Monday, March 31, 2014

New Film and New Latino Labor Battles Renew interest in César Chavez

Note: I have posted versions of this piece before, but a new bio-flic that opened in theaters around the country this past weekend has renewed interest in the founder of the United Farm Worker Union.  So have new battles involving Latino workers in the hospitality and dining industries, fast food, big box stores, and warehouse and distribution as well the drive for immigration reform and justice.  And there is a growing movement to create a national holiday in honor of César Chavez.
If a person is extremely fortunate in his life, he or she may have an opportunity to meet—and better yet support in some meaningful, if small way—his heroes.  I have been blest beyond measure by knowing and working closely some of the legendary figures of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  I got to meet and march with Martin Luther King in Chicago.  And I got to meet César Chavez and help establish the grape and later the lettuce boycotts as the IWW’s representative on the Chicago Labor Support Committee for the UFW.

Chavez was born on March 31, 1927 in Yuma, Arizona to an established family with deep roots in the state.  His father owned a small grocery store and ranch, but lost the business and the family homestead in the Depression at least partly as a result of fraud.  Young César and his five siblings moved to California with their parents where they all entered the world of migrant farm laborers.  The family experienced long hours in the fields, harsh conditions in crowed and dirty migrant camps, and prejudice and hostility to “Greasers” by the communities in which they had to live or travel in.

Like all of the children, César often had to miss school to work in the fields or because the family was traveling.  Despite being an eager and bright student, he came from a family that spoke only Spanish at home and was often punished at school for the use of his native language.  He managed to graduate eighth grade, but then had work full time in the fields to help support his family.

In 1944 at the age of 17 he enlisted in the Navy for service in World War II.  He experienced intense discrimination, confinement to menial jobs with no possibility of advancement, and a rigid discipline.  He described his two years of service as the worst time of his life.

Back in California and working in the fields Chavez married his childhood sweetheart, Helen Favela in 1948.  The couple moved to San Jose, California which served as home base while both continued to work in the fields.  Eventually they had eight children. 

In San Jose Chavez met and was mentored by Father Donald McDonnell, with whom he often discussed the plight of farm workers and from whom he learned something of the history of labor struggles in the fields.  Father McDonnell introduced him to the ideas of St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, and nonviolence.  He also launched him on a life long program self-education through wide ranging reading.

Chavez continued to follow the crops until 1952 when he met Fred Ross, founder of the Community Service Organization (CSO), a community organization for the Hispanic community affiliated with Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation.  Ross recognized leadership skills in young Chavez and hired him as an organizer for the CSO.  Trained by Ross in Alinsky’s techniques, Chavez organized around police brutality issues and led voter registration drives.  He traveled through out California for the organization and became increasingly draw to struggles for worker’s rights.  He rose to become National Director of the CSO in 1958, a position he kept until 1962. 

In 1962 Chavez left the CSO to concentrate on the plight of farm workers on the job.  That year with Delores Huerta and his brother Richard, Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), a fledgling labor organization.  At his suggestion his brother Richard created the symbol of a stylized black Aztec eagle as the symbol of the new organization and created the bright red banner with the eagle highlighted in a white circle that soon became familiar in fields across the state.

Huerta and Chavez hoped to merge the tactics of non-violence used by Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement with a renewal of long battles for union representation in the fields.  But in the early years, members were few and the organization struggled. 

Despite his deep ties to the Mexican-American migrant community, the organization did not really take of until 1965 he threw the support of the NFWA behind Filipino workers striking in Deleno, the same fields where his family had labored and where he met his wife.  He broadened the strike to other fields bringing out Chicano and other migrants.  Within a few months he led a historic march from Deleno to the state capitol in Sacramento to demand better wages and working conditions in the fields. The Deleno strike dragged on for five years, with picketers regularly attacked by grower hired thugs and harassed by local police and Sheriff Departments.  In the face of many provocations, Chavez always counseled his members in nonviolence. 

The national news media began picking up on the struggle, particularly after the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor’s Subcommittee on Migrant Labor came to California to hold hearings where member Robert F. Kennedy expressed strong support for the workers.  It was the beginning of a long relationship between Chavez and the Kennedy Prince.  

The NFWA merged with the Agricultural Organizing Committee, sponsored by the AFL-CIO to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), which launched a nationwide boycott of table grapes to pressure the growers into concessions. 

As tensions in the fields grew, some rank and file members began advocating self defense against attacks by thugs and police and perhaps action against scabs in the fields.  In 1968 Chavez launched his first great fast, 25 days long to rally his people to nonviolence.  He attracted the attention and support of his hero Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy returned to California to participate in the peace mass that broke the fast. 

In return UFW members worked hard for Kennedy in the California Presidential Primary that spring.  They, and Chavez, were devastated by his murder at the very moment of his victory.

In 1970 UFWOC stepped up its national grape boycott campaign, organizing local support committees around the country to picket markets selling “scab grapes.”   The boycott was effective.  In 1970 the most growers had enough.  Even the most recalcitrant Deleno growers filed into the dilapidated union hall to sign an agreement. 

The grape strike and boycott was no sooner won than California lettuce growers signed “sweet heart” contracts with the Teamster’s Union aimed at keeping the UFW out.  Chavez led some 10,000 farm workers out on strike in protest, prompting many growers to abandon the Teamsters and sign with the UFW.  A new nation-wide boycott of non-union and scab iceberg lettuce was launched.  Chavez was jailed for violating a court order against the boycott, where was visited by Coretta Scott King and Bobby Kennedy’s widow Ethel. 

When the original UFW contracts with table grape growers and vintner Ernest and Julio Gallo expired in 1972, growers rushed to sign with the rival Teamsters without any consultation with their workers.  Chavez led thousands out strike in protest while growers obtained injunctions against picketing.  Over 3500 strikers were arrested, hundreds beaten and at least two shot and killed.  Alarmed by the violence, Chavez halted the walk out but announced a second grape boycott.  Within a few months an astonishing 17 million Americans were boycotting scab grapes, lettuce and/or Gallo wines. 

California Governor Jerry Brown helped Chavez achieve his long cherished goal of a state agricultural labor relations law that guaranteed the right of farm workers to organize in 1975.  Despite this the balance of the ‘70’s and much of the ’80’s was a long running battle between the UFW, since 1972 an official independent affiliate of the AFL-CIO on one side, and growers, their Teamster allies, and Republican politicians on the other. 

There were many strikes and boycotts, long marches and hunger strikes.  Chavez and the union were under constant legal harassment by growers filing multi-million dollar law suits against them.  Through it all Chavez persevered and held fast to his cherished nonviolence.  In the mid eighties he turned his attention to the use of pesticides in the fields and the health effects on workers and—ultimately—consumers.  Yet another grape boycott was called to protest the use of poisons and in 1986 he went on his longest, and last fast, lasting 36 days to draw attention to the cause.

Chavez never fully recovered from the effects of that fast, although he continued his tireless work.  On April 18, 1992 at the age of 61 and worn out, he died in his sleep in the modest home of an Arizona migrant worker.  Forty Thousand mourners marched in his funeral. 

In September 1984 President Bill Clinton, posthumously awarded Chavez the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  More recently President Barack Obama proclaimed March 31 César Chavez Day and urged Americans to ?\”observe this day with appropriate service, community, and educational programs to honor César Chávez's enduring legacy.”  Today there are ongoing efforts to have his birthday declared a holiday in various states and by the Federal Government.

But César Chavez’s greatest legacy is the union he left behind and the millions he has inspired.  ¡Si, se puede!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

RAF Bomber Command’s Flight into Hell

RAF Bomber Command Lancaster's over Nuremberg.

Blame the fog of war, command stupidity, bad timing, bad weather, vainglory, stubbornness, or just bad luck.  Every war seems to produce on a large or small scale shake-your-head disasters that seem, in retrospect, that they could, or should have been avoided.  Think the Charge of the Light Brigade, Custer at Little Bighorn, Gallipoli, or just about the whole damned Vietnam War. 
70 years ago, on March 30, 1944 795 Royal Air Force bombers flew into disaster.  95 planes would be lost, more than 11% of those engaged.  Many more would land damaged and riddled with fighter cannon fire and flack.  545 officers and men were killed, more than 150 captured, figures for the wounded unavailable, but high.  The Nuremberg Raid was Bomber command’s greatest loss of aircraft in a single operation and to make matters worse, the intended target suffered relatively light damage.
Other Allied air raids during the war would suffer even higher losses by percentage—the U.S, Army Air Force famous B-24 raid on the oil refineries around Ploiesti, Romania in 1943 resulted in the loss of 53 of a 174 planes.  But was able to substantially destroy or damage its targets.  It was also, by scale, a much smaller operation than the Nuremberg Raid.
Conversely, later in the war, the industrial might of the United States was able to station an air armada of thousands of heavy bombers in Britain.  Some days almost all of them were engaged in action and on more than one very bad day, losses exceeded those at Nuremberg, but because of the total number involved, the percentage loss was much smaller.
The Nuremberg Raid was a night raid.  The RAF and USAAF had very different bombing strategies that had caused friction in the Allied high command.  In the end, it was agreed to allow each to wage its own campaign.  The USAAF with its high flying, heavily armed B-17 and B-24, and their precision Norton bomb sights, elected to conduct a daylight campaign of precision strategic bombing targeting German industry and infrastructure as well military and naval targets.  In addition by 1944 the Americans had fast, long range fighters like the P-51 Mustang that could provide fighter cover deep into enemy territory.
The British with their lighter aircraft preferred night time saturation bombing.  They targeted cities and towns aiming to smother them with high explosives.  Certainly damage would be done to industry and infrastructure in the process, but it was essentially terror bombing aimed at the civilian population in order to “break the enemy’s will to fight.”  Part of it was to mock Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Göring’s boast that his flyers would prevent “a single bomb” from falling on German soil.  And part of it was outright revenge for the Blitz.  Night bombing also compensated for the fact that until bases could be secured in France, the RAF’s Spitfires and Hurricanes did not have enough range to provide fighter cover.
By March of 1944 plenty of RAF bombs had fallen on German cities.  Cities like Manheim, Cologne, and above all the capital of Berlin had already been targeted leaving behind large swaths of smoking rubble and huge civilian casualties.
The next target was Nuremberg, a city of about 150,000.  Although it certainly had industrial targets, it was not an important German cog in the German war machine.  But, as the site of Hittler’s famous, highly choreographed pre-war rallies, it was considered the “spiritual heart of Nazism.”  It was to be the last of the big RAF raids on cities before Bomber command would turn its attention to support of the coming Normandy invasion.
The raid was carefully planned.  A route was mapped out that would have the formations cross the European coast over Belgium then wheel and make a direct dash for Nuremberg.  Some diversionary sorties would be flown in hopes of confusing German defenses, but far fewer than those employed in the earlier raids.  Also the relatively direct route to the target was a departure from the practice of making sever course corrections to confuse the enemy.  It was thought that this itself would be a surprise.
The day before the raid RAF meteorologists relying on reports from Mosquito weather planes flying over the continent concluded that there would be cloud cover over the Belgian coast to shield the formations from the bright half-moon and clear skies over the target which would make it easy for pathfinders to mark out the target with incendiaries.  These were ideal conditions.
But around noon on the 30th new reports from the Mosquitos showed clouds forming over Nuremberg and clearing skies over Belgium.  Deputy Commander Sir Robert Saundby said after the war, “I can say that, in view of the meteorological report and other conditions, everyone, including myself, expected the C-in-C (Commander in Chief) to cancel the raid. We were most surprised when he did not. I thought perhaps there was some top-secret political reason for the raid, something too top-secret for even me to know.”
Air crews were never informed of the changed conditions into which they would fly.
At the appointed hour 572 Lancasters, 214 Halifaxes and 9 Mosquitos took off on the main mission.  Due to the usual mechanical problems and malfunctioning electronics several planes turned back.  About 750 made it to the Belgian coast.
Meanwhile forces of light Mosquitos and a flight of Halifaxes flew diversionary flights that included 49 Halifaxes mine-laying in the Heligoland area, 13 Mosquitos to attack night-fighter airfields, 34 Mosquitos on diversions to Aachen, Cologne and Kassel.
The German command was not fooled.  And when the bombers came over the coast not only were they silhouetted against the moonlight, their contrails were clearly visible.  German radio crackled.  Over 200 night-fighters were scrambled on their way to the Ida and Otto beacons which neatly straddled the raiders’ course.  The British were flying directly into a virtual ambush.
The night fighters were among Germany’s best, mostly Me-109s, Me-110s and JU-88s.  Many were armed with new twin 20 mm cannons mounted on either side of the nose at an upward angle and a slight spread. Known as   Schräge Musik (slanting music) these weapons allowed a new tactic.  Fighters attacked from below, never seen or detected by the bomber’s gun crews.  They flew within a few hundred feet and let loose fire that straddled the bomb-laden fuselage and tore into both wings with their heavy loads of fuel.
The first bombers fell shortly after clearing the coast to heavy flack.  That gave way soon enough to the swarms of night fighters tearing into the formations with deadly accuracy and effect.  At least two Luftwaffe pilot personally downed four planes each.  Another destroyed two bombers in less than two minutes.
The night fighters continued to bring down the lumbering bombers for the next 45 mile until they finally disappeared into the clouds that would also obscure the target.  Not only had the attacks somewhat broken the formations, an unexpected cross wind began to blow some off course.  Leading the way the versatile little Mosquitos were the Pathfinders charged with marking the bombing range.  Two got off course marking a mostly rural area near Lauf ten miles distant.  150 of the bombers followed them, dumping their bombs mostly uselessly in the fields, although three ball bearing plants—a high priority for American strategic bombers—were inadvertently his and sustained moderate damage, but not enough to put them out of commission.
Even those pathfinders that did find Nuremburg found that smoke from their incendiaries was blowing away from the city.  In additions some pilots mistook the burning wreckage of other bombers as signals.  As a result and under intense ground anti-aircraft fire, many of the bombs fell harmlessly away from city.
German records indicated that Nuremberg suffered “133 killed (75 in city itself), 412 injured; 198 homes destroyed, 3,804 damaged, 11,000 homeless. Fires started: 120 large, 485 medium / small. Industrial damage: railway lines cut, and major damage to three large factories; 96 industrial buildings destroyed or seriously damaged.”  This was hardly insignificant.  But had he raid proceeded as planned, the city would have been virtually leveled.
On the way back the planes continued to be hectored by fighters and targeted by flack.  But the formation was broken up and planes were widely scattered.  Only a handful more were shot down on the long three hour flight home, bucking a heavy headwind almost all of the way.  But several damaged planes crashed along the way.  11 made it all the way back to England only to crash either because of battle damage or because they had run out of fuel.
There was no way around it.  The raid was a disaster, more so because the heavy losses were experienced without the mission being anywhere near satisfactorily completed.
The question remains to this day, why was not the mission scrubbed after the revised weather forecasts came in?  How high above the Deputy Commander could the decision to go ahead have gone?  Bomber Command’s Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris?  Marshal of the Royal Air Force Arthur Tedder, Air Commander-in-Chief, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF)?  Or perhaps even to Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself?  After all in pre-mission briefings pilots were told that the Nuremberg raid was, “…a target he [Harris] knows is very dear to Churchill’s heart.”

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ex-Dutch Governor Leads Sweden’s Bid for an American Colony

The European colonizers on the Eastern seaboard of heavily forested North America—French, English, Dutch—and Native tribes all built  fortifications of palisaded logs like Peter Minuit’s Fort Christiana.  But only the Swedes built their dwellings, like the building seen within the walls, out of interlocking horizontal logs instead of laboriously hand sawn planks, stone, or mud and wattle.  Log cabins were sturdy, well insulated for harsh winters, and provided protection in the event of Indian raids.  After New Sweden was conquered by the Dutch and then became part of William Penn’s Grant, this style of construction was rapidly adopted by settlers as they pushed the margins of the frontier ever westward.  Log cabins were the most enduring cultural legacy of New Sweden’s short lived tenure as a colony.

Ok, quickly now, students, go to a map and show me the location of the colony of New Sweden. What?  You say you’ve never heard of such a thing?  Well on March 29, 1638 two ships carrying Swedish and FinnishFinland was at the time part of Sweden—emigrants sailed up Delaware River and landed near modern day Wilmington.  They claimed the river and its drainage for the New Sweden Company. 
In command was a veteran of North American colonization, Peter Minuit.  Minuit is familiar to school children as the Dutch Governor of New Netherlands who supposedly swindled Native Americans out of the island of Manhattan for $24 in beads and trinkets.  Like most such arch-typical tales, the story was only half right.  Minuit did purchase the island—and near-by Staten Island—for about 60 Guilders—a significant sum in those days—in trade goods including steel ax heads, needles, hoes, and drilling awls pots and trade wampum.  A historian described it as a significant “high-end technology transfer, handing over equipment of enormous usefulness.”  Both parties to the deal were happy and neither felt cheated. 
Minuit served as governor from 1626 to 1631 when he was suspended by the Dutch West Indies Company because the fur trade with Native Americans, which was supposed to finance the colony, was less remunerative than anticipated and because Minuit was suspected of skimming for his personal purse. 
Outraged Minuit turned to the Swedes, who were going about the business of entering the competition for New World riches.  They were glad to have him.  Sweden, at the time, was at its height of its influence as a world power.  It ruled over much on Scandinavia including Finland, and most of Norway, portions of Russia, all of modern Estonia, Latvia, and most of Lithuania, parts of Poland, Germany, and Denmark.  The Baltic Sea was a virtual Swedish lake.  The Swedes felt more than ready to join the mercantile powers in America.  
Minuit established Fort Christiana, in honor of Sweden’s twelve year old Queen.  But as Minuit well knew, the drainage of the Delaware River was claimed by the Dutch.  After establishing his colony, Minuit decided to return to Sweden for more colonists and make a dash down to the Caribbean to pick up a load of tobacco to make the trip profitable.  Unfortunately, he was killed in a hurricane off of St. Christopher. 
Over the next dozen years 12 groups of settlers totaling more than 600 reached New Sweden and established settlements on both sides of the river.  The settlers were mostly small farmers.  They introduced a form of shelter never seen before in the new world—the log cabin—which would become the standard pioneer abode for the next two hundred years. 
They had excellent relations with the local tribes and lived comfortably with the near-by Dutch until a new governor arrived in 1654 and seized the Dutch post of Fort Casamir, modern day New Castle.  The notoriously bellicose Dutch governor in New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, dispatch five armed ships and 317 professional soldiers to retake the post.  They then proceeded up the river and forced the surrender of Ft. Christiana.  That ended Swedish sovereignty over the area. 
But the Dutch made no attempt to expel the existing settlers.  In fact they granted them extraordinary rights to retain their lands, practice their Lutheran religion, and govern themselves as a quasi-independent “Swedish Nation.”
But the Dutch thems elves were not long to retain their American possessions.  After a series of wars, they were gone for good by 1674 and New Netherlands became New York. 
In 1681 William Penn was granted his charter for Pennsylvania, which included the “Three Lower Counties” which make up today’s Delaware.  The Swedes, with no reinforcements coming from the mother country for decades, were quickly subsumed by the British.