César Chávez was a folk hero and symbol of hope to millions of Americans. In 1962, he and a few others set out to organize a union of farm workers. Nearly everyone told them it was impossible. But for a time they succeeded beyond anyone's wildest imaginings. An ardent advocate of nonviolence, Chávez was one of the most inspirational labor leaders of the 20th century, with an influence that stretched far beyond the California fields.
César Chávez was born on March 31, 1927, the second of five children and the oldest of three brothers. His parents, Librado Chávez, a small farmer and businessman, and Juana Estrada Chávez, a strong-willed, pious Catholic, ran a farm, grocery store, garage and pool hall in Arizona's North Gila Valley, near the California-Mexico border. In 1938, the family was evicted from the land they had worked for nearly 50 years. "We left everything behind," Chávez recalled. "Left chickens and cows and horses and implements. Things belonging to my father's family and my mother's as well. Everything."
Chávez had a hard time adjusting to his new life as part of the migrant farm labor force. During the harvest season, everyone in the family had to pitch in to put enough food on the table and they lived "under a tree, with just a canvas on top of us, and sometimes in the car." And the work was hard. Working lettuce with a short-handled hoe, Chávez remembered, was "just like being nailed to a cross."
Chávez attended more than 36 schools before dropping out after eighth grade. Segregation of Mexican Americans was then an accepted practice in California, and he chafed at the open prejudice. Lying about his age, Chávez joined the U.S. Navy in 1944 and served two years before being honorably discharged. In 1946, he married his long-time sweetheart, Helen Fabela, whom he had met in 1943. Chávez worked as a ranch hand for two years, then landed a job with a lumber company.
Encouraged by Fred Ross, a well-known community organizer, Chávez quit the lumber yard to become a full-time organizer for the Community Services Organization (CSO), setting up chapters in Oakland and other towns across the state. Named executive director in 1959, Chávez moved to Los Angeles to work in the organization's front office. But two years later, in 1962, he moved to Delano, Calif., with his wife, their eight children and Dolores Huerta, a CSO colleague. There they established the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), lobbied for a minimum wage and unemployment insurance for farm workers, advocated farm workers' right to collective bargaining and established a life insurance plan, a credit union and a hiring hall for members.
A separate organization, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), funded by the AFL-CIO, also was trying to organize California farm workers. Under its leadership, Filipino field hands at nine labor camps struck in September 1965 and NFWA joined the strike. The farm workers' struggle struck an immediate chord with students and other activists already galvanized by the civil rights movement, as it did within the labor movement. Union longshoremen and truck drivers refused to load or haul grapes out of storage when volunteers picketed warehouses.
The strikers easily won the public relations battle. But they had a harder time winning the labor relations fight. For the next two years, the NFWA and AWOC conducted a two-front campaign against both the growers and the Teamsters, which was then not affiliated with the AFL-CIO and was also interested in representing farm workers. After the NFWA and AWOC merged in July 1966, the new United Farm Workers Organizing Committee won the first of many supervised representation elections. One year later, the United Farm Workers (UFW) signed contracts with some of the country's leading wine makers.
By 1967, the union had made tremendous strides. But its contracts only covered 5,000 of the state's 250,000 farm workers and the grape strike had failed to stop the shipment of table grapes to consumers. In August 1967, the union struck Giumarra Vineyards, a family-owned business and the largest grower of grapes in California. The company's 5,000 workers left in the middle of the grape harvest, and the company immediately brought in strikebreakers and secured injunctions restricting the union to no more than three pickets at each entrance. The union, in turn, declared a boycott of Giumarra grapes. Then, in January 1968, after the company had beaten the first boycott by shipping its grapes under the labels of other California and Arizona growers, the union extended the boycott to all table-grape growers.
Volunteers fanned out across North America to convince stores to stop carrying grapes and, if necessary, to convince consumers to stop buying them until the strike was settled. By 1969, the boycott had stopped the sales of California table grapes in Detroit, Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Montreal and Toronto. In July 1969, the Giumarra family told the union they wanted to sign a contract. They agreed to assemble the other 28 major grape growers, and, after three days of intense negotiations, the growers agreed to recognize the union, raise the grape pickers' pay, create a hiring hall, set up a joint labor-management committee to regulate pesticide use and contribute to the farm workers' health and welfare plan.
The UFW had little time to enjoy its victory before being drawn into other conflicts. It struggled first to implement and administer the contracts it had just negotiated, encountering especially strong resistance to the union hiring hall. The growers preferred to deal with labor contractors, who would discipline or fire workers if they complained too much. Many of the workers, too, felt that the new grievance procedures were cumbersome and inadequate. At the same time, the Teamsters continued to challenge the UFW for the right to represent field hands, using its control over the trucking industry to force the growers to sign its contracts.
Over the next few years, the UFW's grape contracts fell from 150 to 12, covering only 6,500 workers. Believing the union's only hope lay in a fair election in the fields, Chávez pressured Gov. Jerry Brown to support a farm labor law that would recognize the special circumstances of the migrant workers. With the governor's cautious support, and after many demonstrations, registration drives, fasts, boycotts, protests and appeals, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) was signed into law in June 1975.
Despite the new law, the UFW never regained the momentum it had enjoyed in the early 1970s. It won many elections under the ALRA and in the early 1980s held more than 140 contracts in California, as well as others with growers in Texas and Florida. But the growers learned to tie the union up in court with legal filings until the workers moved on or lost interest. Moreover, the union was plagued with internal problems, with many key staffers leaving or being fired in the early 1980s. Chávez remained revered by the Mexican American community and by farm workers everywhere. But the UFW never managed to stabilize its membership base. In 1992, the union had only 22,000 members.
Chávez died in April 1993 in Yuma, Ariz. He was there to testify at a hearing associated with a 17-year lawsuit against the union initiated by Bruce Church Incorporated, an agribusiness firm that, in a twist of fate, owned the land the Chávez family once had farmed.