Si Se Puede: Cesar Chavez's Work Is More Relevant Than Ever
Today, millions of Americans will be observing the legacy of Cesar Chavez, the labor activist and community organizer who transformed the role of unions in this country. In the 1960s and 1970s, Chavez was a strong voice for thousands of workers who supplied the country with fresh fruits and vegetables, yet were subject to deplorably low wages and inhumane living conditions. But with the battle over union rights front and center in our politics and the health of migrant workers still haunting our agriculture industry, it's obvious that the work that Chavez began decades ago is still far from finished.
After working in the fields full-time starting in eight grade, Chavez began his community organizer role early in life, helping to register Latino voters and battle discrimination at the polls. But it was his work to help organize and protect his fellow farm workers that brought him to national prominence. In 1962 he created what would become the United Farm Workers of America, the first agricultural union of its kind.
One of the first causes the organization put its energy behind was the Delano strike of 1965, started by Filipino farm workers. This led to a series of grape boycotts, which encouraged Americans nationwide not to buy grapes until those who picked them received legal labor contracts for their work. These are widely considered to be the most successful boycotts in American history.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of Chavez's union work was his insistence on collective bargaining rights for farmers—one of the key issues in the latest protests in Wisconsin. In 1975, Chavez helped to pass the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which, sadly, is still the only law that protects farm workers' right to unionize.
The health of farm workers was of critical concern for Chavez, who went on three hunger strikes to protest health issues like pesticide use on farms. Chavez fought for medical benefits and safer tools, but the well-being of agricultural workers remains an upsetting issue for the industry. According to some studies written about here recently at GOOD, up to 80 percent of farm workers are obese, a statistic made even more troubling by the fact that these workers are harvesting the produce that's supposedly helping others to eat more healthily.
In 2008, President Obama signed a proclamation designating a day to honor Chavez, a gesture that was 20 years overdue for many Californians. Eight states now recognize Cesar Chavez Day with the closing of government offices and some school districts. Here in L.A. our government offices were closed on Monday, and public schools will be closed on Friday, thanks to student marches in recent years that prodded them to recognize the holiday. But Cesar Chavez Day is not a national holiday, something the United Farm Workers still hope to change.
Today, hundreds of California students will be traveling to Chavez's grave south of Bakersfield, California, to perform a day of service at the National Chavez Center, where Chavez lived and worked until his death in 1993. You can visit it anytime, by driving through the agricultural fields where laborers still work under difficult conditions.