When I was 17, I went to work for an Ohio farm owner who marketed his produce out of a grocery story located in his barn. I trimmed produce, loaded the truck that delivered goods to a market in the city, and labored in the fields alongside Puerto Rican workers who had been lured to Ohio by the promise of “high wages”, a dollar an hour.
As Felito, Miguel and Oscar became my friends, I learned more of their stories. Their lives resembled those of coal miners before the advent of strong unions. My friends paid rent to the owner, purchased their groceries and necessities in his store. Those who had families to support were trapped. The work was grueling, the hours long, the pay minimal.
One day I overheard the owner’s adult son talking with a deliveryman. “These Puerto Ricans will stay and work as long as you can keep them dumb,” he intoned. “Once they earn enough money to buy a car, they get out and see what kind of money other people are making and they won’t stay.”
I learned two things that summer: In union there is strength, and knowledge is power.
The lot of agricultural workers has always been a hard one. They were one of the only groups of private employees excluded from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, guaranteeing Americans the right to form unions. For decades, farm workers have lived in migrant camps, shacks, even tents and been denied basic amenities.
Beginning in the 1860’s, waves of immigrants were recruited as farm workers in California, where most of the nation’s fruits and vegetables are harvested: Chinese, Japanese, East Indians, Filipinos, desperate “Okies”, fleeing the dust bowl of the 30’s, and Mexicans. As the labor pool increased, wages decreased and conditions worsened.
Cesar Chavez was born in 1927 in Arizona, the son of a small farmer and businessman. When the Great Depression hit, his parents barely survived but offered what food they had to those passing by who were in even greater need. Cesar’s mother, steeped in Catholic teaching, instilled in him the importance of generosity and nonviolence. Cesar’s boyhood remained carefree until a drought caused his family to lose their farm and businesses and join the great mass of other homeless people wandering the California countryside in search of work. He knew hard, grueling labor and desperate poverty first hand. He attended 36 different schools as his parents moved from job to job. He knew the sting of racism, being denied entrance or service at stores, restaurants and theaters because of his ethnicity. Some of his teachers treated Mexican children cruelly, assuming that they lacked intelligence.
Cesar, a World War II veteran, possessed only an eighth grade education, but under the tutelage of an activist Catholic priest Father Donald McDonnell he read carefully and obsessively the words of St. Francis of Assisi, Alexis de Tocqueville, labor leaders like John L. Lewis and Eugene Debs, and Mahatma Gandhi.
Recognizing Cesar’s quiet but firm leadership qualities, community organizer Fred Ross recruited him in 1952 for the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group. During the years while Cesar rose to become its president, he concluded that the only way to truly improve the lives of farm workers was to create a powerful union and that only the nonviolent techniques of Gandhi could be effective.
As he would say later, “Nonviolence is not inaction. It is not discussion. It is not for the timid or weak. Nonviolence is hard work. It is the willingness to sacrifice. It is the patience to win.”
In 1962, he left CSO and co-founded the United Farm Workers Association. This decision was to define the remainder of his life. Author Peter Mathiessen, who knew him well, tells us that Cesar chose to live nearly penniless, owning no property and giving all he had, even endangering his health, to the farm workers union. He was a man unmoved by money, who offered his entire life to the service of others.
The goals of the union were modest: Demands for a living wage, clean water, decent housing, toilets in the fields, health benefits, collective bargaining without interference from police or corporate growers and a cessation of insecticide spraying while workers were in the fields. As one member explained, “Cesar wanted the patron to share the riches he was able to earn.”
The only weapons in the arsenal of the UFW were the boycott and “la huelga”, the strike.
Chavez and his followers met with hostility, even violence. Some growers imported desperately poor Mexican nationals willing to work for any wage to harvest crops and break UFW strikes. Cesar refused to allow growers to pit Chicano against Mexican and relied upon patient persuasion and education in the fields to bring them over into the union.
Some growers hired thugs from the lowest rungs of society as strikebreakers, violent men of whom Jack London once said, “When God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad and the vampire, he had some awful substance left with which he made a strike breaker.”
Some growers even used small children as strikebreakers to pack grapes.
Minority farm workers were often victims of racial violence. Local officials seldom prosecuted those who attacked farm workers. Strikers and protesters were often harassed, intimidated and beaten by thuggish growers and their hired toughs, including members of the corrupt Teamsters Union, who used brutal, fascistic methods in their attempts to replace the UFW. In return for large campaign contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election efforts in 1972, the administration supported the Teamsters’ attempt to supplant the UFW.
Meanwhile, growers and the Farm Bureau accused the UFW of using heavy-handed tactics.
In 1971, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigated an alleged plot to assassinate Cesar. According to BATF, a drug dealer had been paid $25, 000 to hire a hit man to shoot Cesar. The investigation was later dropped, possibly under pressure from Washington.
Chavez and members of his union were also victims of red baiting by growers, police and the local press. During the 1950’s, a time of anti-communist paranoia and McCarthy-ite hysterics, any challenge to the status quo was considered Communist inspired. To speak openly of civil rights, police brutality or voter registration was to invite being labeled Communist. Even though they found no suspicion of Communist subversion, the UFW was kept under FBI surveillance for many years.
On more than one occasion, Chavez, a vegetarian and animal rights advocate, endured lengthy, highly publicized fasts to promote his causes. While leading a thousand mile protest march across California, he subsisted on watermelon and raw vegetables.
Consumers are generally unaware of where their food comes from. In order to build support for the union, the public had to be reached through the media. Utilizing the non-violent techniques of Gandhi, success came, but it came slowly and at great sacrifice. It took decades, for instance, to finally ban “el cortito”, the short-handled hoe, which forced workers to stoop all day while harvesting crops.
Membership in the UFW grew, and similar unions arose in Texas, Wisconsin and Ohio. By the 1970’s, the Salad Bowl Strike was the largest farm worker strike in history.
One major issue continued to be the spraying of pesticides while workers of all ages were in the fields. Pesticide poisoning was so severe that nearly a thousand wells around Fresno were closed. After exposure to spraying, hundreds were sometimes hospitalized with low heart rates, shock and vomiting. Cancer clusters, including leukemia, began to appear among children of farm workers in small towns near Delano, California.
In the 70’s, Chavez negotiated an end to spraying DDT and other toxins on grape and lettuce crops. Still, in the 80’s, hundreds of people became ill after eating watermelons sprayed illegally with Aldicarb, a toxin that is now strictly regulated. Such incidents led to UFW inspired boycotts to eliminate chemicals that could cause illness and death among farm workers. The UFW helped Monterey County enact the nation’s toughest pesticide-use laws, which prompted statewide regulations.
In 1965, the UFW joined a grape strike initiated by Filipino workers. The ensuing nationwide grape boycott lasted for five years. As public awareness of the plight of farm workers became evident, people across the US and Canada joined the boycott. Senator Robert F. Kennedy expressed support for the strike, but Governor Ronald Reagan called it immoral and contemptuously slowly ate grapes in public.
When agreements were reached, the strike ended. Cesar insisted that UFW members respond with humility, not celebration.
While the struggles of Cesar Chavez and the UFW accomplished much to improve conditions, life remains harsh for agricultural workers. Individuals and corporations have all too often regarded Mexican people as merely a source of cheap labor. Whenever there were labor shortages—as during World War II—Mexicans were encouraged to seek employment north of the border. When the troops came home, we could not evict them fast enough. Today, individual and corporate growers continue to intentionally recruit a workforce from across the Mexican border that they can exploit and use against local laborers.
Those who profess Christianity and yet abuse the destitute and the homeless would be well advised to remember that dehumanizing and “othering” anyone is an offense to the Good Shepherd.
Cesar cautioned, “It is possible to become discouraged about the injustice we see everywhere. But God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. He gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose they way we will use our limited time on earth.”
As human numbers continue to surpass the carrying capacity of many nations, excess populations spill across international borders providing a pool of desperate, easily victimized unemployed.
Real change will occur globally only when the twin issues of overpopulation and the marginalization of women are realistically addressed. At the same time, the growing power of massive corporate oligarchies is long overdue for curtailment. Much stricter standards need to be applied to the use of pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified organisms that constitute ever more serious threats to the world food supply.
As Cesar said, “ The risks are given to the consumer, the unsuspecting consumer, and the poor work force. And who gets the benefits? The benefits are only for the corporations, for the money makers.”
Cesar Chavez died of natural causes in 1993. The Speaker of the California State Senate observed, “We have lost perhaps the greatest Californian of the twentieth century,” elevating him above two of his old nemeses, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Today, Cesar’s spirit lives on, inspiring any peaceful struggle by the poor and disenfranchised against heavy-handed power elites.