The Good Ship Cesar Chavez

Christening a Navy ship for Cesar Chavez holds about as much logic as naming a brand of grapes after him. But with Democratic lawmakers seeking to curtail the collective bargaining rights of public-sector unions even in labor strongholds such as Massachusetts, the symbolic gesture makes perfect political sense.

The Obama administration’s decision, announced last week, to name a cargo ship for the United Farm Workers leader and serial boycotter of fruit is perhaps fitting tribute for a man adept at manipulating the media but bereft of the skills needed to sustain a union. Just as Chavez played the media by playing a labor leader, Democrats play unions by playing up a labor icon.

Democrats are better off. Working people aren’t. A U.S.N.S. Cesar Chavez is a lot like its namesake’s life work. It’s all about the image, the gesture, the symbolism.  

Chavez’s work certainly didn’t improve the lives of farm workers, despite his best efforts. The lot of field hands hasn’t gotten much better since Chavez captured national notice in the mid 1960s. Organizing seasonal, unskilled laborers into a union worked neither in theory nor in practice. When anybody can do your job, employees simply don’t have much leverage over employers.

But the flawed idea didn’t stop the media canonization. The wretched farm workers led by a mystical Hispanic with an 8th-grade education proved so seductive a narrative that Time magazine placed Chavez on its cover in 1969. But the union that he founded retains just a few thousand members today. It takes in less money in dues than in donations.

There may be power in a union. There was only pity for the United Farm Workers. And pity fuels charities, not organized labor. 

Cesar Chavez the symbol is still universally adored on the Left. Cesar Chavez the person proves more troublesome.

 A fierce opponent of illegal immigration for most of his life, Chavez once commissioned a newspaper cartoon depicting INS agents as strikebreakers aiding big business through lax border enforcement. “The jobs belonged to local workers,” Chavez reasoned. “The braceros were brought only for exploitation. They were just instruments for the growers.” Get it—not people, not undocumented workers, not illegal aliens even: just tools.

He spoke critically of the hyper-nationalism of La Raza: “We can’t be against racism on the one hand and for it on the other.”

And his use of religious imagery—holding protest masses at the state capitol and staging riveting holy-man fasts—was especially unsettling to secular leftists. “Cesar feels that liberals are liberal right up to the steps of the Catholic church,” lieutenant Dolores Huerta explained in 1975. “Guys can be liberal about homosexuality, about dope, about capital punishment, about everything but the Catholic church. There the liberalism ends.” 

If the Left doesn’t get the real Cesar Chavez, they can be forgiven. Cesar Chavez didn’t always get Cesar Chavez.

He depicted his family’s poverty growing up as a product of the exploitative nature of capitalism. Alas, in Arizona and California, voracious tax collectors forced the Chavezes off their land due to nonpayment. The victims of big government have brown, black, yellow, and red faces, too.

Treatment he depicted as discriminatory undoubtedly proved helpful to him in life. When the American-born Chavez called himself a Mexican, a teacher forcefully rebuked: “You are an American. All of us are Americans.” The Spanish he spoke in the home wasn’t welcome in the school. “They wouldn’t let us speak Spanish,” he recalled to biographer Jacques Levy. “If we did, we were supposed to sit on a wooden bench in the back.”

Unlike other secular saints of the era, Chavez relied more on the image than the word to convey the point. Even so, it’s hard to envision his success without the ability to speak English—or the sense instilled in him that he was a citizen, due the rights accorded to every other American.  

A U.S.N.S. Cesar Chavez seems an ironic fate for the one-time seaman. “Those two years were the worst of my life: this regimentation, this super authority that somehow somebody has the right to move you around like a piece of equipment,” Chavez recalled of his two years in the Navy. “It’s worse than being in prison.”  

Now, reincarnated as a cargo ship, Cesar Chavez serves the Navy again. Then, he enlisted during the fight to save civilization. Now, he is a conscript in the Obama administration’s pretend fight to rescue the endangered American worker.

What does it profit the labor movement to gaineth a ship but loseth jobs?