Keep Me in the Loop!

From living in a barn, Ben Maddock helped build America’s first enduring farm worker union alongside Cesar Chavez

A native of Tulare County, Ben Maddock went from living as an infant in a barn on his family’s small orange ranch in rural Woodlake to helping organize massive vineyard strikes and international boycotts, win historic legal protections for farm workers and negotiate and administer union contracts that improved their lives. He became a trusted confidant to Cesar Chavez but was never afraid to tell Chavez or anyone else what he thought. Ben passed away from natural causes at age 87 on July 9.

Born in 1934, Ben grew up doing all manner of farm work, hiring out as a tractor driver during summers. As a tile setter, he led a successful strike by tile workers but was blackballed by the employer. Tile setting took him to Las Vegas, Oregon, Washington state and Montana, before moving in the late 1960s to Richgrove, a small farm town near Delano. There he “kinda raised hell” by recalling the water and school boards.

That led Ben to the United Farm Workers offices at the “Forty Acres” outside Delano. He committed to stay with the union “for a couple of months. I stayed for 22 years.”

He oversaw distribution of the union newspaper, El Malcriado. Declining to go to La Paz at Keene, Calif. when Cesar moved UFW headquarters there in 1971, Ben became a union organizer in Delano. There was skepticism as he didn’t speak Spanish. “I said I’ll be better than anyone you got and I proved that.”

Ben supervised administration of new UFW contracts at three big table grape companies. Organizers had to set up ranch committees of farm workers elected as leaders at their companies and get them to monthly meetings. “My companies had the largest attendance of anyone,” Ben noted. “I could relate well with people and always have.”

Grape growers turned their UFW contracts over to the Teamsters union in 1973, sparking mammoth vineyard walkouts. Thousands of strikers were arrested for disobeying local judges’ injunctions, hundreds were beaten, dozens were shot and two were killed. Ben Maddock was in the middle of it all.

He helped organize the UFW’s first constitutional convention as an independent union held that September in Fresno, tracking down worker leaders from struck ranches who had left the area or were on the grape boycott throughout the U.S. and Canada so they could return as convention delegates.

Ben was set to marry his fiancé, Maria Zuniga. Cesar wanted them wed on the way to the grape boycott—“so we could make a big splash for the boycott,” Ben said. “We didn’t. Maria and I stayed in California and were married on Sept. 8, 1973.”

Soon, Ben, Maria and Richard Chavez drove day and night to organize the boycott in Detroit. Ben mapped out supermarkets to picket. The three of them moved to New York City in 1974 and ’75. The Maddocks returned to Delano so Ben could run the union’s field office at the Forty Acres.

A big UFW march from San Francisco to Modesto in March and April 1975 promoted the boycott of Modest-based Gallo wines and pressed California’s new governor, Jerry Brown, to back what became the Agricultural Labor Relations Act granting farm workers the right to organize and vote in union elections.

Ben turned out workers for a concurrent march up the Central Valley from Fresno to Modesto. “Between me, Pablo Espinosa and Tanis Ybarra, we had people at the radio station every day getting workers to join it. Cesar wanted 2,000 marchers along the Fresno route to enter Modesto by the end of the march. We got many more.”

When the farm labor law was being passed in spring 1975, Ben brought workers to the state Capitol in Sacramento. “We had Governor Brown speak with the people on the Capitol steps,” Ben remembered.

Passing through Delano that August was Cesar’s 1,000-mile march to inform farm workers of their newfound rights. Ben led election organizing in the Delano region. During the march he took Cesar 53 miles west to Kettleman City and to other evening meetings with organizing farm workers.

Ben’s efforts in Delano faced “a real onslaught” by the rival Teamsters in summer and fall 1975. The UFW won most of the elections statewide. Ben won his share among the rainbow of field laborers in Delano—Mexicans, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans and Yemenis. Ben also won elections in Blythe, Calif., on the Arizona border.

The state farm labor board had to shut down after growers at the Capitol killed appropriations for more elections. So the UFW qualified Proposition 14, an initiative in the fall 1976 general election to restore funding and protect the law.

Cesar was constantly on the road stumping the state for Prop. 14 that summer and fall. He had Ben head up his security detail during the fast-paced political campaign. Since Cesar often had to fly to attend multiple events—rallies, fundraisers and college appearances—on the same day in far reaches of the state, Ben split the security detail into two teams, one each in the north and south.

Cesar stayed in supporter and worker homes instead of hotels and rarely went to restaurants. He, Ben, Chavez aide Marc Grossman and the security crew would buy groceries and have lunch on picknick tables at rural roadside parks. Cesar would have Ben send guards to give away some of their food to the homeless.

“Travelling with Cesar was probably the most interesting thing I did with the union,” Ben observed. “I met a lot of interesting people—Archbishop Dom Helder Camara of Brazil, the son of Martin Luther King Jr., Hosea Williams and Ralph Abernathy with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”

During the Prop. 14 drive, actor-director Warren Beatty wanted to meet with Cesar. So Cesar, Ben and Marc met Beatty in his penthouse suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. They walked across Wilshire Blvd. accompanied by Cesar’s German shepherds Boycott and Huelga to the famed Brown Derby Restaurant. It was closing but stayed open for them.

Cesar secretly fasted the two weeks before the Nov. 2, 1976 election. Ben fasted with him. They both broke their fasts on election night when Prop. 14 lost. “I don’t remember what Cesar ate that night, but I had two roast beef sandwiches,” Ben said. “Neither one of us broke it the right way. I almost croaked.” They pulled off the road on the drive home from Los Angeles to La Paz that night because Cesar was also physically ill.

Ben returned to Delano. Later he negotiated union contracts in Ventura County. He was back in Delano for more organizing and to fight the illegal grower-backed 1978 bid to decertify the UFW at the Caratan grape ranch when foremen stole ballot boxes and beat up state agents conducting the election.

Ben supervised contract administration for the citrus industry in the early 1980s. By then he was elected to the UFW National Executive Board. When most union leaders went out to organize a third grape boycott Ben oversaw all negotiating and contract administration.

He left the UFW in 1989 and spent 15 years with the California School Employees Association, defending the rights of Central Valley school workers.

Ben is closely identified with the Forty Acres, the farm worker movement’s historic property near Delano. He played a key role in 2013 on a Cesar Chavez Foundation committee creating the Master Plan for the Forty Acres that will guide its future development, conservation and management, making it as visitor friendly as the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene is today.

A viewing and Rosary is set for 6-8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 14 at Peters Funeral Home, 1401 – 7th Street, Wasco, Calif. 93280. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 9 a.m. on Thursday, July 15 at St. John’s Catholic Church, 1300 – 9th Place, Wasco, Calif. 93280.

Image of Ben Maddock in his office at the Forty Acres.