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

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Why David Sometimes Wins tells the story of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers' groundbreaking victory, drawing important lessons from this dramatic tale. Since the 1900s, large-scale agricultural enterprises relied on migrant labor--a cheap, unorganized, and powerless workforce. In 1965, when some 800 Filipino grape workers began to strike under the aegis of the AFL-CIO, the UFW soon joined the action with 2,000 Mexican workers and turned the strike into a civil rights struggle. They engaged in civil disobedience, mobilized support from churches and students, boycotted growers, and transformed their struggle into La Causa, a farm workers' movement that eventually triumphed over the grape industry's Goliath. Why did they succeed? How can the powerless challenge the powerful successfully?

Offering insight from a longtime movement organizer and scholar, Ganz illustrates how they had the ability and resourcefulness to devise good strategy and turn short-term advantages into long-term gains. Authoritative in scholarship and magisterial in scope, this book constitutes a seminal contribution to learning from the movement's struggles, set-backs, and successes.

368 pages, Hardcover

First published January 25, 2008

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Marshall Ganz

8 books15 followers

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5 stars
42 (26%)
4 stars
75 (48%)
3 stars
34 (21%)
2 stars
3 (1%)
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2 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews
Profile Image for Nick Klagge.
692 reviews52 followers
February 28, 2011
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.
Profile Image for David  Cook.
419 reviews
October 22, 2018
I became involved in farm worker issues in the late 80's. I have handled many pro bono cases on behalf of farm workers and was excited to read this book. I have also worked closely with farm worker advocacy groups and represented agriculture so I understand fairly well both sides of the issues faced by farm workers. The book was enthralling as to the history and strategy of the early days of UFW and the battles, success and defeats. The story however profoundly disappointing when one learns of the transition from dynamic volunteer driven organization to a "professional" organization with high salaries and political donations.

From my perspective today, in the fields, UFW has little impact or even relevance in the farm worker community. I believe the reason is complex in that major agricultural players now value human capital at level they did not in the early days and the abuses of old are fewer today. Secondly, the professionals today lack vision and commitment to the earlier passion and so the have become an organization that can donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to PACs (e.g. Willie Brown) and do little as far as in the trenches advocacy.

The book is well written and engaging and made me yearn for an earlier era.
Profile Image for Drick.
809 reviews26 followers
January 5, 2014
Marshall Ganz worked for many years with the farm workers in California under Cesar Chavez. This book, which I believe is Ganz's doctoral dissertation recounts and analyzes the history of the farm workers in the 1960's when they had their greatest success. Combining insights from both the civil rights and labor movements, the farm workers were successful because they were innovative, utilized the competencies of the people in their group and drew on their cultural and ethnic background. While at times I got lost in the details, it was informative to see how a financially under-resourced and marginalized community could be successful.

In the epilogue Ganz describes how after 1975 or so, Chavez became very dictatorial and the things that had made the farm worker movement so successful were abandoned. Just like the biblical David, the farm workers accomplished amazing things but then allowed their success in a sense to become their undoing.
Profile Image for Volkan .
60 reviews3 followers
June 3, 2013
Great narrative history of one of the most important junctures in American labor history: the Delano grape workers' strike, which culminated with the victory of Cesar Chavez' relatively small United Farm Workers, against much better funded and well-established unions. As a key player at the center of the narrative, Marshall Ganz, who later designed the Obama campaign's strategy in 2008 election, has a unique perspective and insight to tell the story.

The question he tries to answer is why UFW succeeded, and more generally why do little guys, like David in the Bible story, sometimes win against Goliaths?

In the story of David, after declaring his intention to take on Goliath, who wears a hefty armor, he is given a similar armor and a heavy sword by his kinsmen. But David, wisely chooses to put those aside and only take a slingshot and a few pebbles, which he aims for the forehead of Goliath, and takes him down.

Similarly, Ganz argues that for an organization to take on a Goliath like nemesis and win, it needs to have "strategic capacity," which allows it to understand the power of the resources it does have, rather than trying to fill the resource gap to take on the compeition

By strategic capacity Ganz means a few things: the diversity of the life experiences of the leadership team, the dependence of the union budget on the dues of its members, putting service first, and a consensus driven decision making style. The tactical range demonstrated by UFW, in the way it appropriated the tactics, symbolism and slogans of the Civil Rights movement to set itself apart from traditional labor unions, and in the way it adopted policies such as "death benefits" for its due paying members, came from the diverse backgrounds of the union's leaders, and from the fact that original ideas could be put into practice easily since there was no single person, not even Chavez, who could dictate the organization's direction.

What is the lesson for Davids from this story? Tap into the depth and salient experiences of your team. Brainstorm together and take a vote for every major decision. In the true democratic spirit, moving forward with consensus will allow your team converge on the best ideas together.

Profile Image for Elaine.
Author 4 books25 followers
September 8, 2009
Great job, Marshall! Many of us who worked for the UFW could not wait to get our hands on this book. Ganz worked for the UFW for several decades, starting as a college volunteer, moving on to become a full-time organizer of some of the major strikes in grapes and lettuce, and eventually being elected to the executive board. Quite a trajectory. The inside stories he tells are really worthwhile both for movement veterans, and young people who want to learn the day-to-day nitty gritty work of building a viable, grassroots movement. I would have granted him the 5th star, except there is a little too much sociology in there. Otherwise, the writing is fluid and conversational.
Profile Image for Dan Petegorsky.
151 reviews1 follower
October 21, 2009
Ganz's thoughtful book is not so much a history of the UFW and the farmworker movement as an interpretation of its early success in the mid-1960s as an example of the efficacy of what he calls "strategic capacity": the ability to turn the various resources organizers have at their disposal into the power they need to achieve their objectives.

Given his high profile role in advising Barack Obama's campaign, not to mention his current position at Harvard, Ganz has a good platform now to revisit the turf he worked as a young organizer. And the lessons he draws do indeed resonate now - especially his discussions of the dynamics of effective and adaptive leadership.
Profile Image for Pamela.
842 reviews17 followers
January 31, 2020
Somewhat dry at times. Good history of union organizing with the farm workers, mainly in the mid 60's. I had no idea at times the different unions were fighting against each other, particularly against the Teamsters.

The end of the book jumped forward quickly. Would have liked more there. The main difficulty with the book overall was the generalizations of what happened. There were moments of specifics, but more of that, more of a story, would have made for a better book. Felt more text book like than I was looking for. But I did get a history. Probably should have read this book in March when California celebrates Cesar Chavez day. I will definitely this of this book during the next holiday, now that I know more about how Chavez helped organize the farm workers.
Profile Image for Devin Stevenson.
110 reviews2 followers
September 9, 2021
A detailed history and analysis of Cesar Chavez' organizing campaigns that made history. Chavez did the impossible and organized and unionized farm workers who were transient, often non English speaking, and seasonal. His victories required ingenuity combined with organizer basics, the lessons of the civil rights movement and the use of culture and religion to unite and mobilize.

Ganz is also clear about the limits and folly of Chavez. Later in life Chavez, rested on laurels and the UFW lost it's underdog strategic resourcefulness.

Histories like this are essential for understanding the ups and downs of organizing history.
Profile Image for KT.
22 reviews
June 17, 2020
Interesting book that isn't rooted in history but rather principles. Not sure if I would recommend it to others. I don't believe in the idea that strategies can merely be replicated across unions to ensure the same result. I think what UFW had and the exact conditions that ensured its success are more more worthy of examining though I appreciate the case study presented by Ganz.
Profile Image for kat.
34 reviews12 followers
February 7, 2022
read for class on racial democracy with some familiarity on ufw & delano strike from before. enjoyed the historical context on organizing wins and deep insight on building a winning multi-ethnic coalition on class struggle, but would have enjoyed a deeper exploration of the ufw's failures.
Profile Image for Keith.
70 reviews27 followers
December 22, 2017
Good. But for someone associated with Story of Self (Ganz), the story here could have been more compelling.
Profile Image for Trey J Hunt.
Author 2 books2 followers
March 30, 2020
The picturesque example of textbooks not approachable for the general public. Great subject matter, unappetizing writing.
Profile Image for Amanda.
225 reviews
July 5, 2021
Dates are approximate but in the right week for both. This book is good but very fact-dense. Love the repeated emphasis that diversity helps solve problems & come up with innovative solutions.
Profile Image for sdw.
379 reviews
March 27, 2011
This book is ultimately less about the UFW and more about the types of strategy that organizations and movements may find most successful.

"I this book, I will argue that the UFW succeeded, while the rival AFL-CIO and teamsters failed because the UFW's leadership devised more effective strategy, in a fact a stream of effective strategy. The UFW was able to do this because the motivation of its leaders was greater than that of their rivals; they had better access to salient knowledge; and their deliberations became venues for learning. These are the three elements of what I call strategic capacity - the ability to devise good strategy" (8).

I appreciated Ganz's detailed level of knowledge and personal experience. I enjoyed his contrast of social unionism and business unionism and his consideration of the differences between building a movement and building an organization. The conclusion was the more powerful portion of the book and I wish Ganz had spent more time discussing the downfall of the UFW.

My other critique is that I often got lost in the details of the book, despite my general familiarity with the people and events discussed. I imagine this book might be an overwhelming introduction to the UFW. I didn't find is as engaging a read as Peter Matthiesen's Sal Si Puedes , even as the information and details it provides about the UFW are invaluable.
Profile Image for Dan Ancona.
Author 3 books8 followers
February 13, 2010
Outstanding conceptual framework for understanding strategic capacity (his model in five words: motivation, information and learning organizations), coupled with a great California history lesson, and with a meditation on organizational development, effectiveness and decline on top of it all. Movement required reading.
437 reviews2 followers
September 8, 2013
A great history of the UFW, it's rise and fall. Something to learn from as we try to once again grow in unions so that workers as multiple David's can have a fighting change against Goliaths the corporations). Actually an exciting process to see the strengths the UFW had and how they were lost as the union became more successful. A textbook for future organizers and unions to take to heart.
Profile Image for Jonathan Rosenthal.
163 reviews1 follower
August 8, 2012
A must read for those interested in racial justice organizing and organizing in general. Any amazing story with fabulous insights. A very sad ending!
Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews

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