César Chávez: 1927-1993: Labor leader
From his birth into brutal poverty as the son of Mexican immigrants, César Estrada Chávez dedicated his life to improving the lot of migrant farm workers in the United States. Through his courage and devotion to "La Causa," he created the first union to successfully represent the interest of the farm laborers who had for generations been exploited because of poverty, ignorance, and racism. Although his first strike, in 1965 against California grape growers, was unsuccessful in its immediate aims, Chávez drew national attention to the abysmal living and working conditions endured by many migrant workers in Arizona, Texas, Florida, and California. In his role as the founder of the United Farm Workers labor union, Chávez marshaled grassroots support, and by the 1970s had motivated Americans from all walks of life to join in protests and boycotts in support of agricultural workers. After his union joined the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and he became executive director, Chávez broadened his support to environmental hazards in the workplace. His tireless efforts during the mid-twentieth century also made Chávez one of the first national role models for Hispanic Americans, who had until then been invisible to the U.S. media.
Grew Up In Poverty
"A few men and women have engraved their names in the annals of change through nonviolence," Arthur Jones wrote in an eulogy of Chávez published in the National Catholic Reporter, "but none have experienced the grinding childhood poverty that Chávez did." Indeed, Chávez's ability to represent the interests of migrant workers so effectively was a direct result of his early life. Born in Yuma, Arizona, in 1927, his earliest memories coincided with the Great Depression where, as one of five children born to farmers Librado and Juana Chávez, he experienced incredible privation. His parents, whose families had immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the wake of the country's political upheaval during the first decades of the 20th century, ran a small farm near Yuma until the Depression forced them out of business.
When Chávez was ten the bank foreclosed on his father, forcing the Chávez family to travel from farm to farm during the harvest season in search of work. In this manner they arrived in California in 1939, competing for back-breaking, low-paying jobs with thousands of other men, women, and children who lived in their cars or found temporary shelter in the tin shacks characteristic of migrant labor camps. Growing up in this type of life—working sometimes for as little as eight cents an hour and surviving the winter with no shoes and barely enough to eat—the Chávez children did not receive a regular education, and by César's recollection, he attended over 35 different segregated schools before abandoning his education after the seventh grade to work full-time. However, his parents gave him a firm grounding in the Catholic faith, which helped him endure and overcome the circumstances of his childhood.
At a Glance . . .
Born March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona; died April 23, 1993, in San Luis, Arizona; married; eight children. Education: Attended public schools until age 12. Religion: Roman Catholic. Military Service: U.S. Navy, 1944-45.
Career: Community Service Organization, field operative, then state director, 1952-62; National Farm Workers Association (later United Farm Workers Operations Committee), founder and director, 1962-93.
In 1939 the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began to send union organizers out into the fields near San Jose, California, where Chávez and his family worked, in an attempt to organize the region's dried-fruit industry workers. Librado Chávez and his brother risked their jobs and courageously joined other workers in picket lines. Although the CIO's efforts ultimately failed, Librado's belief in the power of workers banding together to improve their lot inspired his son, who joined the National Agricultural Workers Union in 1946. Because of the itinerant habits, grueling hours, and fear of reprisals endured by migrant workers, this union joined with several other agricultural labor unions in unsuccessful efforts to achieve solidarity among farm workers.
During World War II Chávez joined the U.S. Navy and spent two years in the service. In 1945 he returned to California and to his life as a migrant worker. Three years later, at age 21, he married Helen Fabela, with whom he had eight children. Determined to break with his migrant past, Chávez put down roots in Delano and worked at local farms.
Risked Life Savings to Form Union
As a farm worker with a wife and growing family, Chávez's frustration over his treatment as a farm worker and the legacy he would leave his children inspired him to take up the union cause again. Through Catholic Father Donald McDonnell, Chávez met union recruiter Fred Ross in 1952. This meeting sparked his active involvement in organized labor and his ten-year work on behalf of the Community Service Organization (CSO). Because he was himself a field worker, Chávez was effective in setting up local chapters of the CSO in ways that previous union organizers—such as politicians, clergymen, and intellectuals—had not been able to do. Working to build rural CSO membership through voter registration drives and assisting the organization's Mexican and Mexican-American members with immigration- and welfare-related issues, Chávez rose in the organization to the position of statewide director. Still convinced that unionization was the best way to solve the problems of CSO members, Chávez ultimately left his post in 1962 after the CSO balked at supporting a farm workers union. Risking $900 of his own money, he formed the Farm Workers Association (FWA), basing the fledgling organization in his home in Delano, California.
Chávez traveled from farm to farm throughout the rich agricultural valleys of southern California, working to convince migrant workers to join the FWA. A passionate and convincing speaker, he saw membership grow and, with the support of local Catholic priests and civil rights lawyers, he was soon able to assist workers in labor negotiations with growers in the fertile Imperial and San Joaquin valleys. Within three years FWA membership was almost 2,000; the union was now in a position to negotiate for wage increases among the region's smaller growers. In the fall of 1965 the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC)—a small arm of the AFL-CIO led by Larry Itliang that represented the many Filipino grape pickers who had entered California beginning in the 1930s—went on strike against growers in Delano. They asked Chávez and his union to join them in solidarity. While Chávez knew his small union could not effectively strike on its own, it could be effective in helping the AWOC. His call to FWA members to strike for "La Causa" marked a pivotal point in union history.
Inspired by his own strong Catholic principles as well as the nonviolence practiced by leaders such as India's Mahatmas Gandhi and black civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Chávez and AWOC leaders used picket lines, a nationwide consumer boycott, and protest rallies as weapons in their economic war against agricultural interests. An outdoor mass or small prayer session preceded union marches and strike activity. In the spring of 1967, Chávez led a 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento. By the time he and the 65 original farm workers reached Sacramento 25 days later, they had been joined by 10,000 supporters and attracted the attention of Americans all across the nation. Catching the momentum of the social protest movement that had been fueled by both the civil rights movement and disputes over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Chávez's cause brought together blue collar workers and college students, Blacks and Latinos, Catholics and Jews, and even prompted participation from America's middle class. In addition, radicalized young people of the barrios viewed Chávez and his cause as a crusade for La Raze—the Hispanic race.
In 1966, mid-strike, the FWA merged with the AFLCIO to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). With the power of the nation's largest labor organization behind him, Chávez was able to negotiate labor agreements with Gallo and Christian Bros. wineries, acquiring better wages, pension and medical benefits, and better living conditions for those who worked the fields. Unfortunately, more powerful concerns with the money to ride out the effects of the strike refused to come to the bargaining table. In early 1968 Chávez spearheaded a new boycott, this time levied at the prime resisters: table grape growers—growers who produced 90% of the edible grapes consumed in the United States. Grape sales dropped 12% nationwide as a result.
In 1969, as "La huelga"—the strike—entered its fourth year and violence began to escalate, California's Catholic bishops attempted to aid in the negotiations through their ad hoc Committee on Farm Labor, with Msgr. Cardinal Roger Mahony attending negotiations between the two parties. Other supporters included U.S. congressmen Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy and the leadership of both the United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO. Due to Chávez's ability to marshal members in highly visible ways, the strike received extensive coverage by the national press, with many publications pressing for a resolution in favor of the workers.
Began Hunger Strike
Mirroring Gandhi and his promotion of passive resistance, in the midst of the boycott, Chávez embarked upon 25 days of fasting as a way to publicize his boycott around the country, and also staged protest marches as far away as Texas and other agriculture-based states that employed migrant labor. In July of 1970, 26 growers signed agreements with the UFWOC, and within a few months over 80% of the table growers had entered into union contracts with their workers, establishing equitable wages and improving living conditions. Crediting his fast for promoting the UFWOC's final negotiations, Chávez repeated the technique in later union efforts, saying in the National Catholic Reporter: "I am convinced that the truest act of courage … is to sacrifice ourselves in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice."
With its first battle won, in 1970 the UFWOC focused its attention on iceberg lettuce growers in Arizona and Salinas, California, where lettuce pickers worked in unreasonable conditions for little money. Despite the collusion between growers, large corporations, and members of the Teamsters Union—then expelled from the AFL-CIO and acting independently—to derail UFWOC efforts, Chávez's initiation of a strike and nationwide boycott of California lettuce in September of 1970 ultimately brought the growers to the table—and left Chávez briefly jailed in violation of a court order against such action.
The publicity surrounding Chávez's arrest illustrated to the nation the high-pressure tactics used by growers who allied with the Teamsters as a way to undermine the efforts of UFWOC operators. One result of his arrest was the passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which created the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. From then on union organizers had access to the field, and workers had the right to a secret ballot in union elections. Within two years the UFWOC had been legitimized; it had contracts with 147 growers and represented 50,000 farm workers.
Pressured by Larger Labor Union
Although they were able to get initial contracts with major agricultural concerns, the UFWOC had difficulty in renewing them. Throughout the 1970s, as these labor contracts came up for renewal, the Teamsters Union—then the largest labor union in the country—continued to bypass Chávez and his group and negotiate directly with California's largest growers. Ultimately, the AFL-CIO interceded and in 1979 the Teamsters agreed to cease its efforts to organize field hands; instead, it focused on canners, packers and truck drivers. By the early 1980s, at its peak, the UFWOC counted close to 100,000 agricultural workers among its members.
In 1982, after the governorship of the state of California passed into new hands, the relationship between labor and government became less amicable. As a result, unions were no longer given input into legislation regarding labor matters, the pro-labor provisions of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act were eradicated through legislative means, and competition between the AFL-CIO, Chávez's UFWOC, and other small unions became more intense. It was clear to Chávez that his union had lost its ability to enact positively on the lives of its members, and a declining membership base confirmed his assessment. In addition, his primary activities—boycotts, protest marches, and negotiations—were reactive, while union growth required a membership base gained only through converts in the fields.
Dissent, Changing Times Diminished Union Power
Looking for a way in which he could continue to make a difference in the lives of agricultural workers, Chávez focused on health issues: the consequences of pesticide exposure on those people working in the fields. A four-year boycott of California-grown table grapes and a 36-day fast by Chávez in 1988 both helped focus national attention on irresponsible pesticide use, but times had changed. While some environmentalists supported the UFWOC's efforts, organizations such as the Sierra Club refused. The generation that had supported Chávez and his efforts during the 1970s was older and less liberal-minded now, and the boycott was not powerful enough to enact the changes Chávez desired. In addition, the UFWOC was increasingly embroiled in legislative issues, while its power struggle with the Teamsters had also drained its political energies. By the late 1980s union membership had fallen to 20,000.
Chávez continued to dedicate himself to La Causa for the remainder of his life. He died near the Arizona town where he was born, on April 23, 1993, at age sixty-six. As a testimony to the effects of his efforts, over 30,000 mourners joined his four-mile funeral procession six days later, many viewing him as "a national metaphor of justice, humanity, equality, and freedom," according to Richard A. García in Pacific Historical Review. Pope John Paul II, President Bill Clinton, and the president of Mexico also sent representatives to honor Chávez, who had become a symbol of not only the accomplishments of organized labor but also of Mexican Americans.
During the decade following Chávez's death, his efforts continued to be recognized. The César E. Chávez Foundation, founded in 1993 with the help of the Chávez family, is dedicated to promoting his life and the spirit of La Causa. 1999 saw the Texas House of Representatives pass a bill honoring Chávez and establishing March 31st (his birthday) as a state holiday. In 2001 the state of California honored him by marking March 30th as the annual César E. Chávez Day, the first celebration of which brought the state's governor, Cardinal Mahony, Ethel Kennedy, and other notables together in the labor leader's memory. In a New Yorker eulogy, novelist Peter Matthiessen wrote of Chávez: "Self sacrifice lay at the very heart of the devotion he inspired, and gave dignity and hope not only to farmworkers but to every one of the Chicano people, who saw for themselves what one brave man, indifferent to his own health and welfare, could accomplish."
Ferriss, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement, Harcourt, Brace, 1997.
Griswold del Castillo, Richard, and Richard A. Garcia, César Chávez: A Life of Struggle and Sacrifice, Norman, 1995.
Kanellos, Nicolás, editor, Hispanic-American Almanac, Gale, 1993.
Levy, Jacques E., César Chávez: Autobiography of La Causa, W. W. Norton, 1975.
Meister, Dick, and Anne Loftis, A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America's Farm Workers, 1977.
Legends in Their Own Time, Prentice-Hall, 1994.
Taylor, Ronald B., Chávez and the Farm Workers, Beacon Press, 1975.
America, May 22, 1993, p. 4.
Christian Century, May 12, 1993, pp. 513-14.
Commonweal, June 4, 1993.
Nation, July 26-August 2, 1993, pp. 130-35.
National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1993, pp. 5-7, 28.
New Republic, November 25, 1985.
Newsweek, May 3, 1993; July 24, 2000.
New Yorker, May 17, 1993, p. 82.
Pacific Historical Review, February 1, 1999; May, 1994.
People, September 5, 1988, p. 52.
PR Newswire, March 30, 2001.
Progressive, July 1992, p. 14.
Time, July 4, 1969, pp. 16-22; May 3, 1993.
—P. L. Shelton
"Chávez, Cé." Contemporary Hispanic Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/chavez-ce
"Chávez, Cé." Contemporary Hispanic Biography. . Retrieved February 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/chavez-ce
Chávez, César Estrada
CHÁVEZ, CÉSAR ESTRADA
César Estrada Chávez, the son of Mexican American farm workers, became a well-known labor leader, founding the united farm workers (UFW) union, which led a massive grape boycott across the United States during the 1960s. Chávez won wage increases, benefits, and legal protections for migrant farm workers in the western United States and fought to have dangerous pesticides outlawed.
Chávez was born March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona, one of five children in a family that lived on a small farm for a time. When he was a child, the family was pushed onto the road as migrant laborers when Chávez's parents lost the family farm during the Great Depression. Later, he often spoke of what he felt was the unjust way in which his family had lost their property through foreclosure. Chávez never went beyond the eighth grade, and he once said that he had attended over 60 elementary schools because of his family's constant search for work in the fields.
Chávez was exposed to labor organizing as a young boy, when his father and uncle joined a dried-fruit industry union during the late 1930s. The young Chávez was deeply impressed when the workers later went on strike. At age 19, Chávez himself picketed cotton fields but watched the union fail in its efforts to organize the workers.
After serving in the U.S. Navy during world war ii, he returned to California, where he married a woman named Helen Fabela. In 1952, the Los Angeles headquarters of organizer Saul Alinsky's Community Service Organization (CSO) decided to set up a chapter in San Jose, California, to work for civil rights for the area's Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants. A parish priest supplied several names to CSO organizer Fred Ross, including that of Chávez, who was then living in one of San Jose's poorest and toughest neighborhoods—Sal Si Puedes (leave, if you can). Ross believed that Chávez could be the best grassroots leader he had ever encountered, so he sought Chávez out and eventually convinced him to join the group's efforts. Chávez began as a volunteer in a CSO voter registration drive and a few months later was hired as a staff member. He spent the next ten years leading voter registration drives throughout the San Joaquin Valley and advocating for Mexican immigrants who complained of mistreatment by police officers, immigration authorities, and welfare officials.
Chávez believed that unionizing was the only chance for farm workers to improve their working conditions. He resigned in 1962, increasingly frustrated because the CSO would not become involved in forming a farm workers' union. He immediately established the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the UFW, an affiliate of the american federation of labor and congress of industrial organizations (AFL-CIO). At the UFW's first meeting in September 1962, in Fresno, California, Chávez's cousin, Manuel Chávez, unveiled the flag that he and Chávez had designed for the new union—a black Aztec eagle in a white circle on a bold red background. The banner soon became the symbol of the farm workers' struggle.
When Chávez founded the UFW, field workers in California averaged $1.50 per hour, received no benefits, and had no methods by which to challenge their employers. Under Chávez's leadership, the UFW won tremendous
wage increases and extensive benefits for farm workers, including medical and unemployment insurance and workers' compensation.A strict believer in nonviolence, Chávez used marches, boycotts, strikes, fasts, and civil disobedience to force growers in California's agricultural valleys to the bargaining table. In 1968, Filipino grape pickers in Delano, California, struck for higher wages; several days later, the UFW joined the strike and initiated a boycott of California grapes. More than 200 union supporters traveled across the United States and into Canada, urging consumers not to buy California grapes. The mayors of New York, Boston, Detroit, and St. Louis announced that their cities would not buy nonunion grapes. By August 1968, California grape growers estimated that the boycott had cost them about 20 percent of their expected revenue. The boycott brought Chávez to the attention of national political leaders, including U.S. Senator robert f. kennedy, who sought the democratic party nomination for president before his assassination in 1968. Kennedy described Chávez as a heroic figure. In 1970, after its successful boycott, the UFW signed contracts with the grape growers.
"Our struggle is not easy … But we have something the rich do not own. We have our bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons."
In 1975, Chávez had a great success when the strongest law ever enacted to protect farm workers, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (Cal. Lab. Code § 1140 et seq. [West]), was passed by the California Legislature. This law gave workers the right to bargain collectively and the right to seek redress for unfair labor practices. Other regulations banned the use of tools that caused crippling back injuries, such as the short-handled hoe, and required growers to give workers breaks and to provide toilets and fresh water in the fields. Chávez was among the first to link workers' health problems to pesticides. He negotiated union contracts that prohibited growers from using DDT, and he targeted five leading pesticides that cause birth defects or kill upon contact.
At its peak during the 1970s the UFW had over 70,000 members. During the early 1980s, the UFW's influence began to wane and union membership dipped below ten thousand. Chávez blamed the decline in part on the election of Republican governors, who sided with the growers. In addition, Chávez decided to turn his efforts toward conducting boycotts rather than organizing workers, a move that was widely criticized and caused a split among the union's members. Chávez was also forced to defend himself against lawsuits stemming from UFW actions taken years before. In 1991, the union lost a $2.4 million case when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear its appeal. The case stemmed from a 1979 Imperial Valley strike in which a farm worker was shot and killed (Maggio, Inc. v. United Farm Workers of America, 227 Cal. App. 3d 847, 278 Cal. Rptr. 250 [Cal. App. 1991], cert. denied, 502 U.S. 863, 112 S. Ct. 187, 116 L. Ed. 2d 148 ).
In April 1993, Chávez returned to San Luis, a small town near his native Yuma, Arizona, to testify in the retrial of a lawsuit brought by Bruce Church, Inc., a large Salinas, California–based producer of iceberg lettuce. At the time Chávez testified, Bruce Church had extensive landholdings in Arizona and California, including the acreage east of Yuma that Chávez's parents had once owned. The company had won a $5.4 million judgment for alleged damage caused by union boycotts, but an appellate court over-turned the judgment and sent the case back to the trial court (Bruce Church, Inc. v. United Farm Workers of America, 816 P. 2d 919 [Ariz. App. 1991]). On April 22, Chávez finished his second day of testimony in Yuma County Superior Court. He returned to spend the night at the home of a family friend and died in his sleep.
Following Chávez's death, Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, described the leader as instrumental in organized labor's efforts to improve the lot of the worker. "Always, César had conveyed hope and determination, especially to minority workers, in the daily struggle against injustice and hardship," Kirkland said. "The improved lives of millions of farm workers and their families will endure as a testimonial to César and his life's work."
In a 1984 speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Chávez said, "Regardless of what the future holds for our union, regardless of what the future holds for farm workers, our accomplishment cannot be undone. The consciousness and pride that were raised by our union are alive and thriving inside millions of young Hispanics who will never work on a farm."
Etulain, Richard W., ed. 2002. Cesar Chavez: A Brief Biography with Documents New York: Palgrav.
Houle, Michelle, ed. 2003. Cesar Chavez. San Diego, Calif: Greenhaven Press.
Matthiessen, Peter. 1969. Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution. New York: Random House.
Tracy, Kathleen. 2003. Cesar Chavez. Bear, Del.: Mitchell Lane.
"Chávez, César Estrada." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chavez-cesar-estrada
"Chávez, César Estrada." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Retrieved February 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chavez-cesar-estrada
Chávez, César 1927-1993
Of Mexican American ancestry, César Estrada Chávez was born in Yuma, Arizona, with deep roots in the American Southwest. He was the second-born child of Librado Chávez and Juana Estrada, whose families were displaced from their land, much like many other Mexicans who were tricked by attorneys, had their loans rejected because others coveted their land, or lost their land as a result of owing back taxes. On August 29, 1937, the Arizona state government took possession of the Chávez family’s land, and later auctioned it off to the bank president who had refused the elder Chávez a loan to reclaim his property (La Botz 2006, p. 7; see also Montejano 1987 for a discussion of land displacement). The loss of their land forced the family to work in the agricultural fields of Arizona, and later in California’s San Joaquin Valley, beginning when César was just a child of ten. As migrants, the family struggled under the most difficult of conditions, including grossly substandard pay. Despite having only an eighth-grade education, Chávez served in the Navy during World War II (1939-1945). After two years of service, he returned to grueling agricultural work; there was not much else available for a man who lacked a formal education and whose employment options were limited by racism.
Chávez’s organizing career began as a result of a stint with the Community Services Organization (CSO), where he worked under the guidance of Fred Ross and Father Donald McDonnell in San José, California. After two years of struggle with CSO’s board, who refused to support many of his proposals, Chávez set out on his own to organize the agricultural workers’ union, using strategies he developed through his work with CSO, and guided by insights gained from personal experience of oppressive work conditions. Chávez patiently and systematically devised nonviolent strategies, such as the secondary boycott, which targeted specific businesses that bought goods from growers who refused to negotiate with or recognize the union. He also used fasting to highlight the shameful conditions under which farmworkers labored.
Chávez forged alliances with Filipinos and other workers of color and their families to organize the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, which later became the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA). His ability to work in coalition with people of other faiths and political persuasions created lifelong partnerships, including with Gilbert Padilla and Dolores Huerta, who like him had been influenced by the pragmatic philosophy of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. Together the three organized the first table boycott and negotiated a contract with the Schenely Corporation, signed on April 7, 1966. This agreement marked the success of a national campaign that was carried out by the farmworkers themselves. Their effort also pointed the way toward the formation of national alliances with Democratic and liberal politicians, and drew the support of the United Auto Worker’s Union, as well as competition from the Teamsters Union, after the Schenely Corporation brought Teamsters to the negotiating table. Later, the Teamsters would vie for contracts against the UFW.
Through his life work, Chávez created a revolution in agriculture and inspired the birth of the Chicano civil rights movement. His tireless support of American agricultural workers made him oppose governmental agreements such as the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican workers to work in U.S. fields, and led him to fight against the use of undocumented workers, because they weakened unionization and adversely impacted the wages of Mexican Americans. Chávez was harshly criticized for these positions and lost the support of those who believe in workers’ rights regardless of origin, especially when he later sided with conservatives who pushed for immigration restrictions in the 1980s. Still, Chávez maintained enough support to achieve the first agricultural workers law in a nation that had not allowed the unionization of farmworkers in the past. This was the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 1975, which established the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) to oversee elections and to settle appeals.
Because of Chávez’s willingness to confront racism and poverty in the agricultural fields, conditions for workers improved. The fruits of his labor included the eradication of the dreaded short hoe, the availability of portable toilets, the accessibility of drinking water, the creation of a hiring hall, the foundation of a service center and health clinic, and improvement of wages and benefits. A believer in nonviolence, Chávez continued to use legal means in his pursuit of social justice until the end. He passed away in Yuma, Arizona, working to fight a lawsuit against the UFW brought by Bruce Church Incorporated, the largest producer of lettuce and vegetables in Salinas, California. This was perceived as a move to destroy an already weak union; Church was suing the UFWA for millions of dollars in damages resulting from the 1980s lettuce boycott. In death, Chávez has become an icon, as a result of his activism and commitment to the struggle for farmworkers’ rights and social justice, a commitment he selflessly carried out to the end as he sought to improve the lives of those who feed the nation. For his extraordinary efforts and to mark the legacy of his accomplishments and his service to humanity, President Bill Clinton awarded Chávez with a posthumous Medal of Freedom in 1994. As Paul Chávez remarked in the San Jose Mercury News, “when history writes its final chapter, [César Chávez] … will be remembered as a man who lived by his principles and who wasn’t afraid of taking uncomfortable positions” (1993, p. 1A).
SEE ALSO Agricultural Industry; Migrant Labor
Acuña, Rodolfo. 2004. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman.
Chávez, Paul. 1993. A ‘Warrior for Justice’ Mourned Nationwide. San Jose Mercury News (April 24): 1A.
Griswold del Castillo, Richard, and Richard A. Garcia. 1995. César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
La Botz, Dan. 2006. César Chávez and La Causa. New York: Pearson Longman.
Levy, Jacques E. 1975. César Chávez: Autobiography of La Causa. New York: Norton.
Matthiessen, Peter. 1969. Sal Si Puedes: César Chávez and the New American Revolution. New York: Random House.
Méndez-Negrete, Josephine. 1994. We Remember César Chávez: A Catalyst for Change. San José Studies 20 (2): 71-83.
Montejano, David. 1987. Mexicans and Anglos in the Making of Texas, 1937-1986. Austin: University of Texas Press.
United Farm Workers Web site. The Story of Cesar Chavez. http://www.ufw.org/_page.php?menu=research&inc+history/07.html.
"Chávez, César." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/chavez-cesar
"Chávez, César." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved February 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/chavez-cesar
Born: March 31, 1927
Died: April 22, 1993
San Luis, Arizona
Hispanic American labor leader and champion of migrant worker rights
César Chávez was an Hispanic American labor leader who organized the first effective union of farm workers in the history of California agriculture.
César Chávez was born on March 31, 1927, near Yuma, Arizona. He was the second of Librado and Juana Estrada Chávez's six children. His parents owned a store and worked on a farm of over one hundred acres that Chávez's grandfather, Césario Chávez, had established. The Chávez family was kicked off its land for failing to pay its taxes during the Great Depression of the 1930s (when nearly half the industrial workers in the United States lost their jobs, leading to lower demand for goods and services). The family then joined the many migrant (traveling) laborers streaming into California.
Chávez quit school while in the seventh grade to work full-time in the fields, but he was not really educated even to that level—he could barely read and write. In 1944 he joined the U.S. Navy and served for two years. Since he was never allowed to advance beyond low-level jobs, he continued as a farm worker in California upon completing his service. In 1948 he married Helen Fabela of Delano, California. Migrant farm workers at that time worked long hours in the fields for very little money. Sometimes their employers would not pay them at all, and there was nothing they could do—nowhere to turn. Many of the farm workers were not U.S. citizens. In an interview with the Farm Worker Press, Chávez remembered, "When I was nineteen I joined the National Agricultural Workers Union. But it didn't have any more success than any of the other farm workers' unions."
Organizing and boycotting
As Chávez worked in the vineyards (land containing grapevines) and fruit orchards of California, he used his free time to educate himself. He read about famous labor leaders and became interested in the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), the Indian leader who preached nonviolent resistance in his country's struggle for independence. Chávez, after a couple of failed strikes by his fellow workers, realized that better organization was needed. In 1952 he met Fred Ross, who was organizing Mexican Americans in California's barrios (mainly Spanish-speaking cities or towns) into the Community Service Organization (CSO). The organization concentrated on voter registration, citizenship classes, and helping Mexican American communities obtain needed facilities (such as schools and medical care) in the barrios. The organization also helped individuals with typical problems such as getting welfare, dealing with crooked salesmen, and police injustice.
Chávez's work in the voter registration drive in Sal Si Puedes ("Get out if you can"), a rough San Jose, California, barrio, was so effective that Ross hired him as an organizer. Over the next ten years Chávez rose to become national director of CSO. In 1962, when the CSO rejected his proposal to start a farm workers' union, he quit the organization. At thirty-five years of age, with $1,200 in savings, he took his wife and eight children to Delano to begin the slow, step-by-step organizing process that grew into the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). Three years later, when members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) went on strike against the vineyards in Delano, they asked for support from Chávez's NFWA.
Thus began the great California table-grape strike, which lasted five years. In 1966 the two unions merged to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) of the AFL-CIO, headed by Chávez. During the struggle to organize the vineyards, Chávez began an international boycott (to join together in refusing to deal with an item, person, or company in an effort to change practices) of California table grapes. This boycott brought such pressure on local grape growers that most eventually signed with Chávez's union. The boycott ended in September 1970. Soon after this victory Chávez started another boycott, this time against lettuce growers who used nonunion labor. Chávez became the first man ever to organize a farm workers' union in California that obtained signed contracts from the agricultural industry.
Believed in nonviolence
Chávez was an outspoken believer in Gandhi's idea of social change through nonviolent means. In 1968, to prevent violence in the grape strike, he fasted (went without eating) for twenty-five days. The fast was broken at an outdoor mass attended by some four thousand people, including Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968). Chávez fasted on several other occasions, including twenty-four days in 1972 to protest antiunion laws in Arizona and for thirty-six days in 1988 to call attention to the continued poor treatment of vineyard workers. Chávez grew dangerously weak after this fast. Another protest involved Chávez leading a two-hundred-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, California, to call attention to the demands of the farm workers.
In July 1970 Chávez's union faced one of its most serious challenges, when the Teamsters Union signed contracts that applied to farm workers with some two hundred growers in California. Chávez met the challenge head on: within three weeks the largest agricultural strike ever to hit California had spread along the coastal valleys. About seven thousand farm workers went on strike to win recognition of Chávez's UFWOC as their bargaining agent, with the national boycott again used as the weapon. However, the union gradually lost its strength. From 1972 to 1974, membership decreased from nearly sixty thousand to just five thousand. But Chávez's efforts had made a difference. From 1964 to 1980, wages of California migrant workers had increased 70 percent, workers received health care benefits, and a formal policy for handling worker grievances (complaints) was established.
Chávez continued to fight for the rights of workers up until the day of his death on April 22, 1993. He had had nothing but a few glasses of water in the six days before his death. He was elected to the Labor Department's Hall of Fame in 1999 for his work toward improving the treatment of farm workers.
For More Information
Cedeño, Maria E. Cesar Chavez: Labor Leader. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1993.
Collins, David R. Farmworker's Friend: The Story of César Chávez. Minneapolis, MN.: Carolrhoda Books, 1996.
Ferriss, Susan, et. al. The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997.
Gonzales, Doreen. César Chávez: Leader for Migrant Farm Workers. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1996.
"Chávez, César." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chavez-cesar
"Chávez, César." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved February 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chavez-cesar
Chavez, Cesar Estrada
CHAVEZ, CESAR ESTRADA
Cesar Chavez (1927–1993) was raised in Arizona as the son of a farming family. He devoted his life to union organizing and nonviolent social activism on behalf of laborers in the fields and vineyards of the Southwest. The founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW), Chavez planted the seeds of a broadly–based civil rights movement among Hispanic Americans. As a deeply religious man he drew from the teachings of his Roman Catholic heritage. He was also deeply influenced by the nonviolent activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), and the tactics of radical community activist, Saul Alinsky.
Cesar Chavez was barely ten years old when a bank repossessed his family's farm. With his parents and four siblings, he became one of thousands of migrant workers roving from one crop harvest to another. They all worked to earn a marginal existence during the Great Depression.
Chavez was twelve when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began organizing dried-fruit industry workers. His father and uncle actively supported unions. In this way the boy learned firsthand about strikes, picket lines and organizing operations. Most efforts, however, failed to organize farm workers in those days. After long and brutally exhausting days in the field, there was little time to attend meetings. The labor force was constantly shifting from place to place, and many of the Mexican immigrants feared personal retribution by farm owners if they joined together to protest working conditions.
Chavez's family moved from one migrant labor camp to another; Chavez later said that though he attended 65 schools, he never graduated from high school. He served in the U.S. Navy for two years during World War II (1939–1945). When the war was over he returned to working in the fields. Three years later he married Helen Fabela, a fellow migrant worker. They shared strong religious beliefs and a commitment to investing farm workers with hope and dignity.
In 1952 Chavez began actively organizing workers in the fields. He was recruited and trained for his work by the California-based Community Service Organization (CSO). During the next ten years Chavez built new chapters of CSO, led voter registration drives, and helped Mexican-Americans confront issues of police and immigration abuse. In 1958 he became general director of CSO. He resigned four years later to found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with $1,200 of his own savings.
Organizing farm workers was agonizingly slow work, but by 1965 Chavez had organized a union with a membership of 1700 workers. The staff was composed mostly of Roman Catholic clerics and lay people. In September of that year Chavez led California grape pickers on a five-year strike. Grape growers fought back, but gradually the nation's consumers swung to the workers' side and stopped buying grapes. By 1968 there was a nationwide boycott of California grapes, and the growers were forced to negotiate.
Chavez went on to wage a successful boycott of iceberg lettuce. Like Gandhi, he dramatized his fights against grape growers and lettuce producers by fasting and inviting arrest. He picketed alongside his workers and did jail time with them. By the late 1960s the movement had been baptized La Causa (The Cause).
In 1966 Chavez's union merged with the AFLCIO Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. It became the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). By May 1970 farmer after farmer signed contracts with UFWOC, but problems arose three years later when it was time for these contracts to be renewed. The UFWOC—now renamed the United Farm Workers of America (UFW)—found itself challenged by the National Teamsters Union. Backed by growers who saw an opportunity to weaken or break the UFW, the Teamsters were moderately successful in luring workers away from the UFW. After years of conflict between the two unions an agreement was signed giving UFW the sole right to organize farm workers.
In the final years of Chavez's life the UFW and La Causa were troubled with internal dissension. Union membership fell from a peak 100,000 members to 20,000 agricultural workers. This represented a small precentage of the actual number of men and women working in the fields. Many of Chavez's key lieutenants resigned in protest against his increasingly eccentric behavior and autocratic management of the UFW's affairs. But among his followers and supporters Chavez remained respected and admired. La Causa continued to attract nuns, priests, ministers, rabbis and other veterans of the nonviolent civil rights and antiwar movements.
Chavez's self-sacrifice and personal devotion to the cause of liberating farm workers from exploitation was an inspiration to millions. He brought the nation's attention to the plight of desperately poor migrant workers. His legacy does not consist only of the increases in pay, eligibility for medical insurance, employer-paid pensions, and unemployment benefits that UFW members received. He was responsible for La Causa, the birth of the Hispanic American civil rights movement. When Chavez died in his sleep on April 23, 1993, at age 66, he was on the road in Arizona working for his union.
See also: Agriculture Industry, American Federation of Labor, Congress of Industrial Organizations, United Farm Workers
Barr, Evan T. "Sour Grapes: Cesar Chavez 20 Years Later." The New Republic, 25 November 1985.
Cletus, Daniel. "Cesar Chavez and the Unionization of California Farm Workers." In Labor Leaders in America, edited by Melvin Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Ferriss, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval. The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997.
Jones, Arthur. "Millions Reaped What Cesar Chavez Sowed." National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1993.
Kannellos, Nicholas, ed. Hispanic-American Almanac. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.
Tardiff, Joseph, and L. Mpho Mabunda, ed. Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.
Taylor, Ronald B. Chavez and the Farm Workers. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975.
"Chavez, Cesar Estrada." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chavez-cesar-estrada
"Chavez, Cesar Estrada." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved February 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chavez-cesar-estrada
Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) was a Mexican-American labor leader who organized the first effective union of farm workers in the history of California agriculture.
Cesar Chavez was born on March 31, 1927, near Yuma, Arizona. His grandfather had homesteaded some 112 acres there in 1904, but the family lost the ranch during the Depression in 1939, when they could not pay the taxes. The family then joined the migrant laborers streaming into California.
Chavez quit school after the eighth grade to work fulltime in the fields, but in 1944 he joined the U.S. Navy. He served for two years in the Pacific, but racism kept him in menial jobs, so upon discharge he rejoined his family and continued as a farm worker in California. In 1948 he married Helen Fabela of Delano, California.
In 1952 Chavez met Fred Ross, who was organizing Mexican-Americans in the barrios (quarters) of California into the Community Service Organization (CSO). They concentrated on voter registration, citizenship classes, and helping Mexican-American communities obtain needed facilities in the barrios as well as aiding individuals with such typical problems as welfare, contracts signed with unscrupulous salesmen, and police harassment.
Chavez's work in the voter registration drive in Sal Si Puedes, the notorious San Jose barrio, was so effective that Ross hired him as an organizer. Over the next 10 years Chavez rose to national director of CSO. In 1962, when the CSO rejected his proposal to start a farmworkers union, he quit the organization. At 35 years of age, with $1,200 in savings, he took his wife and eight children to Delano to begin the slow, methodical organizing process which grew into the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). When, three years later, members of Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) struck the vineyards in Delano, they asked for support from Chavez's NFWA.
Thus began the great California table-grape strike, which lasted five years. In 1966, the two unions merged to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) of the AFL-CIO, headed by Chavez. During the struggle to organize the vineyards Chavez initiated an international boycott of California table grapes that brought such pressure to bear on local grape growers that most eventually signed with his union. The boycott ended in September 1970. Soon after this victory, Chavez again employed the boycott strategy, this time against lettuce growers who used non-union labor. Chavez became the first man ever to organize a viable farm workers' union in California that obtained signed contracts from the agricultural industry.
Believed in Non-Violence
Chavez was an outspoken advocate of social change through nonviolent means. In 1968, to avert violence in the grape strike, he undertook a 25-day fast; the fast was broken at an outdoor Mass attended by some 8,000 persons, including Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Chavez also led a 200-mile march from Delano to Sacramento to dramatize the demands of the farm workers.
In July 1970 Chavez's union faced one of its most serious challenges when the Teamsters' union signed contracts that applied to farm workers with some 200 growers in California. Chavez met the challenge head on: within 3 weeks the largest agricultural strike ever to hit California had spread over 180 miles along the coastal valleys. About 7,000 farm workers struck to win recognition of Chavez's UFWOC as their bargaining agent, with the national boycott again used as the weapon.
From 1972 to 1974, membership in the union dwindled from nearly 60,000 to just 5,000. But Chavez's efforts were rewarded. From 1964 to 1980, wages of California migrant workers had increased 70 percent, health care benefits became a reality and a formal grievance procedure was established. Chavez continued to fight for the rights of workers up to the day of his death on April 22, 1993.
Collins, David R., Farmworker's Friend: The Story of Cesar Chavez Carolrhoda Books, 1996.
Ferris, Susan, et al, The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement, Harcourt Brace, 1997.
Gonzales, Doreen Cesar Chavez: Leader for Migrant Farm Workers, Enslow Publications, 1996. □
"Cesar Chavez." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cesar-chavez
"Cesar Chavez." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved February 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cesar-chavez
Chávez, César E.
FOUNDER OF UNITED FARM WORKERS OF AMERICA (1927–1993)
César Estrada Chávez was born near Yuma, Arizona, on March 31, 1927. Eleven years later, his family lost their farm and joined several hundred thousand other migrants working California's crops under terrible conditions. By the time of his death at 63, Chávez had organized farmworkers, improved their wages and living conditions, shaped public awareness, and prompted government regulations that reduced their exposure to dangerous pesticides.
After dropping out of school and serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II (1944–1945), Chávez did farm work for seven years. Beginning in 1952, he registered voters and organized chapters of the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Mexican-American equal rights movement, in California. He left CSO in 1962 to establish a separate union that eventually became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) in 1973.
After Chávez led a series of migrant worker strikes against vineyards, most grape growers signed contracts restricting dangerous pesticides as a result, long before comparable government restrictions were put in place. Chávez continued the struggle because most growers persisted in their abusive pesticide practices and refused to renew their contracts with proactive migrant workers.
When research found that 300,000 people in central California suffered from pesticide-related illnesses, and there was a high incidence of cancer among children in the same region, Chávez initiated another grape boycott in 1984. He fasted for a life-threatening thirty-six days in mid-1988 to augment his antipesticide protest. Ultimately, his controversial nonviolent strategies significantly raised American awareness of farm pesticide dangers, changed public policies, and concentrated his union's efforts well into the 1990s.
In 1994 President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Chávez the U.S. Medal of Freedom. Days later, Governor Pete Wilson signed a bill making Chávez's birth date an official holiday in California. In carrying out his life's mission, Chávez exemplified a unique blend of beliefs, behaviors, and commitments along with nonviolence, egalitarianism, political activism, volunteerism, solidarity/unity, and respect for all cultures, religions, and lifestyles.
see also Activism; Labor, Farm; Pesticides.
Griswold Del Castillo, Richard, and García, Richard. (1995). César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit. Tulsa: University of Oklahoma Press.
Ferriss, Susan, and Sandoval, Ricardo. (1997). The Fight in the Fields—César Chávez and the Farmworker Movement. Orlando, FL: Harcourt and Brace.
Matthiessen, Peter. (1997). Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can)—César Chávez and the New American Revolution Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ross, Fred. (1989). Conquering Goliath–César Chávez at the Beginning. La Paz, CA: El Taller Grafico Press.
San Francisco State University, César E. Chávez Institute for Public Policy Web site. Available from http://www.sfsu.edu/~cecipp.
United Farm Workers Web site. Available from http://www.ufw.org.
José B. Cuellar
"Chávez, C." Pollution A to Z. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/educational-magazines/chavez-c
"Chávez, C." Pollution A to Z. . Retrieved February 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/educational-magazines/chavez-c
Chavez, Cesar Estrada
Cesar Estrada Chavez (sā´sär āsträ´ŧħä shä´vĕz), 1927–93, American agrarian labor leader, b. near Yuma, Ariz. A migrant worker, he became involved (1952) in the self-help Community Service Organization (CSO) in California, working among Mexicans and Mexican Americans; from 1958 to 1962 he was its general director. In 1962, he left the CSO to organize wine grape pickers in California and formed the National Farm Workers Association. Using strikes, fasts, picketing, and marches, he was able to obtain contracts from a number of major growers. In 1966 his organization merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee of the AFL-CIO to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee of the AFL-CIO. Chavez also launched (1968) a boycott against the table grape growers, mobilizing consumer support throughout the United States. In 1972 the United Farm Workers (UFW), with Chavez as president, became a member union of the AFL-CIO. Chavez expanded its efforts to include all California vegetable pickers and launched a lettuce boycott, as well as extending his organizational efforts to Florida citrus workers. His successes in California were sharply diminished, however, as the result of a jurisdictional dispute with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters over the organization of field workers. In 1973 the Teamsters cut heavily into UFW membership by signing contracts with former UFW grape growers, but Chavez renewed the grape workers' strike. In 1977, the two unions signed a pact defining the types of workers each could organize. Membership in the UFW later fell, in part due to disputes between Chavez and his followers, some of whom accused him of nepotism.
See J. E. Levy, Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa (1975); M. Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography (2014).
"Chavez, Cesar Estrada." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chavez-cesar-estrada
"Chavez, Cesar Estrada." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved February 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chavez-cesar-estrada
Chávez, Cesar Estrada
"Chávez, Cesar Estrada." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chavez-cesar-estrada
"Chávez, Cesar Estrada." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved February 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chavez-cesar-estrada