The farm worker leader Cesar Chavez was born in Arizona, and grew up in migrant labor camps. In the early 1960s, he helped found the National Farm Workers Association, a precursor to the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee and, eventually, the United Farm Workers (UFW) union. Chavez came to international attention in March 1968, when he announced a boycott of California grapes. The popular boycott, in protest of the anti-union efforts of California growers, led to millions of dollars in losses for agribusiness and led to historic contracts with the UFW. But many of the growers broke the contracts or refused to negotiate new ones. In this speech1, given in San Francisco in 1984, Chavez describes the unfinished struggle of farm workers for justice.From Voices of A People's History, edited by Zinn and Arnove
Twenty-one years ago last September, on a lonely stretch of railroad track paralleling U.S. Highway 101 near Salinas, 32 Bracero farm workers lost their lives in a tragic accident.
The Braceros had been imported from Mexico to work on California farms. They died when their bus, which was converted from a flatbed truck, drove in front of a freight train. Conversion of the bus had not been approved by any government agency. The driver had "tunnel" vision. Most of the bodies lay unidentified for days. No one, including the grower who employed the workers, even knew their names.
Today, thousands of farm workers live under savage conditions—beneath trees and amid garbage and human excrement—near tomato fields in San Diego County, tomato fields which use the most modern farm technology. Vicious rats gnaw on them as they sleep. They walk miles to buy food at inflated prices. And they carry in water from irrigation pumps.
Child labor is still common in many farm areas. As much as 30 percent of Northern California's garlic harvesters are under-aged children. Kids as young as six years old have voted in state-conducted union elections since they qualified as workers.
Some 800,000 under-aged children work with their families harvesting crops across America.
Babies born to migrant workers suffer 25 percent higher infant mortality than the rest of the population.
Malnutrition among migrant worker children is 10 times higher than the national rate.
Farm workers' average life expectancy is still 49 years—compared to 73 years for the average American.
All my life, I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: To overthrow a farm labor system in this nation which treats farm workers as if they were not important human beings. Farm workers are not agricultural implements. They are not beasts of burden—to be used and discarded. That dream was born in my youth. It was nurtured in my early days of organizing. It has flourished. It has been attacked.
I'm not very different from anyone else who has ever tried to accomplish something with his life. My motivation comes from my personal life—from watching what my mother and father went through when I was growing up; from what we experienced as migrant farm workers in California.
That dream, that vision, grew from my own experience with racism, with hope, with the desire to be treated fairly and to see my people treated as human beings and not as chattel. It grew from anger and rage—emotions I felt 40 years ago when people of my color were denied the right to see a movie or eat at a restaurant in many parts of California. It grew from the frustration and humiliation I felt as a boy who couldn't understand how the growers could abuse and exploit farm workers when there were so many of us and so few of them.
Later, in the '50s, I experienced a different kind of exploitation. In San Jose, in Los Angeles and in other urban communities, we—the Mexican American people—were dominated by a majority that was Anglo. I began to realize what other minority people had discovered: That the only answer—the only hope—was in organizing.
More of us had to become citizens. We had to register to vote. And people like me had to develop the skills it would take to organize, to educate, to help empower the Chicano people.
I spent many years—before we founded the union—learning how to work with people.
We experienced some successes in voter registration, in politics, in battling racial discrimination—successes in an era when Black Americans were just beginning to assert their civil rights and when political awareness among Hispanics was almost non-existent. But deep in my heart, I knew I could never be happy unless I tried organizing the farm workers. I didn't know if I would succeed. But I had to try.
All Hispanics—urban and rural, young and old—are connected to the farm workers' experience. We had all lived through the fields—or our parents had. We shared that common humiliation. How could we progress as a people, even if we lived in the cities, while the farm workers—men and women of our color—were condemned to a life without pride? How could we progress as a people while the farm workers—who symbolized our history in this land—were denied self-respect? How could our people believe that their children could become lawyers and doctors and judges and business people while this shame, this injustice was permitted to continue?
Those who attack our union often say, "It's not really a union. Its something else: A social movement. A civil rights movement. It's something dangerous,"
They're half right.
The United Farm Workers is first and foremost a union. A union like any other. A union that either produces for its members on the bread and butter issues or doesn't survive. But the UFW has always been something more than a union— although it's never been dangerous if you believe in the Bill of Rights. The UFW was the beginning! We attacked that historical source of shame and infamy that our people in this country lived with. We attacked that injustice, not by complaining; not by seeking hand-outs; not by becoming soldiers in the War on Poverty.
Farm workers acknowledged we had allowed ourselves to become victims in a democratic society—a society where majority rule and collective bargaining are supposed to be more than academic theories or political rhetoric And by addressing this historical problem, we created confidence and pride and hope in an entire people's ability to create the future.
The UFW's survival—its existence—was not in doubt in my mind when the time began to come—after the union became visible—when Chicanos started entering college in greater numbers, when Hispanics began running for public office in greater numbers—when our people started asserting their rights on a broad range of issues and in many communities across the country.
The union's survival—its very existence—sent out a signal to all Hispanics:
That we were fighting for our dignity,
That we were challenging and overcoming injustice,
That we were empowering the least educated among us—the poorest among us.
The message was clear: If it could happen in the fields, it could happen anywhere—in the cities, in the courts, in the city councils, in the state legislatures.
I didn't really appreciate it at the time, but the coming of our union signaled the start of great changes among Hispanics that are only now beginning to be seen.
I've traveled to every part of this nation. I have met and spoken with thousands of Hispanics from every walk of life—from every social and economic class.
One thing I hear most often from Hispanics, regardless of age or position— and from many non-Hispanics as well—is that the farm workers gave them hope that they could succeed and the inspiration to work for change.
From time to time you will hear our opponents declare that the union is weak, that the union has no support, that the union has not grown fast enough. Our obituary has been written many times. How ironic it is that the same forces which argue so passionately that the union is not influential are the same forces that continue to fight us so hard.
The unions power in agriculture has nothing to do with the number of farm workers under union contract.
It has nothing to do with the farm workers' ability to contribute to Democratic politicians.
It doesn't even have much to do with our ability to conduct successful boycotts.
The very fact of our existence forces an entire industry—unionized and non-unionized—to spend millions of dollars year after year on improved wages, on improved working conditions, on benefits for workers. If we re so weak and unsuccessful, why do the growers continue to fight us with such passion? Because so long as we continue to exist, farm workers will benefit from our existence—even if they don t work under union contract.
It doesn't really matter whether we have 100,000 members or 500,000 members. In truth, hundreds of thousands of farm workers in California—and in other states—are better off today because of our work. And Hispanics across California and the nation who don't work in agriculture are better off today because of what the farm workers taught people about organization, about pride and strength, about seizing control over their own lives.
Tens of thousands of the children and grandchildren of farm workers—and the children and grandchildren of poor Hispanics—are moving out of the fields and out of the barrios and into the professions and into business and into politics. And that movement cannot be reversed!
Our union will forever exist as an empowering force among Chicanos in the Southwest. And that means our power and our influence will grow and not diminish.
Two major trends give us hope and encouragement:
First, our union has returned to a tried and tested weapon in the farm workers' non-violent arsenal—the boycott! After the Agricultural Labor Relations Act became law in California in 1975, we dismantled our boycott to work with the law.
During the early- and mid-'70s, millions of Americans supported our boycotts. After 1975, we redirected our efforts from the boycott to organizing and winning elections under the law. The law helped farm workers make progress in overcoming poverty and injustice.
Ac companies where farm workers are protected by union contracts, we have made progress in overcoming child labor, in overcoming miserable wages and working conditions, in overcoming sexual harassment of women workers, in overcoming dangerous pesticides which poison our people and poison the food we all eat. Where we have organized, these injustices soon pass into history.
But under Republican Governor George Deukmejian, the law chat guarantees our right to organize no longer protects farm workers—it doesn't work anymore!
In 1982 corporate growers gave Deukmejian one million dollars to run for governor of California. Since he took office, Deukmejian has paid back his debt to the growers with the blood and sweat of California farm workers. Instead of enforcing the law as it was written against those who break it, Deukmejian invites growers who break the law to seek relief from the governors appointees.
What does all this mean for farm workers?
It means that the right to vote in free elections is a sham!
It means that the right to talk freely about the union among your fellow workers on the job is a cruel hoax!
It means the right to be free from threats and intimidation by growers is an empty promise!
It means the right to sit down and negotiate with your employer as equals across the bargaining table—and not as peons in the field—is a fraud!
It means that thousands of farm workers—who are owed millions of dollars in back pay because their employers broke the law—are still waiting for their checks.
It means that 36,000 farm workers—who voted to be represented by the United Farm Workers in free elections—are still waiting for contracts from growers who refuse to bargain in good faith.
It means that, for farm workers, child labor will continue.
It means that infant mortality will continue.
It means malnutrition among our children will continue.
It means the short life expectancy and the inhuman living and working conditions will continue.
Are these make-believe threats? Are they exaggerations?
Ask the farm workers who are still waiting for growers to bargain in good faith and sign contracts!
Ask the farm workers who've been fired from their jobs because they spoke out for the union!
Ask the farm workers who've been threatened with physical violence because they support the UFW!
Ask the family of Rene Lopez, the young farm worker from Fresno who was shot to death last year because he supported the union....
History and inevitability are on our side. The farm workers and their children—and the Hispanics and their children—are the future in California. And corporate growers are the past!
Those politicians who ally themselves with the corporate growers and against the farm workers and the Hispanics are in for a big surprise.
They want to make their careers in politics. They want to hold power 20 and 30 years from now.
But 20 and 30 years from now—in Modesto, in Salinas, in Fresno, in Bakersfield, in the Imperial Valley, and in many of the great cities of California— those communities will be dominated by farm workers and not by growers, by the children and grandchildren of farm workers and not by the children and grandchildren of growers.
These trends are part of the forces of history that cannot be stopped! No person and no organization can resist them for very long. They are inevitable! Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed.
You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.
Our opponents must understand that its not just a union we have built. Unions, like other institutions, can come and go. But we're more than an institution. For nearly 20 years, our union has been on the cutting edge of a people s cause—and you cannot do away with an entire people; you cannot stamp out a peoples cause.
Regardless of what the future holds for the union, regardless of what the future holds for farm workers, our accomplishments cannot be undone! "La Causa"— our cause—doesn't have to be experienced twice. The consciousness and pride that were raised by our union are alive and thriving inside millions of young Hispanics who will never work on a farm!
Like the other immigrant groups, the day will come when we win the economic and political rewards which are in keeping with our numbers in society. The day will come when the politicians do the right thing by our people out of political necessity and not out of charity or idealism.
That day may not come this year.
That day may not come during this decade.
But it will come, someday!
And when that day comes, we shall see the fulfillment of that passage from the Book of Matthew in the New Testament, "That the last shall be first and the first shall be last."
And on that day, our nation shall fulfill its creed—and that fulfillment shall enrich us all.
1 Cesar Chavez, Address to the Commonwealth Club of California (November 9, 1984). In Cesar Chavez, The Words of Cisar Chavez, ed. Richard J. Jensen and John C. Hammerback (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002), pp. 122-26,128-29. From the United Farm Workers Papers, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.