Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement

Marshall Ganz

Book cover

This was an assigned text for my grad school class, Strategic Management. The author, Ganz, is an Anglo guy who got involved with Cesar Chavez and the organization of California farm workers in the 1960s. Although nominally an academic study, the book is really mostly a narrative of the rise of Chavez and the UFW, with occasional asides about organizational strategy and learning.

Before reading this book I only had a cultural familiarity, in the vaguest sense, with the events that it describes. I didn’t find Ganz to be all that engaging of a writer, but I was very taken by Chavez and the ethic that formed the UFW. Chavez drew heavily on the African-American civil rights movement in the South that slightly preceded his work, including the ethic of nonviolence and the prominent place of religion (in this case, Latin American Catholicism). Ganz argues that the UFW succeeded where much more established organizations such as the Teamsters failed largely because of the structural commitment and accountability to their constituency that the UFW leaders maintained–something that the larger unions lacked. Although I don’t have any other sources for comparison, this argument seemed pretty compelling to me.

Equally interesting to me, however, was the fall of the UFW, which is shunted to a brief epilogue (which was not even assigned reading for my class). After a series of successes in the late 1960s and 1970s, UFW began a long decline in the 1980s that continues through the present day. Although the treatment is brief, Ganz makes a convincing argument that this decline is not attributable to larger forces such as a rightward shift in American politics, but that it is primarily due to the failure of UFW leadership, including Chavez himself, to stay true to the strategies that led to their initial success. It made me quite sad to read this part, as I had placed Chavez on something of a pedestal and was thinking I would like to read a biography of him. In fact, during the ‘80s Chavez befriended a cult leader and introduced many of his tactics into the leadership of UFW–no joke. They sounded to me basically like Maoist tactics of group criticism; pretty creepy stuff.

I wish that Ganz had spent more time on this latter era, and I’m not sure why he didn’t–maybe because he stopped being associated with UFW before the decline and so had less insight, or because he would be sad to devote a lot of space to the fall of an organization that he had been so devoted to, or maybe just because of space constraints. But I did take away a few lessons, I think. One is the enduring (and ironic) significance of Chavez’s own quote, “Power makes you stupid.” That seemed like an apt explanation of the failures of the Teamsters and AFL-CIO, but equally of the ultimate decline of the UFW. Another, perhaps, is the existentialist lesson that while we are alive, we are always in the process of becoming.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars