Other Free Encyclopedias » Brief Biographies » Biographies: Katie Burke (1953–) Biography - Personal to Galeazzo Ciano (1903–1944) Biography » César Chávez: 1927-1993: Labor Leader Biography - Grew Up In Poverty, Risked Life Savings To Form Union, Began Hunger Strike, Pressured By Larger Labor Union

César Chávez: 1927-1993: Labor Leader - Risked Life Savings To Form Union

workers farm strike organization


As a farm worker with a wife and growing family, Chávez's frustration over his treatment as a farm worker and the legacy he would leave his children inspired him to take up the union cause again. Through Catholic Father Donald McDonnell, Chávez met union recruiter Fred Ross in 1952. This meeting sparked his active involvement in organized labor and his ten-year work on behalf of the Community Service Organization (CSO). Because he was himself a field worker, Chávez was effective in setting up local chapters of the CSO in ways that previous union organizers—such as politicians, clergymen, and intellectuals—had not been able to do. Working to build rural CSO membership through voter registration drives and assisting the organization's Mexican and Mexican-American members with immigration- and welfare-related issues, Chávez rose in the organization to the position of statewide director. Still convinced that unionization was the best way to solve the problems of CSO members, Chávez ultimately left his post in 1962 after the CSO balked at supporting a farm workers union. Risking $900 of his own money, he formed the Farm Workers Association (FWA), basing the fledgling organization in his home in Delano, California.

Chávez traveled from farm to farm throughout the rich agricultural valleys of southern California, working to convince migrant workers to join the FWA. A passionate and convincing speaker, he saw membership grow and, with the support of local Catholic priests and civil rights lawyers, he was soon able to assist workers in labor negotiations with growers in the fertile Imperial and San Joaquin valleys. Within three years FWA membership was almost 2,000; the union was now in a position to negotiate for wage increases among the region's smaller growers. In the fall of 1965 the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC)—a small arm of the AFL-CIO led by Larry Itliang that represented the many Filipino grape pickers who had entered California beginning in the 1930s—went on strike against growers in Delano. They asked Chávez and his union to join them in solidarity. While Chávez knew his small union could not effectively strike on its own, it could be effective in helping the AWOC. His call to FWA members to strike for "La Causa" marked a pivotal point in union history.

Inspired by his own strong Catholic principles as well as the nonviolence practiced by leaders such as India's Mahatmas Gandhi and black civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Chávez and AWOC leaders used picket lines, a nationwide consumer boycott, and protest rallies as weapons in their economic war against agricultural interests. An outdoor mass or small prayer session preceded union marches and strike activity. In the spring of 1967, Chávez led a 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento. By the time he and the 65 original farm workers reached Sacramento 25 days later, they had been joined by 10,000 supporters and attracted the attention of Americans all across the nation. Catching the momentum of the social protest movement that had been fueled by both the civil rights movement and disputes over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Chávez's cause brought together blue collar workers and college students, Blacks and Latinos, Catholics and Jews, and even prompted participation from America's middle class. In addition, radicalized young people of the barrios viewed Chávez and his cause as a crusade for La Raze—the Hispanic race.

In 1966, mid-strike, the FWA merged with the AFLCIO to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). With the power of the nation's largest labor organization behind him, Chávez was able to negotiate labor agreements with Gallo and Christian Bros. wineries, acquiring better wages, pension and medical benefits, and better living conditions for those who worked the fields. Unfortunately, more powerful concerns with the money to ride out the effects of the strike refused to come to the bargaining table. In early 1968 Chávez spearheaded a new boycott, this time levied at the prime resisters: table grape growers—growers who produced 90% of the edible grapes consumed in the United States. Grape sales dropped 12% nationwide as a result.

In 1969, as "La huelga"—the strike—entered its fourth year and violence began to escalate, California's Catholic bishops attempted to aid in the negotiations through their ad hoc Committee on Farm Labor, with Msgr. Cardinal Roger Mahony attending negotiations between the two parties. Other supporters included U.S. congressmen Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy and the leadership of both the United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO. Due to Chávez's ability to marshal members in highly visible ways, the strike received extensive coverage by the national press, with many publications pressing for a resolution in favor of the workers.


César Chávez: 1927-1993: Labor Leader - Began Hunger Strike [next] [back] César Chávez: 1927-1993: Labor Leader - Grew Up In Poverty

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