When Cesar Chavez began building what became the United Farm Workers of America on his birthday, March 31, 1962, he had a different vision of what a union movement could be. Cesar, Dolores Huerta and many others who would join him did a lot of research, studying why all the attempts to organize farm workers over the previous 100 years failed. Cesar was convinced things had to be done differently if there was any hope of success.
A big part of his strategy was understanding and recognizing that workers are not just workers. Of course, Cesar knew it would take a union to address the economic injustices farm workers suffer at the workplace.
Yet in a letter Cesar sent to the head of the California Table Grape Commission in 1969, he cited the crippling obstacles farm workers faced: "The color of our skins, the languages of our cultural and native origins, the lack of formal education, the exclusion from the democratic process, the numbers of our slain in recent wars - all these burdens generation after generation have sought to demoralize us, to break our human spirit."
Cesar knew it would take more than a union to overcome the poverty and discrimination farm workers endure; it would take a movement.
So the work began.
But even the work of the union had to be different in its early days, although it closely followed the social unionism that marked the labor movement during the early part of the last century. Then, like today, many workers were also poor immigrants' mostly from Europe - who didn't speak the language, suffered discrimination and had many needs outside the workplace. Cesar's version of trade unionism was forged by consuming books by and about figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Sidney Hillman, head of the old Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, which during the 1920s established low-cost cooperative housing, unemployment insurance and a bank for union members. Before he won union contracts, Cesar started organizing by providing services to people. There was a death benefit, a credit union and a cooperative gas station.
Today, the non-profit, tax-exempt Cesar Chavez Foundation, also part of the farm worker movement, continues achieving much progress for farm workers and poor Latino working families outside of work.
--More than 4,300 units of new and rehabilitated high-quality affordable housing in four states have been built for farm workers and other low-income Latino families. All feature extensive social services, from early childhood education to programs for seniors.
--Radio Campesina is the movement's nine-station Spanish-language radio network, with popular regional Mexican music and high quality interactive educational programming for half a million daily listeners in three states.
--Thousands of farm worker and other Latino kids have received after-school and weekend instruction and tutoring to help them be proficient in English and Algebra by high school
--Millions of students learn about Cesar's work through California's Chavez holiday law and many kids learn Cesar's values by getting involved with service-learning activities in their communities around the country.
--Finally, Cesar's dream of a place to train future generations of activists is closer to reality with the opening last year of Villa La Paz, a world-class conference and retreat center in the restored mission-style structures where he held meetings and community gatherings at the movement's La Paz headquarters in the Tehachapi Mountain hamlet of Keene, Calif. The sprawling facility is the latest addition to the National Chavez Center on 187 acres of oaks and spectacular rock outcroppings where Cesar lived and worked his last quarter century. Also there is a 7,000-square foot visitor center hosting Cesar's carefully preserved office and library, gallery and museum spaces, a multi-media room and book store plus the beautifully landscaped memorial gardens where he is buried.
Cesar Chavez and the UFW
The 31 years Cesar Chavez led the United Farm Workers of America saw its share of defeats, but also historic victories. Under Cesar, the UFW achieved unprecedented gains for farm workers. Among them were: