Building Strength: A Decade after the Death of Cesar Chavez, the Union He Founded Seeks to Preserve His Legacy of Justice for Farm Workers. (Nation)

By Jones, Arthur | National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2003 | Go to article overview

Building Strength: A Decade after the Death of Cesar Chavez, the Union He Founded Seeks to Preserve His Legacy of Justice for Farm Workers. (Nation)


Jones, Arthur, National Catholic Reporter


Cesar Chavez was buried here at La Paz 10 years ago.

Two hours out of Los Angeles, La Paz is the United Farm Workers central headquarters. The administrative center is a steel, expandable Butler building on 200-acres of rough, sandy paths, rock, tough grass, shrubs and some trees, acreage pockmarked still by a few tumbledown buildings from its 1930s heyday as a tuberculosis sanitarium.

The unincorporated hamlet of Keene is beyond Mojave (home of "the 25 cent cup of coffee" and the "$29 a night" motel), strip mall to truckers and the nearby Edwards Air Force Base. Keene, population 130, is reached by heading up out of the Mojave Desert and into the 7,000-foot Tehachapi range, snow in the wooded hollows, fine horses in lush mountain meadows, then dropping rapidly a couple of thousand feet down toward Bakersfield--"Trucks, use low gears," warn the signs--35 miles away.

Off the highway, a cracked concrete mountain road leads past Keene Eats, and the post of rice that closes for lunch, to La Paz. A few UFW families, such as president Arturo Rodriguez, live in modest homes on the land.

It's a tranquil spot. Chavez named it for Our Lady, Queen of Peace.

If alive today, Chavez would be 76. As it was, as a son of parents who lived into their 90s, Chavez's death "took us completely by surprise," said Rodriguez. "We didn't anticipate it. We didn't prepare for it--in the sense there had been no discussion as to what would happen when that day came."

Then 43, Rodriguez, B.A. St. Mary's, San Antonio, MSW University of Michigan, stepped into the shoes of the cultural icon who had mentored him for two decades. Chavez was Rodriguez's father-in-law. The young graduate first met Chavez, who was the founder of the United Farm Workers with Dolores Huerta, in 1973, after organizing boycott campaigns in Detroit. Rodriguez married Linda Chavez the following year. She died in 2000 after a long illness. The couple had three children.

"After Cesar's death on April 23, 1993," he said, "we really spent a lot of time trying to come back together again to determine what was going to happen. And how to continue what we'd inherited and make sure it moved forward into the future. The grower community `hoped and believed that with Cesar gone it would be the end of this movement."

That didn't happen. The organization, which had about 20,000 workers under contract when Chavez died, has 27,000 now. Small numbers, but then, a lot of factors conspire to keep nonunionized the nation's 1.5 million or so agricultural workers, including some 400,000 to 600,000 of them in California.

The UFW's membership height was in the 1970s, about 80,000 members, after five years of grape strikes and boycotts. That number was almost wiped out in 1973 when the growers brought in the Teamsters. (The Teamsters still have a few agricultural worker contracts, but refused to reveal details.)

Then UFW membership built up again, to mid-40,000 by the early 1980s. Sixteen years of California Republican governors and lax enforcement cut that in half, said Rodriguez.

It was Chavez, working with California Gov. Jerry Brown, who in 1975 pushed through the state's landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which established the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. The act stands alone among U.S. states as a collective bargaining beacon for agricultural workers.

The trouble was that the legislation led the growers to the bargaining table but couldn't oblige them to negotiate a contract through to signatures.

Explained Rodriguez, "We won 400-something elections and only 185 ended up with contracts, about 40 percent." Last year, under Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, the California legislature and the UFW achieved their "anti-foot dragging" legislation.

"Not only do the growers have to negotiate," said Rodriguez, "they have to settle." Now, essentially, when contract talks between growers and workers break down, mediators and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board will decide the terms. …

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