Chavez and the Farm Workers
Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa
Back in 1939 Carey McWilliams, then an official in a liberal California state government, asked a Senate committee under Robert LaFollette, Jr. for national legislation that would “substitute democratic processes for shotgun tactics in California agriculture.” McWilliams’s language on this occasion was controlled, neutral, almost chaste. For the LaFollette subcommittee was slowly putting together—and meticulously documenting—a terrifying tale of the industrialization of agriculture in California, of the domination of the fields by a handful of giant companies linked to other industrial and banking giants. These, “growers,” as the owners are called in California, sweated their field labor and mistreated them with contemptuous savagery, denied them even the most rudimentary forms of labor organization, and turned loose their hireling police, judges, and prosecutors on any who dared to protest or to demand a voice for the despised and wretched workers. McWilliams had already described this system memorably in Factories in the Field. There he called it “fascism.” In Grapes of Wrath and his earlier In Dubious Battle, John Steinbeck wrote his searing though not exaggerated popular accounts of the misery and powerlessness of migratory field laborers in California.
Cesar Chavez sometimes like to say that nothing has changed in California agriculture since those desperate times. But it has all changed, mostly because of his work. It has been a long and physically painful road for him, often frustrating and at times humiliating. But there have been victories, too, and gathering energy, changes coming faster and faster in the lives and working conditions of the field laborers. Now Chavez and the union he and his old companions have founded, the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, stand at the edge of success. They are not over that edge; all of California agribusiness is still anxious to beat him, and the growers are, in this struggle against Chavez, allied with the nation’s most powerful labor union, the Teamsters. It is a climactic time for California agriculture, for Chavez and the struggling union, and for the farm workers.
This moment has been brought about by the passage this year of the State Agricultural Labor Relations Act, easily the major achievement of Governor Jerry Brown and a major achievement in itself. The act essentially does for the California farm workers what the Wagner Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act did forty years ago for the nation’s industrial workers: it grants them the right to meet and organize freely, to choose by secret ballot a union to represent them, and to bargain collectively with the owners; and it seeks to define the conditions that will make it possible for the workers to use their new rights. While Brown has rightly gotten much credit for passing the act, it was forced into being by the labors of Chavez and his lieutenants and their growing army of organizers, volunteers, marchers, and supporters.
Even before the act was passed early last summer, the three parties to agricultural labor strife—growers, Teamsters, and Chavezistas …