I think the biggest difference between the mindset of Chavez and UFW activists and those who put their faith for change in Barack Obama and the national electorate is that the former never had a particular timetable or deadline for achieving key goals.
When Chavez started organizing farmworkers, nobody knew it would take 13 years to win labor rights, or if the campaign would win even after two decades.
In 2008, Election Day spelled the end of the Obama for President campaign. We soon learned that the President was not interested in maintaining anything close to his grassroots electoral operation, and it was not long before one-time fulltime campaign activists were reduced to mere bystanders.
As much as Obama tried to insulate his campaign followers from overly high expectations, even he was (surprisingly) unprepared for unified Republican opposition to his agenda. While some say they always knew Obama was a “centrist,” I don’t recall predictions that Obama would not to be a fighter, and that he would quickly seek compromise when major obstacles to his agenda emerged.
So progressives did not get the leader they expected, just as Cesar Chavez and the UFW did not get the Governor or President they hoped for, and had a beloved ally cut down on route to the White House. But the fact that Republicans won the House in 2010, and control of many state governments, is hardly grounds for progressives to give up the struggle.
As we honor Cesar Chavez, remember that he and the UFW understood that the “Si Se Puede” spirit instilled believers in the ability to overcome even the most one sided of challenges; it expressed an unyielding will to succeed, and was never just a chant.
Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, and The Activist’s Handbook.