Universal patterns

Tom Hayden
workshop, excerpted
Sep 26, 1976, La Paz, California

Tom HaydenNo matter how different you are in terms of geography, race, or class from some people who are struggling, there are certain things they go through, and certain things they do that apply to every situation in the world.

You can't just mechanically apply anything, of course, but beneath the specific differences of each situation, there are universal laws. It's a matter of faith that there's one world, one set of dynamics, and one way people deal with and go through this world.

A. Patterns in the way people struggle

1. Oppressed people always seem asleep.

Any people who are oppressed will always look like they are asleep to everybody from their oppressors to the experts observing and writing about them. For example, for thirty years, people wrote that farm labor could not be organized into a union. They said it was impossible to do this, because workers were divided by nationality and language and there was a big turnover.

This is a universal pattern. It can make you give up. It can lead to defeatism in the head of the organizer who believes this.

2. People who seem asleep always awake at the most unusual times.

No one ever predicts when people will rise up. People always take spontaneous action before organizers or observers know that they will -- whether it was the Filipino farm workers whose action brought in Cesar Chavez in 1965-66, or whether it was the first strikes in the San Joaquin Valley, or the labor strikes of the 1930's, or the Civil Rights movement in the South, or the way the southern liberation forces in Vietnam started. There always is a mass spontaneous outbreak, usually before you expect it.

People who can predict these things are either geniuses or nuts. Usually you predict that revolution will start there and its starts here. And for years you wait for it to start there and it happens somewhere else.

3. Without organization and leadership, no spontaneous struggle will ever sustain itself.

Otherwise, it will always peter out or be crushed. So in dead times and live times, quiet times and animated times, there is a need for organization. I mean a live, alert, sensitive organization that doesn't try to come in and steal all the energy and control all the energy, but comes in to try and give some kind of shape and, hopefully, wisdom to the people who are starting to move.

This is why in the United Farm Workers, nobody thinks they were born yesterday as in some organizations. There is a sense of history and a sense of identity that many of us in this room do not have because we are cut off from whatever our radical ancestors were. Not so in any kind of successful mass movement. Like Cesar just said, if you try and fail ninety-nine times, you try again -– and that has been the history of the farm labor struggle over the last 125 years in California.

So their own history has been a history of trying to organize and organize and organize. There have been bloodbaths and slaughters that haven't even been recorded in any kind of our history. Without the history of organization, there would never be any hope for spontaneous struggles.

It is important that organization not law a heavy hand on movement, but also that organization accumulate information and wisdom from the past which can be applied to the present. If you don't have an organization to do that there will be no history. If you don't have a history, you always have to start over.

A lot of people like starting over. They feel it makes them new in human history to come along and start a struggle. In fact, just the opposite is true. You have been so cut off from your own world that you're living in a totally self-centered situation.

It's nothing to brag about, that you're the New Left, or the new this or new that, because what it means is that the previous left was destroyed. It's better to have a hand-me-down quality, and organization is the only hand-me-down thing we have.

book coverHave you seen the book 'North from Mexico' (1950) by Carey McWilliams? It is a great social history. In the end, after going through the whole miserable story of this part of the country, he says there isn't much hope, but there is this guy named Fred Ross who's organizing something called the Community Service Organization. McWilliams says at the end that only through efforts like this might a change come about.

Fred Ross had to go for many, many years organizing what seemed to be failures, and then he found Cesar Chavez, who, at the time, looked like anybody else you might organize. From there, things started to pick up.

Young girl behind a screen doorHow would you like to be in the Central Valley before there was a farmworkers union, before there was a boycott, before anybody heard of any of this, and have to live with a college education that told you farmworkers couldn't be organized, and be white and still be wandering around the Central Valley looking for one person to start an organization -– in an area which has a history of complete repression and failure?

This kind of organizing approach is rare. You could sit back and say, "It's happening because of the dynamic of history. It's objective conditions." There is truth to that, but usually that's what you say later. You say, "Well, it came about because the time was ripe." But at the time that the time is ripe, nobody knows its ripe, and everybody is saying it's not ripe. You are crazy because you're trying to do something that is impossible.

The only way the time becomes ripe is when you make it ripe. And you run the risk of being ahead of your time. You run the risk of madness. You run the risk of repression, but there is no other way to determine whether the time is ripe except for somebody to be the historical agent to make the time ripe. This is what an organizer does.

B. Universal methods of organization

1. House meetings

There's a lot of talk about house meetings in the union. It's really a small group meeting. The group is put together by an organizer but the other people in the small group do not usually have any prior experience. In my experience, this is one of the best ways to build an organization.

Many people like ourselves who are activists of some sort would like to band together and create organization by federating together people who already have our consciousness, people who are already like us. So we develop little circles. We do outreach work, but there's a real gap between the little circle and the mass.

That's not the way to proceed if you take up the path of organizing house meetings and small group meetings. It's completely the opposite.

What you do is try to build an organization of organizers who bring in fresh people constantly -- people who have no previous organizing experience, who are not scarred or marked with the history of the left, or the history of other organizations, but who are scarred very much with the scars we have as Americans.

A United Farm Workers organizer talks to a crew of broccoli cutters, eating lunch in the rows they just harvested. The union won provisions in the state labor law permitting union organizers to go into the growers' fields to talk to workers, so long as they clearly identify themselves. He therefore is carrying the black-eagle union flag, ostensibly to identify himself, but in reality to show workers that he has no fear of supporting the union, and that they can too (Photo by David Bacon).
Organizer at work
The organizer has to choose a life of discomfort, unless you are some sort of strange extraverted freak who loves being amidst strangers all the time. Most people don't. It's tiring and extremely hard. Just as you get a group formed, as you being to form friendships, and you start to enjoy yourself, you might even fall in love, and you're bogged down. What you have to do, which is psychologically hard, is to leave your friends, just leave them. Not in your mind, but just leave them, and go to an entirely new area -– it might be a ranch, it might be a block, it might be an office –- and start all over again after having gotten this whole group of people together out of nothing.

Start over again, walking up to people you don't know, and with whom you only have about thirty seconds to strike up a relationship. You have to convince them to let you talk to them, and then to let you use their house for a meeting of people you're going to bring who they don't know, in cities that are full of crime. People will think you're just a sophisticated criminal, or that at the end of your rap, you're going to ask for money. Or that there's going to be some trip laid on them. You have to overcome that in a minute, and get your way into the conversation, through the door, and then, after an hour with that person you have to go on to the next person and do this incessantly until you have enough people to have a meeting.

An organizer's rule of thumb is that you have to talk to 15 people to get one to come to a meeting. That means to have a meeting of 10, you have to talk to 150 people. How many people want to do that? It's psychologically hard, yet this is the only way to build an organization that gets deeper and deeper into the community, and that involves the people that have the problems you are trying to solve.

All other kinds of organizations are just organizations of organizers, radicals. They're not organizations of consumers or workers or tenants. But you can't figure out a solution to the problem unless you organize the people who have the problem.

The organizer usually doesn't have any problems except deadling with pain and frustration. The only people who can tell where the shoe pinches are the people who wear the shoes. They're the only people who can tell you where iit hurts and where the solution lies.

Unless you're a saint or a dreamer you can't expect people to do this. It calls for some kind of organization of organizers that give each other support, or else you'll never survive the ordeal of having to continually go out and do this.

2. Relate to people where they are at instead of where you're at

Not entirely where they are at: If somebody says, "I want to stop busing and keep those niggers tied up in South Central [Los Angeles]," you can't say "Right on" and then hope that you can add on a little social analysis or something.

There's got to be a line, but the problem usually is that the organizer is so conscious of wanting to change everything in the world that they want to organize everybody into all those changes. That's a disaster.

Some examples in the last couple of days for example: I think Starkey raised the question of nutrition yesterday at the clinic in Delano. The answer from the doctor was "Cesar would like to organize everybody to be a vegetarian, but you have to walk a very fine line" because then you are running against ingrained eating habits that don't necessarily have anything to do with the principle focus of the struggle, which is to improve working conditions, the contracts, and so on. This is always true.

Vietnam is very divided, with lots of minority people. Historically there was no way to unify people against the French or the Americans or anybody else unless you could get the majority people to get along with the minority. The minority people had totally different habits and were looked down upon by the majority people. One of the things that they did was chew betel nut all day long. Their teeth were black; they thought that it had a hygenically positive effect. The majority people though it was not only hygenically bad but it was uncivilized. Nevertheless, Ho Chi Minh sent people to work in the minority areas and told them they had to file their teeth and blacken their teeth with betel nut, and be prepared to spend 20 years. They were not going to fight people on the question of betel nut. They were not going to go in and insist that everyone have white teeth or black teeth or yellow teeth. They were going to 'relate' to that.

3. Have tactics that give a lot of people a little to do

Most people work and have good reasons why they can't be full-time organizers. That doesn't mean they don't want to work when they can. Organizers have to provide that work.

In a boycott, for example, when you go up to people on the street and ask them not to eat grapes, the question never leaves them. You haven't really done anything to make them take on an extra burden. As a matter of fact, you're asking them to lessen their burden by not eating one kind of food. You're not asking them to do very much, but the question is put inside them. They are personally involved, are not just supporting other people who are doing the work. They are doing the work by not eating grapes, and they see them every time they go to the market.

4. Building up alternative institutions

Values are abstract. I
f you ask people to go from individual competition to cooperation and don't give them a way to do it, it seems like a 180-degree shift in their lives. They don't know what they're supposed to do.

Most people are not like Paul on his horse, getting hit by God's insight, dropping to the ground, and getting up a radical Christian. It doesn't happen. For those who do change like that, it doesn't last long. They're some of our most eloquent speakers, some of our most brilliant media stars, but they last about as long as a shooting star. Nobody can really be changed in an instant if they've been made into what they are over 20 to 30 years.

So, there have to be alternative institutions can give a concrete picture of the values you're talking about. A medical clinic or a consumer co-op is not abstract. It's concrete. Through participation in it, people can get new values.

The key thing about United Farm Worker institutions is that they're not institutions in themselves. They are institutions which are part of a union struggling for its survivial. What we have in the cities or the college towns are a lot of counter-institutions. They started with the best of intentions, amidst a lot of idealism and euphoria. But they bog down because what they're doing is providing service for a community and that makes people passive. They don't remember that there was a riot, there were hearings, there was a commission, and then the authorities decided to give you the money to start your co-op institution. Only the initial leadership remembers they created the free clinic out of struggle. For later generations, five years later, the free clinic is just another instiution to rip-off personally, or get something from.

There are almost no alternative institutions in California that can remain an alternative unless they're tied into a movement that stands for an alternative, and is trying to create that alternative. Otherwise they just peter out.

This mistake was made over and over again in movements aside from the farmworkers movement -- creating new institutions as if somehow they would then change the community. In fact, the new institutions soon start to serve the oppressor -- totally unintentionally.

If you have terrible health care, people are going to get angry about it and revolt -- unless you have a free clinic that takes care of people who come and ask for help. Pretty soon, the free clinic, which was supposed to be an alternative, instead becomes at best like a service station and at worst a buffer between the commmunity and the real power structure. People start complaining about the free clinic not taking care of their problems when they should be blaming the whole structure which makes a free clinic necessary. In the union, there is an attempt to make these things go hand in hand.

C. Nonviolence

Most of us don't consider ourselves to be nonviolent, or we associate nonviolence with a certain kind of religiosity, or we think it's a tactic or something like that. I don't want to talk about the moral philosophy here. I want to talk about the role of nonviolence in building organization.

Last night, someone asked the speaker, "Through the bleak times, what did you do to stay together?" and Mack Lyons described the example of Cesar's fast.

This was in early 1968, when the student movement, the black movement, and the antiwar movement were all becoming violent. They were becoming immersed in at least confrontation with police over the right to demonstrate and tremendous repression followed.

The farmworkers were in that atmosphere of confrontation. There was enormous frustration in the movement. The growers were cheating and using violence. In early 1968 when most of the world was going up in violence -- from the Tet offiensive in Vietnam to college campuses and black ghettos -- it was likely this movement would drift in the same direction.

When Cesar fasted, you don't have to think of its being based only in religious philosophy. If you read "Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa" by Jacques Levy, all it seems to be is that Cesar thought the movement was getting out of hand. In response to frustration, people were moving toward violence without any thought whether that would help buld the movement or destroy it. It was just what the growers wanted.

Things were getting out of hand, so he stopped eating. He didn't kneel down and tell everybody he was fasting for religious reasons, he just said there has to be a stop. We have to try to analyze what we're doing and where we're going. So he told people he had stopped eating. There is no better way to stop than to stop eating.

Cesar Chavez breaks his twenty-five day fast, Delano, March 10, 1968. Helen Chavez, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and Cesar Chavez (Photo by Cris Sanchez).
Cesar Chavez

That turned the whole situation around. It got people to focus on why he was doing it; there were all kinds of side discussions about that.

More importantly, it got back to the question of creating a way to re-examine where the organization was going before it just went off in a direction that was not planned and not thought through and might very well be bankrupt and destructive. That's an example of the relation between nonviolent action and organizational health.

If you look over the last 15 years, there was a healthy growing mass movement in American from 1960 to 1965. Millions of people were involved in the civil rights, student, and antiwar movements. In the case of the civil rights movement, there was majority support for the right to vote in the South. These movements were deeply influenced by nonviolence, coming from Martin Luther King. Almost nobody in them believed in nonviolence as a religious philosophy, but they accepted nonviolence because the leadership felt it was the only way to get mass support.

From 1967 to 1972, state violence and repression grew. All we could remember was people being killed, street confrontations, organizations being broken up by indictments, and leaders going to jail. Maybe there was no relation between violence and nonviolence on the one hand and organizational health on the other. Maybe it was just happenstance that things turned out that way. I'm not clear in my own mind.

It's clear that sometimes things in the world are achieved through violence. But we don't have to debate violence versus nonviolence. There are certain things about nonviolence, at least in the way the farmworkers use the phrase, that we should do some deep thinking about in terms of organization building:

1. There is no short cut

When you're frustrated, the solution is not the destruction of property or taking the life of an individual oppressor. The solution is to find a creative act which will turn the tables and get things going again. Creativity is the answer to frustration, and is a very important organizational principle.

It doesn't have to be individual creativity. You don't have to go off and try to think up the answer. Often the answer comes from the people.

When things were at a most frustrating point in the United Farm Worker's history, like when the big strikes were going on and on and on, Cesar at one point went to a mass meeting and said, "I know you're frustrated, you want to change direction, but ideas come from people. I know that if I was down there instead of up here, I would try to think of an idea to get us through this situation."

Sure enough, three women who were just loyal pickets and had never really opened their mouths came to him a couple of hours later and said, "You wanted ideas. We're not challenging your leadership." He thought they wanted something. The problem in this case was in dealing with workers who were inside the ranch, who never had to come out. Trying to going in to meet the workers, you'd get busted, beaten, and off to jail. So the women said, "What about having an altar in a car outside the gate and having a vigil." He said, "That's it. There's more than one way to skin a cat, backwards and forwards. You can't go in so we have to get them to come out." They started a vigil and succeeded. All the farmworkers came out.

The only way to bring about change is when the people who want the change have the power to make the change happen.

2. Discipline

This also affects work. Here we are in a quiet place -- La Paz. It means 'peace'. Yet we know the farmworkers work harder than almost anybody. Farmworkers organizers probably don't work quite as hard a farm workers in the field, but they work hard. Yet there don't seem to be bad vibes which you see around other movement offices, or electoral campagins when people are at the height of the struggle. There seem to be good vibes. Yet people work so hard you'd think they'd be going crazy and taking it out on each other.

The problem is how, when you're in a violent situation, and Teamsters are standing five feet away, challenging your virility, your strength, your integrity, egging you on. How do you deal with a whole upbringing that says you're a coward if you don't hit back? How do you overcome that and come back stronger? How do you discipline yourself to let someone beat you and beat you and beat you? It's not easy. You have to force yourself to learn how to do it. If you think you can do it just because the cause is glorious, because it is exciting, you couldn't possibly make it. You actually have to undergo training to accept self-sacrifice.

3. Unity

UFW BoardIt may also have something to do with why there have been no factional splits which have torn the union apart. Every other organization we know about has split. I don't think nonviolence will guarantee that there will be no splits or no violence. These attitudes, whether we call them nonviolence or mentally-healthy attitudes, may have something to do with the fact that the leadership of the union has been unified. The unity consolidated, as far as I can find out, after the first fast.

You can't possibly have a successful struggle without organization. You can't possibly succeed organizationally without unity. There may be something about confrontational violence of the type which the movement in the United States went through that raised the stakes faster than people could deal with and contributed to psyching out a lot of people and put people on a nervous edge where factionalism became commonplace.

4. Broad support

Whatever the truth of these connections, the practical consequences of the nonviolence of the United Farm Workers have been enormous. One is that they have always retained mass support, and it's grown. They have never alienated the great mass of moderate voters. They have always acted in ways that are just short of breaking the law or going over the edge into violence.

5. Not being put on the defensive

Only through nonviolence has the United Farm Workers been able to avoid the pattern of every single other organization in the last 15 years. Organizations reach a certain point, then comes a conspiracy charge, then the leadership is taken away, and the movement tries to defend the leader. You're no longer fighting for peace or social justice. You're fighting against repression and the freedom of political prisoners.

The Black Panthers, for example, spent $6 million on bail in 1969 - 1971. For what? Not to get a single person a free breakfast or a job, but to keep certain leaders out of jail. Cesar says when you go on the defensive like that and you're struggling to free political prisoners, your mass following declines somewhat because people only follow a movement when they get something out of it. There's no job, or an improved living condition for the average person. The base of support goes down until you get back on track.

6. Faith

You can't predict in advance whether you can succeed in the struggle, but there cannot be any kind of success unless you have a group of people unified among themselves, who have a sense of community, are able to reach many, many people around their immediate grievances, organize those people into an organizational base, and work harder than anyone else, setting an example of courage and humanity and principle.

In the antiwar movement, people often said, "Why do you go on?" or asked, "Are you an optimist or a pessimist?"

If you're a painter or an artist or an observer of reality you could be either an optimist or a pessimist and still create someting meaningful. But if you're trying to change conditions, if you're trying to improve the world, then you can't possibly take that pessimistic detached position. You have to be an optimist, whether or not there's any evidence to justify it. How can things be improved by pessimists? The only thing that can be brought about through pessimism is enjoyable cocktail parties, social relationships, discussion groups, games between people, and incessant conventions.

There has to be another attitude brought to things. The most important thing if you want to change the world is to believe in change. And belief cannot be based on proof. It has to be based on faith. I don't think people can sustain themselves with sociological statistics which prove change is possible, with Harris polls, or with theories which explain why change is inevitable. I don't think people can live that way. They have to have something more.

It goes back to this question of nonviolence. I must say, at the risk of being misunderstood, that it goes to the question of religion. If you don't have religion, I don't think you can continue. And I don't mean institutional religion. I don't even mean a belief in God. But you have to have a belief that humanity can improve. That belief can't be proven any more than you can prove whether a God exists. It's matter of how you choose to nourish yourself, sustain yourself, conduct yourself, and relate to other people. It's a matter of what faith you adopt.

It's probably the most fundamental thing in the history of the farmworkers. I think it is the most fundamental thing in the history of any movement. Even movements that don't believe in God have a belief which is the same thing as a religious belief -- a belief that things are going to get worse, that we're going to have terrible troubles, we may not see each other, or make it through together. People are going to die. People are going to be arrested. People are going to fail, burn out. People are going to discover awful things about each other, but in the end, people are going to win. That's what I mean by faith.

If you don't have that kind of faith, it's impossible to win because material conditions are not enough to bring about social justice or a new reality. You have to have faith which, when it's organized, increases your strength. When the police come with clubs, they see the farmworkers singing. They're not singing to throw the police off balance. They're singing to increase their strength against the increased strength of the oppressor. Otherwise, you'll fall victim to fear. The only way to overcome the fear of death, or any other fear is to increase your spirit. The only way to do that is to have some kind of faith you can rely on to get you through those moments. That's hard.

Many of us come from movements where to be moral is considered wrong. You aren't supposed to talk about morality. We're supposed to be hard people. Tough. "We only talk about economics." But there must be a reason why people who talk about economics are in the universities or are not successfully building mass movements. I think the reason is that people do not live by bread alone.

Tom Hayden is a founder of the Students for a Democratic Society, author of the 'Port Huron Statement,' community organizer, antiwar leader, member of the 'Chicago 7', a founder of the Indochina Peace Campaign and the Campaign for Economic Democracy, former California State Assemblyman and Senator, teacher, author, and speaker.