United Farm Workers of America

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The United Farm Workers of America (UFW) is a labor union for American farm workers. It serves primarily Hispanic workers in California; it was founded by Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), and although small and not very important, the union gained enormous national attention as the symbol of Latino labor activism.

Time magazine July 4, 1969

Chavez's 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.

In 1966 two recently formed small unions 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. 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.[1]

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.[2]


  • Bardacke, Frank. "Cesar's Ghost: Decline and Fall of the U.F.W.", The Nation (July 26, 1993) online version
  • Bruns, Roger. Cesar Chavez: A Biography (2005) excerpt and text search
  • Etulain, Richard W. Cesar Chavez: A Brief Biography with Documents (2002), 138pp; by a leading historian. excerpt and text search
  • Ferriss, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval, eds. The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Griswold del Castillo, Richard, and Richard A. Garcia. Cesar Chavez: A Triumph of Spirit (1995). highly favorable treatment
  • LaBotz, Dan. Cesar Chavez and La Causa (2005), short scholarly biography
  • Meister, Dick and Anne Loftis. A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America's Farm Workers, (1977).
  • Prouty, Marco G. César Chávez, the Catholic Bishops, and the Farmworkers' Struggle for Social Justice. (2006). 185 pp.
  • Taylor, Ronald B. Chavez and the Farm Workers (1975) online edition

Primary Sources

  • Chavez, Cesar. The Words of Cesar Chavez ed. by Richard J. Jensen, and John C. Hammerback (2002) excerpt and text search

Online resources


  1. 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
  2. Frank Bardacke, "Cesar's Ghost: Decline and Fall of the U.F.W.", The Nation (July 26, 1993) online version