Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta recognized for their life long contributions to organized labor and social justice.
Cesar Chavez Day is a state holiday in California – one of eight states to recognize the date, and one of the few holidays in the nation dedicated to a labor leader. Sacramento and dozens of cities, counties and labor federations will celebrate the life of Cesar Chavez on March 31, 2013.
The year 2012 was the 50th. anniversary of the founding of the U.F.W. by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Philip Vera Cruz and others. The celebrations focused on the struggle for union rights and justice in the fields of California.
The United Farm Workers (UFW) was 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 were destroyed by racism and corporate power. Chávez and Huerta 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 birth of Latino politics in the U.S.
Today, under the leadership of UFW president Arturo Rodriguez, only about 25,000 farm workers enjoy benefits on the job. Wages and benefit in farm labor have again been reduced to the pre union levels. The UFW has shown unions that immigrants can and must be organized.
Both Chavez and DSA Honorary Chair Dolores Huerta have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and have been recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor and in the California Hall of Fame for their work.
The UFW is known for helping to create California Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975 under then Governor Jerry Brown which gives farm workers collective bargaining rights. The law was made necessary by the assault on the UFW of the Teamsters Union. While farm workers are often able to win elections under the ALRB, they seldom can win a contract. Growers stall and delay until the workers leave the area.
Dolores Huerta remains active as a staunch advocate for women’s rights and reproductive freedom. Huerta is a founding board member of the Feminist Majority Foundation and serves on the board of Ms. Magazine as well as her service as an Honorary DSA Chair. She is active in the Democratic Party Conventions and campaigns and she frequently speaks at universities and organizational forums and union halls on issues of social justice and public policy. Dolores continues working to develop community leaders and advocating for the working poor, immigrants, women and youth as President of the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
César Chavez, Dolores Huerta, along with Philip Vera Cruz, and others deliberately created a multiracial union; 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, as well as immigration status always left the corporations the winners.
In the 60's Chávez and Huerta became the pre-eminent civil rights leaders for the Mexican and Chicano workers, helping with local union struggles throughout the nation. They worked tirelessly to make people aware of the struggles of farm workers for better pay and safer working conditions. It is a testament to their 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. Dolores actively continues her work.
César taught us that all organizations have problems, that all organizations are imperfect. In the last decade several books have been written criticizing the Chavez legacy.
Building popular organizations, while messy, builds people's power and democracy. There were external conflicts and conflicts internal to the union. In creating the UFW Chavez and Huerta organized thousands into a union and inspired millions. Today children in schools study Chavez’s life- although the study of Dolores Huerta is prohibited in Arizona and severely limited in Texas as socialist, “revolutionary”, or anti American. Many curriculum packages for schools stress his emphasis on service to others. The service side of Cesar’s work was certainly inspiring.
The organizing side of the UFW legacy changed the Southwest and organized labor. The movement led by Cesar and Huerta 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. They 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.
Today thousands of new immigrants harvest the crops and only a small percent are in unions. The new generations of immigrants and migrant labor hardly know Chavez’ name nor the UFW’s contributions. Yet, in other regions immigrants are being organized into unions such as Justice for Janitors, Unite/Here by activists who learned their organizing skills working with the UFW. And, Latino political leaders often made their first commitments on a UFW picket line.
The generation that created the UFW is passing. A new generation of political activists, mostly within the Democratic Party, have emerged since the Chavez generation. In the May Day 2006 massive immigrant rights movements, several new organizing practices 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 in the nation.
Chavez's and Huerta’s legacy to popular struggles, to Chicano/Mexicano self determination and to unions for the immigrant workers is significant. The union taught us how to organize for power and for justice. He is present in all of our work. You can find our more about this remarkable leader at www.ufw.org :, http://www.chavezfoundation.org/;
at http://www.farmworkermovement.org/ : and at MexicanAmericanDigitalHistory.org
Duane Campbell is a Professor (emeritus) of Bilingual/Multicultural Education at Calif. State University-Sacramento, the author of Choosing Democracy; a practical guide to multicultural education. 4th. edition. (Allyn and Bacon,2010) and Chair of Sacramento DSA.