It's been 15 years since the death of the United Farm
Workers' Cesar Chavez -- way past time to make his birthdate of March 31 a
national holiday. Petitions urging Congress to do just that are now being
circulated, appropriately on the 40th anniversary of the 25-day fast that was
one of the most extreme and most effective of his many truly heroic acts.
Like Martin Luther King Jr., who's rightly honored with a
national holiday, Chavez inspired and energized millions of people worldwide to
seek - and to win - basic human rights that had long been denied them and
inspired millions of others to join the struggle.
A national holiday would be a well-deserved tribute to
Latinos and organized labor. Even more than that, it would be a special
opportunity to remind Americans everywhere of the profound lessons of Chavez'
He showed, above all, that the poor and oppressed can
prevail against even the most powerful opponents - if they can organize
themselves and adopt non-violence as their principal tactic.
"We have our bodies and spirits and the justice of
our cause as our weapons," Chavez explained.
The cause, of course, was that of the highly exploited
farm worker. As a farm worker himself, Chavez carefully put together a
grass-roots organization that enabled the workers to form their own union, the
United Farm Workers. Then they won the essential support of millions of
outsiders who heeded the UFW's call to boycott the grapes, lettuce and other
produce of growers who refused to grant them union rights.
Many others before him had tried and failed to form an
effective farm workers' union and few - if any - of those who claimed expertise
in such matters thought Chavez would be any different. But they failed to
account for the tactical brilliance, creativity and just plain stubbornness of
Chavez, a sad-eyed, disarmingly soft-spoken man who talked of militancy in
calm, measured tones, a gentle and incredibly patient man who hid great
strategic talent behind shy smiles and an appearance of utter candor.
It took five
years, but in 1970 the UFW finally won the
first farm union contracts in history. Five years after that, the union won the
pioneering California law that requires growers to bargain with farm workers
who vote for unionization. That has led to improvements in the pay, benefits
and working conditions of many of the state's highly exploited farm workers,
and given them all the weapon needed to better their conditions.
The struggle for those first union contracts was
extremely difficult for the impoverished farm workers, and Chavez risked his
health - perhaps his life - to provide them extreme examples of the sacrifices
necessary for victory. Most notably, he engaged in lengthy, highly publicized
fasts, such as the 25-day ordeal in February and March of 1968 that helped
rally the public to the farm workers' cause and that may very well have
contributed to his untimely death at 66 in 1993.
Chavez had another urgent purpose. He dedicated the fast
to reaffirming the principles of non-violence that had guided his union from
its founding four years earlier.
Chavez was concerned that the frustrations of the grape
pickers, who had been on strike for three years, were turning toward violence.
Fearing that "someone would hurt someone" if picketing continued at
the vineyards the union had struck and well aware that victory would come from
peaceful urban boycott activities rather than picketing, Chavez called off the
Then he retired to a small, white-walled storeroom at the
UFW's headquarters in Delano, California, to fast, pray and read the Bible and
the writings of Mohandas Gandhi.
Chavez broke the fast before 4,000 supporters at an
ecumenical mass in Delano's city park. Sen. Robert Kennedy was at his side as
he slumped in a chair and nibbled feebly at a tiny bit of bread handed him by a
priest. Kennedy took a portion from the same home-baked loaf, then hailed
Chavez as "one of the heroic figures of our time."
Despite the UFW's successes since then, many farm workers
are still mired in poverty, their pay and working and living conditions a
A national Cesar Chavez Day should remind us of that, and
of the continuing necessity to take forceful legal steps and other action to
finally provide a decent life for all those who do the hard, dirty and
dangerous work that puts food on our tables.
We need, in short, to carry on what Cesar Chavez began.
Copyright (c) 2008 Dick Meister