The Undefeated Leader of the Migrant Farm Workers
Cesar Chavez — In His Own Words
In 1973 the International Brotherhood of Teamsters invaded the agricultural valleys of California. Their mission was to help the grape and lettuce growers crush Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers.
They had political support (Nixon let Jimmy Hoffa out of jail). They had money to buy high-powered public relations men (stories appeared questioning the ability of Cesar Chavez and his fellow workers — those gutsy, ignorant, well-meaning little guys — to run their own union). And, of course, the growers were eager to throw out the UFW and welcome the Teamsters as saviors. Needless to say, the Teamsters had the usual advance phalanx of thugs breaking heads right in front of the admiring eyes of the cops.
By the fall of 1974 the Teamster invasion had stripped the UFW to eight thousand members, and only seven of their contracts were still in force. The little guys were nearly wiped out. But not quite.
Chavez and his people beefed up their picket lines along the country roads. In seventy-five cities in North America and Europe the boycott of grapes, head lettuce, and Gallo wines was intensified. According to UFW figures, the growers had been forced to put 40 percent of the grape crop into cold storage as compared to an average of 9 percent in the years when they held UFW contracts. Galloan early Teamster convert-reported wine sales down by as much as 13 percent.
Why should we believe the UFW and their statistics? Easy. Chavez has never lied to us. The worst crime Chavez ever committed was criminal trespass — he set foot on the sacred soil of a grower. But look at the proud record of the Teamsters. Two of their presidents have served jail sentences: Dave Beck for his casual treatment of union funds, and Jimmy Hoffa for jury-tampering. Who would you believe?
Cracks are already beginning to appear in the solid front the Teamsters claim they have constructed. Their first local, chartered in Salinas, California, is reported to be in chaos. The man charged with administering it, Cono Macias, says the Teamsters are trying to disband it. This dissolution is apparently the first step in a plan for the Teamsters’ locals to assimilate the Mexican-Americans, nullifying their power and removing them as a threat to the growers. The Teamsters deny everything.
In Cesar Chavez, the UFW has one of the great organizers in the history of the American labor movement. He is one of the few uncorrupted heroes we have left.
After almost twenty years of union organizing in California, Chavez attracted national and international attention in 1965 when the UFW grape strike began. For eight years thereafter, he waged strikes and led the first nationwide boycotts. He went on four protest fasts, one lasting twenty-five days. In the end he won more than 300 contracts from the corporate monsters and feudal-throwbacks who dominate our food supply. He did it once. He is confident he can do it again.
Cesar Estrada Chavez was born on March 31, 1927, on a small farm near Yuma, Arizona, which had been purchased by his Mexican paternal grandfather in 1889. In 1937 the farm was lost because of taxes. Ten-year-old Cesar hit the road, doomed to the life of a migrant laborer. He attended more than thirty school, managing to finish the seventh grade.
He served for two years in the navy, seeing active duty on a destroyer in the Pacific during the closing months of World War II in 1947 he married Helen Fabela whose father had been a colonel under Pancho Villa. They have eight children, four of whom live at home in a modest two-bedroom house in Delano. His parents, now in their eighties, still live in San Jose in the Chicano ghetto called Sal Si Puedes (Get Out … If You Can).
Chavez is five feet, six inches tall and weighs a lean 140, having lost 30 pounds during his fasts. He wears his black hair neatly parted far over on the left. He has the dark, steady eyes and the curving nose of his Indian forebears. He wears plain work trousers and a plaid shirt — the uniform of those who work for La Causa.
Chavez’s following has been described by journalist Rick Beban as “more than a union, more than a social movement; at times … a religion of its own.” These people eat beans. They sleep three, five, or even eight to a room, when they must. They ride to work, or to the picket lines, in cars and trucks which look as if they have been handed down by those legendary migrants, the dust-bowl Okies of the thirties. They do not give up.