Today March 31st is Cesar Chavez Day. We think its important that this iconic Labor Leader of the United Farm Workers have his birthday made into a national holiday. We also think in the wake of all the drama and attacks being directed at labors unions in Wisconsin and in Ohio to name a couple, that we all take time to understand the significance of UFW and the harsh fight to establish it.
Not a whole lot of folks truly understand the types of oppressive, abuse and dangerous conditions farm workers had to endure to get paid what often amounted to below minimum wage earnings. When you contrast what the Latino and Filipino workers went through with what is unfolding today, you can get a better appreciation for unions. You can also see how greed and disrespect for the average worker manifest itself by corporation and the rich and powerful.
On a side note usually this time of year we have xenophobic types who like to hijack Cesar Chavez day by pointing out that Chavez was against illegal immigration..He felt they undermined his union.. and that’s true.. What these same folks often fail to mention is that Chavez was for unions and wanted all to be paid a living wage and work in safe conditions. Many of the folks who like to raise the Cesar Chavez flag on the immigration question are nowhere to be seen when challenged on the totality of this man’s message.. Economic empowerment and dignity for all people.
Here’s a brief rundown of Cesar Chavez and the UFW
In 1962 Cesar founded the National Farm Workers Association, later to become the United Farm Workers – the UFW. He was joined by Dolores Huerta and the union was born. That same year Richard Chavez designed the UFW Eagle and Cesar chose the black and red colors. Cesar told the story of the birth of the eagle. He asked Richard to design the flag, but Richard could not make an eagle that he liked. Finally he sketched one on a piece of brown wrapping paper. He then squared off the wing edges so that the eagle would be easier for union members to draw on the handmade red flags that would give courage to the farm workers with their own powerful symbol. Cesar made reference to the flag by stating, “A symbol is an important thing. That is why we chose an Aztec eagle. It gives
pride . . . When people see it they know it means dignity.”
For a long time in 1962, there were very few union dues paying members. By 1970 the UFW got grape growers to accept union contracts and had effectively organized most of that industry, at one point in time claiming 50,000 dues paying members. The reason was Cesar Chavez’s tireless leadership and nonviolent tactics that included the Delano grape strike, his fasts that focused national attention on farm workers problems, and the 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento in 1966. The farm workers and supporters carried banners with the black eagle with HUELGA (strike) and VIVA LA CAUSA (Long live our cause). The marchers wanted the state government to pass laws which would permit farm workers to organize into a union and allow collective bargaining agreements. Cesar made people aware of the struggles of farm workers for better pay and safer working conditions. He succeeded through nonviolent tactics (boycotts, pickets, and strikes). Cesar Chavez and the union sought recognition of the importance and dignity of all farm workers.
It was the beginning of La Causa a cause that was supported by organized labor, religious groups, minorities, and students. Cesar Chavez had the foresight to train his union workers and then to send many of them into the cities where they were to use the boycott and picket as their weapon.
Cesar was willing to sacrifice his own life so that the union would continue and that violence was not used. Cesar fasted many times. In 1968 Cesar went on a water only, 25 day fast. He repeated the fast in 1972 for 24 days, and again in 1988, this time for 36 days. What motivated him to do this? He said, Farm workers everywhere are angry and worried that we cannot win without violence. We have proved it before through persistence, hard work, faith and willingness to sacrifice. We can win and keep our own self-respect and build a great union that will secure the spirit of all people if we do it through a rededication and recommitment to the struggle for justice through nonviolence.