Cesar Chavez: A Leader Who Gave Dignity To All Workers
Cesar Chavez fought for the basic recognition and dignity of farm workers across California, of which he was one, and by doing so permanently changed our state for the better. He showed us that with hard work, sacrifice and determination, building a more just society is possible. The echoes of the farm worker chants of si se puede that he led, still reverberate across California today.
In addition to his labor advocacy, Chavez was a champion for education. Having left school after the end of 8th grade to work in the fields, he was never formally educated. However, later in his life, education became his passion. He lined the walls of his Central Valley offices with books ranging from philosophy to economics, to cooperatives, to unions. He was a champion of providing educational opportunities to farm workers and their children.
Chavez’s union campaigns began in 1962 when he was joined by Dolores Huerta in founding the National Farm Workers Association – later to become the United Farm Workers. By 1970, the UFW had organized grape growers, and Cesar Chavez leveraged his moral authority, strikes, fasts, and marches to win better pay and safer conditions for farm workers across California and the whole western United States.
Like home care workers in their struggle for dignity and respect, farm workers were excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), meaning that they did not have any protection afforded to them by federal labor law and were not entitled to collective bargaining rights like other workers. As such, the UFW needed to change state law in order to be allowed to collectively bargain. Mass mobilization and political pressure was key to achieving this objective. Using this strategy, Cesar was able to advance the cause of farm workers and all workers across California.
This campaign was successful, and in 1975, then Governor Brown, signed the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which established collective bargaining rights for farm workers. Home care workers later in the 1980s used this strategy to win collective bargaining rights. They did this by building coalitions to advocate for both state and local laws that allowed for the creation of public authorities, which created the legal structures that allowed for collective bargaining.
Similar to the home care worker campaigns in California during the 1980s, Cesar utilized consumer pressure to force companies to change and to bargain collectively with their workers for improved pay and working conditions. The United Farm Workers during their fasts, mobilized consumer pressure to make boycott of agricultural products a success. By mobilizing consumer pressure, Cesar Chavez was able to put extra pressure on the major agribusiness industries that have dominated the economic and political life of the Central Valley for generations. Facing economic, political, and moral pressure from both workers and consumers, the major growers of California came to the table, recognized the union, and raised wages for farm workers.
During the home care organizing campaigns, workers united with their consumers to advocate both for dignity wages and dignity care. This consumer-worker coalition was able to muster both the political strength and moral courage needed to force both state governments and local Boards of Supervisors to allow home care workers to negotiate collectively as well as protect the In-Home Supportive Services program for future Californians.
Our membership continues to honor Cesar Chavez’s legacy by continuing his spirit of standing up, advocating, and organizing. When workers stand up to injustice and can demand dignity for themselves, their families, and their communities, our whole country is better off. While Cesar Chavez passed away too soon, his legacy lives on in the labor and civil rights activists who continue to carry the torch of civil rights and dignity.
Arnulfo De La Cruz, the executive vice president at SEIU 2015, the largest long term care local in California, representing over 370,000 workers. His grandmother Jessie De La Cruz, was one of the first female leaders of the United Farm Workers Union (UFW).