United Farm Workers of America

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United Farm Workers of America

The United Farm Workers of America (UFW) began in 1962 as a coalition of poorly paid migrant farm workers and grew into a powerful Labor Union that has consistently fought to increase wages and improve working conditions for its members. In addition to these issues, the UFW has advocated for stronger environmental protections, better housing, and other social justice issues.

The story of the UFW is inextricably inter-twined with the biography of its founder, cÉsar chÁvez. Chávez was born on March 31, 1927, on a small farm in Arizona. After the Chávez family lost the farm (which had been in the family since the 1880s), they moved to California where they became migrant workers. Migrant workers moved from farm to farm picking crops for growers who generally paid low wages and provided no benefits. Entire families harvested fruits and vegetables, moving north as the crops ripened. Migrant housing consisted of dilapidated metal shacks most of which did not have indoor plumbing or running water. Working conditions were uniformly hot, dirty, and dismal. As pesticide application increased, no protection was provided to the workers who picked the crops with their bare hands. The first wave of migrant workers in the fields of California were small farmers and laborers from Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas who were unable to make a living due to drought and the depression of the 1930s. This group was followed in the 1940s by foreign workers, primarily Mexicans, who were called "braceros."

Chávez and his family labored with the other migrant workers traveling from field to field. In 1952 Chávez became involved with the Community Service Organization (CSO) that helped Mexicans and other Latinos to become citizens, register to vote, and to improve their living conditions. After 10 years of doing organization work for the CSO, Chávez resigned in 1962 to become a full-time organizer of farm workers. Originally called the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), the new organization grew rapidly.

In 1965 the NFWA began a boycott of grape growers in Delano, California. The strike lasted five years. In 1966 Chávez and his followers began a 340-mile trek from Delano to the state capitol in Sacramento to bring the plight of the farm workers to national attention. The march started with 75 people and ended in a rally of 10,000 people on the capitol steps. That same year Schenley Vineyards and the NFWA negotiated the nation's first union contract between a grower and a farm union. Also in 1966, the NFWA merged with the mostly Filipino American members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to form the United Farm Workers (UFW).

As the strike continued and the story of the farm workers became more widely known in the United States and abroad, many Americans rallied to their cause and joined the boycott of table grapes. By 1970 more than 65 percent of California's grape growers had signed contracts with the UFW. In order to avoid a similar UFW boycott, a number of Salinas Valley lettuce and vegetable growers signed contracts with the Teamsters Union. In response, the UFW called for a boycott of lettuce and more than 10,000 farm workers in California's Central Coast went on strike. In 1972 as membership continued to increase, the UFW became the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO.

By 1979 the UFW had won pay increases and signed contracts with a significant number of growers of lettuce and other produce. The organization's membership had grown to approximately 100,000. Conflicts with the Teamsters Union, the murder of several UFW supporters, and the election of Republican governor George Deukmejian, whose administration supported the growers, led to setbacks for the movement as thousands of farm workers were fired, and UFW membership began to decline.

In the mid-1980s and early 1990s Chávez and the UFW continued to fight for improved conditions for farm workers. On April 23, 1993, Chávez died in his sleep at the home of a farm worker in San Luis, Arizona. Six days later 35,000 mourners walked behind Chávez's casket during his funeral in Delano. In 1994 President bill clinton posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom—the nation's highest civilian honor—to Chávez.

Veteran UFW leader Arturo S. Rodriguez succeeded Chávez as president. In 1994 Rodriguez and his supporters retraced the step of Chávez's historic trek in 1966. Over 20,000 UFW workers and supporters gathered again on the capitol steps to mark the start of the new UFW campaign to organize and empower farm workers. The reinvigorated UFW signed up more workers in California as well as in Florida and the state of Washington. In the early 2000s, the UFW was continuing to fight for better wages, win new Collective Bargaining rights, and gain better housing and sanitation for workers as well as restrict the use of DDT and other dangerous pesticides.

Further readings

Ferriss, Susan. 1997. The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement. New York: Harcourt.

McWilliams, Carey, and Douglas C. Sackman. 2000. Factories in the Fields: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Rothenberg, Daniel. 1998. With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today. New York: Harcourt.

United Farm Workers. Available online at <www.ufw.org> (accessed August 16, 2003).

Cross-references

Chávez, César; Labor Law; Labor Union.

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