Los Angeles Times
October 1, 2004

'Meet Cesar Chavez'

The story so far: National Farm Workers members have joined others in a strike.

By Gloria D. Miklowitz
Special to The Times

The strike against growers didn't work. The vineyard owners brought in temporary pickers from Mexico. Those laborers went home when the harvest ended, feeling rich with the few dollars they made.

"What if," Cesar Chavez reasoned, "the whole country got behind the strikers and refused to buy table grapes or wine?" That would be a boycott similar to what Mahatma Gandhi did with salt in India.

"Don't buy California grapes!" became a slogan carried on signs, posted in stores and written about in newspapers. Truck drivers refused to take grapes from vineyards to stores or to load them on ships to send to other countries. Chavez fasted (went without food) for 25 days, drinking only water. It was the first of other fasts to bring attention to the migrant workers' cause.

The grape boycott involved groups and people from all over the country. It hurt growers, as Chavez predicted, in their "pocketbooks." Without violence, it forced them to agree to some of the workers' demands.

In 1972, Chavez's union became the United Farm Workers of America, part of the AFL-CIO, a powerful group of many labor unions. As UFW president, Chavez earned very little and worked 14-hour days. Joining with the new union brought about benefits such as a medical plan, an education fund, pension money for retirement, better working conditions and a way for workers to voice complaints.

But not all has been won. Though the short-handled hoe has been outlawed because of the back problems it can cause, it is still in use. The program of importing workers from Mexico ended, but the problem continues. Union membership has dropped off, though the UFW still negotiates farmworker contracts.

Chavez died in 1993 at age 66. More than 50,000 mourners came to honor him. At a White House ceremony on Aug. 8, 1994, President Clinton presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Helen Chavez, in honor of her husband. Clinton said that Chavez "faced formidable, often violent opposition with dignity and nonviolence."

California has established March 31 as a day to honor Chavez. It is the first American holiday honoring a Latino leader.

Author's note: Thanks to Harry Bernstein for reviewing this story. Bernstein covered labor issues for the Los Angeles Times for 32 years.