This week in history: Farm worker leader Cesar Chavez’ 90th birthday

This year, field laborers organized by the United Farm Workers are holding more than ten marches the weekend of Cesar Chavez’ March 31st birthday. Chavez was born in Yuma, Ariz., in 1927 and died in 1993. This year he would have turned ninety. These marches are more urgent than ever now under the Trump agenda.

Thousands of farm workers will take to the streets with their flags, banners and demands. They will be joined by allies from the environmental, LGBTQ, Muslim, labor and many other communities who also have a lot to lose in the current political climate. It will take all of these groups banding together to make these marches a success and send a strong message of real American values.

Leticia, a citrus worker, says she’s marching in Madera, Calif, “First in honor of Cesar Chavez and second to protest against the politics of Mr. Trump…. Field work is very hard, but honest. Us farm workers pick the fruits and vegetables that arrive on the tables of each home. From the richest home to the poorest, you will find farm workers’ products.”

Irma, a wine grape worker, will be marching in Santa Rosa, Calif. She says, “We march because we want to tell Trump that he is wrong about farm workers, and other workers. Without us they wouldn’t be able to get the work done. We are not here to remove anyone from their jobs. We are not criminals, we are hard working, proud people. We contribute to the economy.”

Alongside Dolores Huerta, a co-founder of the United Farm Workers, Chavez’ union won the nation’s first industry-wide farm labor contracts. He was also an early environmentalist, warning the public of the devastating effects of pesticides on both farmworkers and consumers. Chavez fought for the rights of immigrants, refusing to let the forces of agribusiness and racism scapegoat immigrant workers.

In 2002 a U.S. postage stamp was issued honoring Chavez. John Sweeney, then 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.”

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

Memories of a labor reporter

“I first met Cesar Chavez when I was covering labor for the San Francisco Chronicle,” remembered Dick Meister. “It was on a hot summer night in 1965 in the little San Joaquin Valley town of Delano, California. Chavez, shining black hair trailing across his forehead, wearing a green plaid shirt that had become almost a uniform, sat behind a makeshift desk topped with bright red Formica.

“‘Sí se puede,’ he said repeatedly to me, a highly skeptical reporter, as we talked deep into the early morning hours there in the cluttered shack that served as headquarters for him and the others who were trying to create an effective farm workers union.

“‘Sí se puede! ­It can be done!’

“But I would not be swayed. Too many others, over too many years, had tried and failed to win for farm workers the union rights they absolutely had to have if they were to escape the severe economic and social deprivation inflicted on them by their grower employers.

“The Industrial Workers of the World who stormed across western fields early in the 20th century, the Communists who followed, the socialists, the AFL and CIO organizers—all their efforts had collapsed under the relentless pressure of growers and their powerful political allies.

“I was certain this effort would be no different. I was wrong. I had not accounted for the tactical brilliance, creativity, courage and just plain stubbornness of Cesar Chavez, a sad-eyed, disarmingly soft-spoken man who talked of militancy in calm, measured tones, a gentle and incredibly patient man who hid great strategic talent behind shy smiles and an attitude of utter candor.

“Chavez grasped the essential fact that farm workers had to organize themselves. Outside organizers, however well intentioned, could not do it. Chavez, a farm worker himself, carefully put together a grass-roots organization that enabled the workers to form their own union, which then sought out ­and won ­ widespread support from influential outsiders.”

The UFW adopted the boycott as a strategic weapon, first of table grapes, Gallo wine, and later of lettuce. The union won the first farm union contracts in history in 1970, which impacted California labor law in requiring growers to bargain collectively with the farm workers’ union. “That led to substantial improvements in the pay, benefits, working conditions and general status of the state’s farm workers,” said Meister. “Similar laws, with similar results, have now been enacted elsewhere.”

In his later years Chavez undertook lengthy, punishing fasts for the farm workers’ cause. Along with the boycott, these were the methods of the Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi, from whom—and from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—Chavez derived much of his philosophy of nonviolence. It is very possible that these highly publicized fasts, during which he was visited by many celebrities, including Robert F. Kennedy, contributed to his early death in 1993 at age sixty-six.

“We have our bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons,” Chavez explained.

Meister remembered further that “more than union contracts, and more than laws, farm workers now have what Cesar Chavez insisted was needed above all else. That, as he told me so many years ago, ‘is to have the workers truly believe and understand and know that they are free, that they are free men and women, that they are free to stand up and fight for their rights.’”

A national holiday for Cesar Chavez?

A campaign exists to make Cesar Chavez’ birthday a national holiday. In California, it is celebrated as a holiday: The legal holiday was signed into law by then Gov. Gray Davis on August 18, 2000, marking the first time that a labor leader or Latino had been honored with a public legal holiday. Optional commemorative Cesar Chavez Days are observed in nine additional states.

During his historic campaign for the presidency, on March 31, 2008, Sen. Barack Obama issued a statement for a Cesar Chavez national holiday:

“Chavez left a legacy as an educator, environmentalist, and a civil rights leader. And his cause lives on. As farmworkers and laborers across America continue to struggle for fair treatment and fair wages, we find strength in what Cesar Chavez accomplished so many years ago. And we should honor him for what he’s taught us about making America a stronger, more just, and more prosperous nation. That’s why I support the call to make Cesar Chavez’s birthday a national holiday. It’s time to recognize the contributions of this American icon to the ongoing efforts to perfect our union.”

Obama’s campaign adapted the UFW slogan as his own, “Yes We Can.” In his victory over Sen. John McCain, Obama won the Latino vote overwhelmingly. Cesar Chavez Day became a federal commemorative holiday in the U.S. by proclamation of Pres. Obama in 2014, although it will almost certainly go unmarked by his successor.

Conditions for farm workers have improved since Chavez’ day, but the growers still act arbitrarily in a labor market with so many transient hires, many of undocumented status. The UFW still cites growers who expose farm workers to dangerous pesticides and other hazards. Housing is generally substandard, and schooling for the children is inadequate.

Ironically, with Trump’s roundups of undocumented immigrants and the lower numbers of potential farm workers entering the country, employers in some fields have been forced to offer higher wages to attract a work force.

Our demand needs to be that farm workers, like others who put in a full day, deserve a living wage and a guaranteed decent standard of living if society is to continue enjoying the bounty of the field.

Adapted from earlier stories in PW, including this by Dick Meister, and the Cesar Chavez National Holiday movement.


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.