¡Sí Se Puede! Hispanic Heritage Month Spotlight on César Chávez & the UFW
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United Farm Workers

Founded by Latino labor activist César Chávez in 1962, the California-based United Farm Workers (UFW) is a labor union dedicated to improving the working conditions and lives of agricultural laborers. Over the years, the union has scored victories in labor disputes involving grape, lettuce, strawberry, rose, mushroom, orange, wine, and other agricultural producers. The organization has successfully lobbied for a number of health and labor reforms, including a 2006 California regulation designed to prevent death from overexposure to heat.

The union got its start in late September 1962, when hundreds of delegates attended the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in Fresno, California. On September 16, 1965, Chávez and his NFWA colleagues voted to join Filipino workers in a strike against Delano, California, grape growers. The Delano grape strike persisted for five years and would attract nationwide attention. Among those who supported the farm workers were United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther and U.S. senator Robert F. Kennedy. As part of their organizing strategy, the UFW called for a boycott of grape growing Schenley Industries during the winter of 1965–1966. Later that spring, Chávez and a group of fellow strikers undertook a pilgrimage from Delano to the state capitol in Sacramento to draw attention to the condition of farm labor. In the process of the march to Sacramento, the UFWA and Schenley Industries signed the union's first contract. New challenges soon developed as farm workers called a strike and boycott of the DiGiorgio Fruit Corporation. When DiGiorgio asked Teamsters to combat Chávez and the NFWA, organizers combined forces with the Filipino-American Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). At the time, AWOC was affiliated with the AFL-CIO. The two organizations soon officially became the UFW.

For the next few years, word of the grape boycott spread across the country and world. As the farm workers mission became known, supporters referred to the growing movement as "La Causa." Further endorsing nonviolence as a movement strategy, Chávez went on a 25-day fast in early 1968. Many, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., sent messages of encouragement and solidarity.

Following years of an often-bitter struggle, Delano-area grape growers signed a historic agreement with the union on July 29, 1970. More challenges lay ahead along California's central coast, however, as many Salinas Valley lettuce and vegetable growers signed sweetheart deals with the Teamsters to avoid dealing with the UFW. A boycott was called and nearly 10,000 workers walked off the job. In December, Chávez disobeyed a court order to end the boycott. He was jailed in Salinas for two weeks. The following year, boycott and membership efforts continued. By early 1971, the official number of workers affiliated with the UFW stood at more than 70,000. The following year the organization became an independent affiliate of the AFL-CIO and took on the title of the UFW.

Battles with the Gallo winery broke out in the spring of 1973 when the winemaker dealt with the Teamsters rather than with the farm worker's union. Grape workers in Coachella and San Joaquin Valley went on strike and many were arrested for breaking specious antipicketing regulations. Violence, beatings, and two deaths characterized the bitter confrontation before Chávez eventually decided to stop the strike and replace it with a new nationwide grape, lettuce, and Gallo wine boycott. Soon, nearly 17 million consumers joined the effort. In June 1975, California farm workers gained further support for their cause as Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. This legislation guaranteed agricultural workers the right to organize, vote in monitored secret ballot elections, and bargain with growers. To publicize the new law, Chávez undertook a nearly two-month walk during July and August 1975. The journey began near the Mexican border in San Ysidro and then headed north to Salinas and then to Sacramento. Following this walk, the entourage headed back to the union's headquarters in Keene (near Bakersfield) via California's agriculturally rich Central Valley. The event proved a huge success with thousands showing up to support Chávez and the farm-worker cause.

After continued tension with the UFW, the Teamsters Union decided to leave the fields in 1977. The following year, Chávez called for an end to the grape, lettuce, and Gallo wine boycott as the union continued to make significant gains with growers. Following this effort, the UFW continued to advocate for better wages and safer working conditions as well as a host of other education and community efforts. Important organizing efforts such as the launching of a third grape boycott in 1984 as well as ongoing violence and concerns about health and safety issues characterize the UFW's history into the present era. Along the way, the union made important gains despite continued opposition from growers and politicians.

Andrew G. Wood


Further Reading
Kushner, Sam. The Long Road to Delano. New York: International Publishers, 1975; United Farm Workers (http://www.ufw.org/).
 

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