In 1993, UCLA named its Chicana and Chicano studies department after labor leader César Chávez to honor his commitment to fighting for the rights of marginalized farmworkers and use of nonviolent tactics to “challenge the moral conscience of the nation and the world.” Students in UCLA’s labor studies program also immerse with Chávez’s contributions to the labor movement through courses that analyze transnational farmworker labor struggles and labor organizing history.
To honor the labor icon, labor studies faculty members Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, project director at the UCLA Labor Center, Center for Mexican Studies director and an expert on farm workers, immigrant workers and social movements, and labor studies faculty chair and history professor Tobias Higbie, who studies U.S. labor and social movement and migration history, discussed his legacy and lessons that remain vitally relevant to the worker struggles of today.
What surprises UCLA students about César Chávez and the farmworker movement?
Rivera-Salgado: Students are surprised by the genealogy of ideas that informed Chávez’s activism. They’re surprised to learn that he really learned how to organize as a community organizer, not as a union organizer. He worked under Fred Ross and the Community Service Organization and it is how Chávez learned about the house-meeting technique, which consisted of organizers educating workers about their rights in their homes, face-to-face. The house meeting became a fundamental strategy for organizing farmworkers that is still common today.
Students are also surprised by the multiracial nature of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and to learn that the Delano Grape Strike in 1965 was led and started by Filipino farmworkers who had been working for 30 years in California.
Therefore, the origin of the UFW had two big branches. One was the civil rights activists and community organizers, led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. The other was composed of Filipino farmworkers who had been in California since the 1930s, led by Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz.
Higbie: As someone who teaches a longer perspective on history, sometimes students aren’t aware that people have been organizing farmworkers for far longer. Not to take away from Chávez’s accomplishments or the UFW, but to highlight how complex and difficult this struggle was. Farmworkers have been organizing since the late 19th century in different parts of the country. And there were massive organizing drives in the World War I era of farmworkers in the Midwest and the West, and even in California, that were crushed by local and federal officials.
The second thing, which is not as happy of a story for César Chávez and his memory, but students are surprised to learn that Chávez, at a certain moment, was opposed to undocumented immigrant workers. Yet, Chavez’s position on undocumented immigrants evolved from being opposed and aligning with the immigration authorities to deport undocumented workers to eventually coming around and defending immigrants and amnesty. It’s important to be aware that even our heroes sometimes evolve and have a change of heart, a change of mind and strategy. And we can all learn from that.
How did farm workers pull together to gain some rights as workers?
Rivera-Salgado: It was in 1965, when you have the confluence of all these histories. There was community organizing, radical unionism, labor-conscious Filipinos farmworkers who had staged strikes in 1930s, the end of the Mexican Bracero program, which allowed millions of Mexican migrants to work legally in the agriculture industry between 1942-1954, and U.S.-born Mexican Americans working in the fields. Combined, these provided a multi-pronged strategy for farmworkers to finally be successful in establishing a permanent union.
Because the Delano Grape Strike wasn’t just for salaries and working conditions, it was for growers to actually recognize the union. That was so important. We take it for granted, but before the strike, farmworkers were excluded from the New Deal, so they were not covered by the National Labor Relations Act so they didn’t have the same rights as industrial workers.
We often hear the phrase “Si Se Puede” when we talk about Chávez, how did that slogan come about?
Rivera-Salgado: It was actually Dolores Huerta, who was in charge of a lot of the strategic organizing decisions alongside Chávez, who coined the famous slogan: “Si Se Puede” (yes we can). She was talking to supporters in Arizona because that state had passed a law prohibiting farmworkers from organizing into unions. They couldn’t even say the word “strike.” So, when she was organizing them, supporters were saying: no se puede, aquí no se puede hacer nada (no we can’t, you can’t do anything here). She challenged them by saying: Si Se Puede. And that became such a powerful idea. And I think it reflects her contribution to the movement.
What would you say are the lessons from Chavez’s contributions to the labor movement as we consider the challenges facing frontline workers amid the pandemic?
Higbie: It goes back to what Gaspar was just saying about Si Se Puede. Back then everyone was saying, you will never organize these farmworkers. It’s too difficult. They don’t have any power. They move around too much. They’re immigrants. But the point is that organizers took on that challenge and fought for improvements and it’s been an ongoing, continuous process but you can never really stop struggling for these improvements. It’s not like you get one law passed, and then you get to go home and rest. So, one of the lessons for us today, for our students, is that we all have to be in this for the long haul. You have to envision the world you would like to create and then to go out and find other people who share that vision and organize alongside them.
Rivera-Salgado: By studying the history of organizing farmworkers and the legacy of César Chávez, one can always sense that building a union is always done under adverse circumstances. The United States is a hostile territory for building unions. But it’s interesting to also realize, that people who we think are very marginal in our economy, sometimes do amazing things. Not only farmworkers in the 1960s, but now warehouse workers at Amazon, Uber drivers, and even baristas at Starbucks — people who haven’t traditionally been activists or radicals, by any stretch of the imagination are leading our renewal of organizing.
Chávez also planted the seed for social movement unionism, which means that you have to connect to workers within the larger context, with the realities of how workers are living. You don’t leave politics aside. You don’t leave elections aside and you don’t leave the issues of race and poverty out of your fight. You need to work with other sectors of civil society.
So in the case of farmworkers, they spearheaded corporate responsibility campaigns, they spearheaded the environmental movement that was part of their reality. They came up with demands of companies that subcontracted their workers and they were very creative. They were also very critical of the lax policies and regulations and the indiscriminate use of pesticides in the fields because their use also affected their community.
How could we honor the day in a way that’s consistent with the lessons and values that Chávez dedicated his life to achieve?
Rivera-Salgado: The easiest way to honor César Chávez is to recognize that when you eat a strawberry, you have a direct connection with the worker who picked that fruit for you. I think we forget that fundamental aspect in our complicated lives. Especially in a post-pandemic California, these humble workers were deemed essential but they don’t feel essential. Farmworkers will tell you over and over: “My wages don’t tell me I’m essential. My working conditions don’t tell me I’m essential. The way I’ve been treated doesn’t make me feel essential.”
So look at who’s behind your own ability to live your life and as you walk on campus, this beautiful campus, how is it maintained? How is it possible that we’re here? And the second lesson: organize.