Cesar Chavez or César Chávez (1927-1993), was an American labor leader and Latino civil rights activist, founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW). His public-relations approach to unionism and aggressive but nonviolent tactics made the farm workers' struggle a moral cause with nationwide support. By the late 1970s, his tactics had forced growers to recognize the UFW as the bargaining agent for 50,000 field workers in California and Florida. However, by the mid-1980s membership in the UFW had dwindled to around 15,000. His work is said to have led to many improvements in the working conditions experienced by farmhands.
Chavez was charismatic; a self-taught rhetorical genius he created commitment by inspiring well educated Latino idealists with undiscovered organizing potential and encouraged them to offer a liberating, self-abnegating devotion to the farmworkers' movement. Claiming as his models the violent Mexican warlord Emiliano Zapata as well as non-violent leaders Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Martin Luther King, Chavez called on his people to, "Make a solemn promise: to enjoy our rightful part of the riches of this land, to throw off the yoke of being considered as agricultural implements or slaves. We are free men and we demand justice."
After his death he became a major historical icon for the Latino community, and for liberals generally, symbolizing militant support for workers and for Hispanic power based on grass roots organizing and his slogan "Sí, se puede" (Yes we can!) His importance as a Latino hero in American history is celebrated by birthday becoming a holiday in four states and that the United States Postal Service has released a stamp in his honor.
He was born on March 31, 1927 on a farm near Yuma, Arizona owned by his parents. His family lost their holdings during the Great Depression and moved to California to work in the fields. Chavez attended numerous schools but never finished the eighth grade. Chavez served in the United States Navy 1944-1946, then worked in the fields until 1952. In 1952 he became an organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO), an organization founded by activist Fred Ross as a subsidiary of the Industrial Areas Foundation. After working with Chavez, Ross convinced Saul D. Alinsky that Chavez should be hired.
During that time, the CSO was targeting police brutality. In 1958 he was elected executive director of the CSO.
In 1962 Chavez resigned from the CSO, moved to Delano, California, and founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), precursor of the UFW. Dolores Huerta (b. 1930), was cofounder, first vice president and director of negotiations. Both Chavez and Huerta were personally mentored by Fred Ross.
At first, Chavez concentrated on building a grassroots power base among the field workers. In 1965 the NFWA first engaged in militant action by supporting a strike of Filipino grape pickers organized by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) led by Larry Itliong. Although the NFWA was weak, Chavez led his 2,000 members out on strike in support of the smaller group.
From the beginning of the Delano grape strike, he had to improvise tactics to counter the greater power of the growers. In the spring of 1966 Chavez called for a consumer boycott of grapes and led a 300-mile (485-km) march from Delano to Sacramento, thereby bringing the grape pickers' struggle to the attention of the nation. During the march Chavez issued the "Plan of Delano", a persuasive document that was designed to win support for crop-pickers on strike and for all oppressed minorities. The powerful rhetoric of the document reflected the turbulence of the Chicano and farmworkers' movements in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s.
The media publicity surrounding the march and the grape boycott, and the endorsement by Senator Robert F. Kennedy made it politically highly visible, especially on college campuses. In contrast to other Chicano leaders, Chavez espoused the principle of "militant nonviolence," a hybrid form of masculinity that had a decidedly religious tone to it and was strengthened by the Catholic Church's shifting of its role, under Pope John XXIII, toward helping the poor. Although many sectors inside the Chicano movement criticized Chavez for not being militant enough, writer and activist José G. Pérez helped patch the rift between the labor and Chicano movements by pointing out how their divisiveness only weakened the United Farm Workers union.
In 1966 the NFWA and AWOC merged into the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, (UFWOC), and affiliated with the AFL-CIO, with Chavez as head. He became the leader of a national effort to organize field workers. In 1968 Chavez fasted for 25 days to emphasize the nonviolent nature of his philosophy. By 1970 the boycott forced grape growers to sign UFW contracts. Monsignor George Higgins, nicknamed the "Labor Priest," helped move the Catholic bishops in California from neutrality to advocacy in the grape struggle. Higgins was a member of the Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Farm Labor, created in 1969 to mediate between the UFW and the growers. In July 1970, the committee won a momentary victory as union and growers reached an agreement.
Chavez's victory proved temporary, however, as a new fight almost immediately began when he attempted to organize workers in the lettuce fields. This time, the UFW faced a formidable opponent in the Teamsters Union. Chavez used the boycott against lettuce growers in defiance of court orders. He was jailed for contempt of court. In 1973 he urged his followers to disobey court injunctions restricting UFW picketing, and 3,500 strikers went to jail. In 1975 his supporters won enactment of a California law giving farm workers the right to bargain collectively through a union of their choice. The Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) gave farm workers protections similar to those accorded nonagricultural workers by the National Labor Relations Act ("Wagner Act") passed by Congress in 1935. Ironically, when ALRA enforcement by the state was at its most effective from 1975 to 1978, and the UFW was at the peak of its power, it nonetheless suffered its sharpest decline in political influence. By the mid-1980s the unionized work force in the California fields was virtually destroyed owing to the overwhelming political, financial, and social power of California agribusiness and to tactical mistakes by Chavez.
With the UFW and Teamsters in competition, by 1980 the entry-level hourly wage moved up over $7, and working conditions had significantly improved. The UFW had 50,000 workers under contract and hundreds of militant activists and organizers. Under Chavez the essential activity of the UFW was support work and publicity, primarily the boycott, rather than organizing farm workers in the fields. The very best farmworker activists, the strongest "Chavistas," were removed from the fields and direct contact with farmworkers, so that they could be sent to work in the boycott offices of major cities. The UFW was one of the least democratic unions in the country, with local officials appointed by the UFW executive board and under the direct control of Chavez. Most union staff served at his pleasure, and any local leaders who sought any real power independent of Chavez were fired by him. Chavez's insistence that the union's best strategies were marching and fasting resulted in the departure of key staffers who needed more than the union's salary of $5 a week and room and board. But by 1990 all the gains were lost. The lack of organizational strength among farm workers, together with fading support for boycotts, and a new Republican governor in Sacramento in 1983, allowed the largest growers to replace union contracts with labor contractors or to refuse to renegotiate UFW contracts when they expired. Average hourly wages fell to $5 and the UFW lost 80% of its membership as only 1% of California farm workers were union members.
Image and Memory
On the highly symbolic date of July 4, 1969 Time Magazine featured Chavez on its cover and hailed him as the "mystical" and "earthy" leader of the Mexican American civil rights movement, and the Chicano Martin Luther King Jr. resident Bill Clinton awarded Chavez a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom; the Post Office issued a first-class stamp with his picture in 2003; and California made his birthday an official state holiday. Schools, libraries, and streets have been named for him in California, Arizona, Texas, Minnesota, and other states.
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- LaBotz, Dan. Cesar Chavez and La Causa (2005), short scholarly biography
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- Orosco, Jose-Antonio. Cesar Chavez and the Common Sense of Nonviolence (2008)
- Prouty, Marco G. César Chávez, the Catholic Bishops, and the Farmworkers' Struggle for Social Justice. (2006). 185 pp.
Shaw, Randy. Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (2009)
- Taylor, Ronald B. Chavez and the Farm Workers (1975) online edition
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- Britannica Guide to 100 Most Influential Americans
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- The Story of Cesar Chavez (UFW Biography) http://lasculturas.com/biographies/214-civil-rights/112-cesar-chavez
- Richard A. Garcia, "Dolores Huerta: Woman, Organizer, and Symbol." California History 1993 72(1): 56-71. Issn: 0162-2897
- Ask President Obama to award Presidential Medal of Freedom to Cesar's mentor, Fred Ross Sr.
- "The Little Strike That Grew to La Causa," Time July 4, 1969
- Jorge Mariscal, "Negotiating Cesar: Cesar Chavez in the Chicano Movement." Aztlán 2004 29(1): 21-56. Issn: 0005-2604
- Miriam J. Wells and Don Villarejo, "State Structures and Social Movement Strategies: the Shaping of Farm Labor Protections in California." Politics & Society 2004 32(3): 291-326. Issn: 0032-3292
- Frank Bardacke, "Cesar's Ghost: Decline and Fall of the U.F.W.", The Nation (July 26, 1993) online version
- "The Little Strike That Grew to La Causa," Time July 4, 1969