César Chávez often said if the movement he founded did not survive his death, then his work would have been in vain.
Today, the 10th anniversary of his passing, the United Farm Workers, America's first successful farm-workers union, is still battling nonviolently for the men, women and children whom Chávez championed.
The latest Department of Labor statistics show that 75 percent of California farm workers earn less than $10,000 a year. Most of them have no health coverage, and one out of 10 was injured on the job within the previous two years. Nonetheless, much can be celebrated.
The UFW kicked off a new organizing drive in 1994. Since then, farm workers at dozens of ranches have voted for the UFW in union elections, and the UFW has signed dozens of new union contracts with growers to help ensure farm-worker rights.
RIGHT TO ORGANIZE
Last year alone, the UFW won eight elections at companies across California, including Coastal Berry Co., the nation's largest strawberry employer -- with 900 workers on California's Central Coast. The union already has a contract covering Coastal Berry's 700 workers in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles.
Also in 2002, the UFW won historic legislation granting farm workers binding mediation to win union contracts when growers drag out negotiations for years, and sometimes decades. California boasts the nation's only law granting farm workers the right to organize, vote in secret-ballot union elections and bargain with their employers. Chávez pushed it through back in 1975.
Between 1975 and 2001, farm workers at 428 California companies voted for the UFW. But only 185 of the growers signed UFW contracts. Farm workers at one huge Salinas Valley vegetable firm have been bargaining off and on for more than 25 years. Unfortunately, too many farm workers never got the contracts they voted for.
But last year, the California legislature passed a pioneering law guaranteeing farm workers union contracts even after growers delay and delay. The biggest legislative victory for farm workers in 27 years took effect Jan. 1 of this year. There is hope the law will bring progress to many more farm workers, as well as spur new field organizing in the nation's largest agricultural state.
The Robert F. Kennedy Plan provides full family healthcare to farm workers under UFW contracts, and the nation's only functioning pension plan for retired farm workers. And a foundation set up by the Chávez family focuses on promoting his life and work, especially by encouraging service among young people.
Chávez's life can be compared to a stone that gets cast into the middle of a pond. From its impact, ripples grow in ever-widening circles. Those ripples are the thousands of farm workers he taught to fight nonviolently for their rights.
They're also millions of Latinos and many other Americans who never worked on a farm, but whose social and political activism was inspired by this small brown man. Like his movement, Chávez's legacy is alive and well.
Arturo S. Rodríguez succeeded César Chávez as president of the United Farm Workers.