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Cesar Chavez: A True American Hero March 31, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Labor.
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Cesar Chavez. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Saturday, 31 March 2012 09:22

Dick Meister, Dick Meister’s Blog | Op-Ed

I hope we can all pause and reflect on the extraordinary life of a true American hero today (March 31). It’s Cesar Chavez Day, proclaimed by President Obama and observed throughout the country on the 85th birth date of the late founder of the United Farm Workers union. It’s an official state holiday in California, Texas and Colorado.

As President Obama noted, Chavez was a leader in launching “one of our nation’s most inspiring movements.” He taught us, Obama added, “that social justice takes action, selflessness and commitment. As we face the challenges of the day, let us do so with the hope and determination of Cesar Chavez.”

Like another American hero, Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez inspired and energized millions of people worldwide to seek and win basic human rights that had long been denied them, and inspired millions of others to join the struggle.

Certainly there are few people in any field more deserving of special attention, certainly no one I’ve met in more than a half-century of labor reporting.

I first met Cesar Chavez when I was covering labor for the San Francisco Chronicle. It was on a hot summer night in 1965 in the little San Joaquin Valley town of Delano, California. Chavez, shining black hair trailing across his forehead, wearing a green plaid shirt that had become almost a uniform, sat behind a makeshift desk topped with bright red Formica.

“Si se puede,” he said repeatedly to me, a highly skeptical reporter, as we talked deep into the early morning hours there in the cluttered shack that served as headquarters for him and the others who were trying to create an effective farm workers union.

“Si se puede! – it can be done!”

But I would not be swayed. Too many others, over too many years, had tried and failed to win for farm workers the union rights they absolutely had to have if they were to escape the severe economic and social deprivation inflicted on them by their grower employers.

The Industrial Workers of the World who stormed across western fields early in the 20th century, the Communists who followed, the socialists, the AFL and CIO organizers – all their efforts had collapsed under the relentless pressure of growers and their powerful political allies.

I was certain this effort would be no different. I was wrong. I had not accounted for the tactical brilliance, creativity, courage and just plain stubbornness of Cesar Chavez, a sad-eyed, disarmingly soft-spoken man who talked of militancy in calm, measured tones, a gentle and incredibly patient man who hid great strategic talent behind shy smiles and an attitude of utter candor.

Chavez grasped the essential fact that farm workers had to organize themselves. Outside organizers, however well intentioned, could not do it. Chavez, a farm worker himself, carefully put together a grass-roots organization that enabled the workers to form their own union, which then sought out – and won – widespread support from influential outsiders.

The key weapon of the organization, newly proclaimed the United Farm Workers, or UFW, was the boycott. It was so effective between 1968 and 1975 that 12 percent of the country’s adult population – that’s 17 million people – quit buying table grapes.

The UFW’s grape boycott and others against wineries and lettuce growers won the first farm union contracts in history in 1970. That led to enactment five years later of the California law – also a first – that requires growers to bargain collectively with workers who vote for unionization. And that led to substantial improvements in the pay, benefits, working conditions and general status of the state’s farm workers. Similar laws, with similar results, have now been enacted elsewhere.

The struggle that finally led to victory was extremely difficult for the impoverished workers, and Chavez risked his health – if not his life – to provide them extreme examples of the sacrifices necessary for victory. Most notably, he engaged in lengthy, highly publicized fasts that helped rally the public to the farm workers’ cause and that may very well have contributed to his untimely death in 1993 at age 66.

Fasts, boycotts. It’s no coincidence that those were the principal tools of Mohandas Gandhi, for Chavez drew much of his inspiration from the Hindu leader. Like Gandhi and another of his models, Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez fervently believed in the tactics of non-violence. Like them, he showed the world how profoundly effective they can be in seeking justice from even the most powerful opponents.

“We have our bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons,” Chavez explained.

His iconic position has been questioned recently by outsiders claiming Chavez acted as a dictator in his last years as head of the UFW. But what the UFW accomplished under his leadership, and how the union accomplished it, will never be forgotten – not by the millions of social activists who have been inspired and energized by the farm workers’ struggle, nor by the workers themselves.

Chavez deservedly remains, and undoubtedly will always remain, an American icon who led the way to winning important legal rights for farm workers. But more than union contracts, and more than laws, farm workers now have what Cesar Chavez insisted was needed above all else. That, as he told me so many years ago, “is to have the workers truly believe and understand and know that they are free, that they are free men and women, that they are free to stand up and fight for their rights.”

Freedom. No leader has ever left a greater legacy. But the struggle continues. Despite the UFW victories, farm workers are in great need of fully exercising the rights won under Chavez’ leadership. They need to reverse what has been a decline in the UFW’s fortunes in recent years, caused in part by lax enforcement of the laws that granted farm workers union rights.

Many farm workers are still mired in poverty, their pay and working and living conditions a national disgrace. They average less than $10,000 a year and have few – if any – fringe benefits. They suffer seasonal unemployment.

Job security is rare, as many of the workers are desperately poor immigrants from Mexico or Central America who must take whatever is offered or be replaced by other desperately poor workers from the endless stream of immigrants. Child labor is rampant.

Most hiring and firing is done at the whim of employers, many of them wealthy corporate growers or labor contractors who unilaterally set pay and working conditions and otherwise act arbitrarily.

Workers are often exposed to dangerous pesticides and other serious health and safety hazards that make farm work one of the country’s most dangerous occupations. They often even lack such on-the-job amenities as fresh drinking water and field toilets, and almost invariably are forced to live in overcrowded, seriously substandard housing.

Cesar Chavez Day should remind us of the continuing need to take forceful legal steps and other action in behalf of farm workers – to help them overcome their wretched conditions and finally provide a decent life for all those who do the hard, dirty and dangerous work that puts fruit and vegetables on our tables.

We need, in short, to carry on what Cesar Chavez began. We could pay no greater homage to his memory.

Copyright © 2012 Dick Meister

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license.

The Man Who Wouldn’t Die November 19, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in History, Labor, Uncategorized.
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Today marks the 94th anniversary of labor hero Joe Hill’s death by firing squad. (Photo: david_axe / flickr)

http://www.truthout.org

Thursday 19 November 2009

by: Dick Meister, t r u t h o u t | Report
It’s November 19, 1915, in a courtyard of the Utah State Penitentiary in Salt Lake City. Five riflemen take careful aim at a condemned organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Joe Hill, who stands before them straight and stiff and proud.

“Fire!” he shouts defiantly.

The firing squad didn’t miss. But Joe Hill, as the folk ballad says, “ain’t never died.” On this 94th anniversary, he lives on as one of the most enduring and influential of American symbols.

Joe Hill’s story is that of a labor martyr framed for murder by viciously anti-labor employer and government forces, a man who never faltered in fighting for the rights of the oppressed, who never faltered in his attempts to bring them together for the collective action essential if they were to overcome their wealthy and powerful oppressors.

His is the story of a man and an organization destroyed by government opposition, yet immensely successful. As historian Joyce Kornbluh noted, the IWW made “an indelible mark on the American labor movement and American society,” laying the groundwork for mass unionization, inspiring the formation of groups to protect the civil liberties of dissidents, prompting prison and farm labor reforms, and leaving behind “a genuine heritage … industrial democracy.”

Joe Hill’s story is the story of, perhaps, the greatest of all folk poets, whose simple, satirical rhymes set to simple, familiar melodies did so much to focus working people on the common body of ideals needed to forge them into a collective force.

Remember? “You will eat, bye and bye/In that glorious land above the sky/Work and Pray, live on hay/You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”

Ralph Chaplain, the IWW bard who wrote “Solidarity Forever,” found Hill’s songs “as coarse as homespun and as fine as silk; full of laughter and keen-edged satire; full of fine rage and finer tenderness; songs of and for the worker, written in the only language he can understand.”

Joe Hill’s story is the story of a man who saw with unusual clarity the unjust effects of the political, social and economic system on working people and whose own widely publicized trial and execution alerted people worldwide to the injustices and spurred them into corrective action.

It’s the story of a man who told his IWW comrades, just before stepping in front of the firing squad: “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize!”

Hill’s comrades aimed at nothing less than organizing all workers into One Big Union regardless of their race, nationality, craft or work skills, calling a general strike and wresting control of the economy from its capitalist masters. The revolutionary message was presented in the simple language of the workplace, in the songs of Hill, Chaplain, and others, in the street corner oratory and in a tremendous outpouring of publications, including a dozen foreign-language newspapers, which were distributed among the many unskilled immigrants from European nations where unions had similar goals.

Workers were told again and again that they all had the same problems, the same needs and faced the same enemy. It was they who did the work, while others got the profit; they were members, all of them, of the working class. To aspire to middle-class status, as the established labor movement advocated, would mean competing against their fellow workers and chaining themselves to a system that enslaved them.

Organized religion also was a tool of enslavement, to keep the worker’s eye on that “pie in the sky” while he was being exploited in this world. Patriotism was a ruse to set the workers of one nation against those of another for the profit of capitalist manipulators.

IWW organizers carried the message to factories, mines, mills and lumber camps throughout the country, and to farms in the Midwest and California.

The cause of radical unionism to which Joe Hill devoted his life was lost a long time ago. The call to revolution is scarcely heard in today’s clamorously capitalist society. Labor organizations seek not to seize control of the means of production, but rather to share in the fruits of an economic system controlled by others. Yet, Joe Hill’s fiery words and fiery deeds, his courage and his sacrifices continue to inspire political, labor, civil rights and civil liberties activists.

They still sing his songs, striking workers, dissident students, and others, on picket lines, in demonstrations, at rallies, on the streets and in auditoriums. They echo his spirit of protest and militancy, his demand for true equality, share his fervent belief in solidarity, even use tactics first employed by Hill and his comrades.

Hill emigrated to the United States from his native Sweden in 1902, changing his name from Joel Haaglund, working as a seaman and as an itinerant wheat harvester, pipe layer, copper miner, and at other jobs as he made his way across the country to San Diego, translating into compelling lyrics the hopes and desires, the frustrations and discontents of his fellow workers.

In San Diego, Hill joined in one of the first of the many “free speech fights” waged by the Industrial Workers of the World against attempts by municipal authorities around the country to silence the street corner oratory that was a key part of the IWW’s organizing strategy.

Not long afterward, Hill hopped a freight for Salt Lake City where he helped lead a successful construction workers’ strike and began helping organize another free speech fight. But within a month, he was arrested on charges of shooting to death a grocer and his son and was immediately branded guilty by the local newspapers and authorities alike. Ultimately, Hill was convicted on only the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence.

Hill had staggered into a doctor’s office within an hour after the shootings, bleeding from a chest wound that he said had stemmed from a quarrel over a woman. The prosecutor argued that the wound was inflicted by the grocer in response to an attack by Hill, although he did not introduce into evidence either the grocer’s gun or the bullet that allegedly was fired from it. He did not introduce the gun that Hill allegedly used and did not call a single witness who could positively identify Hill as the killer. But he easily convinced the jury that the murders were an example of IWW terrorism and that since Hill was an IWW leader and had been arrested and charged with the crime, he was guilty.

As Hill’s futile appeals made their way through the courts, Gov. William Spry of Utah was swamped with thousands of petitions and letters from all over the world asking for a pardon or commutation. But he would not even be swayed by the pleas for mercy from the Swedish ambassador. Not even by the pleas of US President Woodrow Wilson.

The governor paid much greater attention to the views of Utah’s powerful Mormon Church leaders and powerful employer interests, particularly those who controlled the state’s dominant copper mining industry. They insisted that the man they considered one of the most dangerous radicals in the country be put to death.

Joe Hill’s body was shipped to Chicago, where it was cremated after a hero’s funeral, the ashes divided up and sent to IWW locals for scattering on the winds in every state except Utah. Hill, with typical grim humor, had declared, “I don’t want to be caught dead in Utah.”

Even in death, Hill was not safe from the government. One packet of his ashes, sent belatedly to an IWW organizer in 1917 for scattering in Chicago, was seized by postal inspectors. They acted under the Espionage Act, passed after the United States entered World War I that year, which made it illegal to mail any material that advocated “treason, insurrection. or forcible resistance to any law of the United States.”

The envelope, containing about a tablespoon of Hill’s ashes, was sent to the National Archives in Washington, DC. It remained hidden there until 1988, when it was discovered and turned over in Chicago to the men who presided over what little remained of the Industrial Workers of the World, shrunken to only a few hundred members.

The post office apparently had objected to the caption beneath a photo of Hill on the front of the envelope. “Joe Hill,” it said – “murdered by the capitalist class, November 19, 1915.”

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