The Mexican-American labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez dedicated his life’s work to what he called la causa (the cause): the struggle of farm workers in the United States to improve their working and living conditions through organizing and negotiating contracts with their employers.
Committed to the tactics of nonviolent resistance practiced by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association (later the United Farm Workers of America) and won important victories to raise pay and improve working conditions for farm workers in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Early Life and Work as a Community Organizer
Cesar Estrada Chavez was born in Yuma, Arizona on March 31, 1927. In the late 1930s, after losing their homestead to foreclosure, he and his family joined more than 300,000 people who moved to California during the Great Depression and became migrant farm workers.
Chavez dropped out of school after eighth grade and began working in the fields full time. In 1946, he joined the U.S. Navy, serving for two years in a segregated unit. After his service was over, he returned to farmwork and married Helen Fabela, with whom he would eventually have eight children (and 31 grandchildren).
In 1952, Chavez was working at a lumberyard in San Jose when he became a grassroots organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Latino civil rights group. Over the next decade, he worked to register new voters and fight racial and economic discrimination, and rose to become the CSO’s national director. Chavez resigned from the CSO in 1962, after other members refused to support his efforts to form a labor union for farm workers. That same year, he used his life savings to found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in Delano, California.
Founding of National Farm Workers Association and the 1965 Grape Strike
Chavez knew firsthand the struggles of the nation’s poorest and most powerless workers, who labored to put food on the nation’s tables while often going hungry themselves. Not covered by minimum wage laws, many made as little as 40 cents an hour, and did not qualify for unemployment insurance. Previous attempts to unionize farm workers had failed, as California’s powerful agricultural industry fought back with all the weight of their money and political power.
Chavez was inspired by the nonviolent civil disobedience pioneered by Gandhi in India, and the example of St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century Italian nobleman who gave up his material wealth to live with and work on behalf of the poor. Working doggedly to build the NFWA alongside fellow organizer Dolores Huerta, Chavez traveled around the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys to recruit union members. Meanwhile, Helen Chavez worked in the fields to support the family, as they struggled to stay afloat.
In September 1965, the NFWA launched a strike against California’s grape growers alongside the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), a Filipino-American labor group. The strike lasted five years and expanded into a nationwide boycott of California grapes. The boycott drew widespread support, thanks to the highly visible campaign headed by Chavez, who led a 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento in 1966 and undertook a well-publicized 25-day hunger strike in 1968.
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“I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice,” Chavez declared, in a speech read on his behalf when his first hunger strike ended. “To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us be men."
The United Farm Workers and Chavez’s Later Career
The grape strike and boycott ended in 1970, with the farm workers reaching a collective bargaining agreement with major grape growers that increased the workers’ pay and gave them the right to unionize. The NWFA and AWOC had merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, which in 1971 became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).
Throughout the 1970s, Chavez continued leading the union’s efforts to win labor contracts for farm workers across the agricultural industry, employing the same nonviolent techniques of strikes and boycotts. In 1972, he went on a second hunger strike to protest an Arizona law banning farm workers from organizing and protesting. Thanks to the UFW’s efforts, California passed the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, giving all farm workers the right to unionize and negotiate for better wages and working conditions.
In the mid-1980s, Chavez focused the UFW’s efforts on a campaign to highlight the dangers of pesticides for farm workers and their children. In 1988, at the age of 61, he underwent his third hunger strike, which lasted for 36 days.
Chavez died in his sleep on April 23, 1993, at the age of 66. The following year, President Bill Clinton awarded him a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. In a sign of the labor leader’s enduring influence, Barack Obama borrowed a Chavez slogan—Si, se puede, or “Yes, we can”—during his successful run to become the first Black U.S. president in 2008.
Maureen Pao, “Cesar Chavez: The Life Behind A Legacy Of Farm Labor Rights.” NPR, August 12, 2016.
Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez. (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014)
California Hall of Fame: Cesar Chavez. California Museum.