by Dick Meister
March 22, 2009
It's way past time that Congress declared the March 31 birthdate of
Cesar Chavez a national holiday. President Obama agrees. So do the
millions of people who are expected to sign petitions being
circulated by the United Farm Workers, the union founded by Chavez.
Eight states and dozens of cities already observe Chavez' birthdate
as an official holiday and for very good reason. As the UFW notes,
"He inspired farm workers and millions of people who never worked on
a farm to commit themselves to social, economic and civil rights
activism. Cesar's legacy continues to educate, inspire and empower
people from all walks of life."
Obama says, "We should honor him for what he's taught us about making
America a stronger, more just, and more prosperous nation," and for
providing inspirational strength, "as farm workers and laborers
across America continue to struggle for fair treatment and fair wages."
Chavez showed, above all, that the poor and oppressed can prevail
against even the most powerful opponents if they can organize
themselves and adopt non-violence as their principal tactic.
"We have our bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our
weapons," Chavez explained.
The cause, of course, was that of the nation's highly exploited farm
workers. Although their work of harvesting the food that sustains us
all is one of society's most important tasks, their pay was at or
near the poverty level, they typically had few fringe benefits and
very little legal protection from employer mistreatment.
Most lacked even such simple on-the-job amenities as toilets and
fresh drinking water and were regularly exposed to pesticide
poisoning and other hazards. Their living conditions were generally
As a farm worker himself, Chavez carefully put together a grass-roots
organization that enabled the workers to form their own union. Then
they won the essential support of millions of outsiders who heeded
the UFW's call to boycott the grapes, lettuce and other produce of
growers who refused to grant them union rights and the decent pay and
conditions that came with unionization.
Many others before Chavez had tried and failed to form an effective
farm workers' union and few if any of those who claimed expertise
in such matters thought Chavez would be any different. But they
failed to account for the tactical brilliance, creativity and just
plain stubbornness of Chavez, a sad-eyed, disarmingly soft-spoken man
who talked of militancy in calm, measured tones, a gentle and
incredibly patient man who hid great strategic talent behind shy
smiles and an appearance of utter candor.
It took five years, but in 1970 the UFW finally won the first farm
union contracts in history. Five years later, the union won the
pioneering California law that requires growers to bargain
collectively with farm workers who vote for unionization. That has
led to marked improvement in the treatment of many of the state's
farm workers. Their pay, benefits and working conditions are still
short of what they should be, but the law has given them the weapon
needed to win better treatment.
What's most needed now is to spread the legal right of unionization
to the hundreds of thousands of mistreated farm workers outside
California. Congress could do that by simply including farm workers
in the National Labor Relations Act, the 73-year-old New Deal law
that grants union rights to most non-agricultural workers.
Jerry Cohen, who served for 14 years as the UFW's chief attorney, is
leading a drive to get Congress to take the necessary action and at
the same time include another group of highly exploited workers
domestics -- who are not covered by the law.
In a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis urging the Obama
administration to back the proposal, Cohen compared the exclusion of
farm workers and domestics to the situation in racist South Africa
under Apartheid. "Blacks," as Cohen said, were specifically excluded
from the protections of South Africa's equivalent of the National
Labor Relations Act.
And though in passing the U.S. law in 1935, "Congress was not so
blunt as to deal out 'blacks' and 'browns' specifically," said Cohen,
"most farm workers and domestics are in fact black or brown. For 73
years our sleight of hand has been more subtle but no less damaging
because race, powerlessness and economic injustice are inextricably
Certainly Congress should declare a Cesar Chavez holiday. But more
than that, Congress should finally extend to all Americans the basic
right of unionization that Cesar Chavez spent his life seeking and defending.
Dick Meister, a veteran San Francisco journalist, is co-author of "A
Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America's farm Workers."
Contact him through his website, www.dicikmeister.com.