Cesar Chavez In the early 1960 s, many minority groups rebelled against conservative America. One of these organizations was the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), a group of migrant farm workers that sought contracts with their employers that would include higher wages and more favorable working conditions. Cesar Chavez, a Mexican-American migrant farm worker and leader of the NFWA, followed the path of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , the two people most influential on his life, and emphasized the use of nonviolence throughout the movement.
Chavez s protests and boycotts, including the famous Delano grape strike, gained national attention and affected American consumers everyday lives by attempting to persuade them not to buy certain products at local markets. By successfully leading a series of nonviolent boycotts and strikes that resulted in higher pay and better working conditions, Cesar Chavez emerged as the leader of the Mexican-American Working Rights Movement. Early in his childhood, it seemed as though Chavez would live the difficult life of searching for job opportunities as a migrant farm worker. He was born on March 31, 1927 on a farm near Yuma, Arizona. The Chavez family was struck extremely hard by the Great Depression of 1929, and like so many other Americans at the time, they lost their farm and business and possessed little money. After his family had a brief stay at Cesar s grandfather s house, Cesar s father took them to California in search of work.
They were no different than the 300, 000 other Americans who had lost their land to depression and were now condemned to the life of the migrant worker. As a migrant farm worker, Cesar s childhood was disrupted and limited to activities that would help the family s survival. Because the job involved constant movement from farm to farm, Cesar was in and out of schools until eighth grade, when he withdrew permanently. The firs job Cesar and his family procured was pea-picking for a minor company in Half Moon Bay, California.
They spent two hours walking long rows and bending at the waist to fill hampers with peas. After another hour of sorting and weighing, the entire family made a total of twenty cents. Following twelve hours of work each day, the Chavez family went back to their tent where they nearly starved to death on several occasions. At the age of seventeen, Cesar felt that he needed to escape his job as a migrant worker, so he enlisted in the United States Navy for two years during World War II. Chavez remembered his navy service as the worst two years of his life when he recalled that he received much racial discrimination and was ostracized by the other soldiers whenever possible (Rodriguez 32). After returning home, Chavez was exposed to even more discrimination when he was ordered to sit in the section of a movie theater reserved for Mexicans, blacks, and Filipinos.
He refused to leave the white section and was taken to jail; however, they released him shortly after because the police could not charge him with anything. Outraged with the events of his life so far, Cesar met with Father Donald McDonnell, a Catholic priest who came to Sal Si Puedes, Cesar s home city, to conduct masses for the Mexican Americans. McDonnell introduced Chavez to the biography of Mohandas K. Gandhi, who by nonviolent means had led India s struggle for independence from the British Empire after World War II. Noticing the same working conditions and low wages for migrant workers as when he was a child, Chavez believed he could follow the path of Ghandi and lead a nonviolent revolution of his own. He became a member of the Community Service Organization (CSO), the most powerful Mexican-American political organization in California, and he attended many lectures by members that attempted to organize labor unions but had failed.
After proposing a new, more powerful labor union of migrant farm workers to the CSO, Cesar s idea was rejected because of lack of supporters and finances. However, Chavez refused to quit. After gathering supporters from both within the CSO and farmers not associated with it, Cesar Chavez broke away from the Community Service Organization and founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which would have more success than anyone could have predicted. The NFWA s ability to negotiate with business was challenged early in 1965 when Chavez received several complaints by organization members about working conditions for grape pickers in Delano, California. The NFWA voted unanimously to support the Delano migrant workers on the picket lines until contracts were created. After being assigned to cover the strike, journalist John Gregory Dunne noted, The workers [hunched] under the vines like ducks.
There [was] no air, making the intense heat all but unbearable. Gnats and bugs [swarmed] out from under the leaves. Some workers [wore] face masks; others, handkerchiefs knotted around their heads to catch the sweat (Rodriguez 57). The grape pickers averaged a salary of one dollar per hour and an annual salary of 1, 500 dollars, while the poverty level was around 3, 000 dollars per year. On day one of the strike, more than 1, 200 NFWA members arrived at the picket lines, including Cesar Chavez. While they made a powerful statement with such a large group protesting, Chavez refused to use radical forces and remained committed to a philosophy of nonviolence.
On this topic, Chavez stated that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice (Rivera 390). As the strike continued and grew more attention, Cesar called for an economic boycott on all table grapes. Signs that read Delano Grape Strikers: Don t Buy Grapes and National Boycott of All Table Grapes, The NFWA Needs Your Support were just a few of the flyers posted outside local markets throughout the United States (Rodriguez 65). In 1966, nearly a year after the protest had begun, the strike grew even more national attention when Senator Robert Kennedy publicly criticized local officials for their treatment of the strikers.
With the support of Kennedy, the state legislature passed a law guaranteeing companies like Schenley, the main target of the boycott, a minimum price for grapes, but it did nothing to guarantee farm workers a decent wage. Unsatisfied with the state government s law, Chavez led a march of sixty-six NFWA members from Delano to Sacramento. To further emphasize the use of nonviolence, Chavez fasted for twenty-five straight days in 1968 until his family literally forced him to eat. Suffering extreme economic losses, the grape growers finally negotiated and settled with the union after a five-year strike. The contracts were the first for farm workers in United States history.
Schenley agreed to recognize the union, award a thirty-five cents raise per hour, and set up contributions to the NFWA credit union. While ecstatic about their huge victory, the NFWA s celebration was short lived as a rival union was interfering with their plans. After the NFWA merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (A WOC) to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), they squared off against the newly created Teamsters, a labor union of lettuce pickers that were more favorable to growers. With the fear that growers would once again take advantage of workers, Chavez called for boycott on all lettuce that the Teamsters picked.
After refusing a court order to remove the boycott, Cesar was taken to jail, but was released shortly afterward when the judge accepted his appeal. Chavez recalled, I was spiritually prepared for my jail sentence, and I [was] prepared to pay the price for civil disobedience (Young 180). The boycott had a devastating effect on the Teamsters, so they signed contracts with the UFWOC agreeing to be more strict with the lettuce growers. This victory over the Teamsters provided the UFWOC with hope for continued progress. With success in their first two confrontations, the UFWOC faced even more challenges in the mid-1970 s.
In 1972, Arizona governor John Williams signed anti-union laws which greatly affected the UFWOC. When asked about the law and its affects on the Mexican-Americans, Williams stated that according to him, they did not even exist (Rodriguez 94). Chavez responded with a twenty-four day fast which nearly killed him. Cesar emphasized that he was fasting principally out of a deep conviction that [they could] communicate to people, either those who [were] for [them] or against [them], faster and more effectively spiritually than [they could] in any other way (Rodriguez 94).
UFWOC members petitioned and went from door to door in Arizona to protest the law. While they were unsuccessful, their actions led to the election of the first Mexican-American governor, Raul Castro. In 1975, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act was passed in California. This act allowed farm workers to decide whether they would be represented by the United Farm Workers (UFW), the new name for the UFWOC, the Teamsters, or neither. The UFW won the role by a sizable margin, but in 1977, they merged with the Teamsters.
In 1983, however, the Teamsters refused to renew their pact with the UFW and reserved the right to resume their rivalry in the future. Over the years, Cesar Chavez has emerged as the leader of the Mexican-American working rights movement. Until his death in 1993, Chavez remained dedicated to improving the job of the migrant worker. In the early 1960 s, migrant farm workers were lucky to earn two dollars an hour. By 1980, the minimum wage for workers was five dollars per hour, and by 1984, UFW members were earning a minimum of seven dollars per hour. He has undoubtedly changed the role of the migrant farm worker from a poor, desperate man in search money to a respectable, hardworking person that earns a decent living for a difficult job.
Cesar Chavez will forever be remembered as the nonviolent protester who transformed the migrant workers role in American society.