United Farm Workers of America

views updated May 14 2018

United Farm Workers of America

P.O. Box 62
Keen, California 93531
Telephone: (818) 565-5603
Web site: http://www.ufw.org

Labor Union
1962 as National Farm Workers Association
Employees: 75
NAIC: 813930 Labor Unions and Similar Labor Organizations

United Farm Workers of America (UFW) is a union for agricultural laborers, primarily in California. Founded by charismatic leader, Cesar Chavez, UFW reached the peak of its influence in the 1970s, then declined until his death in 1993. Under new leadership the UFW has since taken steps to rebuild and find its place in a world far different than when the organization burst onto the scene in the 1960s as La Causa and attracted a host of celebrity supporters. The UFW is best known for its successful boycott of California grapes that led to unprecedented gains for farmworkers. Other achievements include the first contracts to provide rest periods, drinking water, toilets, and hard washing facilities in the fields, the banning of pesticide spraying while workers were in the field, and protective clothing to guard against exposure to pesticides; guaranteed senior and job security; contracts that included profit sharing and parental leave; the first comprehensive union health benefits for farmworkers and their families; the first pension plan for retired farmworkers; and a farmworker credit union. The organization has an estimated 50,000 members. In addition to its national headquarters in Keene, California, UFW maintains several other offices in California as well as in Florida and Washington state.


The bulk of UFWs activities have been conducted in California, where corporate farming in the United States took root around the same time that the railroad connected the fertile farmlands of the state to the eastern markets in the 1860s. The railroad barons and other industrials acquired vast tracts of land with the idea of growing large quantities of food to ship back east on their railroads, which in turn would bring other goods to the growing West Coast population. Many of the Chinese laborers who had laid the roads now harvested the crops. A downturn in the economy and discrimination led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Chinese were replaced in the field by poor white European immigrants, followed by the Japanese at the dawn of the 20th century, and Mexicans who regularly crossed the borders to work the harvests. Early in the 1900s some Japanese and Mexican workers joined forces to organize associations to demand wage increases, but being minorities they received no support from Americas labor movement. Spurred by accommodating legislation, other immigrants groups came in waves to Californias fields to work at low wages and under harsh conditions, but always it was the Mexicans who came to the North and by the 1920s were the main source of Californias laborers.

During the Great Depression and the days of the Dust Bowl in the Southwest, where ownership of agricultural land had also become heavily concentrated, the Mexicans were joined by Oklahomans, who were pitted against one another by the large growers who were intent on keeping expenses low and profits high. The 1930s saw a number of strikes and attempts to unionize farmworkers, and the growers, backed by the California government, did not hesitate to use rough measures to thwart these attempts. Nevertheless, both the state and federal government during this time sought at least to eliminate some of the most egregious conditions faced by farmworkers, especially migrants. The major force behind most of the strikes conducted in California in the early 1930s was the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU). Because of its ties to the Communist Party, however, it became an easy target for growers who were able to enlist government help in crushing it.

In 1935 The National Labor Relations Act was passed, granting employees the right to join labor unions. Further attempts were made to unionize Californias migrant workers, but the large number of people seeking these unskilled jobs made it virtually impossible to gain leverage with growers. The situation was turned on its head as the United States prepared for World War II, creating large numbers of jobs in the cities, where the migrants flocked to take factory jobs, or joined or were drafted into the military. As a result, California was short on farm laborers by 1942, the first full year of American involvement in the war. To find help for the fields, a guest worker agreement was reached with Mexico on an informal basis, the infamous bracero system, which only permitted workers to stay in the country until the end of the harvest. A wartime measure at first, the bracero system was codified into law and expanded after the war, especially in California and Texas, and became an effective tool for growers in thwarting the unionizing attempts of domestic farmworkers. Guest workers were not permitted to replace domestic workers, but the law was rarely enforced and bracero workers were often used as strike breakers, further hindering attempts for farmworkers to unionize.


One of those domestic workers was Cesar Chavez. He was born near Yuma, Arizona, in 1927, on his familys 80-acre farm. During the Depression the farm was lost and the Chavez family moved to California, eventually settling in the San Jose barrio known as Sal Si Puedes. After a stint in the Navy during World War II during which he was assigned the most menial of responsibilities, he returned to the barrio, married in 1948, and began to raise a family, supported by migrant laboring. Extremely religious, Chavez was greatly influenced by an activist priest named Donald McDonnell, who had been assigned to Sal Si Puedes, and took Chavez with him on his visits to bracero camps. McDonnell unlocked the young mans intellectual curiosity, and although he lacked any formal education beyond the 8th grade, Chavez began to read about Saint Francis of Assisi and Mahatma Gandhi, the biographies of American labor leaders, and political philosophy. It was also McDonnell who told Fred Ross, founder of the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Latino civil rights organization, about Chavez. Ross needed someone to direct a voter registration campaign in Sal Si Puedes for the 1952 election, and despite his initial suspicion, Chavez was won over by Ross and joined CSO.

In short order Chavez became one of Rosss key lieutenants, sent to established CSO chapters throughout California. By 1959 he became executive director of the organization. After a decade of work with CSO, Chavez had honed his organizational and leadership skills, and accumulated a wealth of important contacts in the Latino community. By 1962 he was eager to start a farmworkers union under the CSO rubric that could bargain with growers on behalf of its members. Although he had the backing of Ross and the CSO board, the organizations membership rejected the idea in a vote at the annual meeting because most of the members wanted to focus on urban Latinos, who had left the fields and whose numbers were fast growing. Chavez immediately resigned his position at CSO.


Our vision: To provide farm workers and other working people with the inspiration and tools to share in societys bounty.

Now 35 years old, Chavez, who had $1,200 in savings, moved his wife and eight children to Delano, California, in 1962 to begin the task of organizing farmworkers in what he called the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). More than a union, he envisioned it as a social movement. He was soon joined by a former CSO colleague, Dolores Huerta, and others. The NFWA held its first convention in September 1962, and for the next three years Chavez drove across California signing up members one at a time. It was established enough that in September 1965 the AFL-CIOaffiliated Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), comprised mostly of Filipino Americans, asked for the groups support after it walked out on strike against Delano-area vineyards. Although Chavez believed NFWA, with a membership of just 1,700 workers, was not yet ready for a major strike, the membership was unanimous in their support for the strike and, prepared or not, NFWA joined the strikers. It would mark the beginning of what became the five-year Delano Grape Strike and Chavezs rise to international prominence.

Shortly after the strike began, Chavez began to urge the public not to buy grapes without a union label, a boycott that by 1967 was extended to cover all California table grapes. Slowly the strikers brought pressure to bear on the growers, as the situation in California received considerable media attention, and Chavez himself became an embodiment of the cause. At a time when the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was leading the civil rights movement following a nonviolent approach, Chavez assumed a similar place in the Latino community, leading marches, conducting fasts, and inviting arrest to bring attention to La Causa.

In 1966 NFWA merged with AWOC, to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). As the boycott gained public support growers signed contracts with UFWOC. In September 1970 the grape boycott was called off, but by this time Chavez was leading a boycott against lettuce growers. The organization, part union and part civil rights movement, included 50,000 dues-paying members who enjoyed the benefits of a union-run hiring hall that eliminated abuses of labor contractors, a health clinic, and health plan. A year later UFWOC achieved a major victory when it signed a contract in Florida to cover Minute Maid citrus workers. In that same year it received a charter for the AFL-CIO as the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).

UFW received a major challenge in 1973 when the three-year contracts signed with grape growers in 1970 were set to expire. Instead of renewing with UFW, some of the growers attempted to undermine the union by signing an advantageous deal with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters without the benefit of elections or any other kind of representative procedure. The two groups vied for dominance until the Teamsters finally gave up the fight in 1977, signing a truce that left the UFW with the sole right to organize farmworkers.

Just two years earlier, in 1975, the union was also buoyed by the passage of the Agricultural Relations Act in California, which established collective bargaining for farmworkers. The UFW appeared to be on the verge of achieving a position of strength with California agribusiness, but in truth 1975 in many ways represented the high-water mark for the union under Chavez. Rather than devoting its resources to organizing workers in the field, the UFW had become enamored with the boycott option, which drew the best of the unions activists to work in major cities on these efforts. The UFW, as a result, lost touch with the farmworkers, and while the union may have continued to win elections among workers, only about a third of these elections actually led to a union contract. In fact, ten years after the great Delano strike, less than 10 percent of the areas grapes were harvested by UFW members. Moreover, Chavez became increasingly autocratic. He purged the union, eliminating all non-Hispanic officials, and criticism of him was no longer tolerated.

In the 1980s, after years of friendly administrations in California, the UFW had to contend with a Republican governor, as well as a Republican president in Ronald Reagan. The deterioration of grassroots support from farmworkers also caught up to the union. Many growers allowed UFW contracts to expire and refused to negotiate new ones, instead turning to labor contractors. The UFW again boycotted table grapes in the mid-1980s, but perhaps because the novelty had worn off, it no longer had the necessary level of public support to force growers to the bargaining table. Chavez also devoted a great deal of his attention to the dangers of pesticide, and neglected organizing efforts in the fields.


Cesar Chavez forms National Farm Workers Association.
Merger results in United Farm Workers Organizing Committee.
United Farm Workers of America receives AFL-CIO charter.
California passes Agricultural Relations Act.
Chavez dies; is replaced by Arturo Rodriguez.
Long-time grape boycott ends.
California passes binding mediation law.


By the early 1990s the UFW had only a few contracts left and membership had dwindled to about 10,000. While personally revered and unquestionably devoted to the union, Chavez, unable to share power, was difficult to work with, and many key lieutenants resigned in protest. In April 1993 Chavez died in his sleep at the age of 66. He ultimately failed to realize his dream of forging a nationwide organization, according to his New York Times obituary. In most of America, farm workers continue to toil for low wages, without job security, vulnerable to exploitation. Even in California he found it difficult to translate the early triumphs of what he called La Causa into a viable labor organization.

Replacing Chavez as the president of the UFW was his 43-year-old son-in-law, Arturo S. Rodriguez, who had been groomed for the post for the past 20 years. College educated, holding an undergraduate degree from St. Marys, San Antonio, and a masters degree from the University of Michigan, Rodriguez took over an organization undergoing an identity crisis, and one that the growers no doubt hoped would fade away without its charismatic leader. Although unassuming, Rodriguez proved to be a shrewd and effective leader. Rather than taking on the large vineyards and fruit orchards, he concentrated on roses, mushrooms, and other smaller industries. In less than 3 years, the UFW won 13 consecutive elections in California and Washington state, which added about 4,000 members. At the same time, Rodriguez was practical, looking to work with growers in a way that benefited them and the workers. In 1996 he helped to bring to an end a nearly 18-year strike and supermarket boycott against Red Coach lettuce produced by Bruce Church Inc. The fight had begun in 1978 by Chavez and Ted Taylor, the president of Bruce Church. The two sides had fought in the courts for years and when an appeals court denied Bruce Churchs damage award for losses due to the strike, Rodriguez, and Taylors son Steve, who succeeded his father after his death, decided that the time for peace had come. With no personal enmity between them, the two men quickly reached a five-year employment agreement.

In 1996 the UFW launched a major campaign to organize union elections among Californias strawberry workers. According to the Independent on Sunday, Many workers were living in shacks or caves with no access to clean water, toilets or medical care. Women complained of being forced to perform sexual favours in exchange for employment. In addition, reported the newspaper, Because everyone worked on short-term contracts lasting no more than one season, anybody who tried to complain was simply fired and replaced. The mere presence of the UFW resulted in some improvements.

The strawberry growers funded worker committees, which the UFW contended were illegal company unions. In 1999 the UFW and 18 growers reached an agreement to put an end to worker committees. Nevertheless, a short time later a new committee that had never negotiated a contract won an election at Coastal Berry, Americas largest grower and the focal point of the UFW campaign. It was a major setback for the UFW, which had won 18 consecutive elections and rebuilt its membership to 27,000, but now had its momentum blunted.

As the UFW entered the new century, it was not about to give up on organizing the strawberry workers. In order to focus on this and other organizing efforts and the negotiation of contracts, the union called off its California table grape boycott which had been in effect off and on for 32 years. Rodriguez also wanted to devote more attention to lobby the California state legislature to make changes to the Agricultural Relations Act that would force arbitration settlements when contract negotiations reached an impasse. It would replace a process that had allowed growers to draw out contract negotiations indefinitely. The resulting binding mediation law was signed by the governor in the fall of 2002.

After years of struggle, the UFW finally reached an agreement with Coastal Berry in June 2003 on a labor contract that called for a significant increase in wages and piece rate as well as more job security and improved benefits. It was a pivotal win for the union. Weve become a player, Rodriguez told the press. We now have the opportunity to demonstrate to other workers and employers what can be done when we work together to bring about an industry that can be viable to employers and beneficial to workers. With this major victory in hand, the UFW was able to secure a new contract with Gallo winery in Sonoma, and in 2005 launched a major campaign to unionize Giumarra vineyards, the largest table grape producer in the United States.

Ed Dinger


Internet Communications; Political Legislative Office; Recruitment.


Coalition of Immokalee Workers; Farm Labor Organizing Committee.


After Chavez, Farm Union Struggles to Find New Path, New York Times, July 19, 1993.

Bardacke, Frank, Cesars Ghost: Decline and Fall of the U.F.W., Nation, July 26, 1993, p. 130.

Blood on the Field, Independent on Sunday (London), October 11, 1998, p. 26.

Chavezs Son-in-Law Reviving United Farm Workers but Union Still Faces Many Hurdles, Seattle Times, March 10, 1996, p. A5.

Farm Workers End 17-Year Dispute with Lettuce Grower, San Francisco Chronicle, May 30, 1996, p. C1.

Ferriss, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement, New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997, 333 p.

Gaura, Maria Alicia, and Tyche Hendricks, UFW Signs Berry Pact After Years of Setbacks, San Francisco Chronicle, June 7, 2003, p. A13.

Jones, Arthur, Building Strength, National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2003, p. 3.

_____ Chavezs Death Brings UFW Movement to Life, National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1993, p. 3.

Lindsey, Robert, Cesar Chavez, 66, Organizer of Union for Migrants, Dies, New York Times, April 24, 1993.

Loera, Juan Esparza, End of UFW Boycott Start of a New Era, Fresno Bee, November 26, 2000, p. B1.

Mooney, Patrick, and Theo J. Majka, Farmers and Farm Workers Movement, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1995, 260 p.

United Farm Workers of America

views updated May 14 2018

United Farm Workers of America

Before the organization of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) in 1962, farm workers had long tried to organize themselves into labor unions to improve their working conditions. Facing low wages, long hours, lack of fresh water, and inadequate housing, farm workers frequently held strikes (work stoppages) in protest; the challenge was to organize the forces necessary to win their objectives.

Early farm workers organizations

The National Farm Workers Union (NFW), led by the activist Ernesto Galarza (1905–1984), organized farm workers in the 1940s and 1950s. When the NFW failed, the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO; a federation of unions) tried to organize farm workers again, through the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC).

In the 1940s and 1950s unionization of farm workers was hindered by the bracero program, which brought Mexicans to work on farms in the United States, initially to ease the labor shortage brought on by World War II (1939–45). California 's large agricultural businesses used the bracero program to prevent union activity in several ways. First, the corporations blocked bracero workers from joining unions: If these workers joined a strike or attended union meetings, agricultural businesses filed unfavorable reports on them and they would be deported. Second, when American farm workers went on strike, the growers refused to bargain, instead bringing in more bracero workers to take the place of the strikers. Union activity was nearly useless. NFW and AWOC both fought against the bracero program, and the government finally shut it down in 1963. By that time, AWOC had lost a large number of its members.

A new union

César Chávez (1927–1993) began organizing migrant workers in the 1950s. He knew firsthand about the workers' needs. As a boy, he had attended thirty-six elementary schools and never finished high school because he and his family had moved from job to job as migrant workers.

In 1952 Chávez began working as a community organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO), a group that sought better living conditions for Mexican Americans. In his job, Chávez heard many complaints from migrant workers. He was especially concerned about claims that landowners often used Mexican farmhands—who were illegally bused across the U.S. border—to work in the fields for the lowest of wages. This prevented migrant workers already living in the United States from getting jobs. Because the workers were not organized as a group, however, they could not effectively protest the situation.

Over the next few years, Chávez tried to convince CSO leaders to develop a special farm-labor union that would work to improve the rights of migrant workers. When the CSO refused, Chávez resigned in 1962 and moved to Delano, California, where he began to organize the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). For several years, Chávez worked eighteen-hour days for little or no money. He drove to the fields and talked to the workers, urging them to join the National Farm Workers Association. By 1965 NFWA had 1,700 members, most of them Mexican Americans. Chávez was president of the union and remained in that position until his death in 1993.

The Delano grape strike

In 1965 the AWOC, whose membership at the time was made up mainly of Filipino farm workers, went on strike in Delano. AWOC leaders asked NFWA to join the strike. Although Chávez was not sure his small union was ready for a strike, he felt he could not refuse. The NFWA joined what was to become the five-year Delano grape strike.

Even after the farm workers had gone on strike, the grape-growing industry refused to grant workers' demands for better pay and working conditions. Chávez responded by calling for a countrywide boycott (refusal to buy) of grapes. By discouraging the American people from buying grapes until working conditions for grape pickers improved, he attracted national attention to the plight of the farm workers. Many large labor unions supported Chávez and the strikers, including the AFL-CIO and the United Auto Workers. Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968), an influential senator from New York , also gave his support to the cause.

In March 1966 the strikers marched 250 miles from Delano to the California capital of Sacramento to take their demands to state officials. By the time they arrived in Sacramento, one of several large grape companies had agreed to sign a contract with the workers. It was the first of many victories.

UFW philosophy

At the time the strike began, the successes of the African American civil rights movement of the 1960s were inspiring the farm workers and encouraging their union. From the start, the UFW was more than a union—it was a cause.

Chávez was convinced that he could not organize the poor unless he was willing to share in their plight. He adopted what he called “volunteerism,” or extremely low pay for UFW staff. Chávez himself was the lowest-paid national union president in the United States, never earning more than $6,000 a year.

Chávez's Catholic faith and the writings of his hero, the Indian political and spiritual leader Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948), made the farm labor leader a champion of nonviolence. In the winter of 1968, during the five-year-long grape strike, some young UFW strikers were talking about resorting to violence against the powerful grape-growing businesses. Chávez went on a twenty-five-day water-only fast (no eating) to recommit his movement to nonviolence. Robert F. Kennedy flew to be with him in Delano when he broke the fast on March 10, 1968, describing Chávez as “one of the heroic figures of our time.” Nonviolence drew widespread public support for the union cause.

Chávez knew his union alone did not have the strength to fight the powerful agricultural corporations that ruled the California crops. He transferred the scene of battle to the cities, where farm workers made allies among church, labor, minority, and student activists. He was the first to successfully apply a boycott to a major labor conflict. When millions of Americans quit buying California table grapes, it forced the grape growers to sign their first UFW contracts in 1970.

Showdown with the Teamsters

After successful grape and vegetable strikes and boycotts, UFW membership soared to around eighty thousand in the early 1970s. In 1973 the Teamsters Union, a powerful industrial union of truck drivers and warehouse workers, tried to take over the UFW's role. As the contracts between the grape growers and the UFW came up for renewal, the Teamsters made pacts with the growers, excluding the UFW from contracts they had worked hard to obtain. UFW membership plummeted to less than five thousand and the farm workers went on strike. Chávez called a second grape boycott, bringing the farm workers' plight once again to the attention of the public. A nationwide survey showed that seventeen million Americans were boycotting the fruit in 1975.

California Agricultural Labor Relations Act

Farm workers finally won important rights in the state of California with the help of Democratic governor Jerry Brown (1938–), who took office in 1975. With the passage of the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act, California farm workers were guaranteed the right to organize, vote in state-supervised secret-ballot elections, and bargain with their employers. Most voted for Chávez's UFW, eliminating the Teamsters from their business. Union membership rose again, to about forty-five thousand by the early 1980s.

In 1980 a supporter of the agricultural corporations, Republican George Deukmejian (1928–), became governor of California. His administration stopped enforcing the Agriculture Labor Relations laws, as did the administration of the next governor. From 1983 to 1990 thousands of farm workers lost their contracts and many lost their jobs. Chávez called another strike, but union membership shrank to around twenty thousand.

Death of the leader

Chávez died in 1993 at age sixty-six. A year later the new UFW president, Arturo Rodriguez (Chávez's son-in-law), kicked off a major new organizing drive. By 1999 membership had risen to twenty-seven thousand UFW members. The UFW continued to successfully negotiate contracts for farm workers in a wide variety of agricultural fields. It has worked to improve working conditions, particularly by calling attention to the dangers of pesticides to farm workers. In the early 2000s the UFW also began to work for the rights of undocumented workers from other countries to live and work legally in the United States.

United Farm Workers of America

views updated May 23 2018


The United Farm Workers of America (UFW) began in 1962 as a coalition of poorly paid migrant farm workers and grew into a powerful labor union that has consistently fought to increase wages and improve working conditions for its members. In addition to these issues, the UFW has advocated for stronger environmental protections, better housing, and other social justice issues.

The story of the UFW is inextricably inter-twined with the biography of its founder, cÉsar chÁvez. Chávez was born on March 31, 1927, on a small farm in Arizona. After the Chávez family lost the farm (which had been in the family since the 1880s), they moved to California where they became migrant workers. Migrant workers moved from farm to farm picking crops for growers who generally paid low wages and provided no benefits. Entire families harvested fruits and vegetables, moving north as the crops ripened. Migrant housing consisted of dilapidated metal shacks most of which did not have indoor plumbing or running water. Working conditions were uniformly hot, dirty, and dismal. As pesticide application increased, no protection was provided to the workers who picked the crops with their bare hands. The first wave of migrant workers in the fields of California were small farmers and laborers from Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas who were unable to make a living due to drought and the depression of the 1930s. This group was followed in the 1940s by foreign workers, primarily Mexicans, who were called "braceros."

Chávez and his family labored with the other migrant workers traveling from field to field. In 1952 Chávez became involved with the Community Service Organization (CSO) that helped Mexicans and other Latinos to become citizens, register to vote, and to improve their living conditions. After 10 years of doing organization work for the CSO, Chávez resigned in 1962 to become a full-time organizer of farm workers. Originally called the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), the new organization grew rapidly.

In 1965 the NFWA began a boycott of grape growers in Delano, California. The strike lasted five years. In 1966 Chávez and his followers began a 340-mile trek from Delano to the state capitol in Sacramento to bring the plight of the farm workers to national attention. The march started with 75 people and ended in a rally of 10,000 people on the capitol steps. That same year Schenley Vineyards and the NFWA negotiated the nation's first union contract between a grower and a farm union. Also in 1966, the NFWA merged with the mostly Filipino American members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to form the United Farm Workers (UFW).

As the strike continued and the story of the farm workers became more widely known in the United States and abroad, many Americans rallied to their cause and joined the boycott of table grapes. By 1970 more than 65 percent of California's grape growers had signed contracts with the UFW. In order to avoid a similar UFW boycott, a number of Salinas Valley lettuce and vegetable growers signed contracts with the Teamsters Union. In response, the UFW called for a boycott of lettuce and more than 10,000 farm workers in California's Central Coast went on strike. In 1972 as membership continued to increase, the UFW became the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO.

By 1979 the UFW had won pay increases and signed contracts with a significant number of growers of lettuce and other produce. The organization's membership had grown to approximately 100,000. Conflicts with the Teamsters Union, the murder of several UFW supporters, and the election of Republican governor George Deukmejian, whose administration supported

the growers, led to setbacks for the movement as thousands of farm workers were fired, and UFW membership began to decline.

In the mid-1980s and early 1990s Chávez and the UFW continued to fight for improved conditions for farm workers. On April 23, 1993, Chávez died in his sleep at the home of a farm worker in San Luis, Arizona. Six days later 35,000 mourners walked behind Chávez's casket during his funeral in Delano. In 1994 President bill clinton posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom—the nation's highest civilian honor—to Chávez.

Veteran UFW leader Arturo S. Rodriguez succeeded Chávez as president. In 1994 Rodriguez and his supporters retraced the step of Chávez's historic trek in 1966. Over 20,000 UFW workers and supporters gathered again on the capitol steps to mark the start of the new UFW campaign to organize and empower farm workers. The reinvigorated UFW signed up more workers in California as well as in Florida and the state of Washington. In the early 2000s, the UFW was continuing to fight for better wages, win new collective bargaining rights, and gain better housing and sanitation for workers as well as restrict the use of DDT and other dangerous pesticides.

further readings

Ferriss, Susan. 1997. The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement. New York: Harcourt.

McWilliams, Carey, and Douglas C. Sackman. 2000. Factories in the Fields: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Rothenberg, Daniel. 1998. With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today. New York: Harcourt.

United Farm Workers. Available online at <www.ufw.org> (accessed August 16, 2003).


Chávez, César; Labor Law; Labor Union.

United Farm Workers of America

views updated May 29 2018


UNITED FARM WORKERS OF AMERICA. As much the embodiment of a social movement as a narrowly defined trade union, the United Farm Workers of America, commonly known as the UFW, began articulating the grievances and aspirations of western agricultural workers and Mexican Americans in the mid-1960s. The UFW was founded in 1962 as the Farm Workers' Association in Delano, California, by a small group of workers and experienced community organizers, including César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. For three years its founders worked in California's fertile Central Valley, recruiting some 1,500 members in fifty chapters and founding a small credit union, a grocery store, and other cooperative organizations to serve its largely Mexican and Mexican American constituency.

In 1965, Chávez led the organization, by then renamed the National Farm Workers' Association, in several strikes near Delano, the largest of which targeted a major grape grower. Given substantial support by the United Automobile Workers, the union expanded the strike to most of the state's large grape farms. A heavily publicized march to the state capital of Sacramento in 1966, a merger with an agricultural union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO), and a general grape boycott overcame grower hostility and a bitter rivalry with the teamsters' union. By 1970, some 45,000 agricultural workers in California worked under the auspices of the union's contracts.

Flush with its successes and high visibility, the union, renamed the United Farm Workers of America in 1972, dispatched organizers to Arizona and Texas in efforts to duplicate its California victories. Internal dissension, deep employer opposition, and trouble maintaining its strength in California's fields hampered these efforts. California's 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, spearheaded by Governor Jerry Brown, provided for secret-ballot elections that allowed the UFW to reconsolidate its California base, expanding its membership to nearly 100,000.

Although it signed contracts in other states, the UFW never succeeded in becoming a large or truly national union, in part because federal labor law does not encompass agricultural workers. By the 1990s, the UFW had about 20,000 members and publicized issues of concern to all farm workers, such as pesticide use and working conditions. The union's influence far exceeded its size, however, due in no small part to the extraordinary influence of Chávez. His charisma, passion, and willingness to put his body on the line in repeated and long hunger strikes made him an object of deep devotion for many unionists, liberals, and Mexican Americans. His influence, however, was not without controversy. His support for restrictions on immigration from Mexico angered other Chicano leaders and perhaps hampered the UFW's organizing efforts, and his authoritarian decision-making style prompted many of his fellow leaders and organizers to quit.

The union survived the death of Chávez in 1993. At the close of the twentieth century, the UFW represented about 20,000 workers in collective-bargaining agreements, lobbied legislatures on agricultural labor issues, and screened and endorsed candidates for numerous local and state offices. Its widely distributed logo, a stylized thunderbird, and its trademark slogan, "Viva la Causa!" or "Long Live the Cause!" testify to its enduring prominence in the Southwest.


Griswold del Castillo, Richard, and Richard A. Garcia. César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

Matthiessen, Peter. Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution. New York: Random House, 1969.

Benjamin H.Johnson

See alsoCalifornia ; Strikes .

United Farm Workers

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During the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement prompted increasing political awareness and activity among several minority groups. Among these were the migrant farm workers, most of them Mexican, who traveled throughout California and the western states to take seasonal jobs in fields and orchards. Agricultural workers had never been covered by the National Labor Relations Board. They endured harsh conditions for meager pay, and had no job security or benefits. Often, families moved so frequently that their children were unable to attend school regularly. A transient lifestyle, lack of education, and language barriers created conditions that made it especially difficult for migrant workers to bargain effectively with agricultural businesses.

Cesar Chavez (19271993), a migrant worker from Yuma, Arizona, began organizing migrant workers in the 1950s. Chavez, who attended 36 elementary schools during his childhood and never finished high school, knew firsthand about the workers' needs. He could speak their language and relate to them as an insider. In 1962, Chavez formed the National Farm Workers Association to represent migrant Chicano and Filipino farmworkers. By 1965, his organization had 1,700 members and in 1966 it was chartered by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) as the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). Chavez was president of the UFW from its formation until his death in 1993. The UFW's first significant strike occured in 1965, when the union called for a national boycott of California grapes after growers refused to grant workers' demands for better pay and working conditions. In 1966, the DiGiorgio Corporation agreed to allow a union vote, but an investigation launched by California governor Edmund G. Brown, Sr., the first major politician to support the UFW, showed that the results had been rigged. Another election was held, which the UFW won. The grape boycott lasted five years, during which Chavez went on a hunger strike to publicize the exploitation of migrant workers. The grape boycott resulted in the first major victory for migrant workers in the United States. Later boycotts of lettuce and other produce met with similar success. In 1975, California passed legislation that required growers to bargain collectively with representatives elected by the workers, establishing the legal right of farm workers to unionize. Yet much work remained. In the 1970s, the UFW had to fight to maintain its autonomy against the Teamsters Union, which tried to take it over, while continuing its struggle for fair wages and safer conditions. Chavez went on two more hunger strikes, for 24 days in 1972 and for 36 days in 1988, to focus attention on the harmful effects of pesticides to which agricultural workers were routinely exposed. At the time of his death in 1993, he was leading another national boycott of grapes to protest pesticide use.

See also: Cesar Chavez, Migrant Workers, Labor Movement, Labor Unionism

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United Farm Workers of America

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United Farm Workers of America