“We shall strike. We shall organize boycotts. We shall demonstrate and have political campaigns. We shall pursue the revolution we have proposed. We are sons and daughters of the farm workers’ revolution, a revolution of the poor seeking bread and justice.”
– César E. Chávez
Those words of determination epitomized the life of César Estrada Chávez, the late founder and president of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).
The Mexican-American labor leader was a humble man who gave himself unselfishly to the cause of farm workers and all workers. He championed the cause of equality for Latinos. His courage in the face of powerful industries inspired generations of all races and nationalities to fight the good fight.
Millions followed Chávez on his journey, which resulted in monumental gains for civil rights, environmental justice and political representation for racial minorities. These achievements make him one of the outstanding leaders of the 20th century.
César Chávez was born on a small farm near Yuma, Ariz., on March 31, 1927. After being forced off their farm during the Depression, his family moved to California, where they became migrant workers. César was 10 years old when he began working in the fields. He was forced to leave school after the eighth grade in order to help support his family.
Chávez first became an organizer for the Community Service Organization, a barrio-based group, in 1952. In 1962, when the organization, of which he was national director, would not more seriously commit itself to farm worker organizing, Chávez resigned and moved his family to Delano, Calif., and, with Dolores Huerta, founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).
This 1,200-member organization joined the Filipino members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) strike against Delano-area grape growers in September 1965. Over 5,000 workers walked off their jobs in the famous Delano Grape Strike. The two organizations, NFWA and AWOC, merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Commitee.
In 1968, with the strike in danger of being lost, Chávez decided to call on America to support the strike by organizing a boycott of grapes. Union organizers rallied millions of Americans in support of the boycott and brought together a national coalition of unions, faith-based groups, students, racial minorities and consumers to support the farm workers.
It was the beginning of La Causa, a powerful movement for economic and social justice which used the boycott and picket as their weapons. César himself was a tireless campaigner who rallied support throughout the country.
In 1966 Chávez led a 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, calling for state laws permitting farm workers to organize into a union and allowing collective bargaining agreements. By 1970, through five years of hard-fought battles in the fields and organizing public pressure through the boycott, the UFW accomplished what most had thought impossible. They forced the powerful grape growers to accept union contracts for the first time.
In 1975, the UFW made history once again by winning passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), the first law governing farm labor organizing in the continental United States.
By the 1980s tens of thousands of farm workers had won UFW contracts with higher wages, family health coverage, pension benefits and other protections. Fighting child labor, sexual harassment and the use of pesticides were all integral to the UFW battles.
The UFW is a unique union that combines traditional unionism with a people’s movement. The labor/community coalition strategy now being practiced by the AFL-CIO was utilized almost from the beginning by the UFW.
Chávez and the UFW were also pioneers on the issue of environmental justice, combining the struggles against pesticides, which harm workers, to the fight for a safe food supply for all America. And the UFW were champions of voter registration, get-out-the-vote efforts and civil rights.
On April 23, 1993, César Chávez died in his sleep at the age of 66. More than 40,000 people marched behind the plain pine casket at Chávez’s funeral.
The roots of Chávez’s organizing are deeply embedded in the Latino community and in the American class struggle. Echoes of the UFW rallying cry ¡Si Se Puede! – Yes, we can! – are heard as janitors strike, as the labor movement takes to the streets and as students fight for affirmative action and bilingual education.
When Chávez demanded union contracts, decent wages and safe working conditions, he extended the possibility for victory to all workers across the nation.