Senator Robert Kennedy (D-NY) called him “one of the heroic figures of our time.” He was Cesar Chavez, the founder of the United Farmworkers of America (UFWA) who passed away in his sleep in San Luis, Arizona, doing what he has been doing for over 40 years — organizing and defending the migrant farm workers who harvest much of the nation’s food.
Untiring, incorruptible, unassuming, almost “spiritual”, the man who once was a migratory farm laborer with his parents and siblings, placed before the nation’s conscience the health, safety and economic plight of the farm laborers as no one has ever done in our history. During the Sixties, migrant workers struck, sang and organized their way upward to minimum levels of wages and rights, led by Chavez and his legions of $5 per week plus room and board associates.
Early on, Chavez read the non-violent philosophy of Mahatma Ghandi and the Indian leader’s consumer boycott strategies. Starting in California, with the help of may celebrities and some national political figures, Chavez began his grape boycott against the growers. The growers became nasty, but could not provoke the farm workers into anything other than peaceful marches and demonstrations.
The growers then invited the Teamsters to sign what Chavez called “sweetheart” contracts for farm workers in order to undermine the UFWA. This was one of the most worrisome periods for Chavez, but the Teamsters abandoned the efforts after the AFL‑CIO used its good offices to help Chavez in this situation.
Although Chavez showed organized labor how a labor leader should lead — by example and by reaching out to the media, consumer and civil rights groups and anyone who could help — most of the traditional unions were cool to the farm workers cause.
In 1975, Governor Jerry Brown got through the California state legislature a collective bargaining law for farmworkers (who had been exempted from the nation’s labor law coverage). There followed an expansion of farmworkers in the UFWA. But in the Eighties, with a hostile Governor and President and a loss of interest in the farmworkers causes among former constituencies, especially the media, membership declined. Grape boycotts were not working as well.
Undeterred, Chavez, developed a fundraising operation through the mails, purchased two radio stations to communicate with farmworkers directly and fought on. Frustrated by the growers intransigence and their expanded use of illegal immigrants whom they exploited, Chavez announced he was fasting in protest about three years ago.
The media was not interested anymore in his fasts. Losing weight and strength by his 29th day without food, Chavez refused to listen to his closest friends and stop. I called a television network to ask them to give Chavez’s fast and cause a few minutes on the evening news. The producer said: “call me back when he reaches 37 days.”
Friends of Cesar Chavez are convinced he damaged his health seriously with that final fast. It may well have contributed to his death this month. It will also contribute to the legacy of self-sacrifice and commitment to his life’s mission that will inspire future generations. Someone like Cesar Chavez does not come along very often in the labor movement. But, his personal style of leadership and strategies will endure.