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Cesar E. Chavez, the Farm Worker Leader, honored with a California Legal Holiday

by Evelina Alarcon

Excerpts from a Statement issued in August 2000 after the Cesar Chavez holiday bill was signed into law.

Cesar Estrada Chavez, the late founder and president of the United Farm Workers of America, had deep confidence in the ability of people to move mountains of injustice. In fact, under his leadership, farm workers moved the agribusiness mountain and won the first union contracts for agricultural workers in the grape fields.

The Mexican American labor leader was a humble man who gave of himself unselfishly to the cause of farm workers and all workers. He championed the cause of equality for Latinos like no one else. His courage in the face of some of our nation’s most powerful industries inspired generations of all races and nationalities to fight the good fight.

Millions followed Cesar Chavez on his journey which won monumental gains for farm workers, for civil rights, political representation for racial minorities and environmental justice. These achievements place him as one of the most outstanding leaders of the twentieth century.

On August 18th, the state of California recognized that legacy when Governor Gray Davis signed into law the creation of an official state holiday which will be celebrated starting in 2001 on Cesar Chavez’s birthday March 31st. Also established will be a Cesar Chavez day of learning and service in the state’s public schools where the state’s youth will be taught about Cesar and his union. This is the first time in the United States that a Latino or labor leader has ever received this tribute.

The historic legislation SB984, introduced by State Senator Richard Polanco (D), would not have passed the legislature without the coming together of thousands upon thousands of people in California who demanded that their hero be honored in this way. It was a passionate and deep felt movement which rose up from the workplace and community. The grassroots whose lives Cesar touched rallied because they wanted to thank Cesar for what he had given them. They wanted their children to learn of Cesar and his union so that they and the generations to come might live their lives like his.

The holiday campaign was a labor of love to a working class David who fought the agribusiness Goliath and won. Cesar made us proud to be workers, proud to be in unions, proud of our multitude of races and nationalities.

Throughout the holiday campaign, over and over we heard personal stories of how Cesar’s life inspired and empowered. For Latinos, Cesar Chavez was a Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr or Mahatma Ghandi. He elevated the aspirations of an entire people.

At the same time, Cesar Chavez was admired by all races, nationalities, all ages, men and women alike. He helped all of us to stand tall with dignity and to unite as we organize against economic injustice, racial, sexual and anti immigrant discrimination.

Even children who had learned of Cesar and the farm workers union from their parents or in their classrooms wrote moving letters to their state legislators on behalf of the holiday.

The roots of Cesar Chavez’s organizing are deeply embedded in the Latino community and the class struggle of America. The rallying words of Cesar and the UFW, “Si Se Puede!” can be heard across the nation.

When Cesar Chavez demanded union contracts, decent wages and safe working conditions, he extended the possibility for victory to all workers across the nation. He elevated the bar for equality and unity. He gave hope to the poor and under represented.

"Our opponents in the agricultural industry are very powerful and farm workers are still weak in money and influence. But we have another kind of power that comes from the justice of our cause. So long as we are willing to sacrifice for that cause, so long as we persist in non-violence and work to spread the message of our struggle, then millions of people around the world will respond from their heart, will support our efforts...and in the end we will overcome." ...Cesar Chavez

Cesar E. Chavez’s life

Cesar Chavez was born on a small farm near Yuma Arizona on March 31, 1927. After being forced off their farm during the Depression, Cesar’s family moved to California in 1937 where they became migrant workers. Cesar was 10 years old when he began working in the fields. He was forced to leave school after graduating from the eighth grade in order to help support his family.

In 1945, he fought the good fight against fascism as he joined the U.S. Navy serving in the western Pacific during the end of World War II. In 1948, he married Helen Fabela and raised eight children in East San Jose where he and his wife taught farm workers to read and write so they could become U.S. citizens.

Chavez first became an organizer for the Community Service Organization, a barrio based group in 1952. He became a coordinator for voter registration drives and fought racial and economic discrimination. Later at the end of the ‘50’s, he was to become CSO’s national director. In 1962, when the organization would not more seriously commit itself to farm worker organizing, Chavez resigned and moved his family to Delano, California and with Dolores Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), the predecessor to the United Farm Workers.

In September 1965, his 1,200 member organization joined the Filipino members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) strike against Delano area table and wine grape growers. Over 5,000 workers walked off their jobs in the famous “Delano Grape Strike”. The two organizations NFWA and AWOC merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Commitee.

In 1968, with the strike in danger of being lost, Cesar decided to call on America to support the strike by organizing a boycott of grapes. Carrying their red flags with black eagles on them to cities across the nation, union organizers rallied millions of Americans in support of the boycott and brought together a national coalition of unions, faith based groups, students, racial minorities and consumers to support the farm workers.

It was the beginning of La Causa, a powerful movement for economic and social justice which used the boycott and picket as their weapon. Cesar himself was a tireless campaigner who rallied throughout the country.

"We have suffered unnumbered ills and crimes in the name of the Law of the Land. Our men, women and children have suffered not only the basic brutality of stoop labor, and the most obvious injustices of the system; they have also suffered the desperation of knowing that the system caters to the greed of callous men and not to our needs. Now we will suffer for the purpose of ending the poverty, the misery, and the injustice, with the hope that our children will not be exploited as we have been. They have imposed hungers on us, and now we hunger for justice." ...Cesar E. Chavez

In 1966 Cesar Chavez led a 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento calling on state government to pass laws which would permit farm workers to organize into a union and allow collective bargaining agreements. In 1968, he went on a water only fast in order to reaffirm the strikes committment to non violence.

One month before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent this telegram to Cesar Chavez during his fast, "As brothers in the fight for equality, I extend the hand of fellowship and good will and wish continuing success to you and your members...You and your valiant fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people. We are together with you in spirit and in determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized."

After 25 days of fasting Cesar received the pledges to non violence that he sought. By his side when he stopped his fast was Senator Robert F. Kennedy who called Chavez “one of the heroic figures of our times”.

By 1970, through 5 years of hard fought battles in the fields and organizing public pressure through a boycott where millions of Americans stopped eating grapes, the UFW did what most thought was impossible. They had forced the powerful grape growers to accept union contracts for the first time.

In 1975, Cesar Chavez called for a new international boycott of grapes and once again millions honored the UFW cause. A national poll at the time estimated that 17 million citizens participated in the boycott. That same year, the UFW made history once again by winning legislation which outlawed the short handled hoe and the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) which was the first law governing farm labor organizing in the continental United States.

By the 1980’s tens of thousands of farm workers had won UFW contracts with higher wages, family health coverage, pension benefits and other protections. Child labor was challenged, sexual harassment of women workers fought, campaigns against pesticides were all integral to the UFW battles.

With the election of Republican Governor George Deukmejian who had received more than $1 million from grower campaign donations, the political climate quickly changed for farmworkers. The Governor ceased to enforce the ALRA. Chavez called another grape boycott. A boycott of lettuce would soon follow.

In July and August of 1988, Cesar again conducted a 36 day “Fast for Life” to protest pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their children. Cesar Chavez completed his 36-day Fast for Life on August 21, 1988. The Reverend Jesse Jackson took up the fast when Cesar stopped, fasting on water for three days before passing on the fast to celebrities and leaders.

The fast was passed to Martin Sheen, actor; the Reverend J. Lowery, President Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Edward James Olmos, actor; Emilio Estevez, actor; Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert Kennedy, Peter Chacon, legislator, Julie Carmen, actress; Danny Glover, actor; Carly Simon, singer; and Whoopi Goldberg, actress.

Cesar Chavez and the UFW were a unique union which combined traditional unionism with a people’s movement. The labor/community coalition strategy was utilized almost from the beginning by the UFW. Chavez and the UFW were pioneers on the issue of environmental justice combining the struggles against pesticides which harm workers to the fight for a safe food supply for all America. The UFW were also champions of voter registration, get out the vote and civil rights.

“The U.F.W. has always had to be something more than a union. Because our people are so poor. Because the color of our skin is dark. Because we often don't speak the language. Because the discrimination, the racism and the social dilemmas we confront transcend mere economic need.” ...Cesar Chavez

On April 23, 1993 Cesar Chavez died in his sleep near Yuma, Arizona at the age of 66. He was in the middle of helping UFW attorneys defend the union against a lawsuit brought by Bruce Church Inc., a giant Salinas, California based lettuce and vegetable producer. Church demanded that the farm workers pay millions of dollars in damages resulting from a UFW boycott of its lettuce during the 1980's.

"Cesar gave his last ounce of strength defending the farm workers in this case," stated his successor, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, who had been with him in Arizona during the trial. When the second multi million dollar judgment for Church was later thrown out, the company signed a UFW contract in May 1996.

Over 40,000 marched behind the plain pine casket at Cesar Chavez’s funeral honoring an extraordinary man who gave so much so that we all might live better.

Winning a holiday in California is only the beginning of our recognition of the life of Cesar Chavez. We are now on the road to organize for a national holiday. Cesar Chavez taught us Si Se Puede....that with organization, unity and a willingness to sacrifice that our cause could be won. It won’t be easy but we will win this.

"There's no turning back...We will win. We are winning because ours is a revolution of mind and heart."....Cesar Chavez

 

Evelina Alarcon was the state coordinator of the Cesar E. Chavez California holiday campaign in 2000. She is currently the Executive Director of Cesar E. Chavez National Holiday.