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Chávez, César Estrada

workers farm grape union

César Estrada Chávez was born on March 31, 1927 in Yuma, Arizona. He was a civil rights activist, community organizer, and founder of the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA), the first union to successfully organize agricultural workers in the United States. A self-educated follower of Gandhi’s nonviolent protest strategy and Catholic theories of penance, he began his organizing career in 1952 with the Community Service Organization (CSO), a leading civil rights organization advocating on behalf of urban Mexican Americans in California. He became the executive director of the CSO in 1958.

In 1962 Chávez founded the National Farm Workers Association, the predecessor of the UFWA. In August 1966, he became director of the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), a merger of the NFWA and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC/AFL-CIO), which he led until his death. His major contribution was applying a nonviolent protest strategy to the challenge of organizing farm workers, a group that suffered intense discrimination, little community cohesion, and high levels of poverty, even as they labored in the most profitable sector of American agribusiness. In 1994, Chávez was posthumously recognized with the Medal of Freedom, the U.S.’s highest civilian honor, for his work on behalf of Mexican-American civil rights and the rights of farm workers to organize, and in 2003 a U.S. commemorative postal stamp was issued in his honor.

Chávez was born on a small family farm outside of Yuma, Arizona, to Juana and Librado Chávez. In 1937 his family lost their farm and migrated to central California to work in the fields. Over the next decade, Chávez attended more than thirty schools, eventually dropping out in the eighth grade when his father was no longer able to work. In 1952 he joined the CSO as an organizer in San Jose, California, working with Fred Ross, who had been trained by the famed radical and activist Saul Alinsky (1909–1972). Chávez worked on Mexican-American civil rights issues, including racial discrimination in the schools and public facilities (including “whites only” restrictions in theaters and restaurants). He also conducted language and citizenship classes and voter registration drives. A key tactic was the “house meeting,” in which volunteers used their personal networks to recruit others. Frustrated that the CSO was unwilling to organize farm workers, Chávez resigned in March 1962 and moved to Delano, California, to found the NFWA.

The NFWA focused on cooperative shopping, burial insurance, and a credit union. By 1965 there were several thousand members in the Delano area. In the summer of 1965, Chávez recruited student volunteers who had been involved in the southern civil rights movement and several clergy to organize rent strikes and school discrimination protests. Like Chávez, they were paid five dollars per week plus room and board. In September 1965, Filipino members of the AWOC called a strike in the Delano table-grape harvest. The NFWA joined the strike, with strong support among the workers, but the growers refused to negotiate, hiring immigrant workers as replacements. Chávez called for a boycott against Schenley Industries, a liquor conglomerate with a small grape ranch, and he organized a 340-mile march on the state capital to publicize the boycott. Media coverage of the boycott led Schenley to sign the first agricultural union contract. The next target was DiGiorgio Corporation, an agribusiness giant with vulnerable grocery trade labels, which agreed to a union recognition election that the union won. The NFWA and AWOC then merged to form the UFWOC (AFL-CIO).

The UFWOC next organized a table-grape strike, which received broad support, but was broken by immigrant workers, many of whom were undocumented. In fact, in the grape harvest, well over half of the labor force was undocumented. Mounting a three-year grape boycott energized by Chávez’ twenty-five-day fast, farm workers picketed grocery stores across the country. This cut national grape sales by more than a third and closed off foreign exports, leading to an industry-wide contract in August 1970. Strikes and a boycott against iceberg lettuce, however, failed to produce contracts. Lettuce was harder to target. Growers confused the issue by signing “sweetheart” contracts with the Teamsters, and they intimidated workers with violence. Chávez decided to support state collective-bargaining legislation to allow workers to be able to vote for their union of choice, leading to the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) of 1975, which created secret ballot elections and negotiations in the state of California. The UFWA won most of the elections, and by 1980 it had more than 45,000 members. In 1983 Governor George Deukemejian closed down the ALRA Board, and subsequent legislation weakened its authority, undermining many of the UFWA contracts. In 1986 Chávez kicked off a third grape boycott, focusing this time on the issue of pesticide use, which was a major health hazard to workers as well as to consumers of grapes. After Chávez’s death in 1993, the UFWA signed new contracts under more favorable political conditions.

Chávez’ tactical brilliance and commitment to La Causa (the cause) were extraordinary. Recognizing the organizational and political difficulties in agricultural strikes, he focused on boycotts and protests, including hunger strikes that enlisted broader community support. Countering frustrations that might lead to strike violence and recurrent violent attacks against strikers, he conducted three major fasts all framed in terms of religious penance and claims for worker dignity. In addition to appealing to the moral identity between workers and growers, his fasts called for personal sacrifice and discipline, which energized workers and garnered broader community support. Chávez died on April 23, 1993, in San Luis, Arizona.

Chávez (y Ramírez), Carlos (Antonio de Padua) [next] [back] Châtelet-Lomont, Gabrielle-Emilie, Marquise

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