Mexican-American labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez dedicated his life’s work to what he called the causa (the cause): the struggle of farm workers in the United States to improve their working and living conditions by organizing and negotiating contracts with their employers.
Engaged in the tactics of nonviolent resistance practiced by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association (later United Farm Workers of America) and achieved significant victories to raise wages and improve the working conditions of agricultural workers in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Youth and work as a community organizer
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Cesar Estrada Chavez was born in Yuma, Arizona on March 31, 1927. In the late 1930s, after losing their property to foreclosure, he and his family joined over 300,000 people who moved to California. during the Great Depression and became migrant farm workers.
Chavez dropped out of school after eighth grade and began working in the fields full time. In 1946, he joined the United States Navy, serving for two years in a separate unit. After his service was over, he returned to farm work and married Helen Fabela, with whom he would eventually have eight children (and 31 grandchildren).
In 1952, Chavez was working in a lumber yard in San Jose when he became a grassroots organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Latino civil rights group. Over the next decade, he worked to register new voters and fight racial and economic discrimination, and became the national director of the OSC. Chavez resigned from the CSO in 1962, after other members refused to support his efforts to form a union for agricultural workers. That same year, he used his savings to found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in Delano, California.
Founding of the National Farm Workers Association and the 1965 grape strike
Chavez knew firsthand the struggles of the country’s poorest and most helpless workers, who worked to put food on the country’s tables while often starving themselves. Not covered by minimum wage laws, many earned as little as 40 cents an hour and were not eligible for unemployment insurance. Previous attempts to unionize farm workers had failed, as California’s powerful agricultural industry retaliated with all the weight of their money and political power.
Chavez was inspired by the nonviolent civil disobedience initiated by Gandhi in India and the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th century Italian nobleman who gave up his material wealth to live with and work on behalf of the poor. Working hard to build the NFWA alongside fellow organizer Dolores Huerta, Chavez traveled the San Joaquin and Imperial valleys to recruit union members. Meanwhile, Helen Chavez worked in the fields to support the family, as they struggled to stay afloat.
In September 1965, the NFWA launched a strike against California winegrowers alongside the Farm Workers’ Organizing Committee (AWOC), a group of Filipino-American workers. The strike lasted five years and turned into a nationwide boycott of California grapes. The boycott garnered broad support, thanks to the highly visible campaign led by Chavez, who led a 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento in 1966 and began a well-publicized 25-day hunger strike in 1968.
“I am convinced that the true act of courage, the strongest act of manhood, is to sacrifice yourself for others in a completely non-violent struggle for justice,” said Chavez, in a speech read on his behalf at the end. of his first hunger strike. . “To be a man is to suffer for others. May God help us to be men. “
READ MORE: How Cesar Chavez joined Larry Itliong in pushing for farm workers’ rights
The United Farm Workers and Chavez’s Later Career
The grape strike and boycott ended in 1970, as farm workers reached a collective agreement with leading winegrowers that increased workers’ wages and gave them the right to organize. The NWFA and AWOC merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, which in 1971 became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).
Throughout the 1970s, Chavez continued to lead the union’s efforts to secure employment contracts for agricultural workers in the agricultural industry, using the same non-violent strike and boycott techniques. In 1972, he went on a second hunger strike to protest an Arizona law banning farm workers from organizing and demonstrating. Through the efforts of the UFW, California passed the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, giving all farm workers the right to organize and negotiate better wages and working conditions.
In the mid-1980s, Chavez focused UFW’s efforts on a campaign to highlight the dangers of pesticides to farm workers and their children. In 1988, at the age of 61, he began his third hunger strike, which lasted 36 days.
Chavez died in his sleep on April 23, 1993, at the age of 66. The following year, President Bill Clinton awarded him a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. As a sign of the union leader’s lasting influence, Barack Obama borrowed a slogan from Chavez:Si, se puede, or “Yes, we can” – during his successful run to become the first black president of the United States in 2008.
Maureen Pao, “Cesar Chavez: Life Behind a Legacy of Farm Workers’ Rights.” NPR, August 12, 2016.
Miriam Pawel, The crusades of Cesar Chavez. (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014)
California Hall of Fame: Cesar Chavez. California Museum.