Chávez and the Farm Laborers

Chávez and the Farm Laborers The best-known Hispanic labor leader for economic
empowerment was César Chávez, the Mexican American who crusaded to organize
migrant farm workers. Efforts to organize agricultural laborers date back to the turn
of the century, but Chávez was the first to enjoy any success. These laborers had never
won collective bargaining rights, partly because their mobility made it difficult for
them to organize into a unified group.
In 1962, Chávez, then 35 years old, formed the National Farm Workers Association,
later to become the United Farm Workers (UFW). Organizing migrant farm workers
was not easy, for they had no savings to pay for organizing or to live on while striking.
Growers could rely on an almost limitless supply of Mexican laborers to replace the
Mexican Americans and Filipinos who struck for higher wages and better working
Chávez’s first success was the grape boycott launched in 1965, which carried the
struggle into the kitchens of families throughout the country. The UFW launched the
boycott with the aim of damaging growers economically until they accepted the union
and improved working conditions. It took five years for the grape growers to sign
three-year contracts with Chávez’s union, which had affiliated with the AFL-CIO. This
victory signaled a new era in labor relations and made Chávez a national folk hero
(Levy 1975).
Despite their success, Chávez and the UFW were plagued with continual opposition
by agribusiness and many lawmakers. This was about the time the UFW was also
trying to heighten public consciousness of the pesticides used in the fields. Research
into the long-term effects of pesticides had only begun. Although Chávez’s 1988 fast
to bring attention to this issue was widely publicized, his efforts did not gain the support
he had hoped for.