyers who don’t charge anything. It’s amazing. That’s what I mean when I say that the power of the truth is so tremendous. People get upset — good people — and they come to help us. The media has helped us. We have told the truth … they have reported what we have said and what they have seen.

Being realistic, the Teamsters have about 90 percent of the contracts and they run until 1977. How are you going to force them to hold new elections before that time?

Chavez: By using the strike and the boycott we can make things very hard on the growers. When things get hard enough, they will have to get the Teamsters out and hold new elections.

How can they tell the Teamsters to get out? They were elected, weren’t they?

Chavez: We have reason to believe that the growers have a deal with them. If the Teamsters can’t maintain order and hold the allegiance of the workers — in other words if our strike and boycott really begin to hurt — then the Teamsters will pull out when the growers tell them to go.

What are you doing to try to win the workers back?

Chavez: First of all, when we start concentrating on a group of workers we know that in their hearts they realize we are right. We know this because every time we win a strike we ask the former strikebreakers to join our union. And we always question them very closely so that we can learn their psychology and how to deal with it in the future. Virtually 99 percent of them tell us, “Look. We knew you were right. But we couldn’t leave. We were afraid of losing our jobs, and we didn’t have enough money to survive.” Or, maybe they will tell us they just didn’t understand all the facts at first. Anyway, the point is that we have a moral advantage because we know and they know that we are in the right.

But how do you get to them? How do you communicate your arguments?

Chavez: Our picket lines are usually equipped with large bullhorns — or even public address systems. We read to them from our own paper, El Macriado. We get material from other labor newspapers and report their stories to the workers. We read from the Bible. We read from our contracts. We talk about pesticides and pollution. We talk about health. You name it. We half-drown them with the truth. It’s a constant eight to ten hours of information we broadcast to them from our picket lines.

Then, when they go home at night, we ask them if they will invite us in to talk. Nine times out of ten, when we talk with them in the privacy of their homes, we can make deals. We say, “Why don’t you work the rest of this week, get paid, and then quit? We know where they are hiring in other places where there are no strikes, and we’ll help you get new jobs.”

“Our people are so proud that they are willing to starve, if they have to, to win this fight. They’re amazing.”

Also, we can do other things which are very damaging to the employers. We can talk the workers into staying at their jobs but lowering production, lowering the quality of the work. You don’t have to get them striking if you can organize them inside, get them to slow down.

If the employer is paying an hourly rate and he sees the slowdown he’ll switch to a piece rate. Then we say, “Okay. Go ahead and work like crazy. Make all the money you can. But now cut everything and throw it in the box. Grass, roots, weeds, dirt, anything.” That gives the grower a high production rate, but he’s producing very badly packaged produce. It hurts him. In turn, bad quality grapes are easier to boycott.

Another thing we developed since we started fighting the Teamsters is to call a work stoppage. Even though the workers are technically Teamsters, we often get them to stop work for one day in protest. Then, when they go back, if one is fired, the whole group strikes. You see, because we don’t have any money, that’s the way we have to fight. We constantly have to adjust the number of pickets in our picket lines. Every Monday morning we look at our treasury. If we’re low, we have to reduce the picket line. If things pick up next week, we put on more pickets.

What does the money go for?

Chavez: Well, we have to feed these people. We need gasoline, we use. an enormous amount of gas9line. And that costs a lot now — thanks to the big oil companies, many of whom also own these farms. Also, our old cars break down. We’re driving heaps, some of them fifteen years old, you know. And then, too, we have to take care of the people who get sick.

How do your people survive?

Chavez: We survive because we’re freaks about organizing. That’s one thing we know. We know how to pull things together.

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

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