Life as a Communist Organizer in the Farm Fields of California: the Autobiography of Epifonio Camacho

By Karyn Pomerantz, June 11, 2019

This autobiography of a revolutionary farmworker offers insights into the lives of the workers who plant and harvest our food under brutal working and living conditions. It highlights the need for militancy, revolutionary ideas, and total opposition to capitalism. Told in accessible language with clear explanations of complex political ideas and organizing strategies, it has much to teach us.
Camacho describes his childhood in Mexico, his work in the southern US and California, his leadership in establishing the United Farm Workers of America with Caesar Chavez, and his development as a communist. Along the way, he reveals the treachery of Chavez, the Church, liberal politicians, and the government.

Early Years

Camacho, born in the 1920s, grew up in a small Mexican village. Its residents survived by working collectively since there was no money to buy necessities. Instead, people shared their labor, child care, and goods with one another to survive, knowing that people reciprocated according to their skills. As a young boy, he lost his parents and lived with relatives contributing his labor to their households. He was able to earn a third grade education and learned to read and write.

Years later in 1955, he entered the United States where various agricultural companies hired him to graft roses, harvest cotton, dig graves, and plant garbanzos, corn, and beans. He saw that the bosses notoriously stole workers’ wages, forced them into working long hours, and exposed them to hazardous conditions.

During this time, Camacho earned a reputation as a militant enemy of this exploitation. He demanded his earnings and refused to submit to bosses’ orders, such as mandatory overtime. He understood that the owners’ drive for profit caused his problems. His experiences and observations developed a class consciousness that pushed his politics leftward. After filing a complaint for back wages at the Bakersfield Labor Commission where the judge ruled against him, Camacho learned more about the collusion between employers and the government. He recognized early on that only an organized collective of workers could challenge the system and win reforms. Even though he did not understand or adopt communist politics then, the bosses and union leaders used red-baiting to alienate other workers from him and to blacklist him from jobs.

“Within those four walls (of the hearing room), I was able to see the entire capitalist system symbolically represented. There was the ruling class represented by those two bosses. There were forces of repression represented by the judge and police. And there was the working class represented by me … the State would never rule in my favor since the State is never neutral in class conflict.”

During the 1960s, he organized his first strike of farm workers in California. After several strikes Cesar Chavez asked him to help develop a farm workers association and hired him as his bodyguard. The National Farm Workers Association drew widespread support from liberal politicians like Robert Kennedy who wanted to win the farm worker vote, and the general public.

Chavez received acclaim as head of the Association. He and Vice President Delores Huerta became the public face of farm workers and the grape boycott adopted across the US. Yet their political strategy clashed with Camacho over these principles:

Pacifism vs. Violence.

Chavez and many of his followers promoted pacifism. They allowed strikebreakers (scabs) to cross picket lines and weaken strikes whereas Camacho organized men and women to stop them with mass mobilizations armed with knives and other weapons. Chavez’ famous hunger strike in 1968 actually opposed this violence, not the agricultural businesses. He condemned Camacho and the militant workers for their actions, and smeared him as a communist.

Electoral Politics vs. Mass Working Class Movements

Chavez built a movement based on electing and supporting liberal politicians, such as California Governor Pat Brown and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, and backing legislation that appeared pro-worker but never changed any conditions. After Camacho’s experience with the Labor Commission and his participation in a symbolic march to Sacramento to appeal to the legislature, he viewed electoral politics as support for the ruling class under the guise of democracy.

Anti-communism vs. Revolution

Chavez classified any workers with class consciousness as communists, attacking their ideas and threatening their jobs. He did not view capitalism as the root of farm worker oppression nor its elimination as the solution. As Camacho’s knowledge of Marxism developed, he recruited many union members to the Progressive Labor Party, a revolutionary communist party (see below).

Boycotts vs. Strikes

Chavez’ major strategy was the well-known grape boycott from 1965-1970. It went viral around the US. It engaged and educated millions of people allowing them to express solidarity with the farm workers. Camacho built actions at the point of production, in the fields where work stoppages put real pressure on the owners. Strikes taught workers whom to trust, built active solidarity across groups, and developed rank and file leadership.

Collective Bargaining vs. Point of Production Demands

The union won contracts that stipulated wages and hours. Contracts could last for years without modification until they expired and were re-negotiated. Camacho called collective bargaining “class collaboration” since it did not address immediate concerns and changes in working conditions. Instead, workers would refuse to work if they needed clean water and decent hygiene.

Excluding vs. Including Undocumented Workers in the Union

Chavez actually opposed unionizing and hiring workers without the required documents, playing into the bosses’ divide and conquer practices. Employers often threatened to turn in militant workers to the migra, the immigration police, if they didn’t cooperate.

Joining Progressive Labor Party – Organizing for Revolution

In 1973, Camacho joined the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) after several members organized a study group with him and others. They read the Party newspaper, Challenge-Desafio, and discussed key Marxist theories, ideas that resonated with their lives in the farm fields. Over the years, they developed networks to distribute the newspaper, reaching over 20,000 papers in 1982.

They developed as communists because of their experiences with the landowners, the police, and government. Camacho advises new members to take responsibility for work promised and to learn about communism to respond to questions and earn respect. PL members understood that workers require power in order to abolish a system based on profit, racism, and inequality.

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