In California, the state government will shut down April 1 in tribute to César E. Chávez, the late founder and president of the United Farm Workers (UFW), AFL-CIO. This will mark the second celebration of the official paid state holiday signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis on Aug. 18, 2000. Over 100,000 state workers will receive a paid holiday and children in public schools will participate in a day of service and learning in Chávez’s honor.
Members of Chávez’s family and UFW members will address student assemblies and visit classrooms across the state. Children will learn about how joining a union empowered farmworkers. They will learn about strikes and picketlines used when growers refused to give workers basic rights to living wages and decent working conditions.
Massive public events are also planned in cities throughout California. On March 24, an expected fifteen thousand people will participate in a multiracial parade and rally in San Francisco. Marches held in Los Angeles on April 6 and in San Diego, San Jose, San Fernando and Sacramento – the state capital – will also draw thousands.
In 1984, Chávez said, “All my life, I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: To overthrow a farm labor system in this nation which treats farm workers as if they were not important human beings. Farm workers are not agricultural implements. They are not beasts of burden – to be used and discarded. I hope to see my people treated as human beings and not as chattel.”
He gave his life’s blood to that vision and was tireless in his mission to win economic and social justice for those who toil in the fields of our nation. That devotion captured the hearts of millions of Americans who joined him and the UFW. They marched, boycotted, picketed and fasted to win union contracts, to protest pesticides in the fields, to establish child labor laws and win decent living conditions, immigrant rights and dignity for farm workers.
That legacy lives on today; the ¡Si Se Puede! movement continues to inspire across America. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Chávez’s courage and tenacity are referred to often by today’s labor, civil rights and social justice fighters. That legacy is why celebrations of his birthday, March 31, are growing across the country.
While California is the only state that has adopted an official paid holiday, Texas and Colorado have passed legislation for commemorative holidays where state workers may select Chávez’s birthday as an optional holiday. The state of Arizona has passed a commemorative holiday as well.
In Colorado, the holiday movement is upping the ante by attempting to put a paid official Chavez holiday on the upcoming November ballot where voters will have an opportunity to vote for and pass it. A bill, SB-53, calling for this must be passed by the legislature before the session ends in May in order to put the holiday measure on the ballot. A labor/community coalition in New Mexico already succeeded in doing just that in their state. An amendment to the state Constitution will appear on their November ballot which, if passed by voters will establish an official paid holiday there.
Significant public events for Chavez’s birthday are organized in those states which have won holidays, including huge marches in San Antonio, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Cities throughout the nation will join in celebrations for Chavez’s birthday, including events in Illinois, Missouri, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and even Providence, Rhode Island, where the Federation of Mexican organizations in New England will hold an event at the State House. In Michigan, Chavez supporters are lobbying for passage of a holiday bill in their state.
Another dimension to this movement is that unionists are including Chavez birthday holidays in their contract demands.
This year a national petition drive to make Chavez’s birthday an official federal holiday is also commencing. The petition calls for national legislation modeled after the California holiday. The goal is for the petition drive to be the basis for forming grassroots committees in cities throughout the nation.
Much of the success of the California holiday campaign was due to the efforts of thousands of individuals at the grassroots. They formed local committees and collected postcards and signatures on petitions in their neighborhoods, schools, work places, churches and at public events. They guaranteed turnout at street heat actions – rallies, press conferences, human billboards and picketlines. This, along with a strong labor/community coalition, was the basis of victory. Coalition and grassroots organizing will also be basic components of the national campaign.
Winning the first national holiday for a Latino and labor leader in our nation will not be easy. But it is a just cause that will raise the bar for labor rights, multiracial unity and equality across our country. Cesar E. Chavez deserves this holiday and we won’t stop until he gets it. We remember his dream and vision. We are on the road. ¡Si Se Puede!
For more information on how to join the National Cesar E. Chavez Holiday Campaign, contact Evelina Alarcon at EvnAlarcon@aol.com or write: Evelina Alarcon, National Coordinator, Cesar Chavez National Holiday Campaign, c/o United Farm Workers, 5313 E. Beverly Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90022.