Cesar Chavez. Leader, Organizer and Mexican American Hero in Labour History

Term Paper, 2020

19 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Cesar Chavez

Leader, organizer, and Mexican American hero in labour history

Abstract: This paper will introduce the Mexican American labour organizer Cesar Chavez to the reader. Since he was an important and inspiring person for the marginalized labour movement in the United States in the 1960s and 70s, his organization United Farm Workers Organization Committee (UFWOC), his achievements, beliefs and methods will be closely examined in this paper. His understanding of social change and shifting the power relations between workers and employers was closely linked with nonviolent action. Furthermore, the reasons for the non-violent actions will be analysed through the Ration Action Theory. According to the analysis, in order to build a resilient community, the non-violence protests were the most effective, morally accepted and less provoking strategy for the Union. Behavioural and structural components influenced the decision of Chavez and the workers.

Keywords: labor movement, Cesar Chavez, peaceful revolution, social change, human rights, rational choice theory


Not only Martin Luther Jr. King should be considered as one of the most well-known and important leaders of a human rights movement during the 1960s and 1970s. The Mexican American Cesar Chavez should be proudly named in the same breath. He was an important social fighter and civil rights activist for American field workers, especially for those with foreign backgrounds. Chavez is often associated with fighting against injustice, dedication to non-violence, love, and the dignity of all (Maya 2019: 602). Chavez's immediate goal was social change. The papers purpose is to understand the means, ends, values, and ideals to which he appealed, and how he went about putting them into practice. It is an introduction to an important leader of the Latin-American worker movement and his outstanding achievement and importance for the afterworld. The paper consists of two parts: The first part will elaborate on the problems for foreigner field workers, how the organization and the social worker movement La Causa could be a solution to that and the meaning of Chavez persona and his methods. The second part of the paper follows the research question: Why is nonviolence an adequate strategy to fight injustice on the farm fields? To answer the question, a Ration Action Theory will be introduced to the reader as a theoretical framework. Finally, the findings will be summarized in the conclusion. The paper is taking the timeframe of the 1960s and 70s in the United States into account.

Farm workers in the U.S. during the 19th and 20th Century

The work conditions on the fields up from California to Delano were miserable. Around 1869 American farm owners used to hire Chinese people, which later on were replaced by Japanese workers. Newcomers from Mexico were California's primary source of agricultural labour in 1900 (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 3). Thousands of workers immigrated illegally from 1910 until 1920 to the United States during the bloody and violent revolution in Mexico. Mexican labourers were allowed into the United States for a limited time as seasonal agricultural workers, called bracero (Lexico, 2020). Most of the immigrants were coming from very poor families. Many Californian farmers concluded that Mexican labourers were willing to work long hours and do difficult stoop labour (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 3). They desperately depended on their little pay which they sent back to their relatives back home (Scharff 2008: 14). The workers would rather be exploited than sent back (Scharff 2008: 26). The growers preferred braceros because they took injustice in silence. During their lifetime the workers suffered extreme poverty, poor living conditions (living in cardboard shacks or caves), sexual harassment of female workers, high infant mortality, short life expectancy, and deadly use of pesticides in the fields (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 17, 18).

During the Great Depression, Cesar's parents, like so many other Mexican American families, lost their business and land and were forced into migrant labour (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 2). Cesar Chavez was born on March 31, 1927 in Yuma, Arizona and at the age of 10 he was already working on California fields (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 3). His day to day experience consisted of following the crops, living in labour camps, being forced into segregated and inferior schools, and being refused seats in the "Anglo only" sections of restaurants and movie houses (Scharff 2008: 17). Sometimes his family did not get paid after a hard week of work so they could not afford to pay rent for a migrant shack and had to sleep under bridges (Scharff 2008: 10). He "understood the discrimination and exploitation that Mexican American workers experienced. Those injustices were burned into his consciousness" (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 3).

The Worker Union

Cesar's doing, and later the Union, were influenced by two important people in his life. As devout Catholics who regularly attended Mass Cesar, his wife Helen and their growing family became well acquainted with Roman Catholic priest Father Donald Mc Donnell (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 4). Learning about Catholic social thought and religious faith might have helped him to address some of the social and economic problems Mexican Americans faced. When Cesar met the Anglo social worker Fred Ross, his life changed. Fred was a representative of the Community Service Organization (CSO). In the next couple of years Ross served as Chavez chief mentor in community organizing. Under Ross' leadership, the CSO set out to help Mexican Americans in several ways: help register new voters, defend civil rights, end discriminatory housing practices, and investigate allegation of police brutality (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 6). Cesar was hired as a recruiter for the CSO (Schraff 2008: 24) and soon after becoming an experienced strong organizer, he was assigned to be the director of the national wide group of the CSO in 1959. He convinced many Mexican Americans that they had to organize if they were to gain more power in the United States or were to play an active role in the local and national politics (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 6). However, at a certain point the goals of the CSO were not enough for him: he started to revolt within the organization. For several years Cesar wanted to organize a union solely for farmworkers and he urged the CSO to do so (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 6). As they did not follow his aspirations, he quit his well-paid job in 1962.

Committing himself to the cause of justice, he accepted significant sacrifices such as the loss of income, status, and relationships (Maya, 610). He committed himself to organize the poor and powerless farmworkers with almost no financial support (Maya 2019: 618,9). In 1962 he built the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with less than five hundred members. The flag became an emblem of unity, hope, and strength: it showed a black eagle as a symbol for the misery of the workers, the reddish colour represented the struggle for justice and white stood for hope (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 12). The motto of the Union was "Viva la Causa" (engl.: long live the cause) (Scharff 2008: 31). By 1964 his new FWA had gained more than a thousand members (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 220: 8). Building the Worker Union was a slow process based on hard work and very personal relationships (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 41). Workers were not organized in dramatic meetings. Cesar was gathering person by person in a car on the way to a labour commissioner hearing, or while driving to meet an industrial accident referee. "Cesar brought everybody together and really established himself as the leader of the farmworkers" (Dolores Huerta in Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz, 43).

Chavez understood that to empower farm workers and to voice their complaints was a significant educative undertaking (Maya 2019: 607). Educating about the purpose and the strategy of participating in a picket line could develop expressive unexercised capacities. A picket line has an effective and formative function which requires courage of the workers: "(...) it entails not only a refusal to submit to ill treatment, but also the commitment to work toward rectifying the unjust relationship rather than exiting it" (Maya 2019: 610). The workers used and raised their voice to protest the terms of the relationship with the growers. Their first strike was established in May 1965, followed by a tough attack on the grape labor contractors in 1962.

Cesar began to prepare the union for a large strike to gain new rights for his farmworkers (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 9). In 1965, AWOC (Agricultural Workers Organization Committee) asked Chavez for help in the fight against the grape growers of Schenley Industries and the processed products of the Di Giorgio Corporation, S & W Fine Foods, and Tree Sweets in the Delano area. Grape workers there would only earn about a dollar an hour. Many grape ranches had no toilets in the fields, workers had to pay for drinking water, and dangerous chemicals were frequently sprayed while workers were present (Schraff 2208: 32). Chavez used a "divide and conquer" strategy, while he was attacking one company at a time (Schraff 2008: 36). In early 1970, Cesar was constantly on the road, urging fruit pickers and lettuce workers throughout farming areas in California to stand up for their rights (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 15). Besides the strike on farmer fields, the union called for a national boycott of grapes and wine of the Schenley Industries. Through newspapers and NBC Television news, which reported about the devoted fight for civil rights and the confrontation at the picket line (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 89), the union gained national visibility and more awareness for the suffering of farmworkers. The success of the boycott depended on the individual informed and empathetic consumer. After grocery chains, restaurants, union groups, and consumers throughout the country boycotted grapes and wine, the industry saw their sales drop noticeably (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 11). Donations for the Union and his cause were made from bakeries, meat-packing-plants (Schraff 2008: 36), and Mills College, which donated 6,500 dollars.

Next, Cesar turned his attention to the academic youth of the country: he went to give speeches at universities. "Chavez was not an emotional speaker. He convinced students to support the union through his sincerity, humility, and command of the facts about the struggle between the farmworkers and the growers" (idem: 88). As a highlight, Cesar and his co-worker Dolora Huerta lead a joined march on the state capitol in Sacramento in 1966. The twenty- five-days pilgrimage was as spiritual as it was political (Matthiessen, 11). The march was linked to the idea of sacrifice and gained support throughout California. At Easter, the marchers were welcomed by a crowd of 10, 000 people at Sacramento. There, Cesar could announce that a historic agreement had been reached: Schenley Industries had capitulated and agreed to negotiate a contract with the worker union (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 12). After 5 years, when the strike finally ended, Cesar could negotiate better working and paying conditions for workers in the California grape industry. "For the first time in U.S. history, a grassroots farm-labour union has gained recognition by a corporation" (idem: 91). Cesar and the UFW had achieved national and international recognition among agricultural labourers, farmworkers, and democratic party leaders. Martin Luther King Jr. telegrammed congratulations to Chavez (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 12, 13) and Time magazine had named him "Man of the Year" in 1969; as Cesar Chavez symbolized for many Americans the surging power of minority leaders.

Meanwhile in the summer of 1966, his union NFWA, after merging with the UAW (United Automobile Workers), became the United Farm Workers Organization Committee (UFWOC) (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 10). The new UFWOC became a truly multi-ethnic Worker Union since most of the AWOC were Filipinos and the NFWA had mostly Mexican members. By the end of 1966 Chavez and the farmworkers were part of a broad-based and nationwide known movement. The balance of power shifted towards the worker: growers after growers signed contracts and agreed to (identify with the movement?), by printing the black eagle on their fruit and vegetable boxes. "La Causa became part of the agenda for scores of local Chicano movement organizations" (idem, 95). In the 1970s, the Union continued their boycott and strike against the lettuce and banana industry but could not reach the success of 1966 (Scharff 2008: 43). By 1980 the UFWOC could reach some significant progress. In late 1960, farmworkers earned around one or two dollars an hour. By 1980, the minimum wage for farmworkers grew to 5 dollars an hour in addition to other benefits. By 1984, UFWOC members were earning seven dollars (Scharff 2008: 49). In August 1975 with the election of the new governor, Jerry Brown, the chances of passing the Agricultural Labor Relations Act improved. The Act was a landmark statute in United States labour law, protecting the collective bargaining rights for farmworkers (Scharff 2008: 48).

Cesar's beliefs and objectives

Did Cesar's characteristics play a significant role in the process of social change? How was he able to become one of the most powerful minority labour leaders of post -World war II America?

Cesar was often contextualized with sacrifice, pain, and his dedication to La Causa (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 98). He was an idealist who was taking human beings seriously (James Drake in idem: 82). At first glance, Cesar appeared as a small, quiet, and modest man; but he made a tireless commitment in his work and was willing to outwork his colleagues (idem, 19). During this struggle, his own sacrifice and commitment were total. Cesar accepted poverty, imprisonment, and critique, if these meant that his theories were being realized. He never forgot his principles, and practiced what he preached, because only then the farmworkers would believe in his authority to represent and lead them. That is the reason why he never possessed anything valuable like a car.

Cesar also had a very close spiritual connection to the Catholic church. Chavez merged his religious devotion and his activism. Religious symbols were nearly always present at his meetings and marches (Griswold de Castillo, Maciel, Ruiz 2002: 56). Through strikes, the march on Sacramento, and his fasts, he could inspire his followers with Catholic spirituality. He strongly believed in moral, social and religious techniques. But his ties to the Catholic Church did not alienate him from other religious organizations. He worked closely together with Protestants priests from all around the country during strikes and boycotts.


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Cesar Chavez. Leader, Organizer and Mexican American Hero in Labour History
University of Erfurt
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cesar, chavez, leader, organizer, mexican, american, hero, labour, history
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Sophia Khatri (Author), 2020, Cesar Chavez. Leader, Organizer and Mexican American Hero in Labour History, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/996793


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