Cesar Chavez: Impact On History

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Cesar Chavez, born Cesario Estrada Chavez, is responsible for many of the changes seen in the works of farmworkers today. A lot of people believe Chavez’s first strike was in the 1950s when he worked as a community and labor organizer, but he sparked passion well before that. In 1940, Cesar’s father, Librado, had organized a field strike composed of about one hundred men. This strike took place near El Centro, California wear the farmers made demands and formed a picket line around the front of the vineyard. They were demanding no less than $.50 an hour, overtime pay, no child labor, separate toilets for men and women, and free drinking water while working. Not long after the strike started, numerous vehicles arrived with hundreds of Mexican peasants whose families were poor and hungry. They didn’t care the pay nor the hours, they just needed the money. They were asked not to enter by the strikers, but with their own families in mind, they entered. Although the National Labor Relations Act was passed by Congress in 1935, agriculture was not included. The strikers, now out of a job and tainted by the failed strike, were forced to migrate. A successful strike or union was almost unheard of at the time. Cesar was the first man to successfully organize a union for farmworkers and now we’ll take a closer look at his impactful activism through a social welfare lens.

Agricultural labor was typically done by Asian immigrants. Then there were the Mexican and Filipinos, and during the Great Depression worked a few Caucasians. Growers recruited non-citizen immigrants who had no employment options other than fieldwork. But with the 1882 passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted Chinese immigration into the United States, growers acquired more land and found a new source of cheap labor. They began recruiting the Japanese. After World War I, the labor militancy all but disappeared and due to an increase in agricultural labor requirements, California growers turned to Mexico for supply to meet these requirements. Mexican workers were cheap labor, and the California growers took full advantage of that fact.

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In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The purpose of this Act was to bring industrial peace and encourage unions to organize in an attempt to raise wages. The Act provided unions and workers with powerful organizing tools as well as protection to prevent employer retaliation. Unfortunately, the Act did not apply to agricultural workers. New Deal Democrats were forced to compromise with conservative Senators resulting in the successful exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from the protections the Act offered. During World War II, the Bracero program was initiated. Because many Americans were entering the war, the fields were short on labor workers. As a result, the government made laws and signed diplomatic agreements with Mexico allowing America to bring them in as guest workers to help in the fields as well as building railroads. ‘The transience and vulnerability of an immigrant workforce, the exclusion of agricultural workers from the National Labor Relations Act, the introduction of the Bracero program, and the general unfamiliarity with the lack of interest in the agricultural sector by traditional American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations unionism—all set against a backdrop of employer violence and hostility toward organizing efforts backed by law enforcement, judges, and politicians.’ (Willhoite, 2012).

In 1947, the Taft-Harley Act passed, amending the NLRA with many anti-union provisions. It prohibited numerous, if not all strikes. Wildcat, jurisdictional, solidarity or political strikes were now illegal. It allowed states to pass right-to-work laws which made union security clauses all but obsolete. ‘It restricted political contributions by unions and required union officers to sign affidavits repudiating communism. But worse of all, it outlawed the secondary boycott. This involves a union engaging in picketing or other activity against a separate employer, who has no labor dispute, doing business with a struck employer, with the goal of the secondary employer’s pressuring the primary employer to settle its strike or dispute.’ (Willhoite, 2012).

Following the misfortunate event of the Chavez family losing their Arizona homestead during the Great Depression, the moved to northern California where Chavez and family became migrant farm workers. Cesar dropped out of 8th grade to help his family in the fields. By the 1950s, Cesar worked as both a community organizer as well as a labor organizer. With the wealth and political connections paired with the ability to utilize cheap, extra labor the growers had, Cesar fought against racism, exclusion from political and legal protection, and violent strike-breaking tactics to organize farm workers. The National Farm Workers Association was founded by Cesar in 1962. Two years prior to the NFWA’s first strike and one year following its founding, the bracero program legally ended on paper. This opened the doors for organization among the labor market.

‘The question remained how to effectively mobilize farm workers and avoid the fate suffered by earlier efforts. He would draw on three tactics utilized by civil rights leaders to achieve this: a broad base of support from the people actually facing injustice, massive mobilization of outside supporters and the media, and strategic utilization of the legal system.’ Chavez based the NFWA in Delano because its residents were more stable and less vulnerable making them the better opportunity for initial support. He was confident his movement would succeed stating ‘the reason the farm worker organizing drive could win was that they could ally themselves with a new feature in American social and political activity — the movement for civil rights, the movement of the youth, and the movement of the poor.’ (Willhoite, 2012).

In 1965, farm work harvest began migrating north and Delano was the next on the list. The Filipino grape workers, part of AWOC already had one strike win under their belt, but as the harvest moved north the growers decided to refuse the agreed upon initial wage increase. In turn, the workers staged a strike refusing to leave their campsite. Although Chavez felt his union was ill-prepared for the strike, many of the Mexican workers wanted to join in on the strike. 10,000 acres of land and more than 3,000 AWOC workers and NFWA workers combined refused to work. The growers, feeling personally attacked, evicted the workers from the camps, sprayed pesticides, and assaulted workers. They ultimately brought in roughly 2,000 undocumented strikebreakers illegally. Strikers eventually arrested after conjunctions were issued by the courts. Chavez realized the power the growers had was too great and he began to expand his support group.

Following a rent strike after rent was raised 40%, Cesar used the media exposure to share a message of social injustice and moral imperative challenging all of society to support the union. It was during this time that Cesar started a newspaper called El Malcriado and used it to publicize the civil rights struggle. He defined the NFWA as a farm worker civil rights movement and trained other civil rights leaders on nonviolent protests and strikes. The union began to get national media exposure and the public joined in on the picket lines. Because farm workers were not covered under the NLRA, they did not have to follow its rules and were able to utilize numerous tactics not available to industrial unions, like boycotts. The NFWA challenged the public to boycott grapes and with the help of the leader of the AWOC word of this boycott spread throughout the country. Chavez voiced that this was a strike not solely based on wages but also union recognition, to remain the public that this is what farm workers must do to be recognized. He then led a 340-mile peaceful protest to the Capitol. The goal was reiterating the importance of nonviolent striking paying homage to the Catholic Mexican and Filipino workers. During the protest, the impact of the boycott was astronomical. Liquor stores countrywide cleared their shelves of products from two of the biggest grape growers in California. The protest also served as an opportunity to get the support of Governor Pat Brown. Brown attempted to address the issues agricultural workers were having as social problems that could be fixed by providing social services, but Cesar shut that down. Workers held a strike at the Democratic Convention and supportive delegates attempted to provide a solution that would include ‘collective bargaining rights in agriculture, support of the boycott and intervention by the governor’ who decided he would stay out of the conversation due to his understanding that collective bargaining laws were already in place. He failed to realize this did not pertain to farm workers.

Cesar’s hard work and dedication was not solely based on raising public awareness, resisting racist laws, or even obtaining the basic protections offered to other forms of employment. He and many others who had the passion he possessed and dedicated themselves to this issue set out to empower farm workers, give them the courage to form a union or bargain with their employers for better wages and working conditions. Especially in this time where forming a union or even starting a social movement centered around struggles of the typically colored, working poor, proved all but impossible to maintain on a regular basis. But the first successful union being formed and actively succeeding accomplished what Cesar wanted it to. Movements were forming all over the country. Movements reminding people to register to vote because your voice matters, encouraging people to oppose unconstitutional laws because this is America, and of course a movement to get society to challenge stereotypes and bigotry. These social injustices were so big that it was getting harder and harder to separate injustices based on race from those based on class and racial injustice began clashing with economic injustice. This is during a time of racial violence, repression and intervention by law enforcement stamped by legislation, a wave of young activists, and a not so by-the-book judicial system.

Cesar Chavez dedicated his life to improving the horrible working conditions, pay, and treatment of farm workers. He was the founder of the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 which alongside the Agricultural Worker s Organizing Committee, held its first strike against grape growers in 1965. Chavez encouraged nonviolent means in his fight for farm workers. He fought for years against California grape growers for improved pay and working conditions. He went on hunger strikes, organized boycotts, and led marches. Even some growers signed contracts with the union providing small victories for the bigger picture. Although Chavez had weak and discouraging moments which were not discussed here, his overall impact for not only farmworkers, but for society. Chavez worked across Arizona and California gathering and inspiring people of all races and walks of life to come together and resist injustices. He voiced his disapproval of the Vietnam war, joined a gay rights protest march, and was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. Cesar changed how we define the term reform and his accomplishments deserve recognition. Everyone is entitled to feel like their efforts aren’t enough and the feeling of giving up. What matters is that we don’t give up. Chavez, known as an American labor leader and civil rights activist, accomplished much for farmworkers and will forever be remembered for his impact on society. 


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