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Cesar Chavez's Legacy

Chavez became a national hero, a symbol of courage and fortitude, for leading a nonviolent revolution to organize farmworkers

Cesar Chavez at a rally marking the 20th anniversary of the Delano grape strike and the founding of the UFW on Sept. 8, 1985. (Photo: Bettmann Archive)

Many people thought Cesar Chavez was crazy to think he could build a union among migrant farmworkers. Since the early 1900s, unions had been trying and failing to organize California’s unskilled agricultural workers. Whether the workers were Anglos, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, or Mexican Americans, these efforts met the same fate. The organizing drives met fierce opposition and always flopped, vulnerable to growers’ violent tactics and to competition from a seemingly endless supply of other migrant workers desperate for work. So when Chavez left his job as a community organizer in San Jose in 1962 and moved to rural Delano to try, once again, to bring a union to California’s lettuce and grape fields, even his closest friends figured he was delusional.

Within a decade, however, the United Farm Workers (UFW) union had collective bargaining agreements with most of California’s major growers. Pay, working conditions, and housing for migrant workers improved significantly. Millions of Americans boycotted lettuce and grapes to put economic pressure on the growers to sign a contract with the union. A young governor named Jerry Brown signed a bill giving California’s farmworkers the right to unionize—something they lacked (and still lack) under federal labor laws.

Chavez – whose birthday, March 31, 1927, is an official holiday in California and a federal commemorative holiday -- became a national hero, a symbol of courage and fortitude, for leading a nonviolent revolution to organize farmworkers. His work fomented enormous pride and solidarity among Hispanics in California and across the nation. To those who ever doubted that Chavez could build an effective union among America’s poorest and most vulnerable workers, in the face of a large, powerful, and conservative agribusiness industry, he responded, “Si se puede,” “Yes, we can.”

"Chavez experienced the daily humiliations of being a brown-skinned migrant worker: physical punishment from an Anglo teacher when he unthinkingly began speaking Spanish in class, police harassment, segregated seating at the local movie theater, denial of service at restaurants."

When Chavez was growing up, his family owned a small farm in Arizona, but they lost it to foreclosure when he was eleven years old. The sight of the Anglo grower, who bought the land at auction, bulldozing the family’s farmhouse, trees, and crops left an indelible impression on the young Cesar. That early memory would later fuel a determination to help Mexican American farmworkers gain power and respect. “If I had stayed there,” Chavez later said about his family’s farm, “possibility I would have been a grower. God writes in exceedingly crooked lines.”

Instead, the Chavez family joined the roughly 300,000 migrant workers who followed the crops to California every year. The family often slept by the side of the road, moving from farm to farm, from harvest to harvest, living in overcrowded migrant camps. Cesar attended thirty-eight different schools until he finally gave up after finishing the eighth grade.

Chavez experienced the daily humiliations of being a brown-skinned migrant worker: physical punishment from an Anglo teacher when he unthinkingly began speaking Spanish in class, police harassment, segregated seating at the local movie theater, denial of service at restaurants. These compounded the abuse Chavez and other migrants faced in the fields, where growers had dictatorial control and where workers toiled in the broiling sun for meager wages, living in shacks and lacking toilet facilities.

Chavez spent two years in the navy during World War II. Returning home, he married, moved to San Jose’s Mexican barrio, and took whatever jobs he could find in the nearby fields or in a lumberyard.

His life changed when he met Father Donald McDonnell, a local priest who introduced him to the writings of Francis of Assisi and Mohandas Gandhi and discussed nonviolence as a strategy for change, and Fred Ross, a community organizer and colleague of Saul Alinsky. Ross recruited Chavez to the Community Service Organization (CSO), which helped Mexican Americans in urban barrios deal with immigration and tax problems, taught them how to organize against police brutality and discrimination, and ran voter registration drives. Chavez quickly became a leader, and in 1952 Ross hired the twenty-five-year-old as an organizer. Chavez was a successful organizer and eventually became the CSO’s statewide director.

In 1962 after the CSO turned down his request to organize farmworkers, he resigned and returned to Delano. For the next three years, he crisscrossed the state, talking to farmworkers under the auspices of his new organization, the National Farmworkers Association. Many of them dismissed Chavez’s ideas, saying that the growers were too powerful and that anyone caught talking about a union would immediately be fired. But drawing on his CSO experience, Chavez recruited workers by helping them with their legal, housing, and other problems.

A crucial turning point occurred in 1965. A small group of Filipino farmworkers, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor’s struggling Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, went on strike when the Delano grape growers cut pay rates during the harvest. Chavez persuaded his own union’s members to support the strike. Soon the two groups merged into what became the United Farm Workers union.

The plight of America’s migrant farmworkers had entered public consciousness right after Thanksgiving in 1960, when TV journalist Edward R. Murrow broadcast a documentary, Harvest of Shame, on CBS. For the next decade, Chavez used a two-pronged approach to build the UFW. Because food is perishable and needs to be harvested quickly, the union used strikes to disrupt the harvest and put pressure on the growers. But Chavez recognized that growers could rely on an almost limitless supply of migrant workers—including new arrivals from Mexico under the Bracero Program—who were recruited as strikebreakers. So the second strategy was to win the support of the general public, asking them to boycott grapes, wine, and lettuce until specific growers agreed to a contract.

Chavez called on allies in the labor movement, among religious congregations, and on college campuses to help with the national boycotts by picketing outside grocery stores and educating consumers. The UFW sent farmworkers – many of whom had never been outside California -- to cities across the country to help organize the boycotts. At its height, over 13 million Americans supported the grape boycott.  Many Americans had their first activist experiences  picketing in front of grocery stores to support the boycott of grapes and lettuce.

In the fields, on picket lines, and in meetings, UFW members faced violence from growers and their hired thugs. Another threat came from the Teamsters union, which had signed friendly “sweetheart” contracts with growers to represent the workers without the consent of the workers themselves—a maneuver that enriched Teamsters officials.

To keep their plight in the public eye and to raise the farmworkers’ morale during these difficult times, Chavez used marches, civil disobedience, and prayer vigils to transform each strike into a protest movement. The grape strike became a cause célèbre among liberals and gained enormous media attention.

Chavez attracted a loyal cadre of organizers, lawyers, and others, who were paid less-than-poverty wages, as was Chavez and his close colleague and UFW cofounder, Dolores Huerta. Humble and self-effacing, Chavez became the UFW’s public face and the country’s most famous Mexican American. In 1969 Time magazine put him on its cover.

"To keep their plight in the public eye and to raise the farmworkers’ morale during these difficult times, Chavez used marches, civil disobedience, and prayer vigils to transform each strike into a protest movement."

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One of Chavez’s key insights was that the union had to stake out the moral high ground—as the civil rights movement had done—in order to win public support. The backing of key clergy, including Catholic bishops and priests, was critical to its image. At one point, when a court prevented the union from picketing during a strike, the union held a religious vigil instead.

Maintaining a nonviolent approach was also central to winning public support. As local police and Teamster thugs resorted to physical violence against union members, some of them understandably wanted to strike back. Chavez was deeply influenced by Gandhian thought. When it appeared that union members might respond to violence with violence, Chavez sought to restore calm and discipline by engaging in a hunger strike, risking his health in the process. Chavez’s fasts drew media attention that helped strengthen public sympathy for the strike and for the boycott.

Chavez and the UFW also gained attention was by attracting the support of high-profile politicians. The UFW’s most important political ally was Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York. In 1966 United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther, who had joined Chavez on picket lines and donated money to the UFW, asked Kennedy to visit Chavez. After meeting Chavez, observing the conditions in which farmworkers toiled, and recognizing the spirit of the organizing effort, Kennedy became a close ally of Chavez and the UFW. He arranged to hold a Senate hearing about farmworkers’ conditions in Delano. When the local sheriff told Kennedy that his deputies arrested strikers who looked “ready to violate the law,” Kennedy shot back, “May I suggest that during the luncheon, the sheriff and the district attorney read the Constitution of the United States?”

Kennedy made several other pilgrimages to visit Chavez—each time bolstering the union’s image. The UFW repaid the favor. In 1968, when Kennedy announced he was running for president as an antiwar candidate against the incumbent, Lyndon B. Johnson, the union endorsed him, registered Mexican American voters, and helped secure a Kennedy victory in the California Democratic primary. UFW cofounder Dolores Huerta was at Kennedy’s side when he was assassinated the night of his California victory.

Another key political ally was California’s governor, Jerry Brown. As a young Catholic seminarian, Brown had supported the UFW boycott. Once in office, Brown engineered passage of the nation’s first law giving farmworkers collective bargaining rights and protection from unfair labor practices. The California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (1975) led to an overwhelming series of UFW election victories and contracts with growers.

By the late 1970s the UFW had close to 50,000 members (about one-quarter of the state’s farmworkers) and contracts with most of the major table grape and lettuce growers. Pay and working conditions had significantly improved. Growers were required to stop spraying the fields with toxic pesticides that endangered workers’ health. The Teamsters, under pressure from public opinion and other unions, withdrew from competing with the UFW. Migrant workers became eligible for medical insurance, employer-paid pensions, unemployment insurance, and other benefits. They had a grievance procedure to challenge employer abuses. Moreover, the threat of unionization led growers to improve agricultural wages for nonunion workers.

But within a few years the UFW had spiraled into chaos. This was partly due to the election of Republican George Deukmejian, who defeated Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to become California’s governor in 1982.  Deukmejian had close ties to growers and he failed to implement the new labor law. That failure made it harder for the UFW to win new elections and made it easier for growers to decertify the union.

Equally important was Chavez’s own weaknesses as a leader. He was not a good administrator, failed to delegate authority, and was suspicious of people who disagreed with him. Key staffers left. The union put fewer resources into organizing workers in the fields, especially the increasing number of Central American immigrants who were joining the ranks of America’s farmworkers in the 1980s. Growers did not renew contracts and  wages and conditions worsened. 

By the time of Chavez’s death in 1993, membership in the UFW had declined to just a few thousand.  Today, less than 10,000 of the nation’s approximately three million farmworkers are unionized.  In California, the agricultural industry’s is flourishing, but its profits and prosperity are not shared with its workers, many of whom are now undocumented and fearful of organizing. 

Last year, Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona sponsored the  Fairness for Farm Workers Act, which would amend federal labor laws to remove the discriminatory denial of overtime pay to agricultural workers as well as end most exclusions from the minimum wage still applicable to some farmworkers. The bill is unlikely to pass unless Democrats control both houses of Congress as well as the White House.

Despite this, conditions for farmworkers – in terms of pay, housing, and exposure to dangerous chemicals -- are better than they were before Chavez and Huerta became their organizing efforts.

While the UFW has fallen on hard times, other groups have had some success mobilizing farmworkers, even if they aren’t union members. The most successful is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has organized Florida’s tomato pickers. With the support of consumers – including college students and faith-based groups – it has pressured employers and corporate buyers of tomatoes (including Walmart, Taco Bell and Trader Joe’s) to join its  Fair Food Program that requires growers to improve farmworkers’ pay and condition.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Chavez the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2008, Barack Obama adopted the UFW’s chant – “yes, we can” – as his campaign slogan.

Chavez’s long-term impact is not simply improved condition for farmworkers and the upsurge of pride and political action by Latinos, most of whom are not farmworkers. The UFW served as an incubator of movements, and activists on a wide variety of issues have embraced its strategies.  In the 1960s and 1970s, the UFW trained thousands of organizers and activists—boycott volunteers as well as paid staff. Many became key activists in the labor, immigrant rights, antiwar, consumer, women’s rights, and environmental movements. They, in turn, trained tens of thousands of young activists who are in the forefront of today’s progressives movements. Their work to make America a more humane society is Chavez’s most important legacy.

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). His next book, We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism – American Style,  co-edited with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin, will be published by The New Press in January.  He is currently writing Rebels of the Diamond: The Baseball Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game On and Off the Field, which will be published by the University of Nebraska Press.

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