Today Cesar’s name adorns schools, streets, libraries, parks, and other public places. Seven thousand people witnessed the launching in 2012 of the U.S. Navy’s latest Lewis and Clark — class dry cargo ship, USNS Cesar Chavez, recognizing his navy service at the end of World War II. President Obama visited La Paz, California, where Cesar had lived and worked in his last quarter century and where he was buried in 1993. Before another crowd of seven thousand, the present proclaimed a small part of the grounds as the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, the 398th unit of the National Park Service, holding the same status as the Statue of Liberty and Grand Canyon. […]
Local recognitions are gratefully acknowledged; they are also often expressions of ethnic and community pride. If Cesar were here, he would likely scold people for wasting time on such gestures.
The greatest monument to Cesar Chavez isn’t on a street sign or a building. It’s the inspiration to work for change that he instilled among his own people and in millions of other Americans from all walks of life who have never worked on a farm. Many people–including those who hadn’t even been born when Cesar died–trace their social and political activism to him. Another key to Cesar’s success was his constant challenging of the status quo and how people were used to doing things. He saw his role in the movement as getting people to think outside the box and to become agents of change.
That took curiosity and courage. Why couldn’t we boycott or march or fast or bring cultural and religious traditions into the union, even if other unions hadn’t done that?
“I had a dream that the only reason the employers were so powerful was that we were so weak,’ Cesar said. He sought a paradigm shift in people’s thinking. If workers could organize and get stronger, he reasoned, maybe the growers wouldn’t appear as strong. So farm workers’ fate was in their own hands.
When you look closely at his strategies and tactics from a historical perspective, four innovations stand out.
The first was nonviolence. As a devout Catholic and a student of Eastern religion, including Zen Buddhism, Cesar was convinced that human life is special, a gift from God, and no one has the right to take it for any cause, no matter how just. “If to build our union required the deliberate taking of life, either the life of a grower or his child or the life of a farm worker or his child, then I choose not to see the union built,” he wrote in a Good Friday, 1969, letter to the head of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League.
Those weren’t just words for him. He called of a second grape strike in 1973 after two strikers were killed and turned to a boycott in 1979 after a lettuce striker was fatally shot. Both cases were to the dismay of those who held to the romantic notion that movements need martyrs to succeed. He never gave up the fight, but he refused to risk people’s lives when there were alternatives.
[…] The second innovation was the boycott. No one before had applied a boycott to a major dispute between labor and management. Some national labor leaders scoffed. Nearly a shelf of Cesar’s library holds the complete writings of Mahatma Gandhi in dog-eared paperback volumes; Cesar read them all, including the account of Gandhi’s 1930 salt boycott. Cesar carefully followed Dr. King’s career, starting with the Montgomery bus boycott. And Cesar read everything on California farm labor history and spoke with everyone he met who had lived through it.
From the beginning of the Delano walkouts in 1965, Cesar knew he couldn’t win with strikes alone. Growers controlled the courts, law enforcement, and all of rural California’s social, political, and economic institutions. So he transferred the scene of battle from the fields–where the odds were stacked against farm workers–to the cities. There Cesar constructed a grand alliance of students plus union, civil rights, and faith activists, and millions of consumers. They rallied to La Causa by boycotting grapes and other products.
Hundreds of grape strikers and UFW staff fanned out to cities across North America. Tens of thousands of supporters picketed supermarkets. Millions of consumers boycotted grapes, finally forcing most table-grape growers to sign their first union contracts in 1970. Cesar had great faith that people who spoke different languages and led different lives would do what was right for farm workers if given the chance. The triumph in the grapes firmly established the UFW as the country’s first successful farm workers union. A 1975 nationwide Louis Harris survey showed that seventeen million American adults were boycotting grapes during a second grape boycott. Cesar called the American people “our court of last resort,” and they were.
Third was what he called volunteerism. Cesar used to distinguish between being a service and being a servant. Many decent people perform regular acts of charity or kindness. But only a few dedicate themselves totally to helping others.
So Cesar, along with most everyone who worked for the movement, survived on subsistence pay and, during the 1960s grape strike, donated food and clothing. We all received five dollars a week plus room and board; in the later 1970s this doubled, to ten dollars a week. No one went hungry, and gas, auto repairs, and in some cases minimal bills such as car payments were covered. But no one had any money.
Cesar’s philosophy was that you couldn’t organize the poor unless you were willing to share their plight. One of the benefits of that philosophy appeared in 1973, when all but one of the hard-won UFW table-grape contracts signed in 1970 expired and growers turned them over to the Teamsters Union without any elections, sparking a mass strike by grape workers. The UFW was wiped out–on paper–as union contracts expired and union dues dried up. Any other union, deprived of revenue and unable to pay staff, would have folded. But no one quit working for the UFW because they were not paid. The union survived and made up for loss of dues money with mostly small donations from supporters, which still help sustain it.
The fourth innovation might have been most important. Preparing to create the UFW in 1962, Cesar, Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla, and the other early organizers had a unique vision of what a union could be. From studying why previous organizing endeavors had failed, they were persuaded that things had to be done differently.
Cesar recognized that workers are not just workers. Only a union could remedy the economic abuses that they endured at work. But he was convinced that it would take more than a union to overcome the exploitation and prejudice that farm workers confronted in the community; it would take a movement. […]
In an era when so few people in public life seem willing to risk their livelihoods, much less their lives, on principle, the life of Cesar Chavez stands out with even greater moral purpose. […]