Today in labor history: César Chávez born in 1927

César Chávez was born on March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona, in a Mexican-American family of six children. He grew up in the small adobe home in which he was born. His family owned a grocery store and a ranch, but their land and home were lost during the Great Depression. The family then moved to California to become migrant farm workers.

The Chávez family faced many hardships in California. The family picked peas and lettuce in the winter, cherries and beans in the spring, corn and grapes in the summer, and cotton in the fall.

Conscious of the widespread miserable conditions for migrant farm workers, Chávez, with Dolores Huerta and others, formed the United Farm Workers (UFW) to address exploitation in the fields.

The union achieved the nation’s first industry-wide farm labor contracts. Chávez was an adherent of nonviolent civil disobedience and led many strikes and boycotts for his cause.

Chávez was also an early environmentalist, warning the public of the devastating effects of pesticides on both farmworkers and consumers. Chávez fought for the rights of immigrants, refusing to let the forces of agribusiness and racism scapegoat immigrant workers.

One of the union’s key tactics was the boycott. It was so effective between 1968 and 1975 that 12 percent of the country’s adult population quit buying table grapes. And growers had trouble exporting them too, because of international labor solidarity.

In 2002 a U.S. postage stamp was issued honoring Chávez. At the time John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO said, “A stamp in his honor challenges us to remember that his life’s mission is not over until every worker has a living wage, adequate health care and dignity on the job.”

In 2012 President Obama attended and helped establish the César E. Chávez National Monument in Central California honoring the great civil rights and union leader. The event took place during the UFW’s 50th anniversary year. Chávez and his family lived and worked at La Paz, Calif., from the early 1970s until his death in 1993. His gravesite there is part of the monument. On September 8, 1994, Chávez was presented posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. The award was received by his widow, Helen Chávez.

Chávez ‘s birthday is an official state holiday in California, and optional in Texas and Colorado. President Obama has declared his birthday César Chávez Day. The struggle to make his birthday a national holiday continues.