Collective bargaining involved negotiation for fair wages, safe working conditions, protection from harmful and unhealthy chemicals and pesticides, proper equipment and elimination of the short-handle hoe, and provision of clean water and field toilets. Cesar Chavez never ceased in working for achievement of these objectives within the major goal of obtaining human treatment and dignity for the poor, worker-class migrant field worker. Through their hard work, field workers helped put the ever on-demand vegetables, fruits,and grape wines on the tables of the more privileged classes in the country and throughout the world. Cesar Chavez never wavered from his task of helping the migrant workers. He had known personally the suffering experienced by field workers. He himself had worked in the fields as a child and had encountered the reality of being poor, as well as a member of a discriminated class of people.
Cesar Chavez was born in 1927 in a farm near Yuma, Arizona. There is no doubt that the land, the people, his family, and cultural environments of his home state and the neighboring state of California shaped his character and motivated him in his efforts on behalf of migrant field workers. In 1939 his parents lost their farm in a bank-foreclosure. Cesar's parents and family members, including the then ten year old Cesar, became migrant agricultural laborers.
The land shaped the thinking and emotional being of Cesar Chavez. The reality of hard work in the hot fields at low wages in the planting, hoeing, and harvesting of the agricultural produce that was the foundation of a multi-billion food chain industries impressed Cesar. He discovered his place in the whole enterprise. The workers were mere expendables obtained at the lowest price with the least personal protections and job benefits. Cesar Chavez had realized that the reason the growers were so powerful was that the workers were so weak. The growers and corporations treated workers with impunity. Agri-business controlled public and political enforcing and policing agencies. The powerful growers and corporations lacked the consciousness of putting into practice the fair integration of workers as partners in the agricultural enterprise. The situation of the migrant workers in the land-based agricultural work guided Chavez's action and provided him with the emotional motivation to organize farm workers.
Cesar Chavez organized grape pickers in California in 1962 into the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). Chavez, birthed in the Arizona desert knew firsthand about meagerness and directed his union organizing activities with few resources. He started out with the solidarity of his wife, Helen, his brother Richard, and a few friends like Dolores Huerta, a former school teacher,and Gil Padilla. Cesar had borrowed $3,000 from his brother Richard to begin the union. Like the Arizona mascot, the Gila Monster, a slow gliding lizard, who alone knew how to survive millions of years after its direct descendants, the dinosaurs, became extinct, the NFWA had to develop and apply its particular non-violent strategies to survive. The union selected the Aztec eagle for its emblem. It carried the image of the Lady of Guadalupe on banners during its Huelgas (strikes) and other marches in the San Joaquin Valley.
The migrant workers for generations had helped make this valley the richest agricultural area in the world. However, nowhere can be found a marker or a statue honoring the contributions of the workers to this great accomplishment. But this great and powerful valley's agricultural enterprises were now challenged by the smallest and weakest and poorest agricultural labor union. In 1966, the NFWA merged with the Filipino labor union into the Farm Workers Association Committee (UFWOC). Both unions had been on strike since 1965 against California grape growers. California wine grape growers accepted the UFWOC as the collective bargaining agent for grape pickers but table grape growers did not, so Chavez organized a nation-wide boycott of California table grapes.
The use of the nation-wide boycott was a strategy that took the struggle away from a small area in Delano, California where the powerful growers controlled the power to influence political and public agencies, especially law enforcement agencies that could be used to fight their battles against strikers. Across the nation, other rich and powerful groups, college students, and general public consumers saw the injustice of the treatment of field workers and supported their grape boycott. Most table grape growers by 1970 came to terms with the union and accepted union contracts and the boycott ended. The strategic technique of employing the boycott in conjunction with the Huelga worked. Chavez used the boycott later against lettuce produced by growers without union contracts.
In 1973, the union changed its name to the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA). Like the Arizona rattler snake which sheds its old skin for a new skin, the union shed its old name for a new name. With each change of name came new alliances, new strategies, new vision and hope.
The rich and powerful growers never had intentions of changing its non-integral philosophy and failed to renew their contracts in 1973. Chavez again employed the new grape and lettuce boycotts and ended them in 1978. Always, Chavez remained committed to nonviolence. This was difficult when the opposition employed the use of police, county sheriff deputies, and paid rednecks to harass the strikers in the fields. The outbreaks of violence against the union resulted in beatings and some deaths of union strikers.
After years of struggle, Cesar at times began to fast. He fasted as a spiritual plea for union members to adhere to non-violence action although confronting so much violence against them.
Perhaps a case could be made for other spiritual dimensions of Cesar Chavez union work. There are a few beatitudes that could be recalled to mind that seemed to be expressed in the situation. Some of these were: "Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God," for the union belief in non-violence strategies; and also, "Blessed are those who mourn...," and "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," and "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." Certainly, besides seeking to keep the peace while engaged in seeking human treatment for workers and fair wages, the union members mourned the state of affairs that existed in a rich, capitalist country where the worker and the raw materials were so exploited in the name of extreme profits for those who controlled the means of production and profit generation. Their mourning gave them the proper emotion that motivated them to take action to bring about changes that actually would benefit all concerned, the growers, the workers, and the consumers. Then, hunger and thirst for righteousness were pursued in non-violent ways to seek integration of the worker in the scheme of the free enterprise for production of goods and services in a fair and healthy manner, not in a manner of exploitation of the worker and in dangerous work environments. In time the meek, the totally weak and powerless would in the future inherit God's earth. That of course is meant to be reserved for the future for it is an inheritance.
In the 1990s Cesar Chavez led pesticide boycotts. Pesticides over the years had seeped into the water tables of adjacent communities to agricultural fields, contaminated fresh produce, and threatened worker safety and consequently caused great health hazards. This problem continues. However, the problem remains for others, who care enough about human life, to solve.
Cesar Chavez died in his sleep on April 22, 1993 at a friend's home in the town of San Luis, Arizona. The funeral was held in Delano, California and was attended by some 35,000 mourners, represented by Catholic and other church representatives, laity, priests, religious sisters, public figures, representative of the entertainment industry, the workers, people from all walks of life and economic classes.
The struggle led by Cesar Chavez had proved successful in many ways. Farm workers had earned better treatment, respect, and had secured collective bargaining, and political protection from the National and California Labor Relations Boards. The workers had secured wages that were closer to being livable wages, they had won human rights that were reflected in safe working conditions in the fields, clean water, toilets, improved housing, and worker's compensation. These were working conditions and rights taken for granted by others neither of the poor class nor humble field workers.
The union, however, must continue to keep struggling. Situations change quickly. It would be a return to former bad times if workers don't protect their hard earned rights as human beings and workers. The best conditions for all would be if field workers would be integrated into the agricultural enterprise as a respected component of the successful mix of elements for prosperity for all concerned. The work and leadership of Cesar Chavez continues in the hearts of many, although he is gone to his reward. May he rest in peace. May those who remain in this life continue the struggle in non-violence and love for his neighbor for a better life for all concerned and for building a nation in liberty and justice for all. Cesar Chavez believed that the truest act of courage was to sacrifice oneself for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. May others be inspired to follow and to lead in such a way.
Santos C. Vega