The Good Ship Cesar Chavez

by Daniel J. Flynn


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,