Thursday, May 9, 2013
Meyers: La Causa
There were many advances for workers in the Twentieth Century. Labor unions were formed and legislation was enacted to protect workers. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 insured a minimum wage and abolished child labor. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 gave workers the legal right to join a union and the right to collective bargaining. The Social Security Act of 1935 insured financial assistance for older and handicapped workers. Many benefitted from these advances, but agricultural workers were left behind, most of who were Mexican American or Filipino. That all changed when Cesar Chavez decided to devote his life to improving and securing the lives of farm workers. It wasn’t only a labor struggle, but a fight for equality and respect for Mexican Americans.
It’s hard to believe that in the United States, in the 1960’s, an entire industry of workers were living in poverty and working without any safeguards. 84% earned less than the federal poverty level of $3100; the average annual income was $1378. Their poverty was so prevalent that in Fresno County over 80% of the welfare cases were from labor families.1 Most of these laborers were Mexican American and many were undocumented workers. Farm workers were hired sporadically and the competition was fierce. They were always under the threat of being replaced by someone who would work for less money. It was backbreaking work performed in the hot sun and dusty fields. They were always on the move, looking for the next harvest; it was impossible to set up permanent homes and keep their children in schools. Many of the big farms set up shantytowns for the laborers and their families to live in. They were often nothing more than shacks or trailers without plumbing or electricity.2 With all of these hardships, farm workers still had a reluctance to strike; they feared losing their jobs and deportation.
Agriculture was outside the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board, which had provided federal ground rules for industrial workers’ unions since 1935. On a national level, there was no similar mechanism for farm workers.3 Using his own savings Cesar Chavez formed the National Farm Workers Association in the San Joaquin Valley of California. He drove from town to town and spoke with as many workers as he could. He managed to recruit 1000 members by August 1964. They started collecting dues and circulating a newspaper called El Malcriado (The Misfit). With the help of Dolores Huerta, Chavez started to challenge the growers on issues of wages and conditions at the labor camps. They were winning cases in court and always trying to convince workers to strike. Getting workers to strike was the hardest task. The fear of losing their jobs, being replaced by illegals, and the lack of wages while on strike was enough to keep workers from striking or joining a union at all. The struggle to organize farm workers was extremely difficult. The growers had the upper hand; they had an unlimited supply of undocumented Mexicans willing to work the fields.
A major strategy of Chavez’s was to enact a boycott. He wanted to go right to the consumer and boycott table grapes. They put pressure on supermarkets and consumers to sympathize with the plight of the farm worker. The AFL-CIO gave their support to the grape boycott. Walter Reuther told the strikers, “We will put the full support of organized labor behind your boycott. You are making history here.”4 Chavez organized workers and volunteers to go out to 13 cities in the United States to spread the word. They begged for money and borrowed help from union offices all over the country. They distributed leaflets, spoke to retailers, church and neighborhood leaders, anyone who would listen to spread the word of their cause. In 1968 nationwide grape sales were off 12% and prices for California grapes were down 15%.5 By bringing the issue to the people, Chavez and his team made the public aware of the terrible conditions of the workers and the tremendous greed and racism of the growers. It was working; there was worldwide interest in Cesar Chavez and his grape boycott.
In speaking about the boycott Chavez recalled, “ To us the boycott of grapes was the most near-perfect of nonviolent struggles, because nonviolence also requires mass involvement. The boycott demonstrated to the whole country, the whole world, what people can do with nonviolent action.”6 The issue of nonviolence was important to Chavez. He felt that the collective peaceful efforts of the grape boycott would elevate the labor struggle of the farm worker to a social issue. The public became aware of the injustice and racism in the agriculture business in America. The mostly uneducated and poverty-stricken Mexican American farm laborer became someone every worker could relate to. He was just like them, struggling to make a living. Chavez looked to Gandhi and Christ for inspiration. He was convinced that nonviolence was the only way to go. He also used fasting and hunger strikes to get his message to the workers and to the public. By getting people to participate he was able to add enormous strength to his movement. He was also aware that it would take longer, but he was willing to pay the price in terms of time to be able to attract more people, to generate more power.7
Chavez was a gentle man who preached nonviolence, but not all of the strikers adhered to the same ideals. There was some violence against the growers, some of it real and some of it staged by the growers to make the strikers look bad. There was unrest in the ranks and the men were anxious for retaliation. Chavez couldn’t fathom the idea that someone could be hurt or possibly killed; he decided to go on a fast to show the movement that he was prepared to suffer for them. Many people fasted in solidarity with him and the Catholic Church became involved. There were masses and offerings; Chavez was likened to Christ. Many people accused Chavez of grandstanding and theatrics. But for him, this was a cultural thing, suffering and penance was a big part of Mexican culture. In the end, the fast unified the farm workers of California. It reined in the little bits of fighting and the aggression that was building up. He proved himself a leader once again and gained the respect of the workers he was fighting for.8
In 1969, E.L. Barr, Jr., the President of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, publically attributed the success of the grape boycott to violence and terror tactics.
Chavez, in an open letter to the grape industry, accused Barr of lying and in effect committing violence against their peaceful movement. He asked him to retract his accusations and pled with him to sit down and negotiate with the union. He went on to describe many of the horrible things that the strikers had been subjected to during their quest for equal rights and opportunities. He told of men that had been beaten, kicked, attacked by dogs, cursed, ridiculed, stripped, chained, jailed, and sprayed with toxic chemicals. He described all of the ways that their protests had been dignified and non violent. He ended the letter by describing, “ a determined nonviolent struggle carried on by those masses of farmworkers who intend to be free and human.”9 Chavez always brought the fight back to the social issues facing farm workers. He strove for dignity and equality along with the quest for fair wages and stable, healthy, and safe working conditions.
Cesar Chavez made a difference in the lives of Mexican American farm laborers. The United Farm Workers union was able to negotiate improvements in working conditions and wages. In an era of social consciousness, through his strategies of non-violence and fasting, he was able to appeal to the working class of America. At the same time, he attracted politicians, students, and journalists interested in affecting social change. All of America was able to relate to the fact that the very farmers growing their food were themselves going hungry. Chavez was a brilliant strategist and used those strategies to improve the image and life of the farm worker.
1 John Gregory Dunne, “Strike,” Saturday Evening Post, 5/6/1967.
2 “The Little Strike That Grew To La Causa,”Time, 07/04/1969.
4 Dunne, “Strike.”
5 Time, “The Little Strike.”
6 Jacques E. Levy,Cesar Chavez Autobiography of La Causa (Minneapolis,MN: University of Minnesota Press,2007), p269.
7 Levy, Autobiography of La Causa, p271.
8 Levy, Autobiography of La Causa, p272-275.
9 Susan Ferris and Ricardo Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement (New York, Harcourt Brace & Company,1997) p150-151.