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A migrant farm worker in his youth, Cesar Chavez (1927-93) went on to become one of America’s most legendary labor leaders and a heroic icon for Latino/Chicano civil rights. Chavez’s activism began in 1952 as an organizer for Saul Alinsky’s Community Services Organization, when he became its general director in 1958. In 1962, along with Dolores Huerta, Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which grew to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO four years later. In 1972, the organization was chartered as an independent affiliate of the AFL-CIO, and was renamed the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). Until his death, Chavez served as the UFW’s president and was its most public representative and spokesperson.
Transforming Migrant Labor
Through Chavez’s work, farm workers and migrant labor were transformed during the 1960s and 70s into a powerful political force for La Causa, or The Cause, a movement for progressive social change that continues to this day. In 1965, the UFW began its successful five-year-long Great Grape Boycott against table grape purchases in order to raise awareness of poor working conditions in the vineyards. During this time, Chavez successfully allied a variety of labor unions, student groups, minority organizations, religious and governmental leaders, as well as consumers nationwide in joint protest; and Chavez undertook the first of a series of long hunger strikes that cemented him in the public’s mind as a nonviolent campaigner for justice in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Inspired by Gandhi, Chavez maintained a deep spiritual concern for peace and became an ethical vegan when he realized that the principle of nonviolence mandated kindness and compassion toward all beings in a civilized society. In this respect, Chavez’s influence on the UFW can still be seen today in the organization’s commitment to fighting for farm animal welfare alongside its concerns for social justice and improved farm working conditions.
Under Chavez, the UFW targeted environmental racism against America’s migrant farm workers. Beginning in the 1960s, Chavez introduced health and safety provisions into contract negotiations and led activist campaigns against the irresponsible use of toxic pesticides by the agricultural industry, citing the danger to farm workers who were routinely sprayed with large amounts of pesticides while working in the fields. Further, Chavez noted how large pesticide clouds entered into farm workers’ communities, thereby exposing workers’ families to hazardous pathogens. In his view, this constituted an intolerable systematic poisoning of people in the name of agribusiness profit and efficiency. In response, the UFW filed lawsuits on behalf of workers’ right to know information relating to pesticide use, and litigation was also pressed to place bans on certain pesticides, especially DDT. For the DDT lawsuit, Chavez teamed the UFW with California Rural Legal Assistance and the Environmental Defense Fund, a major legal organization within the environmental movement. This legal action formed the basis for an eventual governmental ban on the use of DDT.
Chavez is recognized as a political leader who successfully linked labor, civil rights, and environmental issues, and contributed to the growth of the environmental justice movement, which seeks to eradicate the toxic burden that falls upon people of color in the United States.
- Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement (Harcourt Brace, 1997);
- Marion Moses, “Farmworkers and Pesticides,” in Robert D. Bullard (e), Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots (South End Press, 1993);
- Laura Pulido, Latino Environmental Struggles in the Southwest (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California at Los Angeles, 1991).