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The Law, A Double-Edged Sword








The Fight in the Fields, Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers' Struggle tells the story of Cesar Chavez, the charismatic founder of the United Farmworkers Union, and the movement that he inspired and led.

Chavez was the most important Latino leader in this country's history. His vision reached out beyond farmworkers to touch millions of Americans from all walks of life. Chavez combined traditional Mexican American values and grass roots organizing with the nonviolent tactics of Mahatma Gandhi. The result was more than a traditional labor union - it was an all-encompassing struggle for social and economic justice. La Causa, the cause, inspired the Chicano civil rights movement and changed American society. The union's friends included Robert Kennedy, among their enemies were Ronald Reagan and the powerful Teamsters Union. At the height of the movement more than 14 million Americans supported the farmworkers' grape and lettuce boycotts, moved by Chavez' fasts and committment to nonviolence.



Cesar Chavez was born in Yuma, Arizona on March 31, 1927. His parents, Librado and Juana Chavez, owned a grocery store in Yuma, and Cesar spent his early years on the family's ranch. In 1938, his family lost the store and ranch, and joined the hundreds of thousands of dust bowl refugees heading to California. Cesar left school after the eighth grade to work with the rest of the family, following the crops north from Oxnard to San Jose. Sometimes they moved on when the job was over, and other times when his father Librado felt there was something wrong.

In the 40's the Chavez family settled in the San Jose barrio of Sal Sí Puedes, "Get out if you can." Here Chavez was introduced to the teachings of Gandhi through a local priest. He was deeply impressed with the idea of self-sacrifice to accomplish social change and sensed the potential power of nonviolence.

In 1952, Cesar met Fred Ross, an organizer with CSO, the Community Services Organization. Ross had been hired by Saul Alinsky, the Chicago-based social activist, to organize Mexican-Americans. At first Chavez tried to avoid Ross, the "gringo" outsider. But Ross persisted - he recognized the young activist's potential and began to teach him how to organize. Ross and Chavez would be lifelong friends. Ross also recruited a young schoolteacher, Dolores Huerta, and a community activist called Gilbert Padilla. Chavez rose to become president of CSO, but when he wanted the organization to work with farmworkers, they turned him down. Chavez left with Huerta and Padilla to organize a union for farmworkers.




Growers have found many ways to divide the workers, and prevent organizing. Workers are separated along racial lines. Undocumented workers are frequently employed as strikebreakers, and when all else fails violence is used against trouble-makers. Law enforcement in small rural towns is usually on the side of the wealthy and powerful, and organized labor has traditionally shown little interest in organizing the unskilled workers and minorities who make up much of the agricultural labor force.

The earliest efforts to organize farmworkers were led by the Wobblies, the International Workers of the World. They were followed by the Communist Party, and then the CIO. By 1936 industrial workers had won the right to collective bargaining, but farmworkers were left out because of opposition from southern agricultural interests.

When Cesar Chavez moved to Delano in 1962, he was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. He didn't even want to call his new organization a union. It would be a community organization. His first recruits were family members and CSO veterans, his first office a garage.



Although Chavez wanted to build the organization slowly, events forced his hand. On September 8, 1965, Filipino grape pickers in Delano went on strike. They were members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, an AFL-CIO effort. Chavez met with his National Farm Workers Association, and they voted unanimously to join the strike.

Early on, the farmworkers realized that they would need support to survive, let alone win their battle. One of the first groups to help was the church, followed by labor activists, and student activists. Chavez had read Ghandi, and believed in nonviolence, both as a philosophy, and as a effective tactic.

Images of the Union flag begin to appear in the community posters and murals that blossom in Chicano barrios throughout the Southwest. If the farmworkers could fight, then others could too!


The union got a lift when Senator Robert Kennedy came to Delano to investigate the grape strike. After questioning the Kern County Sheriff, Kennedy suggested that he read the Constitution of the United States.



The next day, a small group of grape strikers set out on a pilgrimage to the state capitol in Sacramento. Banners with the Virgin of Guadalupe lead the march, along with the Union flag - a black Aztec eagle in a white circle on a field of red. The marchers are entertained and inspired by the Teatro Campesino, the Union's theater company, started on the picket lines. This workers' theater will be the starting point for an entire Chicano theater movement.

By the time they reached Sacramento the Union had its first contract with the Schenley Corporation. The next battle was fought at the huge DiGiorgio ranch, when the NFWA and AWOC merged to form the United Farmworkers Organizing Committee, and defeat the Teamsters in a union election.



It was time for something new. Activists were sent around the country to set up a nationwide boycott of table grapes. Local boycott committees formed in every major city, running picket lines in front of supermarket chains and liquor stores.

The grape boycott gradually assumed the character of a moral crusade. The Union organizers understood that they could never win their battle in the fields alone, and that public pressure would make the difference in forcing the grape growers to negotiate.

In Delano after three years of the grape strike, militants were calling for violent measures to bring the growers to the table. Chavez, deeply committed to nonviolence, began a fast that would last for 25 days.


Thousands of farmworkers make the pilgrimage to Delano to attend mass with Chavez. His action unified the Union, and renewed its commitment to nonviolence. When Chavez ended the fast, Robert Kennedy was at his side. Six days later Kennedy announced that he was running for President. The farmworkers were the first union to support his candidacy.

The Kennedy campaign established Chavez and the Union as a major force among Mexican-American voters. On the night of the California primary, Kennedy acknowledged his victory with Dolores Huerta at his side. Moments later he was assassinated in the hotel kitchen.

Following the '68 campaign, the UFW redoubled its efforts on the boycott. Lionel Steinberg, Coachella grape grower, was the first to break ranks and sign with the Union. Finally, in April 1969, John Giumarra, the most powerful of the Delano growers, was ready to sign. Chavez insisted that he bring the rest of the Delano growers with him before the boycott will end. The contract was signed by the growers at a joyous meeting at the UFWOC headquarters, and the first grape strike and boycott was over!

What had they won? The contracts set up a Union hiring hall, eliminating the hated contractor system of employment. Union workers got higher wages, and medical benefits for the first time.




But there was no time to enjoy the victory. The day after the grape contracts were signed, the Salinas lettuce growers signed sweetheart deals with the Teamsters Union. Almost immediately, angry farmworkers poured out of the lettuce fields in what would become a general strike. On the picket lines UFWOC pickets were attacked by Teamsters. There are mass arrests, and Chavez himself went to jail, where he was visited by Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy's widow. A few companies signed contracts and the union began a national lettuce boycott against the rest of the Salinas growers.

In 1973, the UFW's grape contracts expired in the Coachella Valley. The growers sign with the Teamsters instead of renegotiating. The 1973 strikes are the most bitter and violent in the Union's history. More than 3600 supporters are arrested, and two UFW members are killed. Chavez calls off the strike. There has to be another way to win.



In the early 1970s, the rising star in California politics was Jerry Brown, Jr. His father Pat Brown had been governor when the grape strike started. After the UFW helped Jerry Brown reach the governorship in 1974, he joined forces with the UFW and the California legislature to create a law that gives California farmworkers the right to union elections and representation for the first time.

The first summer that the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act was in effect, more than 40,000 farmworkers voted in union elections. Time after time, the workers rejected the Teamsters and chose the UFW.

The farmworkers' movement seemed to have finally achieved its goal of organizing farmworkers. But the victory was not permanent. As long as there was a Democratic administration in Sacramento, things went well for the UFW. But a conservative tide was brewing in California that would soon sweep the nation. The gains made under the Brown administration rapidly unravelled when a conservative Republican replaced him in 1980. The Agricultural Labor Relations Board now sided with the growers instead of the workers. Although the UFW won over 400 elections, growers are able to stall contract negotiations for years.



The United States during the 1980's was profoundly different than in the 1960's. Activism and optimism faded at the same time, and appeals for support and help from those on the margins of society were no longer heeded. By the mid 1980's, the UFW had lost much of its momentum and many of its key organizers.

As environmental issues gained prominence, Chavez and the UFW tried to educate the public on the dangers of pesticides. Now the Union relied heavily on direct mail campaigns instead of picketlines at stores. In 1988, Cesar began a "Fast For Life", to try to re-energize the movement as he had done before. But the publicity didn't translate into new contracts.

Cesar Chavez died in his sleep on April 22, 1993, in San Luis Arizona, just a few miles from where he was born. Thirty five thousand mourners marched one last time with Cesar through the streets of Delano, carrying black and white union flags and gladiolas, the favorite flower of Helen Chavez.

In the years since Chavez' death, the UFW, now under the leadership of Arturo Rodriguez, Cesar's son-in-law, has made major advances, organizing new workers and signing new contracts. Today, the struggle to organize farmworkers continues. As Cesar Chavez was fond of saying, "Hay más tiempo que vida." (There is more time than life.)

The UFW has irrevocably altered the face of American agriculture and changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of farmworkers. For the millions of Americans whose lives were touched by the movement, it remains an affirmation of American ideals.