Let's start with a couple of quotes...
”One of the heroic figures of our time." Senator Robert Kennedy
“Fighting for social justice, it seems to me, is one of the profoundest ways in which man can say yes to man's dignity, and that really means sacrifice." – Cesar Chavez
Cesar Estrada Chavez founded and led the first successful farm workers' union in U.S. history. When he died on 23 April 1993, he was president of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO
He was born March 31, 1927, on the small farm near Yuma, Arizona that his grandfather homesteaded during the 1880's. When he was only 10 years old his life as a migrant farm worker began when his father lost the land during the Great Depression. What followed were some very poor years for him, his parents, brothers and sisters. Together with thousands of other displaced families, the Chavez family migrated throughout the Southwest, laboring in fields and vineyards. He left school after the eighth grade to help support his family.
In 1945 he joined the U.S. Navy and served in the western Pacific during the end of World War II. In 1948, he married Helen Fabela, who he met while working in Delano vineyards. The Chavez family settled in the East San Jose barrio of Sal Si Puedes (get out if you can).
In 1952 he was laboring in apricot orchards outside San Jose when he met Fred Ross, an organizer for the Community Service Organization, a barrio-based self-help group sponsored by Chicago-based Saul Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation. Within several months he was a full-time organizer with CSO, coordinating voter registration drives, battling racial and economic discrimination against Chicano residents and organizing new CSO chapters across California and Arizona.
He served as CSO national director in the late 1950's and early 1960's. But his dream was to create an organization to help farm workers whose suffering he had shared. In 1962, after failing to convince the CSO to commit itself to farm worker organizing, he resigned his paid CSO job, the first regular paying job he had. He moved his wife and eight young children to Delano, California where he founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).
What followed were some difficult years for the Chavez’s. His wife worked in the fields during the week and on weekends with her husband to support their family. He often babysat his youngest children as he traveled to dozens of California farm communities, slowly building a nucleus of dedicated farm worker members. "If you're outraged at conditions, then you can't possibly be free or happy until you devote all your time to changing them and do nothing but that," he said. "But you can't change anything if you want to hold onto a good job, a good way of life and avoid sacrifice."
In September 1965, his NFWA, with 1200 member families, joined an AFL-CIO sponsored union in a strike against major Delano area table and wine grape growers. Against huge odds, he led a successful five year strike-boycott that rallied millions of supporters to the United Farm Workers. He forged a national support coalition of unions, church groups, students, minorities and consumers. The two unions merged in 1966 to form the UFW, and it became affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
From the beginning, the UFW adhered to the principals of non-violence practiced by M.K. Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The 1965 strikers took a pledge of non-violence and Chavez conducted a 25 day fast in 1968 to reaffirm the UFW's commitment to non-violence.
By 1970 the boycott convinced most table grape growers to sign contracts with the UFW. That year, to limit the UFW's success to the vineyards, growers in the vegetable industry signed "sweetheart" deals with the Teamsters Union. When the UFW's table grape agreements came up for renegotiation in 1973, growers signed with the Teamsters, prompting 10,000 farm workers in California's coastal valleys to walk out of the fields in protest.
Chavez then called for a new worldwide grape boycott. By 1975, a Harris poll showed 17 million American adults were honoring the grape boycott. It forced growers to support then California Governor Jerry Brown's collective bargaining law for farm workers, the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act.
Since 1975, the UFW won most of the union elections in which it participated. Despite the farm labor board's bureaucratic delays, farm workers made progress. By the early 1980's farm workers numbered in the tens of thousands were working under UFW contracts enjoyed higher pay, family health coverage, pension benefits and other contract protections.
Then, in 1982, with more than $1 million in grower campaign donations, Republican George Deukmejian was elected Governor of California. Most observers agreed that under Deukmejian, the farm labor board ceased to enforce the law. In 1984, Chavez called for another grape boycott. In July and August 1988, he conducted a 36 day "Fast for Life" to protest the pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their children.
Cesar lived with his family since 1970 at La Paz, in Keene, California, the union's headquarters in Kern County's Tehachapi Mountains, east of Bakersfield,. Like other UFW officers and staff, he received subsistence pay that didn't top $5,000 a year.
Cesar Chavez died on April 23, 1993, at the age of 66. More than 40,000 people participated in Cesar's funeral at Delano. He was laid to rest at La Paz in a rose garden at the foot of the hill he often climbed to watch the sunrise.
In 1991, Chavez received the Aguila Azteca (The Aztec Eagle), Mexico's highest award presented to people of Mexican heritage who have made major contributions outside of Mexico. On August 8, 1994, he became the second Mexican American to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. This award was presented posthumously by President Bill Clinton. Helen F. Chavez and six of her eight children traveled to the White House to receive the honor.