By Duane E. Campbell
On March 31, 2011, California and seven other states will celebrate the life and work of labor organizer Cesar Chavez. State workers will have the day off. Ironically, however, farm workers will not. It is interesting that these states take a day off to recognize the contributions of a labor leader while cutting vital services for poor people. Meanwhile the spirit of Cesar Chavez lives on in the struggle for union rights and justice in the fields of California, Ohio, and Florida as well as in the struggles for union rights and workers dignity in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania. What can we learn from the creation of the UFW that is useful today?
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.
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 community organizing 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 growth of Latino politics in the U.S. The UFW has shown unions that immigrants can and must be organized.
César Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Philip Vera Cruz, and others deliberately created a multiracial organization, Mexican immigrants, 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, language lines and immigration status 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. 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.
The organizing of the UFW by Chavez, Huerta, Vera Cruz and others was a milestone in union organizing. So, where are we today?
The UFW is down from its peak of 80,000 potential members to less than 15,000. Farm labor is largely no longer unionized. Similar declines have occurred in many other industries. The once mighty United Auto Workers have been reduced from 1,500,000 member to less than 350,000 as corporations moved their production over seas and their plants to non union states. Working families suffer in an economy where unions are weak.
The nation including California continues to suffer a severe recession and lack of jobs. Twenty Six million are unemployed and under employed. This crisis was created by finance capital and banking, mostly on Wall Street ,ie. Chase Banks, Bank of America, AIG, and others. Finance capital received a $ 2 trillion bailout from the federal government. Capital stole the future of many young people and, with the Republican victories in the November elections, launched a new assault on organized labor.
The current economic decline has had a devastating impact on the budgets- of 42 states as well as cities, school districts, and other public services. Revenues have continued to plunge and legislatures made a series of deep cuts to virtually all of the state's programs, including education, police protection, and the university systems. In Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana ( among others) Republican governors and legislators have sought to limit the right of workers to build their own unions.
This fiscal crisis in the state and the assault on unions did not fall from the sky; it resulted from the Great Recession and the looting of our economy by Wall Street and Corporate America. The current budget cuts will only lengthen and deepen the recession. Some politicians claim that we can’t afford union wages, pensions, public education and good universities. However, there is plenty of money if we go where the money is; the rich who have gamed the system and accumulated vast wealth in the last three decades.
While working people are loosing their jobs in budget cuts, major corporations continue to use the rigged tax code to avoid paying any federal taxes at all. Last year GE, ExxonMobil, Citibank, and Bank of America paid no taxes while the government made certain they made great profits.
Today Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, and Puerto Rican union leadership is common in our major cities and in several industries. U.S. labor has differing perspectives on immigration and these positions reflect who they are organizing.
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.
In creating the UFW Chavez organized thousands into a union and inspired millions. The organizing effort changed the Southwest and changed organized labor.
The movement led by Cesar created a union and reduced the oppression of farm workers. Many people, descendents of earlier generations of farm workers, learned to take a stand for justice. We learned to not accept poor jobs, poor pay, unsafe working conditions as natural or inevitable. Rather, these are social creations which can be changed through organizing for economic and political power. Dolores Huerta continues her important education and training of young organizers through her foundation http://www.doloreshuerta.org/
Today, under the leadership of UFW president Arturo Rodriguez, over 15,000 farm workers enjoy benefits on the job. They are incorporated into California's educational, health and civic communities- and they too will suffer from the state imposed budget cuts.
Thousands of new immigrants , many indigenous people from Mexico, harvest the crops. Since NAFTA the exploitation of farm labor has increased. Only a small portion are in unions. These new generations of immigrants and migrant labor hardly know Chavez’ name nor his contributions. Yet, in other regions immigrants are being organized into unions such as Justice for Janitors, by activists who learned their organizing skills working with the UFW. Latino political leaders often made their first commitments on a UFW picket line. Latino politics is changing the nation and impacts the creation of unions.
The generation that created the UFW is passing. A new generation of political activists, have emerged since the Chavez generations. In the 2006 massive immigrant rights movements, several new organizing efforts and leaders emerged. The organizing of these demonstrations was significantly assisted by persons trained within the UFW. A new, significant Latino union and political base has been created that is reshaping U.S. politics.
Chavez' legacy to popular struggles, to Chicano/Mexicano self determination and to unions for the immigrant workers is beyond measure. The union taught us how to organize for power and for justice. My generation created a movement for social justice. Now, it is up to the next generation to build upon that history. Individually we are significantly at the mercy of the corporate state. With union solidarity we can stand together and resist.
Chavez is present in all of our work. You can find our more about this remarkable leader at www.ufw.org , http://www.chavezfoundation.org/
Good books on Chavez and the UFW include:
Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st. Century, Randy Shaw. (2008)
Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement, Marshall Ganz. (2009)
Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.
David Bacon. 2008.
Duane Campbell is a Professor (emeritus) of Bilingual/Multicultural Education at Calif. State University-Sacramento and the author of Choosing Democracy; a practical guide to multicultural education. 2010.
Also see: https://sites.google.com/site/democracyandeducationorg/chicano-mexican-american-digital-history-project
Here are some things you can do.
Here are some things you can do.
We Are One rallies. Around the nation. April 4.
http://www.we-r-1.org/; Sacramento Rally. Cesar Chavez Park.
National Teach In against austerity, union busting, and budget cuts. April 5.
www.fightbackteachin.org Sac State event.
California. Take Class Action- Demand Quality Education. Statewide demonstrations on CSU campuses. April 13. http://www.calfac.org/april-13-class-action
And. Actions also planned around week of April 13 at U. of California, Calif. Community Colleges and in many states including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania & Vermont