A notable contribution to the growing literature on union organizing of farmworkers in the United States is César Chávez: Autobiography of La Causa by Jacques E. Levy. Based primarily on taped oral interviews conducted over five years, journalist Levy reconstructed the life and work of César Chávez and the development of the United Farm Workers of America in the words of the principal participants. The book succeeds brilliantly as a biography but only partially so as a union study. This is probably because the author chose to emphasize Chávez, the man and leader, rather than to present a sustained institutional analysis of the union’s structure and workings.
The first three of Levy’s seven chronological/thematic “Books” explore the formative influences on Chávez the labor organizer. Book I begins with the escape of Chávez’ grandfather from the life of a peon on a Chihuahua hacienda during the Porfiriato. Then follows the life of the Chávez family on their farm in Arizona, especially those experiences which shaped Chávez’ sense of justice and fairness, his well-known beliefs in religion and non-violence. Book II examines the Chávez family in the California agricultural migrant stream, the hardships they suffered, and the machinations of unscrupulous growers and labor contractors. Book III covers the years Chávez spent as an organizer for a civil rights and social service organization dedicated to aiding the urban Mexican poor.
In Book IV Levy shows how Chávez operationalized his ideals to redress the exploitation of farmworkers. Chávez used the methods he had developed as an organizer of the urban poor to organize agricultural workers. The union was bom. Book V covers the struggle of the union during the late 1960s to organize workers, the boycott of table grapes, the signing of contracts in 1970. Books VI and VII poignantly detail the UFWA struggle to survive the collusion between the Teamsters and growers, and attacks from the Nixon administration. The book closes with an account of the creation of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board in late 1975, and Chávez’ hopes to expand the struggle to eradicate the exploitation of poor people and bring them a measure of human dignity.
Overall, Levy has written a sympathetic and insightful study of Chávez and, to a lesser extent, the UFWA. This book may well be the best biography of Chávez for many years to come. However, those who seek to understand the dynamics of UFWA leadership, organizational maintenance and development, will have to look elsewhere.