Saturday, December 11, 2010

Union of Their Dreams author visits Watermark Books

Rep Delia Garcia, Joe Ewers (IAM),
Miriam Pawel, Sandy Nathan

On October 25, author Miriam Pawel gave a talk at Wichita's Watermark Books on her new book Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez's Farm Worker Movement. The book is not a biography of Cesar Chavez or a history of the United Farmworkers. Rather it is a collective biography of eight people who jointed the farm workers movement and played important roles in the movement.

They include Eliseo Medina who was recently elected Secretary-Treasurer of the SEIU, making him the highest ranking Mexican-American in the US labor movement.

Another of the eight was actually at the reading: Sandy Nathan, who worked on the legal team for the UFW. Today, he works as a labor lawyer and serves on the Moundridge School Board. He continued a California-based practice and in the decades since has represented practically all kings of workers, except for farm workers.  He is married to Kirsten Zerger, a Kansas native who was also involved in the UFW. She is now director of education and training at the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Bethel College, where she founded a community mediation center. She also teaches courses in mediation, negotiation, law and restorative justice. According to Pawel, “the biggest legacy of the UFW today is a generation of lawyers, activists, and organizers who learned in the UFW.”

Pawel described the United Farm Workers as “last great social movement in the country, it changed live in the farm workers in the field and those who worked in the movement...” She added “one of Chavez's great achievements was to bring visibility to a class of workers who had before been invisible, excluded from all labor law legislation. His crusades and boycotts brought them into public consciousness.”

Her book tells the story of how Chavez imposed techniques from the human potential movement, especially the controversial “game” from the controversial Synanon group and demanded that the UFW remain a movement powered by volunteers. Others, including Eliseo Medina, wanted the UFW to concentrate on bread-and-butter union issues of winning better wages and working conditions and empowering rank-and-file union members.

The path chosen by the charismatic Chavez, in Pawel's view, led to the stagnation and decline of the UFW. “The UFW today if a very small union, which is really more of a Hispanic lobbying organization,” Pawel said

“Chavez has never been examined in his totality, he has been relegated to a saintly position that does neither him or the cause any good... there are lessons about what to do if you are in an organization and there is something going wrong when do you speak up, how do you preserve democracy in an organization and still get things done,” Pawel said.

Pawel said that she hopes the stories in Union of Their Dreams will inspire and inform a new generation of activists for farmworkers. She pointed to the current exciting work by FLOC (Farm Labor Organizing Committee), an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, and the Coalition of Immakolee Workers.

A Union of Their Dreams is one of the best books about workers that I have read in recent years. To learn more about the book and for additional materials, including historical photos and recordings, be sure to visit the book's website.
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