Becoming David

Nearly a year before the 2008 presidential campaign heated up, I made a late-night airport run to pick up Harvard professor Marshall Ganz. The conversation during the short drive to Washington, D.C., was fascinating, as Ganz discussed sociology, moral philosophy, history, and the practice of organizing in a captivating and practical way. With these same qualities—an eye for history, organizing, and moral philosophy—Ganz summarizes the history, rise, and eventual decline of the United Farm Workers organization in Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement.

A rabbi’s son from Bakersfield, Cali-fornia, Ganz joined Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in 1965 after dropping out of Harvard College and working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi for two years. He spent the next 16 years with UFW, ultimately becoming director of organizing and a member of the group’s executive board. Since then, Ganz has become one of the country’s most respected scholars on the art and practice of organizing. Most recently, he advised the Obama campaign on organizing, training, and leadership.

Why David Sometimes Wins provides a sweeping history of the many attempts to organize California farm workers, beginning in the early 1900s—from the Sugar Beet Laborers Union of Oxnard in 1903 to the AFL-CIO in the ’60s. Each movement failed to create substantive change—until Chavez and the UFW came along. The lessons Ganz learned from his UFW experiences are useful for all organizers and movement leaders.

Ganz acknowledges that part of the UFW’s success was due to a particular moment in history. Beginning in the early ’60s, growing political opposition to the Bracero Program (which allowed cheap short-term labor from Mexico) caused a squeeze on cheap labor, the civil rights movement in the American south was turning people’s attention to oppressed people groups, and internal strife within existing unions created the climate UFW could act within.

But that’s not the whole story. Other groups, including the AFL-CIO and Teamsters, were far better funded and had substantially larger organizations—yet weren’t successful in their attempt to organize farm workers. Why did the UFW succeed where others failed? And more generally, Ganz asks, how can the powerless challenge the powerful? His examination helps reveal the importance of outsiders.

For starters, outsiders often have access to strategic capacities they don’t discover until they are in the midst of the struggle. Often led by a disparate band of volunteers from diverse backgrounds, outsiders are forced to rely on diverse community ties. For the farm workers this was a loose coalition of clergy, students, Mexican Americans, and liberal activists. The lack of skilled professionals caused them to use the skills of this group, creating powerful and effective teams. And the teams’ diversity allowed the UFW to connect with local networks and pull on the Mexican-American identity of the community in a way that gave the movement strength and credibility.

Secondly, the farm workers created innovation through a creative decision-making process—something the powerful often ignore because of their resources. The commitment to innovation and creativity allowed all team members to have a say in the decision-making process, providing input and insight from people with diverse views and networks. For example, the UFW elected entrepreneurial leaders that reflected the community, while the AFL-CIO had bureaucratic leadership selections decided by outsiders. Third, leaders and organizers did not see organizing simply as an occupation but as a calling. Their motivation was often rooted in faith and a commitment to racial and economic justice—not in simply a job.

After a five-year struggle that included long strikes and a national boycott, the UFW was able to win a major contract with some of the largest table-grape growers in the country. The UFW experienced phenomenal growth, reaching 50,000 dues-paying members, and their success allowed them to establish health clinics, union-run hiring halls, health insurance, and credit unions. As its influence and budget grew, the organization seemed unstoppable.

But in the end, Why David Sometimes Wins is also a cautionary tale. As the UFW became more successful, the group made some of the same mistakes its opponents had, as members began to rely on financial and organizational resources instead of the diverse organizing power that produced its success in the first place. The UFW began to look a lot more like Goliath than David.

Although UFW continued to grow monetarily through grants and donations, the organization allowed its strategic capacity to erode. Membership fell from a high of nearly 50,000 to less than 5,000. “Remaining David can be even more challenging than becoming David in the first place,” Ganz writes. His warning is clear: Remaining David takes a clear commitment to continuously building and developing strategic capacity, not relying on the organization’s resource advantages. Organizational leaders must develop structures that hold them accountable to their constituency, even as those constituencies change.

Kevin Lum is congregational network coordinator at Sojourners.

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