Monday, July 30, 2012

"Chávez, No, Chavez!" - a poetic solidarity

Cesar Chavez speaks to farm workers in Imperial Valley, California in 1979
Photo by Steve Fontanini, Los Angeles Times

Chávez, No, Chavez!
by Mike Marcellino

Only way I could remember this day
was to hold on to cryptic Jesus.
Two words,
all wrapped up in
two words,
cryptic Jesus.

Though it was Sunday, I didn't start out for church,
not right away.
On the way to the beach,
stopped for a beer at Jack's -
a real watering place,
a maze of old low slung
white chipped painted wood
reminding me of Sherwood's Forest
where we drank Saigon tea
with the enemy back in another day.

On the beach it was already threatening.
Right away I encountered a bearded young  surfer
with long tangled black hair
and a goatee.
Waving his one arm," he screamed at question toward me.
"Is it a tornado?"
Looking at me as if I would surely know.

"Where are you guys from?" I asked, curiously.

The three crazy surfers, boards under hand
stood, dying to paddle out.

"Did you see the life guard twirling his red flag,
jumping down from his high wood chair,
blowing a whistle?
That didn't seem to impress them.

"Can we go in the water,"
the three amigos looked at me,
anxiously, waiting for my answer.

"Did you see the life guard twirling his red flag,
jumping down from his high wood chair,
blowing his whistle?"
I appealed to the three amigos again.

"Where are you guys from?"
I asked again to change the subject.
"Venezuela." he said, still wanting to go in the surf.

Rain splashed down in gigantic drops
pelting the three amigos and me.
First north, then south, lightening bolts flashed down to the sea.

Then, the first amigo told me he saw a funnel cloud.
"Over water?" I asked, that perked my interest.
"No, over land, not the sea."
That was enough for me
to pack up, head for some safety.
This looks just about like the truckload of United Farm Workers
who arrived on our picket lines on July 4, 1973
at the onset of our strike against The Painesville Telegraph

"Venezuela?  I said in a puzzled tone.
"I always get mixed up.
Far as I've been is Mexico.
Is that shuh-vez (Chavez)?"
I asked, knowing the answer.
"No, chah-vez (Chávez)," he shouted out,
but not angrily.

"Cesar 'chah-vez' was the leader
of the farm workers in America.
For the union!"
I shouted above roar.

"I know cause he sent me a hand written letter
and a bunch of his farm workers
loaded in a truck
to our Fourth of July strike in 1973
for solidarity.
They walked the picket lines with us
outside the Painesville newspaper plant,
along Lake Erie, in eastern Ohio.

"A farmer worker read his letter
right in front of the reporters and TV for all to see.
I wish I still had the letter from Chavez
but I think I know what it would say -
something about...the 'unjust conditions...
'dignity and solidarity,

Painesville Telegraph newspaper building sign in 1969

"It's 'chah-vez," he insisted.

I doubt very much the smiling amigos
from South America
had ever heard of the Chavez
from North America.

Oh, no, by now the blue grey black
thunderstorms packed with lightening
was looking like the space ship that covered
the capital in Independence Day, the movie.
"Cryptic Jesus," I muttered to myself,
trying to hold on.

"Holy Mother, Mary, sweet Jesus,
I am a mixed up, lost

blond haired boy
turned Presbyterian
raised Catholic.

"What do I know,"
I said to the three amigos, starting on my way.

"Cryptic Jesus, Cryptic Jesus," I finally said out loud,
hoping not to get struck down instantly.

"Where's the VFW dance hall when i need it?"
I wondered, as my mind lapsed 
back to a wood shack on the west side of Cleveland
surrounded by hundreds of Harleys
moonlit shining silver.
After all, it was 
the Hell's Angels, 
Viet Nam Vets Motorcycle Club
bikers night.  
"cryptic Jesus, cryptic Jesus" 
"What happend to Crazy Ed?" 
was all I could think to say.

Remember the lettuce and grape boycotts
all over the USA?
My Chavez,
no little squiggly thing over the "a"
(like the president of Venezuela)
organized 50,000 field workers from California
to Florida by the late 1970s, so
our 100 strong Typographical Workers
was ahead of its day.
And, I do wonder if we hadn't had
the United Farm Workers help
the Teamsters woulda turned back the trucks
filled with huge rolls of white printing paper
and us peons would've won our better pay.
(We didn't know that a turf war
broke out between the two unions
not long before,
but we were young and pure.)

The other Chavez, Hugo, to set the record straight,
they say is a socialist, now
rattling the United States
leading his 'Bolivarian' revolution,
named after Simon
who won their independence
from the Empire of Spain
in the early 19th Century.

A poster used to rally Americans to boycott
lettuce and grapes during the nationwide
boycott to get better wages and working
conditions for farm workers, poster by
the Women's Graphics Cooperative,
Chicago, 1978

But old Cesar, a Mexican
from Yuma, Arizona
who died in ninety-three, at age 66,
same as that people's highway,
now always carries the day.
Folks from California
celebrate his birthday
March 31st, each year -
Cesar Chavez Day, a California state holiday.

His favorite saying in those days of struggle
that began fifty years ago:
(Yes We Can)

Hey, it also worked for Barack Obama.

Chávez no Chavez by Mike Marcellino copyright 2012  

Postscript on Cesar Chavez, the farm workers 
and The Painesville Telegraph newspaper strike 
by Mike Marcellino

When Chavez died on April 23, 1993, staff writer George Ramos wrote The Times obituary published the next morning. He wrote:

Cesar Chavez, who organized the United Farm Workers union, staged a massive grape boycott in the late 1960s to dramatize the plight of America’s poor farmhands, and later became a Gandhi-like leader to urban Mexican-Americans, was found dead Friday in San Luis, Ariz., police said. He was 66.

Here's how the Library of Congress describes the influence of Chavez in helping farm workers gain a better life:

On August 22, 1966, the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), later renamed the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), was formed. The UFWOC was established when two smaller organizations, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), both in the middle of strikes against certain California grape growers, merged and moved under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO. Under the founding leadership of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, the UFW won many labor or civil rights concessions for disenfranchised Mexican-American farmworkers, an important aspect of the Chicano movement. The Chicano movement has been an often-ignored part of the civil rights struggles in the 1960s; it was, nonetheless, a landmark period for the second-largest ethnic minority in the U.S.  

Before the rise of the UFW, working conditions were harsh for most agricultural workers. On average, farmworkers made about ninety cents per hour plus ten cents for each basket of produce they picked. Many workers in the field were not provided even the most basic necessities such as clean drinking water or portable toilets. Unfair hiring practices, such as favoritism and kickbacks, were rampant. Seldom were their living quarters equipped with indoor plumbing or cooking facilities.  

The strike against the Painesville Telegraph involved all non-management workers, from reporters to typesetters. It was a classic union organizing struggle by 100 workers against a powerful publisher who ran his newspaper like a plantation where full time reporters with a family and children were paid so little they qualified for food stamps.

While smoking was allowed in the newsroom in those days, women had to go to their powder room to smoke a cigarette. A senior reporter with 25 years experience made only $25 more than a cup reporter making $100 a week. Since no one counted hours, it's hard to say how much people were making an hour, less than $2 an hour. Minimum wage was $1.60 an hour. I was one of the reporters on strike and a strike leader and qualified for food stamps (before going on strike).

Strikers also went door to door, asking subscribers to support the workers and cancel their subscriptions to the newspaper until the strike was settled.  The paper's circulation of about 23,000 daily was cut in half.  The strike, with only 50 workers taking an active part, went on for nine months through the winter of 1973-74.  There was at least one bombing during what became a bitter strike.  The publisher, the Rowley family, which owned several newspapers and radio stations in northeast Ohio, hired security men, armed with .357 magnum revolvers and high powered rifles, who were often seen on the rooftop of the newspaper building.  Ten strikers, including myself, were found in contempt of court by a county judge for various alleged wrong doing, including picket line activities, but charges were never filed.  Not long after the strike collapsed, the National Labor Relations Board found the publisher guilty of unfair labor practices.  There were no injuries during the strike.

After nine months, the strike collapsed in April 1974 when Local 53 of the Typographical Union in Cleveland ran out money to pay meager benefits. Thirteen years later in 1986 the Painesville Telegraph closed its doors. I don't know of a single worker on strike who went back to work. The Telegraph, the oldest paper in the Western Reserve, was founded in 1822 by Eber Dudley Howe, an abolitionist leader whose home was a station for the underground railroad for runaway slaves.

Strikers, men and women, young and old walked picket lines 24-hours-a-day and published a five day a week strike newspaper, Lake County Today, which remains archived in the Painesville Morely Libray and referenced in Australian archives. I have also discovered a film of the striking workers archived in the WPA Film Library.
Here is the WPA discription of the film:

Segment begins with a shot of a building indicated as "Local 53" by the sign that hangs over the front door. The camera pulls back to reveal an African-American reporter standing at an intersection. As he speaks, cars are driving behind him. Reporter states that even though Local 53 is on strike, the Painesville Telegraph newspaper has continued publication. He goes on to say that the union has decided to give the paper some local competition by coming up with a publication of their own. Report holds up the newspaper which is entilted "Lake County Today". Shot of a woman standing behind a counter that is piled with newspapers. The woman explains that many local residents had canceled their subscription to the "Telegraph" after they went on strike. The new paper took this opportunity to ask the locals what they would really like to see in a newspaper. The results of the questioning lead to a strictly localized perspective. View of newspaper production activity. CU of hands setting a cartoon image on the front-page layout. Shot of man and woman discussing the layout. Shot of a sign that reads "Buy the Newest Paper-Lake County Today". Shot of man with a full beard sitting in the Local 53 office reading "Lake County Today". (Man looks ultra 70's) Shot of two men seated at a desk reading the newspaper. The man who is facing the camera is talking on the phone. The other man picks up the receiver of a black rotary telephone.