César Chávez, UFW, and the Grape Boycott Here’s some food for thought: In the late 1960s, thanks to César Chávez (1927-1993) and the United Farm Workers (UFW), deciding whether or not to buy grapes was a political act. Chávez was born in Arizona and migrated to California with his family… who worked the fields from Brawley to Oxnard, Atascadero, Gonzales, King City, Salinas, McFarland, Delano, Wasco, Selma, Kingsburg, and Mendota. The quiet man who lived in a barrio called Sal Si Puedes (“Get Out If You Can”) knew firsthand of the injustices imposed upon the migrant workers — workers who had been trying to organize for a century. He and others like Dolores Huerta fought back… not with violence, but with the formation of the National Farm Workers Association (later to become the UFW) back in 1962. Three years after its establishment, the UFW struck against the grape growers around Delano, California… a long, bitter, and frustrating struggle that appeared impossible to resolve until Chávez hit upon the idea of a national boycott. Trusting in the average person’s ability to connect with those in need, Chávez and the UFW brought their plight — and a lesson in social justice — into homes from coast-to-coast, and Americans responded. “By 1970, the grape boycott was an unqualified success,” writes Marc Grossman in “Stone Soup.” “Bowing to pressure from the boycott, grape growers at long last signed union contracts, granting workers human dignity and a more livable wage.” Chávez is perhaps best known for the grape boycott, but in line with his collective soul, he was always the first to admit that it was not his idea. In fact, he was initially against the boycott until his co-workers explained that the best method was not to boycott individual labels, but all grapes. In this way, the grapes became the label itself. Through hunger strikes, imprisonment, abject poverty for himself and his large family, racist and corrupt judges, exposure to dangerous pesticides, and even assassination plots, Chávez remained true to the cause and to the non-violent methods he espoused. Even when threatened with physical harm, the furthest Chávez and his comrades would go was deterrence. Once in 1966, when Teamster goons began to rough up Chávez’s picketeers, a bit of labor solidarity solved the problem without violence. William Kircher, the AFL-CIO director of organization, called Paul Hall, president of the International Seafarers Union. “Within hours,” writes David Goodwin in “César Chávez: Hop for the People,” “Hall sent a carload of the biggest sailors that had ever put to sea to march with the strikers on the picket lines… There followed afterward no further physical harassment.” This peaceful yet strong dedication garnered the attention of another non-violent struggle being waged at the time as Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers took some time from the civil rights movement to head west and help out. They were joined by members of the Free Speech Movement from Berkeley to form a powerful multi-ethnic coalition. “The fight for equality must be fought on many fronts — in urban slums, in the sweat shops of the factories and fields,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. in a telegram to Chávez after a UFW electoral victory. “Our separate struggles are really one — a struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity. You and your valiant fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people. We are together with you in spirit and in determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.” The roots of Chávez’s effectiveness lay in his ability to connect on a human level. When asked: “What accounts for all the affection and respect of so many farm workers show you in public?”, César replied: “The feeling is mutual.” “He never owned a house,” says Grossman. “He never earned more than $6,000 a year. When he died… he left no money for his family. Yet more than 40,000 people marched behind the plain pine casket at his funeral, honoring the more than 40 years he spent struggling to improve the lives of farm workers.” Excerpted from the book “50 Revolutions You’re Not Supposed To Know” by Mickey Z., courtesy of The Disinformation Company www.disinfo.com.
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