How the United Farm Workers Won


Political Organizing
Faculty Researcher Marshall Ganz, Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School Paper Title Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement, Oxford University Press, New York, 2009

In his new book, Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement, Marshall Ganz uses the David versus Goliath parable to explain how the United Farm Workers (UFW), led by Cesar Chavez, succeeded in organizing agricultural workers where bigger, more powerful unions, like the AFL-CIO and Teamsters, failed.

Ganz was a firsthand participant in that struggle, having worked for Chavez and the UFW for 16 years as the union’s organizing director, among other roles. The book focuses on the UFW’s rise to power in the mid-1960s when the union and its predecessor (the NFWA) led strikes, boycotts, and a 300-mile-long march to bring attention to their cause. The effort culminated in the first union contracts in California farm labor history, yielding multi-year agreements that afforded its members improved wages, hours, and working conditions. One question lies at the center of this book: “How did California farm workers achieve this remarkable breakthrough?”

Ganz addresses that question, with the benefit of 40-plus years of reflection and hindsight, in this book, which refutes the standard arguments that called the UFW’s success merely a product of the times or the result of a charismatic leader. He also rebuts the tenets of social-move¬ment theory, which holds that outcomes are determined strictly by resources: Those with more resources succeed, while those with less fail. “It never seemed that simple to me,” says Ganz. “What really makes the difference is strategy: You can compensate for the lack of resources with resourcefulness.”

That’s what David did in his duel with Goliath. The shepherd boy realized he could not defeat his imposing rival with the standard tools of battle — a shield, sword, and helmet — but must instead capitalize on his own strengths while employing the element of surprise. And David overcame the giant in this way, armed with stones and a slingshot.

The biblical tale contains the key elements of Ganz’s ideas about strategy, a concept he divides into three components: targeting (choosing to commit resources towards specific outcomes), tactics (selected to “make the most of one’s own resources and, at the same time, limit the value of the opponent’s resources”), and timing (picking moments that maximize one’s opportunities).

The effectiveness of a given strategy, in turn, depends on three additional elements that combine to create what Ganz calls “strategic capacity.” The first is motivation. David, for instance, committed himself to taking on Goliath without knowing how to proceed. But that sense of mission sparked “a creative reevaluation of his circumstances,” which led him to seek unorthodox approaches. Another key to David’s resourcefulness was his access to “salient knowledge”— a set of skills and information he could apply in a novel way. A third element involves adapting to changing circumstances.

David utilized all these elements in his triumph over Goliath, as did the UFW leaders in their campaign on behalf of farm workers. They were devoted to their cause and also had a perspective on the worker’s plight that rival unions were not privy to.

They recognized the need for new ways of organizing farm workers, and their dedication pushed them toward innovative ploys. Armed with this edge in strategic capacity, UFW leaders seized the initiative, choosing “the time, place, and means of engagement to maximize their resources, while minimizing those of their opponents,” Ganz writes.

The union won successive victories over growers — corporations such as Schenley, DiGiorgio, and Perelli-Minetti — owing to the repeated application of “effective strategy that was not due to any one choice but was the result of the strategic capacity that the UFW continued to develop over time,” Ganz argues. “Greater strategic capacity is likely to yield better strategy, and better strategy is likely to yield better outcomes.” That’s how a lowly shepherd boy felled a formidable giant, and how a fledgling group of activists with meager resources were able to achieve a “historic success” that benefited farm workers throughout the country. — Steve Nadis

What really makes the difference is strategy: You can compensate for the lack of resources with resourcefulness.

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