Chávez, Madison, and the attack on the middle class

By Emma WestRasmus

The Mac Weekly sat down with president of the United Farm Workers Arturo Rodriguez after he delivered the [email protected] Week keynote address in Kagin on Tuesday.

TMW: How do you view your role as the leader of a both a major activist organization and a larger social movement?

First of all, it’s just an honor to do what I do and work with the people I work with. Farm workers are very genuine, sincere, hardworking people that come to this country because they want to improve their position, give themselves an opportunity, and to give their children a different lifestyle than they had. They really come here searching for the American Dream, and they don’t ask anything from us except to be treated with respect and dignity. I really feel blessed to be able to do that kind of work and to continue the work that César [Chávez] started. I never thought I’d get to the point of leading the organization, but I guess we all rise to the occasion when it becomes necessary. For me ,at least personally, it’s very much like a religious experience. I belong to the Catholic Church, and I feel like I am living the teachings, doing that kind of work. I feel like it’s making a difference, and it’s building change and giving opportunities to other folks.

TMW: What was your relationship like with your legendary predecesor, UFW founder César Chávez?

I had the chance to spend twenty years with César before he passed away, and that was extremely helpful to learn from him. I got to see what he did, and how he did it, and how he worked with people. It was a living classroom. Being with him for twenty years, especially the last ten years of his life, I spent an incredible amount of time with him. We would travel together and strategize together and just talk all the time. His death was totally unexpected. We were all in a state of shock when it transpired. I was talking to him the night before, and he was tired but it wasn’t that unusual since he’d been working so many hours, and we’d been campaigning about a lawsuit judgment against us. I had just talked to him on the phone the night before we were about to take off on a trip again out East, and that was the last I heard from him.

To me [Chávez] was the ultimate organizer. He was very strategic in his thinking, and was always trying to look ahead, to figure out what the next moves are, and how do you continue to put the opposition in a defensive position. We were always talking about those things, but we had fun too. He taught me how to play handball, so we played handball together a lot. He and I liked country western music as well as Mexican music and so we’d be driving down the road singing Hank Williams, Sr., and all these old tunes. Neither of us could sing, but we had a good time doing it at least.

TMW: What is Chávez’s legacy within the UFW, and how did he shape your personal leadership style?

One of the things I learned from him was that you could never ask people to do what you’re not willing to do. César was always one that believed that you had to lead by doing, and you never sit back and give orders and expect people to do things. You have to lead by example. Too often leaders today forget about that and think that because they have the authority, that’s sufficient to get things done. But he was a leader by example. Nobody worked harder than he did and nobody sacrificed more than he did. He was the first one in the office and the last one to leave, and fasted, the marched, took trips. On weekends he’d be working, wouldn’t take vacations, or his vacation would be somehow centered around work. I’ll never forget one Christmas he took me on an organizing trip. I wasn’t too crazy about that because I wanted to be with my family, but he had this brilliant idea to go down to Baja, California. He wanted to use Christmas for work, but I wanted to go fishing and drink beer and have a good time. But we got in the car-he didn’t even have a drivers license. It was the only time we really got a break, was during Christmas, but it turned out to be a fun trip.

He really, truly, deeply believed that it had to be a movement, and we’ve tried to maintain that tradition. We still try to live up to the core values and principals that he set forth and that we continue to believe in. Our values center around integrity which for Cesar, that was extremely important that we maintain. Because we depend so much on the consumer and on the support of other people, we couldn’t do anything that could damage the image or the good name of the organization. We had to try to refrain from that.

Our other focus is the “Si Se Puede” attitude. We take on challenges that who knows if we can win, but we’re gonna take them on, and we’re gonna encourage and try to inspire people. That’s the important thing to do, regardless of whether you think you can win it or not win it. The important thing is that you’re in the fight. Once you’re in the fight, you’ll never lose, César would tell us. It’s when you abandon the fight, give up the fight that you lose. No matter how difficult a fight may seem, you begin to make progress and you being to have enough impact and win over people to your side by doing it. Man, he had so much perseverance, I mean he was dogged about his willingness to do what was necessary and critical to really make things happen. That was always so important. So much of what we still do today is based on the foundations and what was created by César. But there have been a lot of things that have changed as well.

TMW: Labor and worker’s rights have been gained a high profile in national news recently. Is there a connection between what’s happening in Madison and the work of the UFW?

There’s this effort right now to wipe out the working, middle-class society or workers that have a sense of power or feel a sense of empowerment to really bring about change. And that’s very similar to what [the United Farm Workers] goes through every single day. Corporate America is very cognizant of the draw of getting rid of public sector unions. Already within the private sector we’re only about seven percent organized into unions. So the real strength of the labor movement has been in the public sector. And that’s down to 15 percent. So if they’re successful in passing legislation and making it more difficult for labor to have representation, collective bargaining and that sort of thing, then they’ll be in a position where they have no opposition to fight them, so they’ll be able to do whatever they want. There’s been a long-term attempt to take labor out, regardless of whether it’s public sector or private sector unions. Step back a moment-people that are organized are much more powerful than individuals. Any time you have a united group of people, you’re gonna have much more of an impact. Today big business corporate America is looking for ways to destroy that sense of unity and organization. Without labor really pushing the envelope, getting legislation passed and fighting for wages and benefits, we wouldn’t have a middle class today. It’s not going to happen out of the goodness of someone’s heart. It’s just not gonna happen, that’s reality. We don’t get gains in the fields because some grower wants to all of the sudden treat his employees better. It takes figuring out what’s going to motivate and move that person. So corporate America is really trying to figure out how to get rid of any group of organized people, one being labor.

TMW: What is the UFW’s relatioship with electoral politics?

From those early days we always realized that whatever you win at the bargaining table or through your fights can always be taken away through the halls of Congress via politicians. So we’ve always seen a strong linkage between campaigns and works we were doing to improve the lives of farm workers, and we had to couple it with our work in politics. I’ve run as many political campaigns as organizing campaigns for workers. That’s just part of it. We have to use politics and leverage our growing size
as a Latino population to really gain things that are going to improve our communities, improve our standard of living for working families.

TMW: Has the Obama administration been supportive of the UFW’s work, and are you looking ahead to the 2012 election?

We have a huge stake in the election. Despite the fact that President Obama hasn’t been able to do everything he wants to do on his agenda, I can’t even begin to image what would happen if someone else got elected right now and what they would do, especially with the climate that exists within this Congress. We have go out there and make sure we mount the best types of campaigns that we possibly can do to ensure that we get the vote out. In the current administration, we do have allies. We have Secretary Solis in the Labor Department, Tom Vilsack in Agriculture, and [Ken] Salazar in the Interior. We couldn’t ask for three better people in those positions. I have a lot of confidence in them and we’ve already worked with them all. When President Bush left office, he changed at the last hour the regulations that apply to guestworkers, workers that are brought in from other countries to work in the fields. He took away the protections for those workers, so they got a two dollar an hour decrease via his regulations. Other protections were stripped out of the regs at that point. So we had to go to Secretary Solis when she came into office and ask for her support and help in reversing the application of those regulations. She got involved. She got engaged. It took us a long time to get things changed, but she got in the fight. Previous administrations would have never, never done that.

TMW: What is the relevance of the worker’s rights movement to Macalester students?

Students have to have exposure to causes and social movements that are relevant and happening today, wherever that may be in the United States. That’s critical. To me, it’s as important to actively get involved in putting on an event like this and being successful, as much as it is about being the classroom. This allows you to apply a lot of what you’ve discussed and learned into action, and it forces you to become creative and innovative in how you prioritize and focus your time. So as much as we can still do to introduce this other students and to other young folks that are dedicated, that are committed, and have social consciousness, that’s very important. In my estimation we can never stop doing that kind of work. That’s what keeps us energized, by bringing in talent, new thinking, and new creativity.