The Legacy of Cesar Chavez

by Murray N. Rothbard

"Obama announced the creation of a national monument in honor of labor organizer Cesar Chavez.… Here’s Murray Rothbard, who has a somewhat different take on Cesar Chavez. The word ‘floperoo’ is used." ~ Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

This article originally appeared in the Free Market, July 1993. It is appears as chapter 32 in Making Economic Sense (1995).

We live, increasingly, in a Jacobin Age. Memory, embodied in birthdays, anniversaries, and other commemorations, is vitally important to an individual, a family, or a nation. These ceremonies are critical for the self-identity and the renewed dedication to that identity, of a person or of a people. It was insight into this truth that led the Jacobins, during the French Revolution, to sweep away all the old religious festivals, birthdays, and even calendar of the French people, and to substitute new and artificial names, days, and months for commemoration.

This Jacobinical process has been going on in the United States, albeit more gradually, in recent years. Festivals important for American self-identity and dedication have been purged or denigrated: e.g. Washington’s Birthday has been denatured into an amorphous "President’s Day" designed merely to ensure one more holiday weekend. And in stark contrast to the great World Columbian Exposition in Chicago for the quadricentennial of the discovery of America, at its quincentenary in the fall of 1992, the discovery was universally reviled as a vicious genocidal act by a "dead white European male." Every week, it seems, the media come up with little-known substitute people or events whose anniversaries, or whose deaths, we are required to honor.

The latest ersatz hero is Cesar Estrada Chavez, who died last April at the age of 66. For days, TV and the press were filled with the lionization of Chavez and his supposed achievements. President Clinton asserted that "the labor movement and all Americans have lost a great leader," and he called Chavez "an authentic hero to millions of people throughout the world." And we were reminded of Bobby Kennedy’s claim, in 1968, that Chavez "is one of the heroic figures of our time."

What had Chavez done to earn all these extravagant kudos? He had, for the first time, supposedly successfully organized low-paid and therefore "exploited" migrant farm workers, in California and other southwestern states, and thereby improved their lot. By living an austere lifestyle, and accepting only a small salary as founder and head of the United Farm Workers, he struck many gullible young left-liberals as a "saint." His admirers didn’t realize that love of money is not the only emotion that motivates people; there is also the love of power.

Indeed, the Chavez movement was an "in" cause for New Left idealists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Trained by the self-styled "professional radical" Saul Alinsky, Chavez successfully cultivated a quasi-political, quasi-religious aura for his union movement: including hymns, marches, fasts, and flags. He popularized such Spanish words as "La Causa" for his cause and "Huelga!" for "strike," and made it veritable radical chic to boycott grapes in support of his five-year strike against the California grape growers. The Chavez farm worker encampments attracted almost as many short-term priests, nuns, and young liberal idealists as the sugarcane-cutting Venceremos Brigade in Cuba.

In 1970, the boycott finally forced the grape growers to sign with UFW: five years later, Chavez reached his peak of seeming success when his newly elected ally, Governor Jerry Brown, pushed through the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, for the first time compelling collective bargaining in agriculture.

Indeed, the new California act came perilously close to imposing a closed shop: its "good standing clause" permitted union leaders to deny work to any worker who challenged decisions of union leaders.

Yet, despite the hosannahs of the nation’s liberals, and the coercion supplied by the state of California, Cesar Chavez’s entire life turned out to be a floperoo. Whereas he dreamed of his UFW organizing all of the nation’s migrant farm workers, his union fell like a stone from a membership of 70,000 in the mid-1970s to only 5,000 today. In the UFW heartland, the Salinas Valley of California, the number of union contracts among vegetable growers has plummeted from 35 to only 1 at the present time. Only half of the meager union revenues now come from dues, the other half being supplied by nostalgic liberals. The UFW has had it.

What went wrong? Some of Chavez’s critics point to his love of personal power, which led to his purging a succession of organizers, and to kicking all savvy non-Hispanic officials out of his union.

But the real problem is "the economy, stupid." In the long run, economics triumphs over symbolism, hoopla, and radical chic. Unions are only successful in a market economy where the union can control the supply of labor: that is, when workers are few in number, and highly skilled, so that they are not easily replaceable. Migrant farm workers, on the contrary, and almost by definition, are in abundant, ever-increasing, ever-moving, and therefore "uncontrollable" supply. And with their low skills and abundant numbers, they can be easily replaced.

The low wage of migrant farm workers is not a sign that they are "exploited" (whatever that term may mean), but precisely that they are low-skilled and easily replaceable. And anyone who is inclined to weep about their "exploitation" should ask himself why in the world these workers emigrate seasonally from Mexico to the United States to take these jobs. The answer is that it’s all relative: what are "low wages" and miserable living conditions for Americans, are high wages and palatial conditions for Mexicans – or, rather, for those unskilled Mexicans who choose to make the trek each season.

In fact, it’s a darned good thing for these migrant workers that their beloved union turned out to be a failure. For "success" of the union, imposed by the boycott and the coercion of the California legislature, would only have raised wage rates or improved conditions at the expense of massive unemployment of these workers, and forcing them to remain, in far more miserable conditions, in Mexico. Fortunately, not even that coercion could violate economic realities.

As the pseudonymous free-market economist "Angus Black" admonished liberals at the time of the grape boycott: if you really want to improve the lot of grape workers, don’t boycott grapes; on the contrary, eat as many grapes as you can stand, and tell your friends to do the same. This will raise the consumer demand for grapes, and increase both the employment and the wages of grape workers.

But this lesson, of course, never sunk in. It was and still is easier for liberals to enjoy a pseudo-religious "sense of belonging" to a movement, and to "feel good about themselves" by getting a vicarious thrill of sanctification by not eating grapes, than actually to learn about economic realities and what will really help the supposed objects of their concern.

The real legacy of Cesar Chavez is negative: forget the charisma and the hype and learn some economics.