This summary was adapted from a bio
written by the staff at UCLA. Their website includes additional
bibliographic sources for you to examine.
Cesar Estrada Chavez founded and led the first successful farm
workers' union in U.S. history. When he passed away on 23 April
1993, he was president of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO
Cesar was born March 31, 1927, on the small farm near Yuma, Arizona
that his grandfather homesteaded during the 1880's. At age 10, life
began as a migrant farm worker when his father lost the land during
the Depression. These were bitterly poor years for Cesar, his parents,
brothers and sisters. Together with thousands of other displaced
families, the Chavez family migrated throughout the Southwest, laboring
in fields and vineyards. Cesar left school after the eighth grade
to help support his family.
In 1952, Cesar 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 Cesar 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.
Cesar 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).
These were difficult years for Cesar and Helen Chavez. Helen worked
in the fields during the week and on weekends with her husband to
support the family. He often baby-sat 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, Cesar's NFWA, with 1200 member families, joined
an AFL-CIO sponsored union in a strike against major Delano area
table and wine grape growers. Against great odds, Cesar 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 nonviolence and Cesar conducted a 25 day
fast in 1968 to reaffirm the UFW's commitment to nonviolence The
late Senator Robert F. Kennedy called Cesar "one of the heroic
figures of our time," and flew to Delano to be with him when
he ended the fast.
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"
pacts 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.
Cesar called for a new worldwide grape boycott. By 1975, a Louis
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
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 passed away 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 sun rise.
In 1991, Cesar 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, Cesar
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.
Many skeptics declared the union dead after Cesar passed away,
but such reports were proven to be premature. On Cesar's birthday,
March 31st, 1994, under the leadership of his son-in-law and successor
Arturo S. Rodriguez, the UFW marched 343 miles from Delano to Sacramento,
echoing Cesar's historic 1966 peregrinación and demonstrating
the strength of the UFW and the fact that Cesar's dream of a national
union for farm workers remains a possibility. The UFW continues
to win elections and negotiate contracts for farm workers.