Why Cesar Chavez Led a Movement as Well as a Union

By Rodriguez, Arturo S. | Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Why Cesar Chavez Led a Movement as Well as a Union


Rodriguez, Arturo S., Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy


Today's farm worker movement continues along a different and, to some, a controversial path fulfilling Cesar E. Chavez's legacy by battling to improve the lives of farm workers and other Latino working people. We do that as both a union doggedly organizing the poorest among us and as a movement tackling broader challenges confronting our people outside the workplace.

With all the homage and recognition afforded Chavez since his passing in 1993, it is easy to forget how controversial a figure he was during his lifetime. Chavez and the movement have often been attacked, both then and now. So this look at the past and the present is timely.

There is a passage from the Book of Joel in the Bible that former U.S. President John F. Kennedy was fond of quoting: "Your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions." When Chavez began building what became the United Farm Workers (UFW) of America on his birthday, March 31, 1962, he had a different vision of what a union movement could be. Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and many others who would join him did a lot of research, studying why all the attempts to organize farm workers over the previous one-hundred years had failed. Chavez was convinced things had to be done differently if there was any hope of success.

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A big part of his strategy was understanding and recognizing that workers are not just workers. Of course, Chavez knew it would take a union to address the economic injustices farm workers suffer at the workplace. Yet in a letter Chavez sent to the head of the California Table Grape Commission in 1969, he cited the crippling obstacles farm workers faced: "The color of our skins, the languages of our cultural and native origins, the lack of formal education, the exclusion from the democratic process, the numbers of our slain in recent wars--all these burdens generation after generation have sought to demoralize us, to break our human spirit."

THE MAKINGS OF A MOVEMENT

Chavez knew it would take more than a union to overcome these burdens; it would take a movement.

So the work began.

But even the work of the union had to be different, although it closely followed the social unionism that marked the labor movement during the early part of the last century. Then, like today, many workers were also poor immigrants--mostly from Europe--who didn't speak the language, suffered discrimination, and had many needs outside the workplace. Chavez's version of trade unionism was forged by consuming books by and about figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Sidney Hillman, head of the then Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, which during the 1920s established low-cost cooperative housing, unemployment insurance, and a bank for union members. Before he won union contracts, Chavez started organizing by providing services to people. There was a death benefit, a credit union, and a cooperative gas station.

When he first talked about forming a union, Chavez realized what was really holding him back was financial security. Therefore, in 1962, as he was about to found the UFW, he took stock of himself. He was thirty-five. As staff director of the Community Service Organization (CSO), the most effective Latino civil rights group of its day, which Chavez helped build, Cesar was experiencing his first steady job and paycheck since being a migrant farm worker.

Cesar and his wife, Helen, knew the risks and long odds against success. Helen worried about their eight young children. But Chavez saw what he called "the trap most people get themselves into--tying themselves to a job for security." So Chavez quit his CSO post and moved to Delano, CA, with Helen and their eight children, ages thirteen to three-and-a-half. On weekends, Helen worked in the fields, along with Cesar and their children, to support the family. Cesar babysat the youngest children as he drove to agricultural towns, recruiting farm workers into his infant union. …

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