Fred Hirsch-August 29, 2011
On July 25, 2011 the most frequent blogger on the United Farm Workers Alumni E-mail list lashed out with derogatory remarks about Miriam Pawel, author of "The Union of Their Dreams." He did so in commenting on a magazine article in The Atlantic entitled "The Madness of Cesar Chavez by Caitlin Flanagan. I met Miriam Pawel at her "Union of Their Dreams" book launch at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. She was joined on the stage by Sabino Lopez, Chris Hartmire and Jerry Cohen, three of the deeply dedicated people whose stories are the substance of her book. Pawel is a prolific journalist whose work is characterized by audacity, honesty, and clarity. She is probably working on another book about Cesar Chavez and the struggles in which he was prominent. Pawel can be expected to shine her light of keen observation and brilliant writing talent into corners and crevices that might otherwise be left in obscurity.
The vitriolic comments on the UFWAlumni listserve portrayed Miriam Pawel as a person who "seems get great pleasure indiscriminately" by making “accusations" against Cesar Chavez. The image of Pawel he offers is that of a "self-righteous fat, old grinning Cheshire cat!" Miriam Pawel doesn't fit that description. She is considerably younger than her accuser. She is quite thin. She is warm and engaging in conversation. She listens a great deal more than she talks. She might teach us all the importance of reserving our words until we know what we're talking about and can choose the best way to say it.
The UFW Alumni list rant must have been done in anger without thoughtful consideration, knowledge or civility. It said: "Miriam Pawel is just a lecherous, blood sucking necrophiliac. Her obsessive pursuit trying to sully the beloved memory of a person who passed away 18 yrs ago has to be the worst kind of bullying imaginable... Its Ironic the person whose Character and memory she has attempted to assassinate is who made her famous and who shes made a fortune from.” Such hateful, verbal violence is vulgar and beyond the pale of any civil discourse.
Miriam Pawel is an accomplished newspaper worker, undoubtedly a member of the Newspaper Guild. She has made her way into public notice by the hard work of skilled observation, reporting, and analysis. She draws word portraits of dedicated people in all their contradictions, shading and molding those images in concise, precise and descriptive prose. The "fortune" Miriam Pawel has made in shining a beam of light into lesser known aspects of UFW history and the life of Cesar Chavez, probably adds up to something between a few piles of nickels and a fair wage. She shies away from myth making and worn out clichés, describing Cesar Chavez pretty much as he was. No rose colored glasses for her. There is nothing worshipful or "holier than thou" about Miriam Pawel. She writes what she sees and about what she knows. And when the emperor hasn't any, she lets it be known that he has no clothes.
I started writing this as an angry note out of simple outrage at the ad hominem use of the UFW Alumni listserve. Once started, I had to go further. I doubt if there has been much written linking the non-violence of Cesar Chavez and the UFW, to the historical violence resulting from the little known, federally funded, AFL-CIO sponsored organizations and their actions abroad.
First, though I oppose myth making, I do support the naming of schools, boulevards and libraries, etc., in honor of Cesar Chavez. I want to see the Cesar Chavez birthday commemoration in California elevated to the national level. These are very broad and effective, albeit shallow ways to imprint on children and us all, the actions and principles for which Chavez has become renowned. His name is used to honor the workers who sow, grow and harvest the fruits of the earth to earn their wages and concurrently fulfill our most basic needs. His story is used as a catalyst to honor those workers in their organized struggle to win just remuneration for their labor and their rightfully dignified place in society. Cesar Chavez’s public image introduces and underscores the fact that “it's the union makes us strong.” I have participated in such commemorations and related that message to Cesar Chavez Day elementary school assemblies.
For better or worse, the ideas, economics, and the people's movements which drive history don’t easily stand alone. They often need to be propped up and pushed forward by a personage, an icon, an identified hero in order to resonate into our social consciousness. Today, the name Cesar Chavez helps to ring that bell.
The hero image ought not to stray too far from reality. Chavez was a man who drew deep, but reserved, anger from many of the movement’s most ardent participants. Not a few volunteers came away from their time in service to the union broken in spirit and disillusioned. Some were simply "thrown under the bus." In 1992, Chavez, at the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco, in his most humble and engaging manner, spoke at a memorial to his mentor, Fred Ross. His words caused one man who grew strong in the unending struggles of the families who work in the fields to leave his seat, walk to the back of the hall and, with tears in his eyes, blurt to himself, slightly louder than under his breath, “pinche mentiroso (fucking liar).” The words came unwillingly from the mouth of a man whose whole being, love and work was interwoven with the workers' suffering and struggle for justice of in California's Great Central Valley.
In that memorial, at that moment, those two words were shocking, but they helped clear a path through the scrub brush of my mind. We have to honor, and see the importance of the man and the name of the man who exemplifies the struggle, but without wearing blinders in his adoration.
I haven’t read the many books about Cesar Chavez and the UFW. Surely, some of the literature shows the man to be a marvelously talented organizer with a wealth of tactics in his bag of tricks. A problematic but common trait of good organizers is that truth telling is not always compatible with the building of an organization. Truth telling is a criterion for journalists, but an organizer has to tell a good story, build it large or shave it small, shaping it to fit the need of bringing specific people together to achieve a common purpose. One problem with organizers is that sometimes their tactics take on a life of their own. They can grow into strategies, even ideologies that may obstruct the path toward the common purpose of the organization.
With all his warmth and sincerity, Chavez organized good people, talented people, but when they didn’t shape up to his demands, he spit them out just as readily as he sucked them in. And what he demanded was too often determined by that most common characteristic required by authoritarian political leaders and by the traditional Catholic hierarchy – obedience.
Chavez and the United Farm Workers union would have been better off if the natural humility of his earlier days lasted through the later years, but it changed. It must be very difficult to consistently be unbelieving of the headlines and hero stories that carry one’s name. It has to be difficult to continually resist your own media image and the adulation of beautiful and brilliant people whose whole beings come to attention with your mere glance. How wonderful, when the debate and argument which were once such a struggle during the endless meetings that always precede effective collective action become unnecessary and one’s simple suggestion of a resolution to any problem becomes the rule. “But Cesar Says” became the last word in the UFW for so many socially conscious people, young and old, liberal and left, and religious of various religions.
In seeking a way to turn his organization into a crusade, Chavez sampled the teachings of diverse leaders, from Saul Alinsky to Mao Tse-tung, Mohandas Gandhi, to the Kennedys, to Walter Reuther, Reyes Tijerina, Chuck Dederich of Synanon, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He juggled the varied tendencies of those and other leaders within the context of UFW's acceptance of large, regular sustaining funds from the AFL-CIO under the watchful eye of its president, George Meany,
Meany's labor career was laced with iron fisted anti-communism and a strong streak of racism. In 1963 Meany adamantly resisted ending the Jim Crow practices of certain AFL-CIO affiliates, and he only reluctantly came to accept the 1963 "I Have a Dream" civil rights march on Washington.
In his decision making, Cesar Chavez had to sift the ideas of these men of literature and action within the framework of George Meany's Cold War, the Vatican's historical crusade against “Godless Communism,” and the need for sustaining funds.
One strong factor for the decline of the United Farm Workers Union may have derived from its celebrity among good liberals, the awesome allegiance of genuinely humane church people and its early-on dependence on the financial support and “guidance” of George Meany’s AFL-CIO. Chavez came to be dependent upon outside financing for the work of the Union. Without the generosity of progressive and religious groups, and regular checks from the AFL-CIO, the growth and power of the UFW would have had to depend upon the farm workers themselves in a democratic, self-sustaining, dues paying union. Far-fetched? It wasn’t far-fetched for the packing house workers, construction workers, garment workers, steel workers, electrical industry workers, stevedores, coal miners, etc., The rank-and-file members of every one of those unions were no better off than today's farm workers until they came together and built their own unions. In each industry, they organized themselves on a shoestring to build a better life and, by doing so, built the historical foundation of the American labor movement..
Back to the influence of George Meany. In 1962, the year UFW's co-precursor, the National Farm Workers Association was founded, was also the year that the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) came on the scene. AIFLD brought together some of the dominant figures of the Council of Foreign Relations, CEOs of multinational corporations, the Latin American business elite, along with the presidents of several U.S. and Latin American unions. George Meany named himself President and J. Peter Grace, CEO of the W.R. Grace Corporation, became Chairman of the Board of AIFLD. The "Institute" was backed by 95 major corporations. Many AIFLD operatives were unquestionably identified as CIA agents. J. Peter Grace was quietly dropped after 19 years on the AIFLD Board when he became publicly associated with Otto Ambrose, formerly an executive official of the I.G. Farben Corporation, a top financial backer of Hitler's Nazi Party. During WWII Ambrose was in charge of forced labor production at the Auschwitz death camp. He was convicted at Nuremburg for "slavery and mass murder." J. Peter Grace recommended Ambrose for a U.S. visa, asserting his "very deep admiration not only for his ability, but more important, for his character in terms of truthfulness and integrity." There was never any effort by the AFL-CIO to explain why Grace fell from his position in AIFLD. This Meany-Grace-Ambrose episode may help reveal some of the character of the organization itself. The history of the AIFLD has largely been obscured within the ranks of the AFL-CIO. A telephone survey in San Jose in 1974 determined that not a single trade unionist polled knew anything at all about AIFLD's work in Latin America.
AIFLD's first funding of $350,000 was obtained for it by President Kennedy. It was supplied through the "Black Budget" of the CIA Throughout its existence (1962-1995) over ninety percent of AIFLD funding, came from the federal government during both Democratic and Republican administrations, much of it delivered by the CIA through puppet organizations. According to its Director, William C. Doherty Jr., AIFLD urged "...cooperation between labor and management and an end to class struggle... (It) teaches workers to increase their company's business... (with the goal) to prevent communist infiltration and where it exists...get rid of it."
AIFLD advanced right-wing takeovers and countered electoral and revolutionary victories by working class unions and movements. Through AIFLD, the AFL-CIO has helped lay the groundwork in the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Guatemala, Brazil and Chile, and participated in interventions in Guyana, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Through the years countless trade unionists were murdered as a byproduct of AIFLD activities. Nonviolence was not a consideration in their game.
Some months after the 9/11/1973 Pinochet coup against the government of Salvador Allende in Chile the Central Labor Council of Santa Clara County, California passed a resolution challenging AIFLD about its role leading to the violent overthrow of Allende. When it was sent to Washington the response from the AFL-CIO was swift. AIFLD Director William C. Doherty Jr. and an aide flew directly to San Jose from Geneva, Switzerland to demand that we rescind the resolution. There was a full blown floor debate. The delegates had strong feelings, but Doherty and his sidekick had the facts. The cliche is, "they knew where all the bodies were buried." The delegates' were not doing well and it looked like the Resolution would be withdrawn. At that point a delegate from AFSCME Local 101 arose and pointed his finger, stammering, "I know who you guys are. I know who you are. I worked in Pernambuco, Brazil in the Peace Corps. Your people are the guys that came around all the time pumping us for names. I know who you guys are. You're the CIA!" That tipped it for us. The delegates and the resolution remained firm. The Santa Clara County CLC came to be known in Washington, DC as the labor council with its own foreign policy.
Although taxpayer dollars, not union dues, funded AIFLD, it was put forward as an arm of the AFL-CIO extending solidarity to the unions of Latin America. In practice, it supported right-wing unions which cooperated with the needs of various dictatorships and softened the ground for the expansion of U.S. Corporate investment and exploitation in Latin America. Once AIFLD was established, the AFL-CIO created similar institutes in Asia, Africa and even in Europe.
Various volumes have been written about this history. The most recent and comprehensive is by Kim Scipes, “AFL-CIO’s Secret War Against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage” published by Lexington Books. You can get it by putting this in your browser: http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/book.htm. In 1974 even I wrote a short volume, mainly about the part AIFLD took in the bloody termination of the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende in Chile. I think my title described the situation well: “The Foreign Policy of the AFL-CIO in Latin America: or Under the Covers with the C.IA.”
But don't take my word for it. Victor Reuther who, along with his brothers Walter and Roy, was seminal in the formation of the United Auto Workers, wrote in his memoir about, "The AFL-CIO’s blind obedience to the State Department and its alliance with the CIA." He said, "Meany’s deputies in the area of international intrigues had created a world network financed with huge amounts of money... Sometimes, they used international or regional puppet trade union structures. In some occasions they penetrated the international secretariats of the trade unions...The amounts of money that the latter handled made them vulnerable to the control of the donor."
I believe UFW, "the union of our dreams," lost a good part of its soul with its early financial dependence on the AFL-CIO as a "donor". That dependence seems to have brought with it either undeserved loyalty or subservience to George Meany's foreign policy adventures in the service of – yes, that really comprehensive word -- imperialism. Knowingly and willingly or not, Chavez and the Union were used. UFW's famous nonviolence domestically may have suffered from a Faustian bargain abroad. In any case, it was caught in a contradiction of calamitous proportions.
This began to be clear to me in 1974 or in 1976, I’m not sure which of those two years. It was when I visited a UFW office on John Street in Salinas, CA. I had in hand a copy of a letter written by Robert O'Neill, AIFLD's top man in Chile. O'Neill asked that the Chilean union leaders that he was hoping to send to the U.S. For “orientation” be guaranteed a visit in Delano with the UFW. Essentially, the letter described how important it was that his Chilean visitors be dissuaded from any anti-American notions by exposure to the best known democratic and progressive U.S. union, the UFW. O'Neill indicated that U.S. visits were the way Chilean unionists tied to AIFLD, "can grow and eventually control the trade union movement here." In that manner he UFW was used to strengthen the labor credentials of AIFLD operatives in their efforts to destabilize and undermine the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende.
Once in the U.S. for training, regional organizers on the staff of the AFL-CIO Organizing Department would chaperone AIFLD people and their delegations from abroad on field trips to visit specific unions for discussions with union leaders and tours of their facilities. The visits displayed some of what AIFLD called the "nuts and bolts" of union functions and, in a sense, gave AIFLD bona fide credentials "on the ground" with functioning unions and real people. The AFL-CIO Organizing Department staff people selected the U.S. unions and the leaders to be visited and arranged those events. A good friend, who I long ago recommended for a job on the AFL-CIO organizing staff, was appointed by Bill Kircher, Organizing Department Director. Sometime later, my friend thought it would be interesting to invite me to one of those meetings with AIFLD "trainees" from Chile. It was a lunch meeting in a conference room at a nearby local union. I gladly accepted the invitation and took the opportunity to raise some questions about U.S. government funding of their visit and about AIFLD and CIA operations in their own country. The obviously uncomfortable AIFLD chaperones became anxious to end the meeting even before dessert was served. Nevertheless, I got a sumptuous free lunch, learned a lot, and hopefully broadened the perspective of the Chilean visitors.
I interviewed a Chilean pilot in Mexico in 1975 who made clear AIFLD's pattern of operation. The pilot was an officer in the "cabin crew" union at LAN Chile, the national airline. He told of being brought to Front Royal, Virginia for AIFLD training. While there, he was approached to earn an extra paycheck as a CIA "asset" in his own union at LAN Chile. He found the offer revolting and rejected it out of hand. He also rejected being any further part of the schemes of AIFLD. The pilot described that AIFLD’s modus operandi was: 1-They arrange training give courses in “free trade unionism” in one's home union. 2- There, AIFLD personnel would select the pick of the pack among the trainees. 3- Those selected would be offered trips for advanced training in the U.S. with all expenses paid. 4- Once here, training would include visits to specific cooperating unions. It was on these visits that they would meet a "really friendly" man or woman who would try to recruit them with a lucrative offer to work with the CIA back at home. My interviewee suffered and struggled under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. I recently saw his name as president of the LAN Chile union's retiree committee.
I showed Robert O'Neill's letter to Chavez and we discussed it for a while. (A third person was in the room that may prefer not to be involved in this discussion.) Cesar Chavez was clear about the issue but was reticent to talk about it. The Chilean union involved was among those which AIFLD deemed to be important to fomenting the economic and social disruption that foreshadowed the violent overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected government. That final takeover was accomplished by Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s chosen man, General Pinochet. The coup took place, reportedly, under the watchful eye of the U.S. Navy, conveniently doing maneuvers in the waters off Valparaiso on 9/11/1973. Cesar did not say whether or not he cooperated with such AIFLD visits. He was, however, uncharacteristically fidgety and stone-faced. He made no commitment to act on the information. We would not expect so intelligent a leader, a man so publicly committed to non-violence, to allow his organization to be tied to the corporate friendly schemes of the Nixon administration through AIFLD. More than three thousand men and women many selected from an AIFLD list of "subversives." Many or most of those who were killed following the overthrow of democracy in Chile by Pinochet were progressive trade unionists like many of us. They were made martyrs for their names being put on a list.
I am told that there is more AIFLD correspondence in the Union archives at Wayne State University in Detroit dealing with arrangements for such "international solidarity" visits with Cesar and the UFW.
Events that occurred in 1977 indicated that Cesar had not disassociated himself with the foreign schemes and alliances of the AFL-CIO. Few people called attention to the convergence of George Meany's and Cesar Chavez's practical application of foreign policy. Perhaps the only people aware of the relationship were Bill Kircher and George Meany's appointees in his "labor institutes." Also, the practices of the AFL-CIO abroad were almost totally unknown among union members in our country. Its history, still avoided and undisclosed by top AFL-CIO officials, is almost as unknown in the ranks of our unions today as it was forty years ago.
In 1977, despite outspoken objections among UFW members and supporters, Chavez went to the Philippines and paid homage to Washington’s man in Manila, Ferdinand Marcos. He was a firm Cold War ally of the U.S. foreign policy elite and infamous worldwide for the brutality of his martial law dictatorship. Within the UFW, Andy Imutan busily promoted the visit. Such an adventure could not have been arranged without the knowledge, consent, and involvement of the Asian American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI), the AFL-CIO’s counterpart to AIFLD in the Philippines. It also required the participation of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP,) formed in 1975 as the labor partner of the Marcos government. Indeed, the photo-ops of Marcos and Chavez are crowded with officials of the TUCP.
If the pattern of financing was consistent with AIFLD's practice in Latin America, the visit was paid for by the U.S. Department of Labor and finessed through the State
Department. AAFLI invested millions of taxpayer dollars in the TUCP, the institutional labor federation of the Marcos government. The Marcos dictatorship was notorious for its large scale authoritarian corruption and violent political repression. The May first Movement (Kilusang Mayo Uno) was the TUCP's main opposition. Its leaders and members suffered many casualties from paramilitary death squads under the Marcos dictatorship. The Cesar Chavez the world knew as a nonviolent leader for social justice would never have made this trip to do a ceremonial handshake with Ferdinand Marcos as an event of choice. He would never have intelligently and independently chosen to risk making this visit. Cesar was much too smart not to know that it would disrupt and divide the UFW and its base of liberal and progressive supporters. The visit could serve no benefit to the workers at the point of production in the fields. Rather, it could be expected to divide the members of the union.
AIFLD’s involvement with Cesar in connection to the Pinochet coup in Chile, then his visit to Marcos, led me to think about something I witnessed in 1967 or 1968 in Filipino Hall in Delano. Filipino Hall was the UFW center for meetings and meals. One day a small group of men in brown or khaki uniform clothing picked up trays on the line for lunch. Their translator told me they represented the CVT, French initials for the Vietnamese Confederation of Labor. It was the official labor organization that operated at the pleasure of the CIA and in service to Presidents Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Cao Ky. The CVT was headed by Tran Quoc Buu who also ran a business in shipping and questionable money transfers.
At the time I was unaware of what might bring a CVT group to the UFW at that time. Like others, we all assumed that the delegation was part of an AFL-CIO effort at international labor solidarity. I didn’t know enough to raise the issue in any effective manner. I am now convinced that the only way their visit could have taken place was through the auspices of the AFL-CIO, AAFLI and the CIA.
People who were not part of the Vietnam War generation may not know who Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Cao Ky were. Here is what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1967 about these two Presidents who sanctioned and controlled the CVT as their "free union" labor partner to stem the growth of genuine and democratic unions:
“...(T)he United States...started supporting a man named Diem who turned out to be one of the most ruthless dictators in the history of the world. He set out to silence all opposition. People were brutally murdered because they raised their voices against the brutal policies of Diem. And the peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly rooted out all opposition. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by United States influence and by increasing numbers of United States troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem's methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown, they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictatorships seemed to offer no real change, especially in terms of their need for land and peace. And who are we supporting in Vietnam today? It's a man by the name of general Ky [Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky] who fought with the French against his own people, and who said on one occasion that the greatest hero of his life is Hitler. This is who we are supporting in Vietnam today. Oh, our government and the press generally won't tell us these things, but God told me to tell you this morning. The truth must be
“...I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government...”
Cesar Chavez could not have been the only individual aware of the UFW link to the efforts of AIFLD and AAFLI. Though issues of activities in Latin America and Asia tangential to Chavez's inner circle, his closest advisors must have discussed such matters with him. Some of them might be willing and able to detail such discussions. We may learn that there truly is a devil in the details.
In 1965 Bill Kircher was hand-picked by President George Meany, to head the AFL-CIO Department of Organization. Kircher was with Chavez in San Jose when Cesar asked me to come to Delano to work with the Union. There is an early 1966 photo of Cesar with Bill Kircher, taken that day. While our family was in Delano in 1967 and 1968 Kircher was frequently seen alongside Chavez. Kircher was easy to get along with, a very warm and friendly man.
He and Cesar Chavez most surely consulted on how the UFW might collaborate with the "Institutes" on what became the pattern of arranging visits from "trainees" abroad. Organizing Department staff people had responsibility for arranging such visits in their own bailiwicks. It could not be otherwise than that it was high on Department Director's agenda in dealing with the UFW, the AFL-CIO's most important new union.
By 1968, over 37% of the entire resources of the AFL-CIO Department of Organization were concentrated on the UFW. This was under the Bill Kircher's leadership. He operated under the direct authority of George Meany. Meany's entire career was characterized by Cold War anti-communism and was punctuated by government financed AFL-CIO interventions against unions and governments that stepped out of line with U.S. foreign policy and the demands of Corporate America. The other side of that coin was money, training and other back-up for right wing unions, governments and dictators who played ball with Washington and the CIA.
I had direct experience with an AIFLD intervention when I went to El Salvador with a labor delegation in 1986. AIFLD had a dangerous effect on our delegation and a direct and lethal impact on Salvadoran farm workers. The AFL-CIO and AiFLD were in sync with U.S. foreign policy in El Salvador. They supported the dominant oligarchy, its military, and successive puppet administrations. They also generously supported what they called in El Salvador, the "yellow unions." Those tied to the armed forces and the government. AIFLD strongly opposed the labor organizations that sought change toward social and economic justice. Those were the "subversives" whose members struggled for a better life and opposed the government of Napoleon Duarte. The purpose of our delegation was to participate in a conference called by the Union Nacional de Trabajadores Salvadorenos (UNTS,) the National Union of Salvadoran Workers. Our visit took place not long after Monsignor Oscar Romero was assassinated in the pulpit during a Sunday service. Romero had been outspoken in urging President Jimmy Carter to withhold promised shipments of weapons to the Salvadoran forces of repression.
At the time there was a tumult of change taking place in El Salvador's labor movement. AIFLD, with its U.S. government supplied resources, worked overtime and generously to keep labor in line with the government. A new labor federation, supportive of the rightwing government had been formed, the Union Nacional de Obreros y Campesinos (UNOC.)
UNTS broke away from UNOC. Our UNTS conference had been called to clear up international confusion about the developments in the Salvadoran labor and people's movements and to strengthen bonds of solidarity.
The government anticipated our arrival and at first, denied us entry, trying to turn us back to the plane that brought us. We became loud and persistent in demanding help from the U.S. Embassy. It soon became clear that turning us back would be terrible public relations for them and they let us go through customs. We awoke the following morning to see that an AIFLD funded "yellow" union had placed a full page newspaper display ad denouncing our visit and linking our delegation to the FMLN, El Salvador's anti-government guerrilla movement. The ad tended to make us a target of the military and paramilitary death squads that acted with approval and impunity from any lawful prosecution.
Our conference took place in the Jesuit University of Central America, a short distance from the church in which Msgr. Oscar Romero was killed. A few years later six priests from that same Jesuit University group were assassinated. Our ability to hear during much of the conference was impaired by the presence of U.S. supplied military helicopters hovering overhead.
Besides sitting in conference sessions our delegation visited several points of labor interest. One trip was by bus to an agricultural cooperative at Las Hojas, Sonsonate, about forty miles from San Salvador. There, we were welcomed by a group headed by Adrian Esquino Lizco, Chief of the National Indigenous Association of El Salvador (ANIS), essentially a farm worker union.
After a moving spiritual ceremony, Esquino led us through fields to a site on the banks of the Cuyuapa River where a massacre of farm workers had taken place on February 22, 1983. The army, together with a local paramilitary group selected their victims from a list of "subversives." They were singled out and grabbed from their families. Each of them, with their thumbs tied together, were marched down to the banks of the river. Held at bay by troops with drawn guns, the rest of the community could do nothing. Many shots were heard. When it was over, seventy-four farm workers had been murdered. Each person was executed with a shot either in the temple or behind the ear.
We heard this story through tears from Chief Lizco and several surviving friends and family members of the victims. They described how their loved ones were taken by masked paramilitaries and regular soldiers, checking them off from their list of "subversives."
When asked who was responsible for the atrocity, Chief Lizco told us the names of the military officers in charge and of the local paramilitary group He then said, "The list of the victims was from IADSL." Those initials are Spanish for AIFLD, American Institute for Free Labor Development or Instituto Americano para el Desarrollo de Sindicalismo Libre, the group to which the UFW had become associated
Our discussion of the events ended abruptly when armed, uniformed men came into sight at the edge of the field. Chief Esquino rushed us all back to our bus and we left immediately to return to the relative safety of urban San Salvador. We were pursued by two Ford Broncos filled with uniformed men. Our driver sped around mountain curves on the two lane road, keeping the Broncos behind us by hogging the road each time one of the Broncos tried to pass us. Our tour leaders from the UNTS demanded that we get down and keep our heads below the window level. Whatever the value of praying, those who did it, did it. It couldn't have hurt that we had two priests on board to do the praying for all of us. They were the late and great Fr. Bill O'Donnell from Oakland, CA, and Fr. Bill Leininger of San Jose, CA. They were friends in seminary school, too. The skill and courage of the driver brought us back to the conference with no more damage than the fright of the ride on the twisting road from Las Hojas.
Chief Adrian Esquino Lizco, was a man who shared some of the non-violent spiritual values of Cesar Chavez. He has been referred to as "the Dalai Lama of El Salvador's nearly extinct indigenous population." Unfortunately, the hurried departure from Las Hojas cut short our discussion about the extent of AIFLD's responsibility in the massacre of farm workers on the banks of the Cuyuapa River in Las Hojas.
One might ask why this relationship between Cesar Chavez's UFW and the AFL-CIO's operations abroad to penetrate and neutralize class struggle oriented labor organizations and governments by any means necessary has not been studied previously. Maybe it has. I'm no scholar, but no written works on that relationship have ever been brought to my attention. I've seen no literature examining the morally corrosive consequences of using an organization noted for its nonviolence as a showplace to buoy up foreign policies and practices that result in widespread death and destruction to workers just like ourselves in various countries. Analysis shows that, whether deliberately or not, the UFW became a junior partner to the AFL-CIO's alliance with Washington's foreign policy establishment, helping to move it along on its path to Empire.
Why is so little known about the federally funded foreign policy instruments of the AFL-CIO and their impact at home and abroad? AFL-CIO officialdom has successfully wrapped these cloak and dagger operations in the rhetoric of so-called "solidarity" and kept them as invisible as possible from the scrutiny of the rank-and-file men and women who constitute our labor movement.
Some of that hidden history was revealed and examined during a convention of the California Labor Federation (CALFED) in 2002 in the presentation of the "Clear the Air" resolution calling for opening the archives and examining the overseas activities of the AFL-CIO financed with taxpayer money and cutting it short. Because of the concern that we were "washing our dirty laundry in public," the resolution was put aside. A substitute resolution was agreed upon: to have a meeting with top officials of the Solidarity Center, the current AFL-CIO foreign policy arm that was put in place after the 1995 election of President john Sweeney and the subsequent dissolution of AIFLD, AAFLI and the other "Institutes." If the meeting with the top officials turned out not to be productive, we were to re-introduce "Clear the Air" at the 2004 CALFED Convention. The meeting took place. We had some sixty people in attendance including our heaviest hitter, Ed Asner, former President of the Screen Actors Guild. The Solidarity Center and the Chair of the AFL-CIO International Affairs Committee refused say anything at all on the issues until we all agreed to shut any and all recording devices, to not quote them publicly and guarantee that everything said in the meeting was "off the record." They then presented a weak and unsatisfactory defense of the Federation's government subsidized "dirty laundry" abroad.
People from many unions joined the discussion. Ed Asner gave a passionate plea for openness and independence from the government and multinational corporations in the AFL-CIO's activities abroad. Many felt that the AFL-CIO presenters gave us a "dog and pony show." The outcome was agreement to bring the "Clear the Air" resolution back to the CALFED Convention in 2004.
The South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council passed the "Build Unity and Trust Among Workers Worldwide" resolution, including and strengthening the substance of "Clear the Air." The Monterey Bay and San Francisco Labor Councils then passed similar resolutions and the California Federation of Teachers added to the mix. These new resolutions were brought to the 2004 CALFED Convention. As they were compatible with "Clear the Air," the Resolutions Committee edited the three into a single document and presented its own comprehensive "Build Unity and Trust Among Workers Worldwide" resolution. It passed without opposition on July 13, 2004 in San Diego, CA by the unanimous vote of some 400 delegates representing 2.4 million union members, more than 16% of the entire AFL-CIO membership.
Here is the part most relevant to this discussion: "RESOLVED that the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO supports the basic demand of the 'Clear the Air' resolution to call upon the National AFL-CIO 'to fully account for what was done in Chile (and Venezuela) and other countries where similar roles may have been played in our name, and to describe, country by country, exactly what activities it may still be engaged in abroad with funds paid by government agencies and renounce any such ties that could compromise our authentic credibility and the trust of workers here and abroad and that would make us paid agents of government or of the forces of corporate economic globalization"
"Unity and Trust" was sent to the 2005 AFL-CIO Convention in Chicago where the Federation's top officials succeeded in keeping it off the floor. The Solidarity Center's first move was to spend a good deal of taxpayer money to send a delegation to Colombia. Moved by what they were shown in Colombia and coached by the Solidarity Center, they developed a resolution for the AFL-CIO convention in support of the Center's activities. The Convention Resolutions Committee put even that aside and presented their own resolution in total praise of the Solidarity Center and for continuing its activities. The Convention chairman allowed two speakers in its favor, and though there was a lineup at the microphone, reached out to "hear" a delegate say "call the question" from the floor. With that, the gavel came down ruling passage of the official resolution on a voice vote. Democracy was overruled, transparency and accounting for past foreign meddling, was put "off the table" and all action critical of the Solidarity Center, contrary to the demand of one sixth of the AFL-CIO membership, was denied in the name of "free trade unionism" at the 2005 Convention.
I didn't make any of this story up. I do interpret the facts honestly according to my own perspective without any claim to impartiality. Anyone who writes does that simply because we filter the facts through a thought process conditioned by individual experience within an overall world view. I don't offer THE TRUTH. The best I can do is offer you my truth and state it as honestly as I know to do.
No single part of this story stands alone. When I saw and met those uniformed, government/union "representatives" from South Vietnam coming to lunch in Filipino Hall, I didn't think about it much. It seemed to be an understandable example of international labor solidarity. I shrugged and went on to do whatever was on the agenda that day. I didn't write down the date, time and place or make any special note of the instance.
None of us made any special note of the visitors from South Vietnam. Most volunteers with the UFW in Delano at that time developed a sort of tunnel vision. We focused on each job of work that was in front of us each day and put the rest of the world aside. In my family, during that time, it didn't matter that African American ghettoes were rising up against racism in urban areas around the country. Most of us saw the Chicano Movement asserting itself in New Mexico, Los Angeles, even in San Jose only through our peripheral vision.. We had no time or energy to spend on the birth of the Peace and Freedom Party or in the rising crescendo of opposition to the horrible holocaust of the U.S. war in Vietnam. We didn't read books, magazines or newspapers. What we did every day in the farm worker movement consumed all our energy and attention.
When I carried the letter from Robert O'Neill to Cesar, it was out of deep concern that he and the union avoid becoming enmeshed with AIFLD's nefarious work in Latin America. The CIA and all relevant government forces were under Richard Nixon's orders "to make the economy scream" in Chile. AIFLD and O'Neill, the man in charge of U.S. labor activity in Chile, were funded from the same source and part of the same project that built toward the violent destruction of Chilean democracy. I went to Salinas to talk with Cesar with confidence that the Cesar Chavez I knew would want no part of the violence precipitated by AIFLD abroad. I wanted to inform him of what the George Meany crew in D.C. had been up to in Chile and other countries, to warn him against stepping into a cesspool of violence that, If it were known, would put a stink on the UFW.
Why did Cesar Chavez make his public photo-op endorsement of Ferdinand Marcos? Why did he spend the time or money for the visit? Where did that money come from? How could the visit benefit the workers in the fields or the continued unity of the UFW? Grasping the hand of Ferdinand Marcos left blood on the hand of Cesar Chavez and an indelible stain on Chavez/UFW mantle of non-violence. One rapid consequence of that visit was the removal of Philip Veracruz from the UFW Executive Board. Philip was one of the original Filipino organizers during the birth of the Union. He was a passionate warrior for workers and for his people. Philip left a void on the board.
Still, I did not think about a meaningful pattern. It took the unreasoned outrage against Miriam Pawel, who dared puncture Cesar Chavez's overblown image of saintliness. The title of the recent Atlantic Magazine article, “The Madness of Cesar Chavez," tipped it for me. Did Chavez truly lose the perspective of reason? What happens in the mind of a man who fasts for twenty-five days for non-violence and exhausts his body with several subsequent fasts? What goes on inside the head of a man who ejects friends and comrades who he loves and who love him, charging them to be subversives, communists and "counter-organizers"? Can one maintain stability after building an organization and a worldwide reputation based on the principle of non-violence and then realize that all this has been used and co-opted through AIFLD and AAFLI by what Dr. King called, "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today?"
For me, living in the shadow of such a devastating contradiction would make sanity very difficult to maintain.
Cesar Chavez was a complex man with a mission. He was faced with constantly difficult decisions and caught in the ideological crosswinds of our society and cultures. He must be measured realistically and respected within the political, social, personal and religious context and truth of his life. He must not be worshiped or sanctified. Let myth making be damned!
Thank you, Miriam Pawel, for your fine and revealing work in "The Union of Their Dreams."
Thank you, Caitlin Flanagan, for tipping me to think about these matters more deeply with your "The Madness of Cesar Chavez."
Thanks to Kim Scipes for revealing an aspect of the history made and subsequently hidden by some our top union officials in your “AFL-CIO’s Secret War Against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?”
Thanks in advance to Frank Bardacke for your forthcoming book, "Trampling out the Vintage: The Two Souls of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers." I anticipate it will be a most challenging and thoroughly documented account that is true to history and reality.