(Ed Note: The author is a UFW veteran who worked for SEIU for 23 years. The response of LeRoy Chatfield, founder of the Farmworker Documentation Project, to our story on the Eliseo Medina/Dolores Huerta conflict can be found here.
Nagi Daifullah may have stood only 5 feet tall and weighed 100 lbs, but was a brave leader and translator for his Arab comrades during the brutal 1973 UFW strike, caused when the growers signed sweetheart deals behind the workers’ backs with the Frankie Fitz Teamsters as UFW contracts expired — and enforced them with goons from the IBT, Hells Angels, and police. He was 24 when murdered by a blow from a heavy metal flashlight to the back of his head sufficient to sever his spine, inflicted by a 6 ft, 200 lb hero named Gilbert Cooper, a Kern County Sheriff’s Deputy. Two days later, long time Union activist Juan de la Cruz managed to push his wife out of the path of a hail of bullets fired by a scab passing the picket line in a pick up truck. Juan was shot through the heart. He was 60.
After the beatings and the deaths were dismissed by the authorities, the strike was called off and huelgistas were sent across the country to give witness to the struggle and organize the second grape boycott. Twas then I first met Jesus Garcia Valderrama, formerly a miner in Mexico who, like Juan, crossed the Rio in the bracero program. He made his trek to Denver from his home in Bakersfield, crossing the Rockies in a ‘65 Impala with his wife Sebastiana and their 3 children, Lupe, Chayo, and Gustavo, all seeing snow for the first time. They and their comrades, before and since, inspired a nation to join La Causa, many to become life long activists, and all of us to share a bond that remains 40 years later — forged on a thousand picket lines, scores of arrests, & the all night parandas which followed.
I say their names because, while they never had media handlers or “networked” with high hats and fat cats, they were human beings who counted for something, everyday working folk — heroes who took risks and made sacrifices most people won’t—and now their lives and legacies are being spat upon.
As UFW leaders in ‘73, both Eliseo Medina and Dolores Huerta attended the funerals, and have done some historic work since, sometimes together, in building progressive movements. But there is something more sinister than ironic in Medina’s role now in SEIU as EVP and Trustee of UHW, which resorts to collaborating with the bosses and even the cops to keep Sister Huerta from talking with Kaiser workers who have the bad manners to demand to decide for themselves which Union they want to represent them.
SEIU’s sin verguenza legacy earned by wreaking damage on the movement with tens of millions of their members’ dues dollars over the last few years is now all too familiar: raiding other Unions while selling out their own members by appointing corrupt leaders and making back door deals with employers; attempting to silence dissent by trusteeing and even suing those who believe their loyalty is owed to workers and not megalomaniacal Union “leaders”; and collaborating with bosses and the NLRB while systematically employing fear and intimidation to keep workers from voting in Union elections.
Gotta keep them members—and their dues rolling in, what being $85 million in debt, much of it created by progressives “gone rouge” who got fucked up on power and ego and descended into a mad series of acts that would make any rat Union buster proud.
As a former UHW organizer purged after the trusteeship and 23 years with SEIU, I’ve written some about SEIU stupidity before, after knowing most of the leadership over the years and then seeing first hand the grotesque betrayal of workers who took risks and made sacrifices most people won’t. I think that’s why when I read about this latest outrage, I thought about Nagi and Juan and Jesus and Sebastiana.
Are there words we can carve into our bones what it means to betray the soul of our movement? They are the workers and their families who have been damaged by this madness — and perhaps worse, the betrayal of the sacrifices of those who fought before us and gave everything to build a better day, even if they might not see it for themselves.
Did Nagi and Juan pay the price so those they once followed act like power and control count more than the justice they died for?
Did Sebastiana picket in the cold till her feet bled so Medina’s new and feeble posse would call the bosses and the cops to get to Dolores Huerta?
Many lines have been crossed, sometimes with inexcusable stupidity. This one is sacred.
A recent LA Times expose outlined how the UFW also lost its way, though it underplayed the effect of the violence and crushing weight inflicted on it by ruthless multi-national agribusiness giants, Federal, State, and Local governments, and eventually a public who succumbed to “empathy fatigue.” It concluded on a happy note — how well Medina applied the better principles of the UFW to later endeavors, including with SEIU — and much of it is true.
But Medina and the rest of SEIU’s now rancidly self-absorbed leadership have no oppression to explain becoming what they once despised. All save one got a nice college degree, took over a growing Union with millions in the bank, much juice with politicos and even some of their masters worldwide, and many smart leaders in local office and among the ranks. Now the millions are gone along with many of the smart leaders, and while some of that fat cat juice remains — who you gonna brag to about that?
After Stern made his long anticipated exit after crashing the ship on the rocks, I had naively hoped at least one EVP would finally step up on his hind legs and do anything to at least address the damage — someone who knows first hand about oppression, about friends and comrades being subjected to fear, intimidation, and violence, and who has felt up close and personal the machinery of commerce and those who protect it grind down the hope of the people.
But instead, he called the boss and then the cops on someone who helped him and SEIU countless times, and the rest of the bastards just stay on program: violence continues against dissenters while fresh plans are laid to intimidate them from voting.
If new pooh bah Mary Kay Henry’s idea of change is keeping Raynor and the workers’ dues he stole from UNITE HERE (I hear he’s just a hoot to work with…), and sucking up to Kaiser and calling the cops to keep Dolores Huerta from talking to those pesky workers while escalating a campaign of fear and intimidation against her own members — she’s gonna be in confession for a goddamn year.
The whole world is watching — and so are our departed friends. They never died, you see. They live on through today’s working class heroes, who may never have a media kit, but still take risks and make sacrifices most people won’t.Filed under: Archive