Cesar Chavez: Change Needs More than “Yes We Can”


Jerry Brown and Cesar Chavez in 1976

The UFW’s Legacy of Challenges

Four years after commencing what all thought was an impossible effort to organize California’s migrant farmworkers, Cesar 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.

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