By Randle Loeb on Mar 31, 2010 | In Caring and Surviving, Citizenship and Stewards By Randle Loeb
On April 23, 1993 Cesar Estrada Chavez, 66, Union Organizer For Migrant Worker's Rights Died
This article was written originally by Robert Lindsey in the New York Times and is modified and augmented by Randle Loeb to reflect the changes that have been created by the spirit of a champion of the rights established in the Constitution to all who dwell on these shores.
Cesar Estrada Chavez was born On an Arizona farm on March 31, 1927, near Yuma, Ariz., the second of five children of Juana and Librado Chavez. His father's parents migrated from Mexico in 1880.
His early years were spent on the family's 160-acre farm. But in the seventh year of the Depression, when he was 10, the family fell behind on mortgage payments and were evicted.
Along with thousands of other families in the Southwest, they sought refuge in California. They picked carrots, cotton, grapes in arid valleys, following the sun in search of the next harvest and the next camp owned by the growers.
Mr. Chavez never graduated from high school. He attended 65 elementary schools "for a day, a week or a few months."
Mr. Chavez, who lived in Keene, Calif., was in Arizona on union business. He died in his sleep.
Blending the nonviolent resistance of Gandhi with the organizational skills of Saul Alinsky, Mr. Chavez captured worldwide attention in the 1960's. Leading a battle to unionize the fields and orchards of California, boycotting grapes was a rallying point for the American citizen.
Mr. Chavez was described by Robert F. Kennedy as "one of the heroic figures of our time," near the time of Robert Kennedy's assassination. Cesar Chavez did more to improve the lives of migrant farm workers than anyone in his generation.
Fighting growers and shippers who for generations had defeated efforts to unionize field workers, and later fighting rival unionists, Mr. Chavez for the first time brought stability and security to migrant workers because he represented hope and a glimmer of economic justice for Latino families.
In 1975 he California Legislature passed the nation's first collective bargaining act outside Hawaii for farm workers, who were excluded from Federal labor law protection. "For the first time," Mr. Chavez said "the farm worker got some power." "For many years I was a farm worker, a migratory worker, it's just a matter of trying to even the score."
Cesar Chavez failed to realize his dream of forging a nationwide organization because White dominated labor unions and bosses organized to defeat his efforts among the Chicano people. American farm workers continue to toil for low wages, without job security, vulnerable to exploitation and at the whim of the corporate business establishment. California failed to translate the early triumphs of La Causa into a viable labor organization with economic and social justice for all citizens.
The union that Mr. Chavez founded, the United Farm Workers of America was unable to organize more than twenty percent of California's 200,000 farm workers. Tactics that Cesar Chavez effectively initiated in the 1960's and early 70's -- strikes and boycotts, fasting and the long march were undermined by the powerful cartel of agricultural industries. The United Farm Workers Union was regarded as a novelty among the liberal, middle class of the nation and then forgotten by many early supporters.
Cesar Estrada Chavez's accomplishments included forming the union of farm workers in California averaging less than $1.50 an hour. They had no fringe benefits, no seniority rights and no standing to challenge abuses by employers or exploitative labor contractors and thus, establishing forever the history of the Latinos and Chicanos as leaders of their destiny as equal citizens.
Unionization brought sharp pay increases. For the first time, migrant workers were eligible for medical insurance, employer-paid pensions, unemployment insurance, and they had the means to challenge employer abuses. The union's impact extended far beyond its membership. The threat of unionization by Mr. Chavez raised agricultural wages throughout California.
Beginning with the Industrial Workers of the World at the turn of the century, unions tried for decades to organize immigrant unskilled workers, first Chinese, then Japanese and later Filipinos and Mexican-Americans, on whom California growers depended. Field hands were vulnerable to the competition of other poor migrants seeking work, and were fighting not only powerful growers, but also the police and government officials.
In 1939 Mr. Chavez's family settled in San Jose. His father became active in a successful effort to organize workers at a dried-fruit packing plant, giving Mr. Chavez his first glimpse of workers taking collective action.
After World War II, in which he served two years in the Navy, Mr. Chavez resumed his life as a migrant. He married Helen Fabela in Delano, which he later made famous far beyond its dusty corner of the San Joaquin Valley.
Besides his wife he's survived by eight children, 27 grandchildren, a great-grandchild, three brothers and two sisters.
Mr. Alinsky sent an aide to recruit potential leaders, and among the first people he met was Mr. Chavez, then working in a San Jose apricot orchard.
Mr. Chavez joined Mr. Alinsky's Community Service Organization, registering Mexican-Americans to vote and helping them deal with government agencies. Later Cesar Chavez criticized the organization as dominated by non-Hispanic liberals, and in 1958 he quit, went to Delano and formed the National Farm Workers Association.
By 1965 Mr. Chavez organized 1,700 families and persuaded two growers to raise wages moderately. His fledging union was poised for a major strike. But 800 workers in a virtually moribund A.F.L.-C.I.O. group, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, struck grape growers in Delano, and some of the members of his group demanded to join the strike.
That was the beginning of five years of La Huelga in which Cesar Chavez became familiar to people in much of the world as he battled the economic power of the farmers and corporations in the San Joaquin Valley.
With its charismatic leader, song-filled meetings and the fundamental appeal of its struggle, depicted as a downtrodden minority battling an exploitative oligopoly, Mr. Chavez's organization reminded many old-timers of the industrial battles that they had waged generations earlier.
Cesar Chavez showed humility that, with his shyness, small stature, and piercing dark eyes gave him the image of David taking on the Goliaths of agriculture.
Mr. Chavez's style was deeply religious. His life was dedicated to bettering the lives of the exploited farm workers. He was a vegetarian, and his weekly salary of $5 was a vow of poverty. Articles about him often spoke of his "saintly" and even "messianic" qualities.
Priests and nuns, college students and unionists from around the country marched with Mr. Chavez. Supporters sent money for La Causa. Most of the farm workers who enlisted had meager resources and were asked to pay only the dues they could afford, often only a few cents a month.
Borrowing from Gandhi, Mr. Chavez sometimes went on fasts or invited arrest to call attention to his battle with the growers.
With music and singing and hundreds of fluttering flags bearing the union's symbol of a black eagle on a field of red, union rallies were filled with fervor. Mr. Chavez arrived late at the rallies, appearing to a roar of approval after a musical group had played and other speakers had addressed the crowds.
In 1968 he began his most visible campaign, urging Americans not to buy table grapes produced in the San Joaquin Valley until growers agreed to union contracts. The boycott proved a huge success. A public opinion poll found that 17 million Americans had stopped buying grapes because of the boycott. My family were among the members of the coalition.
On July 30, 1970, after losing millions of dollars, growers agreed to sign. It was probably the high point in the union's history.
More successful boycotts and organizing successes followed, but soon many of the largest growers, in an effort to stave off Mr. Chavez's union, invited the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to organize their workers. Mr. Chavez complained that the teamsters were signing "sweetheart contracts," and before long his hard-won gains in Delano were betrayed by coercive practices of industry.
Growers charged that the United Farm Workers was poorly run and undependable, signed with the teamsters. But two things kept his dream alive: First, the teamsters' leaders, smarting from charges of corruption, made a truce.
Second, Edmund G. Brown Jr., a Democrat who had marched with the farm workers before his election as Governor in 1974, won adoption of the state Agricultural Labor Relations Act, a landmark bill establishing collective bargaining for farm workers and granting the union concessions. Among these concessions was a "good standing clause," which in effect permitted union leaders to deny work in the fields to any worker who challenged their decisions.
The teamsters virtually abandoned the fight against Mr. Chavez in 1977. In the years that followed, the United Farm Workers signed occasional contracts with growers but never attained the dominance that Mr. Chavez envisioned. A decade after the Delano strike, fewer than ten percent of the grapes in that community were harvested by union's members.
Cesar Chavez befriended Charles Dederich, the founder of Synanon, a drug rehabilitation organization.
After Mr. Brown's departure from the governorship in 1983, Mr. Chavez battled with the Republican administration of George Deukmejian, whose campaign was backed by the growers. In 1983, Mr. Chavez, expressing determination to recapture the union's momentum, revived the use of the boycott, directed at nonunion table grapes and Salinas Valley lettuce.
When Cesar Estrada Chavez died in 1993 he was clear in his message to all citizens of this country: you are the ones with power and your will must be heard. We are granted a great legacy in the grace and dignity of this spiritual leader of the people.
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