Once again the March 31st birthdate of widely acclaimed farm worker leader Cesar Chavez has passed without proclamation of a national holiday to adequately honor him. His life had a great and lasting impact on Americans in every state.
Chavez showed, above all, that the poor and oppressed can prevail against even the most powerful opponents – if they can organize themselves and adopt non-violence as their principal tactic.
"We have our bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons," Chavez explained.
The cause, of course, was that of the nation's highly exploited farm workers. Although their work of harvesting the food that sustains us all is one of society's most important tasks, their pay was at or near the poverty level, they typically had few fringe benefits and very little legal protection from employer mistreatment.
Most lacked even such simple on-the-job amenities as toilets and fresh drinking water and were regularly exposed to pesticide poisoning and other hazards. Their living conditions were generally as abominable.
As a farm worker himself, Chavez carefully put together a grass-roots organization that enabled the workers to form their own union. Then they won the essential support of millions of outsiders who heeded the UFW's call to boycott the grapes, lettuce and other produce of growers who refused to grant them union rights and the decent pay and conditions that came with unionization.
Many others before Chavez had tried and failed to form an effective farm workers' union and few – if any – of those who claimed expertise in such matters thought Chavez would be any different. But they failed to account for the tactical brilliance, creativity and just plain stubbornness of Chavez, a sad-eyed, disarmingly soft-spoken man who talked of militancy in calm, measured tones, a gentle and incredibly patient man who hid great strategic talent behind shy smiles and an appearance of utter candor.
It took five years, but in 1970 the UFW finally won the first farm union contracts in history. Five years later, the union won the pioneering California law that requires growers to bargain collectively with farm workers who vote for unionization. That has led to marked improvement in the treatment of many of the state's farm workers. Their pay, benefits and working conditions are still short of what they should be, but the law has given them the weapon needed to win better treatment.
What's most needed now is to spread the legal right of unionization to the hundreds of thousands of mistreated farm workers outside California. Congress could do that by simply including farm workers in the National Labor Relations Act, the 76-year-old New Deal law that grants union rights to most non-agricultural workers.
Certainly Congress should declare a national Cesar Chavez holiday. But more than that, Congress should finally extend to all Americans the basic right of unionization that Cesar Chavez spent his life seeking and defending.
Veteran labor writer Dick Meister is co-author of "A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America's Farm Workers" (Macmillan). He may be reached at www.dickmeister.com.
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