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Former Chavez Ally Took His Own Path

Where Eliseo Medina has gone, unions have grown. His successes in organizing immigrants show what farmworkers lost -- but can find again, he believes.

January 11, 2006|Miriam Pawel | Times Staff Writer

At 21, the farmworker from Delano with an eighth-grade education hopped an airplane for the first time, with $20, a bag of UFW buttons to sell and the name of a Chicago postal worker loyal to the union cause.

The kid from the tiny town in the Central Valley who landed on John Armendariz's doorstep in 1967 was totally green -- amazed at the city traffic, baffled by Chicago's El and faced with a daunting task: Get supermarkets to stop selling grapes.

Armendariz had watched his five children grapple with fear in different ways, and he wondered how Eliseo Medina would cope, without even winter clothes.

"His were real fears," Armendariz said. "How do you introduce yourself? How do you talk to people? He did an amazing job of controlling that."

Drawing on the kindness of strangers, his charm and his wits, Medina built a boycott operation that kept grapes out of a major Midwest supermarket chain, helping force California growers to negotiate the first contracts with the UFW.

Today the trademark smile that lights up his whole face is unchanged, but the scared kid has grown into a graying giant of the labor movement. He has helped orchestrate labor's rise in Southern California, has become a key player in the national immigration debate and now oversees locals in 17 states as executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

If not for Cesar Chavez, Medina might still be in Delano, picking grapes and shooting pool at People's bar. Instead, he is the preeminent example of a generation of activists nurtured by the UFW and its founders.

But Medina is organizing janitors and healthcare workers, not farmworkers. His life illustrates another part of the Chavez legacy: The UFW founder drove out many of the union's most committed labor leaders, who quit the fields and turned their talents to other causes.

Medina was once the obvious heir apparent to Chavez. Even in his youth, he displayed a similar charismatic appeal and tactical brilliance.

"He would have been president if he'd stayed," said Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the union.

In August 1978, Medina resigned as a vice president of the UFW, frustrated by Chavez's insistence on an all-volunteer staff and his reluctance to give workers greater power. "At a time when we should have been focused on consolidating and building the union, we got involved in a lot of things that drew attention from what I felt was our priority mission," Medina said.

Chavez, Medina concluded, was caught up in the idea of creating a poor people's movement.

"My interest was building a farmworkers union," Medina said. "The goal was not building a farmworkers movement per se. It created a lot of tension."

Medina's success in the intervening years has proved a union can negotiate better wages and working conditions for undocumented immigrants -- a stark counterpoint to the excuses offered by the current leaders of the UFW to justify their failures.

Around Delano, the farming town where the UFW began, people still ask when Medina is coming back. His older sister hears it all the time.

Consuelo Nuno lives in the house where she and Medina grew up. At 63, she works in a vineyard six days a week. Her wages went up a quarter when labor was scarce last summer, to $7 an hour, and the bonus for every full box of grapes is 2 cents more than it was four decades ago when she joined the UFW's first historic grape strike.

Bleak numbers like those encourage some friends to hope Medina might return to tackle the unfinished cause that launched his career. A split in the national labor movement this summer heightened such speculation.

SEIU led several unions that left the AFL-CIO and formed a new coalition, vowing to put more resources into organizing workers. The UFW has joined the coalition, and two other unions in the group have contracts with farmworkers; whether they will join forces remains unclear.

Medina voices enthusiasm for a coordinated campaign to organize farmworkers, but demurs about his own role. "There needs to be a farmworkers union," he said. "I hope that will come out of this. It's certainly going to happen in every other occupation. Why should agriculture be any different?"

From Huanusco to Chicago

The leaders of Huanusco recently commissioned a statue to honor the generations of emigrants who have left the small Mexican town in Zacatecas and traveled north. They are dedicating it to the town's favorite son, Eliseo Vasquez Medina.

He was born there almost 60 years ago, the son of a bracero who worked in the California fields under the guest worker program. At 10, Eliseo moved to Delano, after spending almost two years in Tijuana waiting for permission because his mother insisted on obtaining legal entry. Eliseo entered fourth grade speaking no English; his mother and two older sisters went to work in the Central Valley fields.

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