Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) was a Mexican-American labor leader who organized the first effective union of farm workers in the history of California agriculture.
Cesar Chavez was born on March 31, 1927, near Yuma, Arizona. His grandfather had homesteaded some 112 acres there in 1904, but the family lost the ranch during the Depression in 1939, when they could not pay the taxes. The family then joined the migrant laborers streaming into California.
Chavez quit school after the eighth grade to work fulltime in the fields, but in 1944 he joined the U.S. Navy. He served for two years in the Pacific, but racism kept him in menial jobs, so upon discharge he rejoined his family and continued as a farm worker in California. In 1948 he married Helen Fabela of Delano, California.
In 1952 Chavez met Fred Ross, who was organizing Mexican-Americans in the barrios (quarters) of California into the Community Service Organization (CSO). They concentrated on voter registration, citizenship classes, and helping Mexican-American communities obtain needed facilities in the barrios as well as aiding individuals with such typical problems as welfare, contracts signed with unscrupulous salesmen, and police harassment.
Chavez's work in the voter registration drive in Sal Si Puedes, the notorious San Jose barrio, was so effective that Ross hired him as an organizer. Over the next 10 years Chavez rose to national director of CSO. In 1962, when the CSO rejected his proposal to start a farmworkers union, he quit the organization. At 35 years of age, with $1,200 in savings, he took his wife and eight children to Delano to begin the slow, methodical organizing process which grew into the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). When, three years later, members of Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) struck the vineyards in Delano, they asked for support from Chavez's NFWA.
Thus began the great California table-grape strike, which lasted five years. In 1966, the two unions merged to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) of the AFL-CIO, headed by Chavez. During the struggle to organize the vineyards Chavez initiated an international boycott of California table grapes that brought such pressure to bear on local grape growers that most eventually signed with his union. The boycott ended in September 1970. Soon after this victory, Chavez again employed the boycott strategy, this time against lettuce growers who used non-union labor. Chavez became the first man ever to organize a viable farm workers' union in California that obtained signed contracts from the agricultural industry.
Believed in Non-Violence
Chavez was an outspoken advocate of social change through nonviolent means. In 1968, to avert violence in the grape strike, he undertook a 25-day fast; the fast was broken at an outdoor Mass attended by some 8,000 persons, including Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Chavez also led a 200-mile march from Delano to Sacramento to dramatize the demands of the farm workers.
In July 1970 Chavez's union faced one of its most serious challenges when the Teamsters' union signed contracts that applied to farm workers with some 200 growers in California. Chavez met the challenge head on: within 3 weeks the largest agricultural strike ever to hit California had spread over 180 miles along the coastal valleys. About 7,000 farm workers struck to win recognition of Chavez's UFWOC as their bargaining agent, with the national boycott again used as the weapon.
From 1972 to 1974, membership in the union dwindled from nearly 60,000 to just 5,000. But Chavez's efforts were rewarded. From 1964 to 1980, wages of California migrant workers had increased 70 percent, health care benefits became a reality and a formal grievance procedure was established. Chavez continued to fight for the rights of workers up to the day of his death on April 22, 1993.
Further Reading on Cesar Chavez
Collins, David R., Farmworker's Friend: The Story of Cesar Chavez Carolrhoda Books, 1996.
Ferris, Susan, et al, The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement, Harcourt Brace, 1997.
Gonzales, Doreen Cesar Chavez: Leader for Migrant Farm Workers, Enslow Publications, 1996.