Yes He Did: What Barack Obama Learned from Cesar Chavez

Article excerpt

Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century

by Randy Shaw

University of California Press, 368 pp.


For the record, "Yes we can" emerged as a slogan later and less deliberately than one might think. The year was 1972, three years after Cesar Chavez had appeared on the cover of Time magazine and two years after he had led farmworkers to a major victory against grape producers in California. Chavez was in Arizona trying to reverse a law prohibiting strikes by farmworkers during harvest time. Supporters of Chavez told him the law couldn't be repealed. "No se puede," they said. Dolores Huerta, a colleague of Chavez's, disagreed. "Si! Si se puede," she insisted. After hearing Huerta's words, Chavez anointed Si se puede! as his new rallying cry. Or so the story goes. In any case, the skeptics turned out to be right: No, no se puede, at least in Arizona. The law remained in effect. Still, a potent motto had been coined.

While the origins of Si se puede may be linked to failure, the slogan is arguably no less powerful for it. The verb phrase (in Spanish) is "can be done," not "will be done." Success isn't guaranteed or even likely. It's simply possible. And that's compelling in itself. Given the force of the catchphrase, it's odd that no major politician adopted it until Barack Obama came up with a "Yes we can" campaign in 2008. It's also fitting that Obama wound up drawing heavily on the lessons and methods employed by Chavez four decades earlier.

Cesar Chavez was born in Yuma, Arizona, in 1927. His father, a farm owner, was unable to hold on to his land during the Great Depression, and the family moved to California, finding work in the fields. It was miserable, naturally. Cesar went on to other things, serving in the Navy in World War II, working as a community organizer in the 1950s, and founding the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. The NFWA would later merge with another agricultural group (the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee) and become the United Farm Workers.

In 1965 Chavez started organizing California's agricultural laborers in earnest. The United States had recently done away with a program in which foreign temporary workers, called braceros, would be shipped in from Mexico each year to pick crops during harvesttime. Having braceros out of the picture made organizing U.S. farmworkers much more feasible. But the challenge was still formidable. Most people toiling in the fields were uneducated, fearful, and reluctant to take any chances with what little pay they earned. Also, U.S. labor law exempted (and still exempts) farmers from work rules that prevailed in other industries under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Unlike, say, steelworkers, farmworkers couldn't organize using ordinary union elections.

Instead of being daunted by the absence of numerous FLSA protections, though, Chavez and his coworkers saw opportunities. Their weapon was the boycott, and their target was table grapes--along with any entity that helped make table grapes available to the public. For union workers covered by the FLSA, "secondary boycotts" of this sort are illegal. A unionized steelworker, for instance, can go on strike against her employer, but she may not call for a boycott of Sears for carrying products made with steel from her plant. Farmworker unions, not protected by the FLSA, are exempt from that kind of restriction. Taking advantage of this, the UFW sent volunteers across the country to pressure every supermarket possible to stop offering nonunion grapes. The campaign took off, and, during the late 1960s, conscientious liberals all over the country steered clear of the forbidden fruit. Chavez, an admirer of Gandhi and a devout Catholic, consistently advocated (and practiced) nonviolence, earning himself national adulation and visits from public figures such as Bobby Kennedy. …