Working-class undocumented immigrants organize: César Chávez and the non-violent movement of farmworkers and their unions
|Huelga - Strike. Source: Tavaana|
In 1962, César Chávez started to organize among farmworkers. His parents immigrated from Mexico to Arizona, and he was born in 1927 in the U.S. His family lost their farm during the economic depression of the 1930s when he was a child and the impoverished family moved to California where they started to work as farmworkers. The situation of the Spanish-speaking population was in many aspects similar to the African-Americans living in the southern states. The education was segregated in many schools, it was forbidden to speak in Spanish, and the society fundamentally disdained people with Mexican origin. There were restaurants where only whites were served. Chávez worked as a farmworker, followed by two years in the military, then in 1952, he started to work for Fred Ross, a community organizer affiliated with Saul Alinsky, where he became the director of the organization in 1958. The Community Service Organization, however, did not commit itself to organize farmworkers, so Chávez quit his job in 1962 and started to organize with his allies.
|Get out the vote campaign. Source: UFW|
Chávez aimed for unionizing a huge number of workers so that they can collectively bargain with the growers and the employees hire the workers through the union. His movement protected the interests of the settled-down farmworkers, often against the miserable guestworkers brought from Mexico for seasonal work under the so-called Bracero program. Under this federal program, which ran between 1942-64, the avoidance of paying the minimum wage to guestworkers was not too difficult, therefore the growers could torpedo the organizing efforts of settled-down farmworkers through their easy access to the cheap labor of several thousands of guestworkers who were admitted to the country in the 1950-60s.
The overall strategy of Chávez used was that he first built a mass base of workers, who could then put substantial pressure on decision-makers. In 1962, he founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with Dolores Huerta, where he offered modest benefits and support to members through a membership fee. However, the three-year long relationship building and recruitment went slowly, because NFWA hadn't had any victories which would have made the organization reliable to potential members. Finally, a 1965 strike gave impetus and helped the organization grow. A mainly Filipino workers' organization (AWOC) started a strike against grape growers in the Delano region in California and invited NFWA to join. As a result of the call and the three years of recruitment and relationship building, 1,200 families joined. A five-year strike started and the two organizations united to establish the United Farm Workers (UFW). In 1970, the grape growers in the Delano region, due to local, national and international pressure, signed a three-year contract with UFW, which brought enormous success to the movement. In 1968, U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy also joined one of their actions.
|A crop duster is spraying pesticides,|
while farm workers are working
in the field in 1969. Source: UFW
The growers, as a response, supported the campaign of an anti-union candidate in the 1982 governor's race in California, who won the election and repealed the union law. The UFW then started another boycott and launched a campaign against pesticides, which caused serious health problems to workers and their kids. In 1992, UFW activists managed to get the wage of grapepickers increased.
Chávez passed away in 1993. One of the campaigns of the UFW now is the enactment of the so-called AgJOBS Act, which would legalize the status of undocumented immigrants and open the path for them to permanent residency.
Viva La Causa: organizing principles of César Chávez
|Activists demand wage increase|
for tomato pickers in front of a
Taco Bell fast food restaurant.
Therefore, with women and Latino farmworkers, the movement had a lot of followers among students, the white middle-class, and the Latino working class. Chávez said, "If we nothing but farmworkers, we'd only have about 30 per cent of all the ideas that we have. There would be no cross-fertilization, no growing. It's beautiful to work with other groups, other ideas, and other customs." (2003: Dalton) This approach helped the movement gain national and international support in the frequently used boycott tactics.
Chávez went on hunger strikes and fasted several times throughout this lifetime. Masses and religious events closing the fasts meant a bonding among the members of the, ultimately, religious Mexican American movement. The first fasting took place in 1968 for the "purification of the union", when during the first five-year strike members started to lose faith in the non-violent tactics and started to become violent. The fasting was also a signal for the Catholic bishops, who were reluctant to stand by the poor and instead kept on acting as mediators between the workers and the growers. At the end of the 25-day fasting, Chávez organized a public mass, which was attended by more than 8,000 supporters, for example, by Senator Robert F. Kennedy, with whom he shared the communion. He went on a hunger strike against the Arizona law which banned strikes, and during the campaign against pesticides. The Catholicism of Chavez was rooted in liberation theology.
The UFW inspired and showed a perspective to several farmworker unions and organizations, for example, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who conducted a successful boycott against Taco Bell (fast food restaurant) between 2002-2005 for wage increases for tomato pickers in Florida; or the PCUN Oregon's Farmworker Union, which built its membership base through providing legal services and then transformed into a union. Many of PCUN's founding members graduated from the Colegio César Chávez, a popular school, named after Chávez and founded to provide education to Mexican Americans. Chávez had primary education and throughout his life, he was a self-learner. Barack Obama dedicated a monument to Chávez this October in San Francisco.
The American middle class organizes: the Sanctuary Movement in support of undocumented immigrants
A good example for the outstanding support of the middle class is the Sanctuary Movement, which was a critical response of a part of the American society to the U.S. foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s. In the 1980s, due to the massacres and civil war in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and in El Salvador almost one million people sought refuge in the U.S.
Despite the fact that the actual U.S. administration aided those leaders who supported the neoliberal economic policy and the access of the American capital to these countries and who are liable for the death of the hundreds of thousands of people, the Reagan administration substantially restricted the asylum seekers in gaining refugee status. Gradually, a segment of the society became more and more aware of the consequences of the American foreign policy, and some of them started to take responsibility.
The religious Sanctuary Movement started to emerge in 1980. Several denominations took account of their faith and principles and first started to provide legal and financial aid to Central American asylum seekers who managed to cross the border. Then in 1982, John Fife, a Presbyterian minister in Arizona, declared that the church of his congregation is a sanctuary, justified by Biblical traditions. The posted banners said: "This is a Sanctuary for the Oppressed of Central America. Immigration: do not profane the Sanctuary of God." (wikipedia) Inspired by this, by 1985, congregations, non-religious organizations, families with almost 500 member-sites joined the movement. Besides the Bible, the movement was inspired by the Underground Railroad, which was a network of safe houses from the southern states of the U.S. to Canada, where fleeing slaves found safe haven in the 19th century. The network was built by the activists of the Abolitionist Movement.
The immigration office cracked down on the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s. Several leaders were sued, and some of them were indicted on smuggling charges. The movement gained public support, and the trials incited public outrage and demonstrations. Social pressure contributed to the fact that the federal government provided temporary protected status to Central American asylum seekers in the Immigration Act of 1990. (wikipedia)
It is the business of all of us
In Portland, Sarah, a member of the Oregon New Sanctuary Movement, Sarah allowed me to stay with her. Sarah worked at a local organization in Santa Marta, El Salvador in the early 2000s, where she became politicized. She works with several organizations in Oregon, and she builds the local group of the Oregon New Sanctuary Movement and the welcoming community in Portland as an activist. She often travels back to visit friends in El Salvador, to gain energy and courage, but she knows that her job is in the U.S.; this is the country where she can do the most to support social movements and immigrant justice.
In El Salvador, she said, people seem more politicized or politically aware, and that political discourse is more common among a wide range of people. In the community where she lived in particular – largely because of its long and rich history of struggle during the 1979-1992 Civil War, but also out of necessity – organizing for basic rights and self-determination is much more integrated into communal life.
The political action, community organizing and organizing for social change start in our everyday life.
Read Part 1 here.
Further literature: Frederick John Dalton: The Moral Vision of César Chávez. Maryknoll, New York, 2003. Lynn Stephen: The Story of PCUN and the Farmworker Movement in Oregon. University of Oregon. Eugene, 2012. Ganz Marshall: Why David Sometimes Wins. In: David M. Messick and Roderick M. Kramer: The Psychology of Leadership. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005, pp. 209-238.
Documentary film: Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement - Part 2: The Struggle in the Fields. PBS Documentary, 1996.
Read it in Hungarian.