Celebrating Cesar Chavez Day

By Saryta Rodriguez

“We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”
—Cesar Chavez

The Legacy of Cesar Chavez

On April 3, 2016, Millahcayotl and Urban Campesinos co-hosted a vegan tamale skill share and food justice discussion in celebration of the legacy of Cesar Chavez. Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) was a farm worker, labor leader, civil rights activist and outspoken vegan. His work as a labor organizer was primarily focused on improving working conditions and increasing wages for farm workers. As a labor leader, Chavez employed nonviolent means to bring attention to the plight of farm workers. He led marches, called for boycotts and went on several hunger strikes. He also brought the national awareness to the dangers of pesticides to workers’ health.

After working as a community and labor organizer in the 1950s, when he was in his twenties, Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. This union joined with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee in its first strike against grape growers in California in 1965, which was known as the Delano Grape Strike.

A year later (1966), the two unions merged, and the resulting union was renamed the United Farm Workers in 1972.

In early 1968, two years after the merger, Chavez called for a national boycott of California table grape growers. Chavez’s battle with the grape growers for improved compensation and labor conditions would last for years. At the end, Chavez and his union won several victories for the workers when many growers signed contracts with the union.

The Delano Grape Strike ended in 1970. NFWA — now UFW — won the following, according to Rolling Stone:

The UFW spent five years on strike and boycotting to win their original contracts with the table grape industry. Before the Union’s victory, base wage in grapes was $1.20 an hour with a ten to 20¢ kickback to the labor contractor. The 1970 union agreement started at $2.05 and created the first hiring hall in grape-growing history. It also forced the growers to accept pesticide regulations much stiffer than the state of California’s, an employer-financed health plan, banning workers under 16, and no firing without just cause.

In Salinas, CA, 6,000 driving and packing workers represented by the Teamsters, a rival union, took this opportunity to go on strike themselves, disrupting the lettuce supply. An agreement resulted from this weeklong strike in which the Teamsters— but not the NFWA— were given access to farms and the right to organize into unions. Chavez went on a hunger strike to protest this development, and about a month later two large companies broke ranks with the rest of the lettuce industry and signed contracts with NFWA.

This agreement ultimately collapsed, however, and within weeks the largest US farm worker strike in history took place: The Salad Bowl Strike. By September 1970, Chavez was calling on all Americans to boycott any lettuce that was not picked by NFWA workers. He was arrested in November, released in December, and immediately instigated a boycott once again, this time of six additional lettuce growers.

Finally, in March 1971, The Teamsters and the NFWA signed an agreement which reaffirmed the latter’s right to organize.

“We know we cannot be kind to animals until we stop exploiting them — exploiting animals in the name of science, exploiting animals in the name of sport, exploiting animals in the name of fashion, and yes, exploiting animals in the name of food.
—Cesar Chavez

Chavez was also a strong ally to nonhuman animals, as evidenced by both his well-attested commitment to veganism and many quotes collected over the years by those who knew him, worked for him or interviewed him:

“Kindness and compassion towards all living things is a mark of a civilized society. Conversely, cruelty, whether it is directed against human beings or against animals, is not the exclusive province of any one culture or community of people. Racism, economic deprival, dogfighting and cockfighting, bullfighting and rodeos are cut from the same fabric: violence. Only when we have become nonviolent towards all life will we have learned to live well ourselves.” —Cesar Chavez, in a letter to Eric Mills, Coordinator for Action for Animals in Oakland, 1990

Marc Grossman, Chávez’s longtime press secretary, speechwriter, and personal aide, told PETA Latino, “César was a devoted proselytizer; I think he took almost as much personal satisfaction from converting people to vegetarianism as trade unionism.” 

PETA Latino also quotes Chavez as having said:

“I became a vegetarian after realizing that animals feel afraid, cold, hungry and unhappy like we do. I feel very deeply about vegetarianism and the animal kingdom. It was my dog Boycott who led me to question the right of humans to eat other sentient beings.”

Where We Are Today

Today, unfortunately, farmers in California face many of the same issues that Cesar Chavez and NFWA/UFW fought against in the Sixties and Seventies. While in 1985, six years after UFW negotiated a deal with Sun World (a major citrus and grape grower) that brought farm worker wages up to $5.25 per hour at a time when minimum wage was only $2.90, in 2015 many didn’t even make today’s minimum wage— and they certainly aren’t making dollars more per hour beyond it:

The contract’s bottom wage rate was $5.25 per hour. At the time, the minimum wage was $2.90. If the same ratio existed today, with a state minimum of $9.00, farm workers would be earning the equivalent of $16.30 per hour. At the end of the 70s workers under union contracts in lettuce and wine grapes were earning even more.

Today farm workers don’t make anywhere near $16.00 an hour.

In 2008, demographer Rick Mines conducted a survey of 120,000 migrant farm workers in California from indigenous communities in Mexico – Mixtecos, Triquis, Purepechas and others. “One third of the workers earned above the minimum wage, one third reported earning exactly the minimum and one third reported earning below the minimum,” he found.

In other words, growers potentially were paying an illegal wage to tens of thousands of farm workers.

Five cents more for strawberries

To raise wages absolutely, workers need to increase the share of the money paid at the supermarket checkout stand that goes into their paychecks. In recent years the price paid to workers for picking a flat of strawberries, for instance, has hovered around $1.50. Each flat contains eight plastic clamshell boxes, so a worker is paid about 20 cents to fill each one. That same box sells in a supermarket for about $3.00 — the people picking the fruit get about 6% of the price.

According to UC Davis professor Philip Martin, about 28% of what consumers pay goes to the grower. Produce sales from Monterey County alone, one of two counties where strawberries are concentrated, total $4.4 billion.

If the price of a clamshell box increased by 5 cents (a suggestion made by the UFW during the Watsonville strawberry organizing drive of the late 1990s), the wages of the workers would increase by 25%. Most consumers wouldn’t even notice, since the retail price normally fluctuates far more than that. Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers has used this idea to negotiate an increase in the price paid for tomatoes bought by fast food chains, which then goes to the worker in the field.

Low wages in the fields, however, have brutal consequences. When the grape harvest starts in the eastern Coachella Valley, the parking lots of small markets in farm worker towns like Mecca are filled with workers sleeping in their cars. For Rafael Lopez, a farm worker from San Luis, Arizona, living in his van with his grandson, “the owners should provide a place to live since they depend on us to pick their crops. They should provide living quarters, at least something more comfortable than this.”

What You Can Do

As consumers and activists, there are measures we can take to support farmers and farm workers. One such action is to participate in the current, ongoing “Driscoll’s strawberry boycott,” led by such groups as Familias Unidas por la Justicia. The target of this boycott is in fact Sakuma Brothers Farms, whose main distributor is Driscoll. The boycott demands that farmers be paid a starting salary of $15 per hour (which has become the minimum wage in much of California already) and that other grie
vances be addressed in good faith.

While boycotts and consumer action can help with punctual successes, buying differently within the system will not fundamentally change the system. So while campaigns such as that against Sakuma Brothers Farms are important in raising awareness about the issues and achieving higher wages for one group of laborers, they alone will not result in a much-needed systemic change.

As large conglomerates come to dominate our foodscapes, farmers, farm workers and consumers all face terrible consequences. Through our work as Millahcayotl, we encourage people to disengage from the corporate food system and to support and build true alternatives. We can start doing this by buying food from small farmers and patronizing farmers markets instead of supermarkets. We can also participate in local efforts to claim space and grow more of our food at a community level.

The Bay Area has a thriving scene of community gardens and urban farms working towards food justice and local food sovereignty. There are many ways to get involved, and through events such as our Cesar Chavez Day Celebration, we aim to share the awareness and tools to do so. Millahcayotl also works for the recognition, within this movement, of the rights of nonhuman animals not to be killed and commodified as “food.” Individuals like Cesar Chavez continue to inspire us on this path.