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.