Printable Version

César Chavez
Digital History ID 610

Author:   César Chavez

Annotation: In early April 1962, a thirty-five year-old community organizer named César Estrada Chavez set out single-handedly to organize impoverished migrant farm laborers in the California grape fields. He, his wife, and their eight children packed their belongings into a dilapidated nine-year-old station wagon, and moved to Delano, California, a town of twelve thousand, which was the center of the nation's table grape industry. Over the next two years, Chavez spent his entire lifetime savings of $1,200 creating a small social service organization for Delano's field laborers, which offered immigration counseling, citizenship classes, funeral benefits, credit to buy cars and homes, assistance with voter registration, and a cooperative to buy tires and gasoline. As the emblem of his new organization, the National Farm Workers Association, Chavez chose a black Aztec eagle inside a white circle on a red background.

Chavez's sympathy for the plight of migrant farm workers came naturally. He was born in Yuma, Arizona, in 1927, one of five children of Mexican immigrants. When he was ten years old, his parents lost their small farm; he, his brothers and sisters, and his parents hoed beets, picked grapes, and harvested peaches and figs in Arizona and California. There were times when the family had to sleep in its car or camp under bridges. When young César was able to attend school (he attended more than thirty), he was often shunted into special classrooms set aside for Mexican-American children.

In 1944, when he was 17, Chavez joined the navy. He served for two years on a destroyer escort in the Pacific. After World War II was over, he married and spent two-and-a-half years as a sharecropper raising strawberries. That was followed by work in apricot and prune orchards and in a lumber camp. Then in 1952 his life took a fateful turn. He joined the Community Service Organization (CSO), which wanted to educate and organize the poor so that they could solve their own social and economic problems. After founding CSO chapters in Madera, Bakersfield, and Hanford, California, Chavez became the organization's general director in 1958. Four years later, he broke with the organization when it rejected his proposal to establish a farm workers' union.

Most labor leaders considered Chavez's goal of creating the first successful union of farm workers in U.S. history an impossible dream. Farm laborers suffered from high rates of illiteracy and poverty (average family earnings were just $2,000 in 1965), they also experienced persistently high rates of unemployment (traditionally around nineteen percent) and were divided into a variety of ethnic groups: Mexican, Arab, Filipino, and Puerto Rican. That farm workers rarely remained in one locality for very long also hindered unionism, as did the ease which employers could replace them with inexpensive Mexican day laborers, known as braceros, who were trucked into California and the Southwest at harvest time. Farm workers were specifically excluded from the protection of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Unlike other American workers, farm workers were not guaranteed the right to organize, had no guarantee of a minimum wage, and had no federally guaranteed standards of work in the fields. State laws requiring toilets, rest periods, and drinking water in the fields were largely ignored.

In September 1965, Chavez was drawn into his first important labor controversy. The Filipino grape pickers went on strike. "All right, Chavez," asked one of the Filipino grape pickers' leaders, "are you going to stand beside us, or are you going to scab against us?" Despite his fear that the National Farm Workers Association was not sufficiently well organized to support a strike--it had less than $100 in its strike fund--he assured the Filipino workers that members of his association would not go into the field as strikebreakers. MI>Huelga!--the Spanish word for strike--became the grape pickers' battle cry.

Within weeks, the labor strike began to attract national attention. Unions, church groups, and civil rights organizations offered financial support for La Causa, as the farm workers' movement became known. In March 1966, Chavez led a 250-mile Easter march from Delano to Sacramento to dramatize the plight of migrant farm laborers. That same year, Chavez's National Farm Workers Association merged with an AFL-CIO affiliate to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee.

A staunch apostle of nonviolence, Chavez was deeply troubled by violent incidents that marred the strike. Some growers raced tractors along the roadside, covering the strikers with dirt and dust. Others drove spraying machines along the edges of their fields, spraying insecticide and fertilizer on the picketers. Local police officers arrested a minister for reading Jack London's definition of a scab ("a two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a water-logged brain, and a combination backbone made of jelly and glue"). Some strikers, in turn, intimidated strikebreakers by pelting them with marbles fired from slingshots and by setting fire to packing crates. One striker tried to drive a car into a group of growers.

In an effort to quell the escalating violence and to atone for the militancy of some union members, Chavez began to fast on February 14, 1968. For five days he kept the fast a secret. Then, in an hour-long speech to striking workers, he explained that continued violence would destroy everything the union stood for. The "truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness," he said, "is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice." For twenty-one days he fasted; he lost thirty-five pounds and his doctor began to fear for his health. He finally agreed to take a small amount of bouillon and grapefruit juice and medication. On March 11, he ended his fast by taking communion and breaking bread with Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

The strike dragged on for three years. To heighten public awareness of the farm workers' cause, Chavez in 1968 initiated a boycott of table grapes. It was the boycott that pressured many of the growers into settling the strike. An estimated 17 million American consumers went without grapes in support of the farm workers bargaining position. By mid-1970, two thirds of California grapes were grown under contract with Chavez's union.

In the years following its 1970 victory, Chavez's union has been beset by problems from within and without. Union membership dwindled from more than 60,000 in 1972 to a low of 5,000 in 1974. (It has since climbed back to around 30,000). Meanwhile, public concern for the plight of migrant farm workers declined.

Following his death at the age of sixty-six in 1993, twenty-five thousand people marched for more than two-and-a-half hours to the spot where Chavez founded the United Farm Workers Union. There, the mourners recalled his extraordinary legacy. As a result of his efforts, the most backbreaking tool used by farm workers, the short hoe, was eliminated, and the use of many dangerous pesticides in the grape fields was prohibited. His labors also brought about a seventy percent increase in real wages form 1964 to 1980, and establishment of health care benefits, disability insurance, pension plans, and standardized grievance procedures for farm workers. He helped secure passage in California in 1975 of the nation's first agricultural labor relations act, which prohibited growers from firing striking workers or engaging in bad-faith bargaining. Thanks to his efforts, migrant farm laborers won a right held by all other American workers: the right to bargain collectively.

In this selection, Chavez discusses government complicity in undermining farm workers' unions.

Document: Mr. Chavez. After 3 months of striking in 1979 we have come to the conclusion very little progress has been made in the last 40 years.

In the 1930's when the farm workers tried to organize a strike, they were looked upon and treated by the local power structures in the rural communities as un-American, as subversive, and as some sort of criminal element. We today are looked upon pretty much the same way.

Just as in the 1930s, when a strike occurred, they were called criminal whether they be in Salinas, Calexico, Monterey County, Imperial County, or in Delano and Bakersfield, Calif. When a union strikes, it becomes then not simply a labor-management dispute as you see in other cases, but in our experience it becomes then on one side the workers, on the other side agribusiness and all of the local institutions, political and social, organize then to break the strike--the police, the sheriffs, the courts, the schools, the boards of supervisors, city councils. Not only that, but the State or Federal agencies that reside within those rural areas, are also greatly influenced by this overwhelming political power. The agribusiness industry wields the political power and uses it to break our strikes and destroy the union.

They have two standards of conduct against Mexicans and against unions. As long as we, Mexican farm workers, keep our place and do our work we are tolerated, but if the Mexican worker joins a union, if he stands up for justice and if he dares to strike, then all the local institutions feel duty-bound to defend what they consider to be their ideal of the American way of life. These communities, then, do not know what to do with us and they don't know what to do without us....

For so many years we have been involved in agricultural strikes; organizing almost 30 years as a worker, as an organizer, and as president of the union--and for all these almost 30 years it is apparent that when the farm workers strike and their strike is successful, the employers go to Mexico and have unlimited, unrestricted use of illegal alien strikebreakers to break the strike. And, for over 30 years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has looked the other way and assisted in the strikebreaking.

I do not remember one single instance in 30 years where the Immigration service has removed strikebreakers.... The employers use professional smugglers to recruit and transport human contraband across the Mexican border for the specific act of strikebreaking....

We have observed all these years the Immigration Service has a policy as it has been related to us, that they will not take sides in any agricultural labor dispute.... They have not taken sides means permitting the growers to have unrestricted use of illegal aliens as strikebreakers, and if that isn't taking sides, I don't know what taking sides means.

The growers have armed their foremen. They have looked to professional agencies to provide them unlimited numbers of armed guards recruited from the streets, young men who are not trained, many of them members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi Party...who are given a gun and a club and a badge and a canister of tear gas and the authority and permission to go and beat our people up, frighten them, maim them, and try to break the strike by using this unchecked raw power against our people....

Source: Hearings Before the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, U.S. Senate, 96th Congress, 1st Session, 1997.

Copyright 2021 Digital History