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Let's Truly Honor Cesar Chavez
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It's way past time that Congress declared the March 31 birthdate of Cesar Chavez a national holiday. President Obama agrees. So do the millions of people who are expected to sign petitions being circulated by the United Farm Workers, the union founded by  Chavez.

Eleven states and dozens of cities already observe Chavez' birthdate as an official holiday, and Democratic Rep. Joe Barca of California and 43 co-sponsors have introduced a bill to make the day a federal holiday. It's for very good reason that Chavez is honored. As the UFW notes, "He inspired farm workers and millions of people who never worked on a farm to commit themselves to social, economic and civil rights activism. Cesar's legacy continues to educate, inspire and empower people from all walks of life."

Obama says, "We should honor him for what he's taught us about making America a stronger, more just, and more prosperous nation," and for providing inspirational strength, "as farm workers and laborers across America continue to struggle for fair treatment and fair wages."

Chavez 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 nation's highly exploited farm workers. Although their work of harvesting the food that sustains us all is one of society's most important tasks, their pay was at or near the poverty level, they typically had few fringe benefits and very little legal protection from employer mistreatment.

Most lacked even such simple on-the-job amenities as toilets and fresh drinking water and were regularly exposed to pesticide poisoning and other hazards. Their living conditions were generally as abominable.

As a farm worker himself, Chavez carefully put together a grass-roots organization that enabled the workers to form their own union. 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 and the decent pay and conditions that came with unionization.

Many others before Chavez 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 later, the union won the pioneering California law that requires growers to bargain collectively with farm workers who vote for unionization. That has led to marked improvement in the treatment of many of the state's farm workers. Their pay, benefits and working conditions are still short of what they should be, but the law has given them the weapon needed to win better treatment.

What's most needed now is to spread the legal right of unionization to the hundreds of thousands of mistreated farm workers outside California. Congress could do that  by simply including farm workers in the National Labor Relations Act, the 73-year-old New Deal law that grants union rights to most non-agricultural workers.

Jerry Cohen, who served for 14 years as the UFW's chief attorney, is leading a drive to get Congress to take the necessary action and at the same time include another group of highly exploited workers - domestics -- who are not covered by the law.

In a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis urging the Obama administration to back the proposal, Cohen compared the exclusion of farm workers and domestics to the situation in racist South Africa under Apartheid. "Blacks," as Cohen said, were specifically excluded from the protections of South Africa's equivalent of the National Labor Relations Act.

And though in passing the U.S. law in 1935, "Congress was not so blunt as to deal out 'blacks' and 'browns' specifically," said Cohen, "most farm workers and domestics are in fact black or brown. For 73 years our sleight of hand has been more subtle but no less damaging because race, powerlessness and economic injustice are inextricably intertwined."

Certainly Congress should declare a Cesar Chavez holiday. But more than that, Congress should finally extend to all Americans the basic right of unionization that Cesar Chavez spent his life seeking and defending.

Copyright (c) 2010 Dick Meister