What Would Cesar Do?
Chavez, whose birthday Thursday is recognized as a holiday in California and several other states, was the founder of the United Farm Workers. He
More than 1,000 farm workers and United Farm Workers supporters celebrated Cesar Chavez's legacy Sunday by marching for fair treatment for farm workers. Residents gathered at 12 noon on Sunday, March 27, at the Patriot Park in Greenfield. Chavez's upcoming March 31 birthday is celebrated as an official holiday in 10 states, including California.
The four-mile march through the streets of Greenfield, led by UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, commemorates the life and legacy of Chavez. Keeping with the farm labor leader's vision and lifetime-dedication to farm worker rights, the event is also a push for SB 104, the Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act. The bill, written by state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) would help field laborers better protect themselves by making it easier for them to join unions.
"The United Farm Workers is fighting for reform legislation to restore democracy to the fields. For four years in a row, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed UFW bills making it easier for farm workers to join a union. This year we're putting that bill on Governor Brown's desk," Rodriguez said.
Marshall Ganz, a former SNCC organizer in southwest Mississippi, is the national coordinator of the boycott. He talked about the life of a lettuce worker:
"Most of them are paid by piece rate. They start in the fields when they are 11 or 12. For a while they can make maybe $3000 a year. But the work kills you. It is stoop work. You bend and pick. It breaks your back. The fact you are paid by the piece drives you to work harder and harder. Most lettuce pickers are finished by the time they are 30. They can't bend any more. And they have no skill and no education. Their life is over at 30. By then they usually have a child who is 10, and the child gets taken out of school and put into the fields."
The lettuce workers unionized so far (about 5000) get a minimum of $2.10 an hour, and are protected by a UFW health plan. "But the biggest difference," Ganz says, "is pride and dignity. I can walk into a field of workers, and just by the spirit I can tell if they belong to the union."
Chavez was in town last week for meetings with the presidents of chain supermarkets, asking them not to sell iceberg lettuce, or else face picket lines across the country.
"The meetings went very nicely," says Chavez. "Seven years ago, when I first came to New York with the grape boycott, I couldn't even see these executives. This week they were very cooperative...They are businessmen, just like the growers, and I talk to them the same way. I explain they make probably $5 profit a day just on lettuce, not very much. But if we picket, then they will lose about $500 a day on everything else. They understand."
Chavez says he has commitments from New York City not to buy iceberg lettuce for public schools, municipal hospitals, an the City University. Local boycott organizers will work on hotels, restaurants, and private hospitals. McDonald's hamburgers also buys a lot of lettuce.
On Saturday morning at 10 a.m. Chavez arrived at the boycott office on 34th Street to meet with about 35 full-time volunteers from New York and New Jersey. All the volunteers get room, board, and $5 a week, which is just what Cesar Chavez gets from the union.
Chavez talked and answered questions with his quiet, unaffected manner that went out of style with the bombast and excess of the late '60s. The volunteers were mostly young, in their 20s. Soon Chavez was giving a small lecture on the art of organizing.
"There are no short cuts, no easy way to organize," he said. "To get the first 12 members into our union I took five months, from April till September of 1962. I talked to each one as if he was the only farmworker in the world. That's how you have to organize, one at a time. You can't worry about time or speed. Everything good requires time and hard work. The lettuce boycott may take two years...