Chávez, César Estrada

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Chávez, César Estrada

César Estrada Chávez, the son of Mexican American farm workers, became a well-known labor leader, founding the united farm workers (UFW) union, which led a massive grape boycott across the United States during the 1960s. Chávez won wage increases, benefits, and legal protections for migrant farm workers in the western United States and fought to have dangerous pesticides outlawed.

Chávez was born March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona, one of five children in a family that lived on a small farm for a time. When he was a child, the family was pushed onto the road as migrant laborers when Chávez's parents lost the family farm during the Great Depression. Later, he often spoke of what he felt was the unjust way in which his family had lost their property through foreclosure. Chávez never went beyond the eighth grade, and he once said that he had attended over 60 elementary schools because of his family's constant search for work in the fields.Chávez was exposed to labor organizing as a young boy, when his father and uncle joined a dried-fruit industry union during the late 1930s. The young Chávez was deeply impressed when the workers later went on strike. At age 19, Chávez himself picketed cotton fields but watched the union fail in its efforts to organize the workers.

After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he returned to California, where he married a woman named Helen Fabela. In 1952, the Los Angeles headquarters of organizer Saul Alinsky's Community Service Organization (CSO) decided to set up a chapter in San Jose, California, to work for Civil Rights for the area's Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants. A parish priest supplied several names to CSO organizer Fred Ross, including that of Chávez, who was then living in one of San Jose's poorest and toughest neighborhoods—Sal Si Puedes (leave, if you can). Ross believed that Chávez could be the best grassroots leader he had ever encountered, so he sought Chávez out and eventually convinced him to join the group's efforts. Chávez began as a volunteer in a CSO voter registration drive and a few months later was hired as a staff member. He spent the next ten years leading voter registration drives throughout the San Joaquin Valley and advocating for Mexican immigrants who complained of mistreatment by police officers, immigration authorities, and Welfare officials.

Chávez believed that unionizing was the only chance for farm workers to improve their working conditions. He resigned in 1962, increasingly frustrated because the CSO would not become involved in forming a farm workers' union. He immediately established the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the UFW, an affiliate of the american federation of labor and congress of industrial organizations (AFL-CIO). At the UFW's first meeting in September 1962, in Fresno, California, Chávez's cousin, Manuel Chávez, unveiled the flag that he and Chávez had designed for the new union—a black Aztec eagle in a white circle on a bold red background. The banner soon became the symbol of the farm workers' struggle.

When Chávez founded the UFW, field workers in California averaged $1.50 per hour, received no benefits, and had no methods by which to challenge their employers. Under Chávez's leadership, the UFW won tremendous wage increases and extensive benefits for farm workers, including medical and unemployment insurance and Workers' Compensation.A strict believer in nonviolence, Chávez used marches, boycotts, strikes, fasts, and civil disobedience to force growers in California's agricultural valleys to the bargaining table. In 1968, Filipino grape pickers in Delano, California, struck for higher wages; several days later, the UFW joined the strike and initiated a boycott of California grapes. More than 200 union supporters traveled across the United States and into Canada, urging consumers not to buy California grapes. The mayors of New York, Boston, Detroit, and St. Louis announced that their cities would not buy nonunion grapes. By August 1968, California grape growers estimated that the boycott had cost them about 20 percent of their expected revenue. The boycott brought Chávez to the attention of national political leaders, including U.S. Senator robert f. kennedy, who sought the Democratic Party nomination for president before his assassination in 1968. Kennedy described Chávez as a heroic figure. In 1970, after its successful boycott, the UFW signed contracts with the grape growers.

"Our struggle is not easy … But we have something the rich do not own. We have our bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons."
—CÉsar ChÁvez

In 1975, Chávez had a great success when the strongest law ever enacted to protect farm workers, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (Cal. Lab. Code § 1140 et seq. [West]), was passed by the California Legislature. This law gave workers the right to bargain collectively and the right to seek redress for unfair labor practices. Other regulations banned the use of tools that caused crippling back injuries, such as the short-handled hoe, and required growers to give workers breaks and to provide toilets and fresh water in the fields. Chávez was among the first to link workers' health problems to pesticides. He negotiated union contracts that prohibited growers from using DDT, and he targeted five leading pesticides that cause birth defects or kill upon contact.

At its peak during the 1970s the UFW had over 70,000 members. During the early 1980s, the UFW's influence began to wane and union membership dipped below ten thousand. Chávez blamed the decline in part on the election of Republican governors, who sided with the growers. In addition, Chávez decided to turn his efforts toward conducting boycotts rather than organizing workers, a move that was widely criticized and caused a split among the union's members. Chávez was also forced to defend himself against lawsuits stemming from UFW actions taken years before. In 1991, the union lost a $2.4 million case when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear its appeal. The case stemmed from a 1979 Imperial Valley strike in which a farm worker was shot and killed (Maggio, Inc. v. United Farm Workers of America, 227 Cal. App. 3d 847, 278 Cal. Rptr. 250 [Cal. App. 1991], cert. denied, 502 U.S. 863, 112 S. Ct. 187, 116 L. Ed. 2d 148 [1991]).

In April 1993, Chávez returned to San Luis, a small town near his native Yuma, Arizona, to testify in the retrial of a lawsuit brought by Bruce Church, Inc., a large Salinas, California–based producer of iceberg lettuce. At the time Chávez testified, Bruce Church had extensive landholdings in Arizona and California, including the acreage east of Yuma that Chávez's parents had once owned. The company had won a $5.4 million judgment for alleged damage caused by union boycotts, but an appellate court over-turned the judgment and sent the case back to the trial court (Bruce Church, Inc. v. United Farm Workers of America, 816 P. 2d 919 [Ariz. App. 1991]). On April 22, Chávez finished his second day of testimony in Yuma County Superior Court. He returned to spend the night at the home of a family friend and died in his sleep.

Following Chávez's death, Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, described the leader as instrumental in organized labor's efforts to improve the lot of the worker. "Always, César had conveyed hope and determination, especially to minority workers, in the daily struggle against injustice and hardship," Kirkland said. "The improved lives of millions of farm workers and their families will endure as a testimonial to César and his life's work."

In a 1984 speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Chávez said, "Regardless of what the future holds for our union, regardless of what the future holds for farm workers, our accomplishment cannot be undone. The consciousness and pride that were raised by our union are alive and thriving inside millions of young Hispanics who will never work on a farm."

Further readings

Etulain, Richard W., ed. 2002. Cesar Chavez: A Brief Biography with Documents New York: Palgrav.

Houle, Michelle, ed. 2003. Cesar Chavez. San Diego, Calif: Greenhaven Press.

Matthiessen, Peter. 1969. Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution. New York: Random House.

Tracy, Kathleen. 2003. Cesar Chavez. Bear, Del.: Mitchell Lane.


Agricultural Law; Labor Union.