The late Cesar Chavez is something of a legend among workers across the country, and for good reason. He bucked long odds against him to co-found the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW) of America union.
Chavez received many awards, in his life and after, in recognition of what he did to help give a voice to farm workers. This includes the Presidential Medal of Freedom, posthumously given to Chavez in 1994 by President Bill Clinton.
“He was, for his own people, a Moses figure,” said President Clinton. “The farm workers who labored in the fields and yearned for respect and self-sufficiency pinned their hopes on this remarkable man, who with faith and discipline, with soft-spoken humility and amazing inner strength led a very courageous life and in so doing brought dignity to the lives of so many others and provided for us inspiration for the rest of our nation’s history,” Clinton explained.
Given the high praise of his work, Chavez’s lofty ideals are a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, the United Farm Workers of America union hasn’t proved up to it. Not even close.
Chavez worked hard to organize and give American farm workers a voice. Early on, Chavez accepted little money in return for his efforts because he recognized that farm workers just didn’t have much to give.
Cesar Chavez’s priority was to give his fellow workers better wages, safer working conditions, more legal protections, and above all, a voice. If something wasn’t working, the collective voice of the union was utilized to ensure that the farm owners took the workers’ concerns seriously.
After Chavez’s death, the UFW lost sight of the reasons behind their formation. Instead of prioritizing the union’s collective voice, the UFW became more interested in profit and power rather than representing workers.
In one famous case, workers at one farm who were represented by the UFW decided they had enough of the neglect and intimidation. They held a vote to decertify the union which led to a 5-year-long fight in court before the votes could even be counted.
It was not until after a ruling from the Fresno-based Fifth District California Court of Appeal, and the California Supreme Court rejecting petitions from both the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board and the UFW, that the votes were finally tallied. The results weren’t even close; as almost 1,100 workers voted to decertify the union.
Farm-worker rights activist Jesse Rojas shed some light on why workers voted in favor of decertifying the UFW.
“The union tried to force a contract on the workers that would have lowered their take-home pay, despite the fact that the UFW had abandoned the workers completely for two decades prior. In other words, these farmworkers had no voice,” Rojas explained.
In order to properly represent a collective group to an employer, one must first listen to the individual. That’s how Cesar Chavez managed to unionize, work with, and take action on behalf of so many farm workers in the first place. He listened, one worker at a time.
Chavez heard their concerns. He fashioned campaigns that reflected the worries and aspirations of thousands of farm workers. He brought union representation to a sector of the workforce that, at one time, had been written off.
Elvira Moreno is a former city councilwoman from Maywood, CA.