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Decisions of Long Ago Shape the Union Today

In the late 1970s Cesar Chavez grew intent on keeping control. He crushed dissent, turned against friends, purged staff and sought a new course.

January 10, 2006|Miriam Pawel | Times Staff Writer

In the winter of 1977, at the height of his union's power, Cesar Chavez summoned the leaders of the United Farm Workers to a mountain retreat in the Sierra foothills. They found themselves in an ultra-clean compound where recovering drug addicts with shaved heads wandered the grounds dressed in uniform overalls.

The purpose soon became clear: Charles Dederich, the flamboyant founder of Synanon, welcomed his guests to the rehabilitation facility and explained the rules of the Game, a therapy designed for drug addicts. A dozen players would gang up on each other, "indicting" a participant for bad behavior by hurling abusive and often profane invective.

The UFW board members had arrived expecting to hash out a new strategic plan after a string of victories, including a pact to keep the rival Teamsters union out of the fields. Instead, they found themselves in the Game room, where some observed from elevated seats as others accepted a challenge to play in the recessed pit.

In retrospect, some UFW leaders came to view the Synanon meeting as a watershed, the first clear signal that Chavez had veered off course and shifted his focus away from organizing farmworkers.

"We were so close," said Eliseo Medina, one of the UFW's top organizers and a board member until 1978. "And then it began to fall apart.... At the time we were having our greatest success, Cesar got sidetracked. Cesar was more interested in leading a social movement than a union per se."

The story of Chavez's erratic leadership during a pivotal period emerged in bits and pieces at the time but has not been fully told before. Many who left the UFW were for a long time reluctant to discuss the union for fear of harming an institution and cause they still believe in deeply. Today, an extensive review of historical letters, minutes, memos and tapes of meetings, along with scores of interviews with participants, paints the first detailed portrait of a critical and turbulent time.

The decisions Chavez made a quarter of a century ago shaped the union and Farm Worker Movement today, turning it away from the core mission of organizing farmworkers. His actions drove out a generation of talented labor leaders; he replaced them with handpicked loyalists -- including many of the people now running the organization. He quashed dissent and increased his control just as the union's growth made that more problematic.

He became increasingly concerned with traitors, spoke of malignant forces and publicly purged the young and old. He turned on proteges, some of his earliest supporters and close friends. His actions so baffled them that many years later they still seek explanations.

For a decade, he had been an internationally acclaimed, visionary leader, a brilliant strategist who inspired dozens of talented people to follow him. He had built a volunteer movement that galvanized public support to change the lives of farmworkers, bringing them dignity as well as higher wages. In California, he had pushed through the only law in the country that gives farmworkers the right to vote for union representation -- establishing a legal framework that the UFW had been quick to exploit, winning dozens of elections and contracts.

As the UFW board gathered in February 1977 at the Synanon campus, there was a moment of opportunity to solidify those gains. Instead, Chavez became focused on building a community at the UFW's rambling headquarters in the Tehachapi Mountains. He railed about inefficiency, obsessing about the cost of telephone bills or questioning a $7.20 brake repair bill. He led committees that discussed celebrating movement anniversaries instead of birthdays. He studied mind healing and practiced curing illness by laying on hands.

For more than a year, Chavez required staff members to drive as much as five hours every weekend to La Paz, the union's headquarters, to play the Game.

"Cesar was struggling with disloyalty within the ranks. Dederich says: 'This is how you deal with it.' The Game came to La Paz for control," said Chris Hartmire, a close Chavez aide who became the "game master" at La Paz, setting up the encounters.

Disciples said Chavez's eclectic interests and commitment to a movement were fundamental to his vision. "When people would accuse him of not being a union guy, he kind of took pride in that," said his son, Paul Chavez, who has carried on the social entrepreneur legacy by building affordable housing.

Said Marc Grossman, a Chavez public relations aide for many years and still the UFW spokesman: "He took as much personal satisfaction in converting someone to vegetarianism as to trade unionism. He really did."

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