The Communist “infiltration” of the UFW:
A “short” autobiographical story
by Scott D. Egan
No self-respecting urban Lefty in the early 1970s would have avoided participation in the picket line for the United Farm Workers union or UFW. In Tucson, we regularly marched in front of Safeway and other stores as part of the boycott against scab lettuce and grapes and Gallo wine. These weekly pickets saw regular and sustained support by a whole political, social, and racial mix of activists. This included a various conglomeration of members of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and their off-shoot the Workers World Party as well as mutual enemies — not the capitalists but other Lefties, like those of us who were from (what we considered) the “real” Party — the Communist one (CPUSA), and their youth group, the Young Workers Liberation League. In addition, there was a large assortment of union organizers, Quaker Friends, Catholic Workers, and especially “La Raza” — the social/cultural activists in the Hispanic and Indigenous communities who were personally proud of something they rightly thought was predominantly their struggle to lead. They saw us white activists as a supporting cast, but we were dependable and consistent.
While us city folk might not be able to get out in the fields in direct support of the workers, anyone could walk a picket line in town if you could get your butt there. (As members of the Tucson based Teatro Libertad radical street theater we did perform in the fields for the Arizona Farm Workers union, who were abandoned by the UFW — another sad and mostly untold legacy). The plight of farmworkers was a good fight that brought many factions together. Mao or Stalin might have been saints or demons depending on one’s own twisted perspective, but farmworkers needed everyone’s unified support, and they generally got it from a conscientious citizenry across the country, no matter what politically sectarian line anyone was grumbling on about with each other at the time.
The UFW did have one major flaw that still haunts it: the cult of personality built around Cesar Chavez. The man certainly deserves most of the credit for making the union as successful as it was, but Chavez also deserves the blame as well for its practical demise. Even with a dark underbelly that has since been revealed about the consequential mistakes of the union and its seriously flawed leader, the cult of “Cesar” still holds a myth-like aura even today.
In those old days, we saw many major union victories, especially in California, where important UFW contracts were signed that directly helped scores of workers who labored under the most oppressive conditions. Those victories were encouragement and proof to idealists like me of being on the correct path. Those contracts are all but gone now and the “union” has become little more than a family business that cashes in on the mythic past. Some saw its demise coming and raised concerns. Others regarded any legitimate criticism as heresy and almost a sin against god. Or, almost worse, a crime against St. Chavez.
At the time we knew little of the palace intrigue taking place at the UFW’s cloistered HDQ at La Paz, California where Chavez became a devotee of a strange religious cult (with some origins in Tucson) but there were other early warning signs for me that not all was right in happy valley. First, I was a bit uncomfortable with the union’s full-throated embrace of the Democratic Party, which obviously was not my party of interest. It was explained to me and others that such alliances were part of doing business, but that the union was really very radical at its core. “We are not as peaceful and non-violent as our image suggests,” one union rep told me once, “you should know we are militant as hell in the fields when dealing with scabs.” While this was somewhat strangely comforting for me at the time, I always had my doubts about the leadership. I would later learn that much of their scorn was directed at undocumented Mexican workers, who were often reported to “La Migra” by Chavez and his band. (The Arizona Farm Workers Union, disbanded by the UFW, actually worked to organize undocumented workers in Arizona and Mexico).
Then there were the nasty splits: as the organization grew the radical organizers were expelled and the union newspaper which had always provided a progressive perspective was inexplicably shut down. Rumors had it that the publication was closed for not following Cesar’s line close enough. The radical theater group, El Teatro Campesino, separated from the union over differences in the direction as well, although they always supported the movement — just not within the confines of the UFW. And then there was Cesar Chavez fully embracing the dictator of the Philippines, Fernando Marcos. And even more perplexing to me, his high praise for the State of Israel. Well, I was told, there are many Filipino farmworkers, so this is Chavez’s clever way to get the farmworkers support. These workers support Marcos, I questioned? Really? And on the basis of that logic, why the praise for Israel since there are many of the farmworkers are Arab? Certainly more than Jewish ones. Well, “we need money and support from rich liberals.” Yeah, don’t we all. Hard to swallow that, at least for me.
I remember a discussion of these very issues with a particular couple who were prominent leaders of the UFW in Tucson. We had spent countless hours together on the picket line and equally long hours resolving all the major global problems over many bottles of beers and discourse. The man was a pretty jovial intellectual and I always liked talking with him. He was now married to a former nun after divorcing a leading Tucson Trotskyist, and they were both terrific organizers for the UFW. I had respect for both of them and their strong and unbowed commitment to improving the human condition, as I do almost all those of a similar radical persuasion, no matter the particular flavor. Some of the best people I ever met were such radicals.
I was not a full scale “Party” member then, but I was in the youth group called the Young Workers Liberation League (YWLL) which would eventually change back to their original title as Young Communist League (the “popular” front name fooled nobody). From what I was learning about the world, the UFW positions on things outside of the union caused serious problems for me, having a hard time reconciling what I thought was a radical organization with what appeared to be it’s reactionary alliances. I was around 20 years old, and sincerely just wanted to understand the contradiction, so I asked this respected couple how they reconciled all these issues. Their responses seemed insincere and lacked any clarity to me, and I reacted with obvious dissatisfaction, stating to them: “Well, if I ever get to meet Chavez, I would like to ask him these questions directly. Maybe he can justify all this.”
Their loud and immediate response startled me: “Well then, we will certainly make damn sure then that YOU never, EVER get to meet Cesar, Never!”
Which lead me to the conclusion that there must not be any good responses to my questions and that my dear friends were talking shit they couldn’t defend. History proved me right. One aspect that always befuddles me is how so many humans act like they prefer to be another species — specifically: sheep. This couple, so irate about my honest questioning, would eventually end up working with Chavez in his headquarters in La Paz. Within a short time, they returned to Tucson with a ferocious antagonism against Chavez personally and what he was doing to the union in general. In their eyes, Chavez seemed to be transformed from a godly saint who never did anything wrong, (and if he did commit any foibles they must be ignored for the sake of the movement) to the devil who they now denounced. I believe this couple ended up joining The Party after I left (and then, after trashing me for questioning Chavez, disliked me more for being a heretic because I left the Party). I suppose the CPUSA doctrinaire fit was more to their liking, as their position on Chavez changed about as sharply as the older comrades did with the Nazi-Soviet pact a few decades before.
These former friends ended up being wrong on their main contention with me as well: I did get to meet Chavez — if very briefly under somewhat amusing circumstances as I will now share with you.
Tucson, a progressive oasis in a reactionary Arizona sea, always was a very strong hub of support for the UFW, and eventually, a planning meeting was commenced to make preparations for Chavez’s upcoming visit to a church in our town known as the Old Pueblo. The most loyal picketers and supporters included a number of us, like me, who were affiliated with “The Party.” We were asked if we would be willing to step up and be the local security team in charge of protecting Chavez, a job we were honored to accept (even with my reservations about Chavez and some of the union’s policies). Plans were made, assignments given, stations determined, checklists checked, and our team was fully prepared for the job. (On a side note, we were advised not to come armed — but I did anyway, reflecting a life-long resistance to following directions, particularly when it comes to my own self-defense. Back then I packed just a little 38 Special, which — in spite of the name — is not really that special of a pistol. I do not know if I was the only Red with a gun there, but I suspect not).
On the day of our “Cesar’s” arrival we were summoned to one last meeting before the event started with the UFW’s national security guy who wanted to meet with us and go over any last-minute issues, take any questions, and to thank us for volunteering and for all our support over the years that he had heard so much about. I have to admit I was pretty proud of the fact that over half the local security team was made of my comrades from The Party and YWLL. We were being acknowledged for our solidarity and being granted much-deserved respect! I felt proud, like we were really bad-assed Reds, in charge of protecting the most important “radical” labor leader in the country. Then, as the meeting was about to break, the lead UFW guys gives some last words of caution:
“I also want to caution you all to keep your eyes peeled for any trouble,” he announced with marked intensity. “We have received some information that communists might be planning on attending this event tonight, and are trying to identify them. So stay alert for any trouble!”
We looked at each other with a restrained but very bemused look of wonder. Here we are on security detail and being instructed to watch out for ourselves! In a twisted way, the fact that the UFW had no idea who we were proved they needed our good security! Which we faithfully provided, no deference to the slander. But it was very amusing to me and the other Reds.
At one point a few minutes before the event began I was directed to do something or other and I walked into a room in the back of the church with a dozen people standing around Chavez. He was standing by a table, and he looked straight at me as I entered the room. I smiled and nodded to him, and he nodded, expressionless. He looked tired.
I remember as I walked through and past him of being incredibly tempted to grab the opportunity by the gonads and say something like: “As a commie who is working on your security detail, I gotta ask ya: what the fuck is it with you and that fascist fuck Fernando Marcos?” But of course, I didn’t. Perhaps I was so mesmerized by his spiritual exuberance that I was left completely speechless. (Those who know me you would know that it is a bad joke, of which I am known for many). I knew I was there because I was being asked to protect him, not confront him, and passed on my way without a word.
In any case, the event went off without a hitch.
But I did get to at least be in close presence of the man, in spite of being loudly and most resolutely assured by my ex-friends that I never would.
And I was even packing at the time.
[For more info on the rise and fall of the United Farmworkers, see the works of Miriam Pawel, a Pulitzer Prize wining editor and reporter, whose books include “The Union of Their Dreams” and “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez.” Also see: https://nacla.org/news/2014/1/14/boycott-legend-sacrifices-movement-cesar-chavez-and-renewed-case-radical-democracy with a review of “Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers” by Frank Bardacke and Joseph Nevins.
A passionate quotation presented from the Bogg:
“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions.
Their lives a mimicry. Their passions a quotation.”
— Oscar Wilde
“No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression. If such a movement has caught hold of the imagination of the masses they will seek a vent in song for the aspirations, the fears and the hopes, the loves and the hatreds engendered by the struggle. Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant, singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement, it is the dogma of a few, and not the faith of the multitude.”
— James Connolly
RELIGIOUS POETRY: “Song of the Cheerful but slightly Sarcastic Jesus”
(written by James Joyce, who pilfered some of the lyrics from Oliver St. John Gogarty)
John Gogarty said: of these words I am guilty,
But hats off to James Joyce and his mastery…
No one attributes the verses to me,
Though he quotes them all quite accurately…
“I’m the queerest young fellow that ever was heard
My mother’s a Jew my fathers a Bird
With Joseph the Jointer I cannot agree
So here’s to Disciples and Calvary.
If anyone thinks that I ain’t divine
He gets no free drinks when I’m making the wine
But have to drink water and wish it were plain
That I make when the wine becomes water again.
My methods are new & are causing surprise
To make the blind see I throw dust in their eyes
To signify merely there must be a cod
If the Commons will enter the Kingdom of God.
You know I don’t swim & you know I don’t skate
I came down to the ferry one day and was late.
So I walked on he water and all cried in faith
For a Jew man it’s better than having to bathe.
Whenever I enter in triumph & pass
You will find that my triumph is due to an ass
& public support is a grand sinecure
When you once get the public to pity the poor.
Then give up your cabin and ask them for bread
And they’ll give you a stone habitation instead
With fine grounds to walk in and raincoat to wear
And the Sheep will be naked before you go bare.
The more men are wretched the more you will rule
But thunder our “Sinner!” to each bloody fool
For the Kingdom of God that’s within you begins
When you once make a fellow acknowledge his sins.
Rebellion anticipates timely by “Hope”
And stories of Judas and Peter the Pope
You’ll find that you’ll never be left in the lurch
By children of Sorrows — and Mother the Church.
Goodbye now goodbye, you are sure to be fed
You will come on My Grave when I rise from the Dead
What’s bred in the bone cannot fail me to fly
& Olivers breezy goodby goodbye.
Bye-bye, now write down all I‘ve said
And tell Tom Dick and Harry that I rose from the dead
Yeah What’s bred in the bone cannot fail me to fly
And Olivers breezy goodby — now goodbye.”
— from Ulysses by James Joyce
These written dispatches are the rantings of Scott D. Egan: a former chief aide to two Tucson City Council members (Bruce Wheeler and Mike Haggerty) and chief of staff to a member of the Pima County Board of Supervisors (Ray Carroll), as well as former Chairman and Grand Marshall of the Tucson St. Patrick’s Day Parade, along with being one of the founding member of a number of groups including Teatro Libertad of Tucson (a radical bi-lingual street theatre), the Hooligan’s (traditional Irish music band), and the Barrio Hollywood Neighborhood Association. He has also been a life-long supporter of Irish Republicanism and the unification of Ireland “from the center to the sea.” He describes his current political philosophy as “Anarcho-cynicism” — a rejection of government imposed authority combined with a cynical but evidence-based assumption that humankind is too afraid of achieving real freedom (a tongue-in-cheek take on the Anarcho-syndicalism of America’s greatest union: the I.W.W.).
Known as “The Bogman” due to an epithet cast which appropriately stuck, Egan has lived in Tucson’s westside Barrio Hollywood with his wife Pernela and a ’49 Chevy pick-up truck for most of his adult (?) life. The opinions expressed here are his and his alone, so don’t blame his family or his friends for anything he says or does. OK? Hey!!! OK ???
This is what is hoped to be the first of many editions of “Notes From the Bog.”
Til next time, Slán…
PS: Happy Birthday P.J.!