Union leader and labor organizer Cesar Chavez dedicated his life to improving treatment, pay and working conditions for farm workers.
Union leader and labor organizer Cesar Chavez was born Cesario Estrada Chavez on March 31, 1927, near Yuma, Arizona. He learned about justice or rather injustice early in his life. Cesar grew up in Arizona; the small adobe home, where Cesar was born was swindled from them by dishonest Anglos. Cesar’s father agreed to clear eighty acres of land and in exchange he would receive the deed to forty acres of land that adjoined the home. The agreement was broken and the land sold to a man named Justus Jackson. Cesar’s dad went to a lawyer who advised him to borrow money and buy the land. Later when Cesar’s father could not pay the interest on the loan the lawyer bought back the land and sold it to the original owner. Cesar learned a lesson about injustice that he would never forget.
In 1937, he and his family moved to California. For the next ten years they moved up and down the state working in the fields; Cesar was 10 years old when he began working. During this period Chavez encountered the conditions that he would dedicate his life to changing: wretched migrant camps, corrupt labor contractors, meager wages for backbreaking work, bitter racism. He was forced to leave school after graduating from the eighth grade to help support his family.
In 1945, he fought the good fight against fascism as he joined the U.S. Navy serving in the western Pacific during the end of World War II. In 1948, he married Helen Fabela and raised eight children in East San Jose where he and his wife taught farm workers to read and write so they could become U.S. citizens. His introduction to labor organizing began in 1952 when he met Father Donald McDonnell, an activist Catholic priest, and Fred Ross, an organizer with the Community Service Organization, who recruited Chavez to join his group. Within a few years Chavez had become national director, but in 1962, when the organization would not more seriously commit itself to farm worker organizing, Chavez resigned and moved his family to Delano, California. He joined forces with Dolores Huerta and founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), the predecessor to the United Farm Workers. That same year Richard Chavez designed the UFW Eagle and Cesar chose the black and red colors. Cesar told the story of the birth of the eagle. He asked Richard to design the flag, but Richard could not make an eagle that he liked. Finally, he sketched one on a piece of brown wrapping paper. He then squared off the wing edges so that the eagle would be easier for union members to draw on the handmade red flags that would give courage to the farm workers with their own powerful symbol. Cesar made reference to the flag by stating,
“A symbol is an important thing. That is why we chose an Aztec eagle. It gives pride . . . When people see it they know it means dignity.”
A major turning point came in September 1965. His 1,200-member organization joined the Filipino members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee strike against Delano area table and wine grape growers. Over 5,000 workers walked off their jobs in the famous “Delano Grape Strike”. The two organizations NFWA and AWOC merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. Within months Chavez and his union became nationally known. Chavez’s drawing on the imagery of the civil rights movement, his insistence on nonviolence, his reliance on volunteers from urban universities and religious organizations, his alliance with organized labor, and his use of mass mobilizing techniques such as a famous march on Sacramento in 1966 brought the grape strike and consumer boycott into the national consciousness. The boycott in particular was responsible for pressuring the growers to recognize the United Farm Workers. The first contracts were signed in 1966, but were followed by more years of strife. In 1968 Chavez went on a fast for twenty-five days to protest the increasing advocacy of violence within the union. Victory came finally on July 29, 1970, when twenty-six Delano growers formally signed contracts recognizing the United Farm Workers and bringing peace to the vineyards.
For thirty years Chavez tenaciously devoted himself to the problems of some of the poorest workers in America. The movement he inspired succeeded in raising salaries and improving working conditions for farm workers in California, Texas, Arizona, and Florida.
On April 23, 1993 Cesar Chavez died in his sleep near Yuma, Arizona at the age of 66. He was in the middle of helping UFW attorneys defend the union against a lawsuit brought by Bruce Church Inc., a giant Salinas, California based lettuce and vegetable producer. Church demanded that the farm workers pay millions of dollars in damages resulting from a UFW boycott of its lettuce during the 1980’s.
Read more at Biography-Cesar