Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Dolores (Carlos Santana Productions, 5 Stick Films, PBS, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night at 9 p.m. I watched a quite compelling documentary called Dolores about Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers with César Chávez and one of the most compelling figures in radical American politics in my lifetime. The film was directed by Peter Bratt (brother of actor Benjamin Bratt, who’s listed as a “consulting producer”) and produced by, of all people, Latin-American rock musician Carlos Santana — and though Mark Kilian is credited with the music I’m sure Santana had a hand in it. The story is a familiar one to me and one I literally grew up with; in the mid-1960’s my mother subscribed to the United Farm Workers’ newsletter, El Malcriado (literally “The Bad Worker”), and I got to follow the story — their side of it, anyway — as it was happening. The story of the formation of the UFW is a bit more complicated than the version told here, and I give PBS a lot of credit for filling out the two-hour time slot with a short documentary called The Delano Manongs (“manongs” is “old men” in the Filipino language Tagalog), which showcased the third and least acknowledged individual in the union’s formation, Larry Itliong. What really happened is that beginning in the 1930’s the big growers in California’s San Joaquin Valley brought in Filipino men to work in the grape fields. They worked alongside the Mexicans who were already there, but were never allowed to mix with them; separate Mexican and Filipino crews worked in different areas of the giant agribusiness plantations, deliberately kept apart by the growers so they could use classic divide-and-conquer strategies against them. One of the reasons the growers wanted a workforce of two different, and mutually antagonistic, nationalities was so that if the Filipinos went on strike, the Mexicans could be hired as strikebreakers; and if the Mexicans went on strike, the Filipinos would scab on them and break their strike. 

In 1962 the AFL-CIO officially formed the Agricultural Workers’ Organizing Committee (AWOC), along the model the original CIO had used to form the big industrial unions in the 1930’s: appoint an “organizing committee” to unite workers in an unorganized industry, then if they were successful in winning at least one collective bargaining contract with an employer, they could take the words “organizing committee” off the end of their name and be admitted to the CIO as a full-fledged union. Larry Itliong was the head of AWOC, but it only recruited Filipinos. In 1963, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta founded the National Farm Workers’ Association (NFWA) and started holding private meetings in workers’ homes, following a strategy Huerta had learned in doing community organizing for a mostly white group called the Community Services Organization under a man named Fred Ross. At the time Huerta had six children and had been through two divorces, but in spite of that she was living a relatively comfortable life in Stockton and was able to pursue her avocations, music and dance, frequently attending jazz concerts. (One later sequence intercuts the UFW’s work in the fields with a clip from a jazz-festival performance by Dizzy Gillespie, playing his Latin-jazz classic “Manteca.”) The original idea of Huerta and Chávez was to build support among farmworkers slowly until the NFWA had enough members and outside donors and supporters to sustain a strike, but Itliong and the AWOC jumped the gun: on September 6, 1965 they held a meeting at the Filipino Community Center in Delano, California (the building not only still exists but looks pretty much the way it did then) and called an immediate strike vote. Ten days later — by coincidence (or maybe not) also Mexico’s Independence Day, September 16 — Chávez, Huerta and the NFWA called a meeting at a church in Delano where the attendees voted to have the NFWA join the AWOC’s strike, so for the first time Mexicans and Filipinos joined together in a labor action and the growers didn’t have the option they’d had before of playing one group against the other. Chávez and Huerta brought Itliong into their group and made him executive vice-president of the NFWA, later merging NFWA and AWOC into one union under AFL-CIO auspices as the United Farm Workers’ Organizing Committee (UFWOC). 

Of course the show also portrays Robert Kennedy’s doomed campaign for President in 1968 and shows that one of the names he called out for special thanks in the victory speech he gave at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (which now has been converted into a high school but which I find memorable not only because it was where Bing Crosby made it as a solo artist — and though it was deserted the day I was there I walked through the Coconut Grove nightclub space and got to see it before it ceased to exist — but was also the place where I lost my virginity at 19 with a young woman from the same delegation from the College of Marin for a youth journalism conference; I didn’t have sex again until I was 24, and that time it was with a man) just minutes before he was killed. The documentary includes footage of RFK’s famous confrontation with the Delano sheriff, who like most people in company towns were used to being enforcers for the bosses against the workers, when he told a Senate committee Kennedy was chairing that he had arrested the UFWOC pickets not because they’d actually broken any laws but because it looked like they were about to — to which Kennedy famously replied, “While we take our lunch break, I would suggest the sheriff read the Constitution of the United States.” 

The film treats Kennedy sympathetically — ironically, as strongly as my mom and I supported the farmworkers at the time, she couldn’t stand Robert Kennedy and her hatred of him got passed down to me (indeed, when my mom came down so viciously against Barack Obama and called him the worst president of all time, I remembered how much she’d hated RFK as well), and though the film presents him as a presidential candidate whose attacks on corporations and their privileges would never be heard in a major-party presidential campaign today (memo to Peter Bratt: does the name “Bernie Sanders” mean anything to you?), it also seems to make the assumption a lot of the progressive books and films about the period do: that Robert Kennedy would have won the Democratic nomination and the presidency had he lived. No way: at that time there were only 14 out of 50 states that had primaries, and the Democratic Party bosses were even more in control of the nominating process than they were in 2016 when they shafted Bernie Sanders and forced the doomed loser Hillary Clinton on the party — and Donald Trump on the country. Once Hubert Humphrey announced for President, essentially as Lyndon Johnson’s surrogate, he was able to nail down all the bosses and get the nomination sewn up without having to enter a single primary — though what I think would have happened had Kennedy lived to the Democratic Convention was that Humphrey would have likely offered him the vice-presidential nomination as a gesture of party unity, and that RFK would have accepted — thereby alienating and trashing himself with his progressive base, who would have walked away from him and thought, “Just another politician, after all,” for his willingness to run on the bottom half of the ticket with someone who was a strong public supporter of the Viet Nam war. 

One issue that doesn’t get discussed in this film is that Chávez and Huerta were both strongly anti-immigration; they knew that one of the ways the big farm owners had of breaking any union activity was by being able to bring in fresh workers from Mexico to replace any who went on strike. They didn’t even try a walkout until the expiration of the U.S. government’s bracero program, which had initially been passed in 1942 as a war emergency measure to bring Mexicans in to work the fields of California while the U.S. citizens were fighting the war, but it lasted until 1964 and gave growers a safety valve in case of labor unrest. (The bracero program was so notoriously exploitative that when I went on one of the big immigrant-rights marches in 2006 among the speakers were former braceros who said they were still owed back pay for their work under the program, even though it had ended 42 years earlier! Incidentally, the bracero program is also responsible for inventing the burrito: knowing that they had to feed the workers something but not wanting to spend too much money doing so, the growers came up with a cheap, easily made concoction of beans wrapped in a flour tortilla, figuring it would look and taste enough like real Mexican food the workers would be O.K. with it.) 

Another issue that doesn’t get mentioned in this film is that in 1935 the U.S. government had passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which officially gave American workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers, but because the Democratic Party then relied on votes from the South to maintain their Congressional majorities and win national elections (one reason the New Deal coalition collapsed in 1968 and the Republicans became the dominant party in U.S. politics was that with the “flip” in the two major parties’ positions on civil rights in general and African-American rights in particular, the “Solid South” eventually changed from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican — one reason George W. Bush became President was he was able to win all the former Confederate states, and Donald Trump won them all except Virginia, largely because Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, was Virginian), the Southern planters who had effectively re-enslaved the Black agricultural population through sharecropping insisted that farm workers not be covered under the NLRA. So even if the UFWOC could get the majority of workers on a particular farm to vote for union representation, there was no legal way they could compel the grower actually to bargain with them until California passed its own law, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), in 1975. But not being covered by the NLRA wasn’t all bad for the UFWOC: in 1947 a Republican Congress had passed the Taft-Hartley Act over Democratic President Harry Truman’s vetoes, and that had amended the NLRA to forbid unions covered by it from organizing boycotts of their employers’ products. Not being bound by that restriction, the UFWOC was able to organize a nationwide boycott of table grapes, which was successful to the point where one of the ways you could tell the political orientation of the people who’d invited you into their home was whether or not they served grapes. (It’s been decades since the grape boycott ended and I still have an odd feeling every time I eat grapes.) 

Campaigning for the boycott nationwide was the issue that took Dolores Huerta out into the broader community and flung her in the middle of the great ferment of political and social issues in the 1960’s — not only the civil-rights demands of African-Americans and other communities of color but the anti-war movement, the feminist movement and the Queer movement. At first Huerta was unwilling to refer to herself as a feminist and to embrace the women’s movement because as a Roman Catholic she was intensely opposed to abortion (though being a Roman Catholic hadn’t stopped her from going through two divorces and eventually having an affair with, and having children by, César Chávez’s brother Roberto even though he was still married to someone else), but eventually she mellowed out on the issue and accepted the pro-choice position on that ground that it had been her choice to have 11 children but it was a legitimate choice for another woman to have none. Also the United Farm Workers, like the rest of the labor movement, slowly moved away from their original opposition to immigration: I remember reading in 2000 that the AFL-CIO had just passed a resolution endorsing the rights of undocumented immigrants, and none of the people reporting this, even the ones for independent progressive media, seemed to be aware that this was a huge change of position for a U.S. labor movement that for years — over a century, in fact — had fiercely tried to limit immigration on the ground that more immigrants meant a higher supply of workers and therefore lower wages. In 1970 the UFW finally won a series of contracts with California growers — only when the contracts expired three years later the growers signed sweetheart deals with the Teamsters Union instead, and there was more labor unrest in the fields as the big, bad Teamsters that had got expelled from the AFL-CIO both for poaching on other unions’ territories and for their Mafia connections tried all their own classic intimidation tactics, as well as the growers’ classic intimidation tactics, to try to break the UFW once and for all. 

The fortunes of the UFW soared upwards when the California legislature passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) — one of the top priorities of recently elected Governor Jerry Brown in 1975 — and Brown appointed strongly union-sympathetic members to the board. Chávez and Huerta also launched a nationwide campaign in the 1970’s targeting the growers’ use of pesticides, which they applied to their crops in massive doses, often while workers were actually in the field without protective clothing, threatening the health not only of farm workers but also of consumers who would someday buy these products and eat them. I remember seeing Chávez speak at the National March on Washington for Lesbian/Gay Rights in 1987 (obviously this was before the legitimate demands of Bisexual, Transgender, and other subgroups for inclusion led to the ridiculous non-solution of referring to us by an ever-growing set of initials — “LGBT,” “LGBTQ” and in one horrible example, the UCSD student groupo, “LGBTQQIAA” — for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex — the people with indeterminate genitalia formerly known as hermaphrodites — Asexual and Allies, the last being the term of art for straight people committed to Queer rights) and listening to him go on and on and on about pesticides, until I realized he was doing something extraordinarily radical even for him: traditionally unions had seen their role as winning better wages and benefits for their members, not questioning the techniques their employers used in actual production unless they posed a direct and dramatic threat to the health and safety of the workers involved in production. What Chávez was doing was framing his argument against pesticides in terms of a warning to consumers — essentially telling people, “The stuff we grow is unsafe for you, so don’t buy it until our employers clean up their act” — and he got criticized for it within the labor movement as well as from outside.  

Dolores ends sadly, not only with the near-fatal beating she got from San Francisco police officers while participating in an ACT UP anti-AIDS demonstration in 1988 (she was laid up in hospital for several months — and the fact that Huerta was out there picketing on behalf of Gay men with AIDS is yet another indication that, well before that horrible word “intersectionality” was coined, she was living it) but the way the board of the United Farm Workers passed her over for the union presidency after César Chávez died. They kept her on the board but gave her less and less to do until she reluctantly stepped down from the UFW in 2002 — it’s interesting that this film does not address the flagging fortunes of the UFW since then and the criticism that’s been made of its current president, Arturo Rodriguez (whom the board elected after Chávez died in 1991 and who is still there) — though she’s still active in various causes at 87 and she’s lived one of the most extraordinary lives of all time. Charles and I saw Dolores Huerta as part of a lecture series at UCSD in the 1990’s, and while I don’t remember much of what she actually said (she seemed to be gratified to be around a group of people who were aware of her importance — part of Peter Bratt’s agenda in making Dolores seems to have been to set the record straight and establish that her role was equally significant to Chávez’s in organizing the UFW, including the fact that it was she, not he, who coined the phrase “¡Si se puede!” — but as I noted above, the records I’ve seen acknowledge her importance and if anyone who was involved in forming the UFW has been unjustly neglected in the historical record, it is Larry Itliong, mainly because, despite Chávez’s and Huerta’s understanding that the UFW had to be a multi-racial movement to succeed, Mexican-American progressives in general have claimed “ownership” of the UFW and ignored the crucial role of Filipinos in the movement’s early days) I can vividly recall the rock-star charisma with which she gripped a full-house crowd. ¡Viva Dolores Huerta!