Today’s Cesar Chavez Day comes during the 50th anniversary of Chavez’s setting off on his seemingly impossible goal of organizing California farmworkers. This period has seen a remarkable growth in Latino political power, electoral clout, and in unionized Latino workers, while the plight of farmworkers has gone backward since the UFW’s high point at the end of the 1970’s.
Chavez always insisted that bringing change would not be easy, and his legacy offers a powerful reminder that the progress toward greater social and economic justice does not proceed on a straight path. In 2008, candidate Barack Obama harkened back to Chavez and the UFW’s legacy when he led crowds in chanting the farmworker rallying cry, “Si Se Puede” in its anglicized, “Yes We Can.” Four years later, a combination of a right-wing Supreme Court, powerful corporate interests, and the President’s own timidity have left activists far less hopeful about the prospects for change.
Chavez and those who got their start as UFW activists knew well how quickly politics could turn. And the former UFW leader would be the first to argue that the opportunities for real change remain strong, and that it is up to activists to keep up the struggle.
Having written a book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, on the ongoing legacy of Cesar Chavez and the UFW, I obviously believe that today’s activists can learn much from the farmworkers movement. In past Chavez Day stories I urged readers to use Cesar Chavez Day to “rediscover Cesar Chavez,” focusing on how the UFW demonstrated the potential success of national grassroots campaigns, reinvented grassroots electoral outreach, and offered the greatest activist “incubator” of our times.
While the Occupy movement and President Obama’s election year resurgence have galvanized many activists, others remain dispirited. Cesar Chavez Day is a good time to recall how Chavez and the UFW experienced their own major setbacks through the 1960’s and 1970’s but surmounted them by never giving up the fight.
The UFW’s Legacy of Challenges
In 1962, Cesar Chavez began what all thought was an impossible effort to organize California’s migrant farmworkers. By 1966, Chavez had gotten national publicity and was building strong religious community support. While he did not have the best of relationships with California Governor “Pat” Brown (Jerry’s Dad) – unlike most of today’s labor leaders, Chavez did not hesitate to publicly criticize Brown just because the Governor was a Democrat – Brown was movable on state issues impacting farmworkers.
But Ronald Reagan defeated Brown in the 1966 election, ushering in eight years of anti-UFW hostility throughout many of the state agencies whose jurisdiction was farmworkers.
Richard Nixon’s 1968 election was made additionally painful by the role Chavez and the UFW had played in Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Chavez not only had a close personal bond with the nation’s most influential Catholic – Kennedy had come to the fields to urge Catholic support for the UFW in 1966 and then joined Chavez at the end of his legendary 25 day fast in 1968 – but the UFW’s Latino voter outreach for Kennedy was credited with his winning the California presidential primary that June.
It’s tough enough to devote your life to a candidate that loses; it’s unimaginable to have your candidate murdered on the night of an historic victory.
Despite these setbacks, Chavez and the UFW continued to build the farmworkers movement. In 1970, the union won its legendary grape boycott, as growers finally gave in to the massive consumer avoidance of grapes (Nixon’s Defense Department bought three million more pounds of grapes in 1969 over the previous year to help make up for the boycott. It would similarly triple its lettuce purchases during that UFW boycott).
But winning a three-year grape contract with growers through the boycott did not end the fight. When the contract ended, the growers switched their contracts to the then mob-controlled Teamsters union. Because the National Labor Relations Act did not cover farmworkers, and California had no independent law, the UFW could lose its hard won contracts without a vote of those working in the fields.
Imagine how that must have felt to those who waged a five-year strike and two year international boycott to win these grape contracts.
In January 1975, the New York Times wrote a story arguing that the UFW had failed and that the Teamsters would soon control the table grape, wine and lettuce industries. All the story did was inspire the UFW to intensify its boycott against Gallo Wine, and Fred Ross, Jr. led a march from San Francisco to Gallo’s headquarters in Modesto.
In response to the Times’ announcement of its imminent demise, the UFW brought 20,000 marching into Modesto, even more than had participated in Chavez’s 1966 “pilgrimage” from Delano to Sacramento that had put him on the national stage. In June 1975, less than six months after the Times’ prediction, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act was enacted and the Teamsters left the fields soon after.
Lessons for Today
I think the biggest difference between the mindset of Chavez and UFW activists and those who put their faith for change in Barack Obama and the national electorate is that the former never had a particular timetable or deadline for achieving key goals.
When Chavez started organizing farmworkers, nobody knew it would take 13 years to win labor rights, or if the campaign would win even after two decades.
In contrast, those who worked to elect Obama in 2008 justifiably expected that the President would quickly move to reverse what many believe was nearly four decades of rightward drift. While it’s become fashionable for progressives to say they always knew Obama was a “centrist,” I don’t recall reading predictions that Obama would not to be a fighter, that he would allow Republicans to pummel him without responding (contrary to how he treated McCain), and that he would pursue “bipartisanship” well past the point that anyone but himself thought it made sense.
Progressives did not get the leader they expected, just as Cesar Chavez and the UFW did not get the Governor or President they hoped for, and had a beloved ally cut down on route to the White House. But until activists gain the power to force a new deal, they must best play the cards dealt to them.
Fifty years ago, Cesar Chavez dared to pursue a dream of organizing farmworkers. He had no government or foundation funds, no wealthy benefactors, and no online funding operation – all he had was the force of his personality and he and his wife’s commitment to the struggle. For all of the reversals, disappointments and challenges left unmet, Cesar Chavez created a legacy that still inspires to this day.
Randy Shaw is also the author of The Activist’s Handbook.