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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.

Happy Birthday, Cesar Chavez! March 31, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Human Rights, Labor.
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cesar-chavez

David Swanson

www.opednews.com, March 31, 2009

No, he’s NOT the president of Venezuela. 

Yes, he was the man who popularized the slogan “Yes, we can!”  Only he said “Si’ se puede!” 

Cesar Chavez, American young people should know, was an American who 40 years ago was inspiring young people to work long, hard hours for social justice.  And not only did they do so in great numbers, but they actually achieved social justice, they won victories that kept them going.  And many of them are going still, having made long, enjoyable, and effective careers of it.

Chavez organized the United Farm Workers, vastly improving the working conditions of farm workers in California and around the country.  The UFW pioneered numerous tactics that have been used with great success ever since, including most famously the boycott.  Half the country stopped eating grapes until the people who picked the grapes were allowed to form a union. 

Now much of what we eat and otherwise consume is made by slave labor, sweatshop labor, and workers without rights or their basic needs met.  Many of these products are shipped to us from distant lands.  Some are produced in the United States, including California, where farm workers’ power is not what it was. 

But the people the UFW trained have taken their skills “Beyond the Fields,” which is the title of a wonderful new book by Randy Shaw that chronicles the long-term effects of the UFW’s successes.  Techniques mastered by the UFW have been employed with great success beyond the fields, including the technique of targeting a corporation or politician from numerous angles at once.  In addition to boycotts, the UFW pioneered the use of fasting, the framing of workers’ issues in moral terms, actions aimed at gaining media attention, creating media with human billboards and other street theater, encouraging civic participation among union members, coalition building, and voter outreach and election day activities that have proved consistently powerful and effective. 

UFW veterans have used these techniques to elect better politicians, to reform numerous corporations, to win union contracts and better conditions for janitors, to build a movement for immigrants rights, and to advance an endless list of social causes.  When I worked for ACORN, what I saw ACORN’s organizers and members doing was straight out of the UFW.  In fact, reading Chavez’ writings was mandatory.  A campaign like the one I wrote about here that won a half a billion dollars from a predatory bank for its victims was pure UFW, even if those working on it were a degree of separation or two removed from Cesar Chavez.  “If there were a post-World War II Hall of Fame for activists in America, UFW veterans would dominate the inductees,” writes Shaw. 

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been failures and improvements, set backs and new innovations, and good techniques put to questionable ends.  But, on the whole, the approach of the UFW is one we would clearly benefit from following more closely.  We should focus on training and education.  We should build activist organizations that inspire young people to join and sacrifice.  That means taking principled moral positions and fighting for them.  And it means delegating responsibility to young people and training them above all to train others.  And it means taking risks.

The cry of “si’ se puede!” comes out of a 1972 campaign to recall the governor of Arizona who had just signed an anti-labor bill.  In four and a half months, the UFW registered almost 100,000 new voters, most of them poor Navajos and Mexican Americans.  While the attorney general blocked the recall, four Mexican Americans and two Navajos were elected to the state legislature, and Mexican Americans were elected to local councils, judgeships, and school boards, and two years later to the office of governor.  In the process, the UFW showed others how to alter politics by organizing volunteers to sign up new voters.

But the UFW didn’t just register voters who could be counted on to vote for the lesser of two lousy candidates.  The UFW backed candidates and got them elected while simultaneously forcing them to comply with farm workers’ demands.  This is the lesson that we’ve lost today, as we put massive efforts into electing candidates while making no demands of them.  In 1974 the UFW was critical to the success of Jerry Brown’s campaign for governor of California, and had high hopes that he would sign a bill friendly to farm labor once elected.  But the UFW did more than hope, it got a similar bill introduced and forced Brown to publicly express his support for it.  This required a sit-in in a campaign office staffed by friends and colleagues.  Once Brown was governor, Chavez had to threaten a massive march to the capitol.  The first Agricultural Labor Relations Act in the country was signed into law in June 1975, and UFW staff went on to coordinate Brown’s presidential campaigns.  They had earned his respect, something progressives today do not get from politicians by giving everything they have and never insisting on anything in return. 

If Cesar Chavez were alive, he would be sitting in the office of a senator who is refusing to back the Employee Free Choice Act, he would be fasting, he would be refusing to leave, and he would be telling you Si Se Puede!

 

 David Swanson is the author of the upcoming book “Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union” by Seven Stories Press and of the introduction to “The 35 Articles of Impeachment and the Case for Prosecuting George W.

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