A tribute to the life and work of Cesar Chavez
Professor of Bilingual/Multicultural Education
César Chávez: "Presente"
The spirit of Cesar Chavez lives on in the struggle for union rights and justice in the fields of California. Along with Dolores Huerta, Philip Vera Cruz, and others, César created the United Farm Workers (UFW) the first successful union of farm workers in U.S. history. There had been more than ten prior attempts to build a farm workers union.
The United Cannery and Packinghouse Workers (UCAPAWA) organized in the 1930's, the National Farm Workers Union (NFW) led by Ernesto Galarza tried to organize Farm workers in the 40's and 50's. In 1959, the AFL-CIO tried to organize again with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). AWOC had several weaknesses, including a top down leadership selected by AFL-CIO leaders, not by farm workers, and a strategy of working cooperatively with labor contractors. AWOC continued the prior efforts of Ernesto Galarza and the NFW in struggling against "braceros" or guest workers, contract workers imported from Mexico, from breaking strikes. A renewed "guest worker" bill is presently before Congress.
Each of the prior attempts to organize farm worker unions were destroyed by racism and corporate power. Chávez chose to build a union that incorporated the strategies of social movements and allied itself with the churches, students, and organized labor. The successful creation of the UFW changed the nature of labor organizing in the Southwest and contributed significantly to the birth of Latino politics in the U.S.
Today, under the leadership of UFW president Arturo Rodriguez, over 28,000 farm workers enjoy benefits on the job. They are incorporated into California's educational, health and civic communities. The UFW has shown the AFL-CIO that immigrants can and must be organized. In 2002 we won significant victories in the legislature and numerous elections.
César Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Philip Vera Cruz, and others deliberately created a multiracial organization, Mexican, Mexican American, Filipino, African-American, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Arab workers, among others, have been part of the UFW. This cross racial organizing was necessary in order to combat the prior divisions and exploitations of workers based upon race and language. Dividing the workers on racial and language lines always left the corporations the winners.
In the 60's Chávez became the pre-eminent civil rights leader for the Mexican and Chicano workers, helping with local union struggles throughout the nation. He worked tirelessly to make people aware of the struggles of farm workers for better pay and safer working conditions. It is a testament to Cesar Chavez's skills and courage that the UFW even survived. They were opposed by major interests in corporate agriculture including the Bruce Church and Gallo Corporations as well as the leadership of the Republican Party then led by Ronald Reagan. Workers were fired, beaten, threatened and even killed in pursuit of union benefits . Non union farm workers today continue to live on sub-poverty wages while producing the abundant crops in the richest valley, in the richest state in the richest nation in the world.
In response to corporate power, Cesar developed new strategies, such as the boycott, based upon his personal commitment to non-violence in the tradition of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. César Chavez died in his sleep on April 23, 1993 near Yuma, Arizona.
Today Mexican, Mexican American and Puerto Rican union leadership is common in our major cities and in several industries. For myself and others, the UFW was a school for organizing. Hundreds of activists in labor and community organizations owe their skills to UFW training and experience. Along with improved working conditions, salaries, and benefits, training this cadre of organizers remains a major legacy of the UFW.
César taught us that all organizations have problems, that all organizations are imperfect. But, if you wait for the perfect organization, nothing gets done. Building popular organizations builds people's power, and democracy. Chavez' legacy to popular struggles, to Chicano/Mexicano self determination and to unions for the immigrant workers is beyond measure. He is present in all of our work. I plan to march on March 25, and celebrate March 31,2006 in memory of Cesar Chavez' contributions building a more democratic society for working people. You can find our more about this remarkable leader at www.ufw.org
Duane Campbell is a Professor of Bilingual/Multicultural Education at Calif. State University-Sacramento and the author of Choosing Democracy; a practical guide to multicultural education. (Merrill/Pren Hall.2000)