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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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