DionRabouin.com (sort of)

Losing the Legacy of Cesar Chavez Day

Posted in Opinion by dionrabouin on March 7, 2012

(Column for the Greater Far Northeast Reporter)

This month we celebrate Cesar Chavez Day on March 31 as we have in the state of Colorado for years now. The post offices and the libraries close and kids get the day off from school. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) even gave a speech in Chavez’s honor, saying he “dedicated his life to defending the rights not only of farm workers, but of all Americans who have suffered under discrimination or oppression.”

But I’ll be honest, for years I knew almost nothing about him and I suspect there are a few of you taking the day off on March 31 who know as little as I did.

Cesar Chavez is an American hero because he paved the way for something that was the backbone of this country – unions. Unions have become a bit of a political issue lately, but if we’re going to set aside a day to honor a man, I think we also ought to honor his life’s work.

Chavez was born on March 31, 1927, the second of five children and the oldest of three brothers. His parents ran a farm, grocery store, garage and pool hall in Arizona, near the California-Mexico border. In 1938, the family was evicted from the land they had worked for nearly 50 years.

After his family was evicted, they began a string of migrant farming work. Chavez and his family moved around the country and he attended more than 36 schools before dropping out after eighth grade. At the age of 17, Chavez joined the U.S. Navy in 1944 and served two years before being honorably discharged.

After leaving the navy, he took on a string of odd jobs. He was married in 1946 and he and his wife had eight children. Eventually Chavez moved to California where he became a full-time organizer for the Community Services Organization (CSO), and set up chapters across the state. But in 1962, he moved to Delano, Calif., where he helped establish the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), a group that lobbied for a minimum wage and unemployment insurance for farm workers, advocated farm workers’ right to collective bargaining and established a life insurance plan, a credit union and a hiring hall for members. His most well-known campaign was on behalf of grape farmers who were being denied these rights.

NFWA eventually came to be known as the United Farm Workers (UFW) and they joined with groups like the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee in September 1965 to back a strike of Filipino field hands on behalf of labor across the country.

By 1969, the boycott had stopped the sales of California table grapes in Detroit, Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Montreal and Toronto. In July 1969, the grape growers agreed to recognize the union, raise the grape pickers’ pay, create a hiring hall, set up a committee to regulate pesticide use and contribute to the farm workers’ health and welfare plan.

Chavez led this and many other campaigns on behalf of the day laborers and farm workers in the United States. This is the power that unions have and a life without those things is what we risk without them.

Right now union membership in the United States is in rapid decline and at an all-time low. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2009 and 2010 unions lost 612,000 members – a loss of 339,400 on private payrolls and a loss of 273,000 in government employment.

As a result, the percent of the total workforce that belonged to unions fell from 12.3 in 2009 to 11.9 in 2010. In the private sector, union membership fell from 7.2 to 6.9 percent and in government employment it fell from 37.4 to 36.2 percent.

Over a longer time period, we’ve seen that trend play out even further. Since their peak in the 1960s, unions, especially in private companies, have rapidly decreased. They’ve gone from representing 29 percent of U.S. workers in 1964 to just representing less than 12 percent of them today.

This hasn’t happened on its own. There has been a campaign against unions and unionized workers launched from a number of different sources.

Governors in states like Wisconsin and Ohio have instituted measures that stripped unions in those states of their collective bargaining rights, including the right to strike. The law in Ohio was overturned by voters there – by a margin of 62 percent to 38 – but the fight to end unions and worker unity continues on a number of other levels.
There are also currently 23 states with “right-to-work” laws that restrict union activity and have helped to drive down union memberships. Many people refer to these as “right-to-work-for-less” laws. It’s no accident that in these states the average worker makes about $5,333 a year less than workers in other states ($35,500 compared with $30,167).

There has also been a concerted effort by corporations to break up current unions and keep new ones from forming. Companies like Whole Foods, Starbucks and Costco have all been accused of the practice of union busting, which is basically threatening people’s jobs if they choose to join or create a union.

Certainly organized labor is not without its critics and the issue has become increasingly political. Large labor unions have supported almost exclusively Democratic candidates in most elections with their money and manpower and have often used their influence to give candidates an unfair advantage. But everyone that works in this country has unions to thank for maternity leave, weekends off, overtime pay, worker’s compensation, an end to child labor, creating employer-based health coverage, sick days, the eight-hour work day, unemployment insurance and the minimum wage.

Cesar Chavez knew the value of these contributions and he also knew how valuable it was to show people the power they could posses when they came together. That’s why he spent his life working to help workers unionize.
He died in April 1993 in Yuma, Ariz. He was there to testify about a lawsuit against his union initiated by Bruce Church Incorporated, an agriculture business firm that actually owned the land the Chavez family had once farmed.
Before he died, Chavez gave the world one directive. “If you want to remember me,” he said, “organize!”


One Response

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  1. Luis Leon said, on March 10, 2014 at 11:37 pm

    This is a great article: can anyone tell me who owns the copyright to that image of Cesar Chavez?

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