This Saturday, March 31, is César E. Chávez National Holiday and César Chávez Day in California, an official state holiday. 2018 also marks the 25th anniversary of César Chávez’s passing. The American labor leader and civil rights activist helped spark and lead a movement in the 1960s and 1970s to empower farmworkers in California and throughout the country in order to end the suffering caused by racist agribusiness owners.
Chávez and the United Farm Workers employed radical acts of non-violence to raise awareness of the struggles and mistreatment of the farmworkers. Chávez himself underwent many fasts to advance the farmworkers’ rights movement. In 1988, he started an eventual 36-day fast to protest the use of pesticides in the fields.
“This solution to this deadly crisis will not be found in the arrogance of the powerful,” said Chávez, “but in solidarity with the weak and helpless. I pray to God that this fast will be a preparation for a multitude of simple deeds for justice. Carried out by men and women whose hearts are focused on the suffering of the poor and who yearn, with us, for a better world. Together, all things are possible.”
It was togetherness that allowed Chávez’s fast to continue on past 36 days, first with the Rev. Jesse Jackson for three days and then in a series of fasts by Martin Sheen, the Rev. J. Lowery of the SCLC, Edward Olmos, Emilio Estevez, Kerry Kennedy (daughter of Robert Kennedy), state legislator Peter Chacon, Julie Carmen, Danny Glover, Carly Simon, and Whoopi Goldberg.
It was togetherness that also brought EJS President Eva Paterson several years ago to Chávez’s grave at Nuestra Senora Reina de La Paz (Our Lady Queen of Peace) in Keene, Calif., what is now part of the César E. Chávez National Monument, established in 2012 by President Barack Obama.
Dolores Huerta and Camila Chávez of the Dolores Huerta Foundation were with Eva and other members of the California Civil Rights Coalition steering committee for a meeting in Bakersfield. Dolores and Camila invited the group to visit La Paz, which was César Chávez’s home and also the national headquarters of the UFW.
EJS was and is again today heavily invested in the California Civil Rights Coalition as part of our ongoing efforts to nurture the Grand Alliance, a vision of justice that explicitly acknowledges the interconnectedness between various issues, struggles, and constituencies.
In fact, it was that CCRC meeting in Bakersfield and the time Eva spent with Dolores and Camila that in part led to EJS being invited to join efforts led by the Dolores Huerta Foundation and others to stop disproportionate school discipline in the Kern High School District, resulting in a lawsuit and then a settlement.
The settlement, the first of its kind in California, includes an immediate change to Kern High School District discipline practices and an acknowledgment by the school district that students of color face higher rates of discipline than white students. KHSD agreed to implement major policy changes to reduce the disproportionate suspensions, expulsions and involuntary school transfers of African American and Latino students.
We were excited to see Dolores Huerta among the community activists on stage with Common and Andra Day during their performance of “Stand Up for Something” at this year’s Oscars.
As an equal partner in founding the United Farm Workers with César Chávez, Huerta remains a leading activist today and one of the most defiant feminists of the 20th century. While taking nothing away from Chávez’s legacy, it’s critical we pay more respect to Huerta’s contributions to the farmworker and labor movements.
Her achievements are many and often overlooked or mistaken ascribed to men. As a UFW leader, she not only had to fight racism from outside threats but also sexism from within her own ranks. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Huerta negotiated the first successful collective bargaining agreement by agricultural laborers in 1966. She was the East Coast director of the grape boycott in the early 1970s. She played a major role in helping Robert F. Kennedy win the 1968 California Democratic Primary and was standing by his side only minutes before Kennedy was assassinated n LA’s Ambassador Hotel.
And we can also thank Heurta for “¡Sí, se puede!” President Obama made sure he did when he presented Huerta with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Fortunately, the world is learning more about Dolores Huerta. Peter Bratt’s documentary, Dolores, premiered on television this week on PBS and is available via streaming until April 24. http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/videos/dolores
In some historical photos with César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, you may see the same Filipino American standing nearby. Most previously assumed that he was a UFW activist or supporter. In fact, that man was Larry Itliong, who along with Pete Velasco, Philip Vera Cruz, and others were leaders of the AFL-CIO’s Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC).
It was the merger of AWOC and the National Farm Workers Association, led by Chávez and Huerta, that produced the United Farm Workers. Itliong was UFW’s assistant director from 1966-1971. Philip Vera Cruz and Pete Velasco served on the UFW executive board.
The Grape Strike of 1965 that pulled in Chávez and Huerta and led to the formation of the UFW was started by Itliong and the Filipinos, who had been organizing since the 1920s, and were feared for their militancy.
Itliong had a long friendship with Huerta since the 1950s in Stockton, California, and played important roles in the early days of UFW. There was also a warm camaraderie that developed between Filipino and Mexican workers at Delano’s Filipino Hall, used as the strike headquarters and mess hall for many years.
The story of Itliong and the Filipino Americans who helped lead the farmworker rights movement can be seen in “Delano Manongs,” a film by Marissa Aroy that followed “Dolores” on PBS this week. It’s also available for purchase at delanomanongs.com.
The Fight for Farmworker Justice Continues
The United Farm Workers of America, Farmworker Justice, and The Leadership Conference are seeking support for legislation that would remedy the discriminatory exclusion of farmworkers from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
The exclusion of agricultural workers from the FLSA’s mandated minimum wage and overtime pay has always been discriminatory. The sponsors of the New Deal era labor legislation mustered enough votes for passage by appeasing legislators from southern states with the exclusion of agricultural workers from these protections.
At the time, the farmworker population in the South was predominantly Black and was often subjected to plantation-like conditions. Today, the majority of agricultural workers are Latino. Discrimination in our immigration and labor laws has persisted over the decades, depriving farmworkers of basic workplace protections and fundamental civil, human, and democratic rights.
This legislation would remedy the discriminatory exclusion of farmworkers from the FLSA. Under the legislation, people working in agriculture would be entitled to time-and-a-half pay for working more than 40 hours in a week. Like the law recently passed in California—the largest agricultural state in the nation—the bill phases in overtime pay over a period of four years.
There is no valid justification for excluding farmworkers from FLSA protections. Farmworkers should be paid fairly for the work that they do. Agricultural employers have no special justification for paying substandard wages and inflicting economic harm on farmworkers and their families. Many farm operations today are quite large. While many farms operate seasonally, so do many other businesses that are covered by overtime, including those in construction, tourism, and education.
The United Farm Workers of America, Farmworker Justice, and The Leadership Conference ask for your help by signing your organization on as a supporter of this effort. Together, we can work towards ending discrimination against farmworkers to ensure that our food system respects the farmworkers who labor to ensure our abundant and safe food supply.
If your organization would like to join our fight by endorsing the bill, please sign up by COB on Wednesday, April 4.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to Giev Kashkooli, United Farm Workers of America (firstname.lastname@example.org); Adrienne DerVartanian, Farmworker Justice (email@example.com); or Emily Chatterjee, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (firstname.lastname@example.org).