Harvesting activist lessons From Cesar Chavez and the Grape Boycott
by Mickey Z.
02 November 2009
As many of us prepare for a season of gastronomical over-indulgence,
here's some food for thought: In the late 1960s, thanks to Cesar
Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW), deciding whether or not to
buy grapes was a political act.
Three years after its establishment in 1962, the UFW struck against
grape growers around Delano, California...a long, bitter, and
frustrating struggle that appeared impossible to resolve until Chavez
promoted the idea of a national boycott.
Trusting in the average person's ability to connect with those in
need, Chavez and the UFW brought their plight-and a lesson in social
justice--into homes from coast-to-coast and Americans responded. The
boycott was an unqualified success as grape growers won signed union
contracts and a more livable wage.
Through hunger strikes, imprisonment, abject poverty for himself and
his large family, racist and corrupt judges, exposure to dangerous
pesticides, and even assassination plots, Chavez remained true to the
cause...even if meant, uh...stretching the non-violent methods he
espoused. Once in 1966, when Teamster goons began to rough up
Chavez's picketeers, a bit of labor solidarity solved the problem.
William Kircher, the AFL-CIO director of organization, called Paul
Hall, president of the International Seafarers Union.
"Within hours," writes David Goodwin in Cesar Chavez: Hope for the
People, "Hall sent a carload of the biggest sailors that had ever put
to sea to march with the strikers on the picket lines...There
followed afterward no further physical harassment."
This simple man never owned a house or earned more than $6,000 a
year. He left no money for his family when he died yet more than
40,000 people marched behind his casket at his funeral to honor four
decades spent improving the lives of farm workers.
The roots of Chavez' effectiveness lay in his ability to connect on a
human level. When asked: "What accounts for all the affection and
respect so many farm workers show you in public?" Cesar replied: "The
feeling is mutual."
The Struggle Continues
Today's migrant workers still face inhumane treatment. According to
the UFW, thousands of farm workers "labor 10-12 hours per day not
knowing where they and their families will spend the night. They
sleep in parks, in pickup trucks and cars, under bridges and beside
the fields where they work. They lie down on filthy mattresses, on
pieces of cardboard, and sometimes on the bare ground. They bathe in
freezing rivers and pesticide-polluted irrigation ditches. They hang
their clothes and food from trees to keep them dry and safe from
animals." They also labor under unfair immigration laws.
This is the oft-hidden human face of the green movement's efforts to
promote locally grown, organic, plant-based foods.
7 Ways to Help Migrant Workers and Keep the Spirit of Cesar Chavez Alive
1. Sign the petition for a national Cesar Chavez holiday
2. Support the youth activist action organized by the Cesar E. Chavez
3. Buy local, buy organic
4. Ask questions about the labor practices where you get your food
5. Educate yourself on the current indigenous migrant workers
struggle against pesticides
6. Help the UFW in its efforts to improve the working conditions and
quality of life for today's workers
7. Wherever and whenever possible: Utilize the power of boycotts