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[seh' sahr chah' vess] founder of the United Farm Workers
César Estrada Chávez was born on March 31, 1927, near Yuma, Arizona. His parents had a small farm and operated a country store, but lost both when Cesar was 10 years old. The family packed what little it had left and moved to California, joining the growing ranks of migrant farmworkers there. The constant moving from farm to farm and town to town made it difficult for Cesar to get regular schooling, and he finally quit trying after the sixth grade. His family finally settled down in the small town of Delano, in the San Joaquin Valley. After a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy (1944-1946), Cesar married his high school sweathheart, Helen Favela, and settled down in San Jose.
In 1952, Chavez began working for the Community Service Organization (CSO), a self-help group, and eventually became its president. He resigned in 1962, after the organization turned down his request to organize farmworkers.
After leaving the CSO, Chavez formed the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). In 1966, the NFWA merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, and the combined body was chartered by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) as the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), with Chavez as president. Soon after this merger, California wine grape growers agreed to accept the UFWOC as the collective bargaining agent for grape pickers, ending a strike which had begun in 1965.
Although California wine grape growers had agreed to negotiate with the UFWOC, California table grape growers steadfastly refused to recognize any organization of farmworkers. In 1968, Chavez called for a nationwide boycott of California table grapes, and organized a campaign aimed at informing the general public about the plight of migrant farmworkers. At its height, over 13 million Americans supported the boycott. By 1970, most growers had agreed to accept the UFWOC, and Chavez ended the boycott.
In addition to gaining popular support for his cause, Chavez also gained political support. In 1968, he committed the UFWOC to campaign for Robert F. Kennedy's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. By getting tens of thousands of Hispanic farmworkers to register to vote and then to vote, the UFWOC helped Kennedy get a victory in the California primary. Suddenly, a whole body of potential voters which had been previously ignored seemed to matter, something which Chavez took pride in.
The UFWOC became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) in 1973. One of the UFW's first actions was to support Jerry Brown for Governor of California. In return for the UFW's support, Brown engineered the nation's first law giving farmworkers the right to vote for their own unions. This law in turn led to the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which in turn led to the UFW becoming the negotiating body for the majority of farmworkers in America.
His dream of a national organization of farmworkers realized, Chavez began refocusing his energies in the 1980's, working to inform people about the dangers of pesticides to the health of farmworkers. He also worked to provide low-cost housing for farmworkers, and encouraged the UFW to support programs to curb drug and alcohol abuse among its members.
Cesar Chavez died near his Yuma, Arizona, birthplace, on April 23, 1993, and was buried in Delano, California.
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This page was last updated on April 25, 2017.