Senator Robert F. Kennedy viewed Cesar Chavez as "one of the heroic figures of our time." Chavez is known to have been the first to found a successful workers' union in US history. He created several labor unions and gave hope to many Chicano families that arrived in the United States looking for a better life. But upon discovering that America wasn't the dream that they had imagined it to be, Chavez was able to help these people realize some of that dream.
Chavez revolutionized the labor force and was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Cesar Estrada Chavez was born on March 31 in 1927, on a small farm near Yuma, Arizona. This land was homesteaded by his grandfather in the 1880's. Unfortunately, because of the depression and owing $4, 080 in back taxes, the Estrada family lost possession of their family owned grocery store and land. Two years later, they moved to California where they joined thousands of other migrant families in the fields.
Cesar got his first taste of field labor when he had to quit school and work because his father was in a car accident. In 1944, Chavez joined the US Navy but two year was discharged and went home to work in the fields. He would marry Helen Fa bela in 1948. The family then moved to San Jose where Cesar worked in a lumber mill.
It is here that Chavez met Father Donald McDonnell, a Catholic Priest from San Francisco sent to work with the farm laborers. McDonnell introduced Chavez to the Church's social doctrines on labor organizing and social justice. Chavez began to read papal encyclopedias on labor, labor history, the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi and Louis Fisher's The Life Of Gandhi.
All of these works influenced him in his philosophical approach to the farm worker movement. That same year, he is recruited by Fred Ross, an organizer for the Community Service Organization, to help to be an organizer for Saul Alinsky's Community Service Organization. The CSO sent Chavez, in 1958, to Oxnard to confront the bracero program. This program was one in which the growers, with the governments help, lowered wagers and exploited the farm laborers. In 1962, Chavez resigned from the CSO and moved Delano with his family to start the Farm Workers Association (FWA).
By 1964, there are 1000 members and 50 locals. Chavez and the FWA join the AFL-CIO union strike against major Delano wine grape growers. Against great odds, Chavez led a successful strike that lasted 5 years and rallied millions of supporters to the FWA. This strike merged the FWA and the AFL-CIO in 1966.
Chavez made sure that the FWA adhered to non-violent means and in 1965 conducted a 25-day fast to reaffirm their pledge to non-violence. Even Senator Robert F. Kennedy went to Delano to be with him when the fast ended. By 1970, the boycott convinced most grape growers to sign contracts with the FWA. However, that same year, the vegetable industry signed "sweetheart" pacts with the Teamsters Union.
When the FWA's contracts came up for renegotiation in 1973, the growers signed with the Teamsters Union. This prompted 10, 000 farm workers in California to walk out of the fields and protest. Chavez called for a new worldwide boycott on grapes. By 1975, a poll showed that 17 million Americans were honoring the grape boycott.
This forced the California Governor Jerry Brown's collective bargaining law for farm workers, the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act. For years following, Chavez would continue to fight the grape growers, participating in several more boycotts and fasts. Chavez passed away on April 23, 1993. More that 40, 000 people participated in his funeral in Delano, California. Many people had declared the union dead after Chavez's death.
But his son-in-law, Arturo S. Rodriguez, led a 343-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, demonstrating the strength of the UFA. In 1994, the officers of UFA created the Cesar E. Foundation to inspire current and future generations by promoting the ideals of Chavez. Cesar Chavez changed the way unions were viewed and the treatment of Chicano workers.