The United Farm Workers (UFW) marked its 50th anniversary on Sunday -- a milestone for the Mexican-American community and organized labor. Farm laborers in the United States can thank the trailblazing union for benefits including improved access to drinking water, sanitation, lunch breaks and unemployment insurance.
Originally known as the National Farm Workers Association, the UFW was founded in 1962 and came to national prominence when it led the Delano grape strike three years later. After five years of strikes and boycotts under the leadership of UFW co-founders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, the UFW pushed the grape industry to negotiate contracts with the union.
Perhaps the UFW’s greatest achievement came in 1975, with the passage of California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act, guaranteeing the right to collective bargaining for farm workers for the first time.
But the UFW earned its fame largely by reaching across cultural and class boundaries.
The union organized marches in the 1960s and 70s that drew thousands of supporters. They forged alliances with Filipino farmworkers, religious leaders and college students around the country, many of whom flocked to California to work 100-hour weeks for $5 a week plus room and board in solidarity with the union, according to Randy Shaw's study of the union Beyond the Fields. The UFW’s motto, “¡Sí, se puede!” or “Yes, we can!” is now a universally understood rallying cry heard at protests and political rallies across the United States.
Born in Yuma, Arizona, Chavez moved to California at the age of 11 in 1937, when his family went broke and shut down their ranch. What he saw as his family joined the migrant farmworker circuit laid the foundation for his career as an organizer, according to Shaw: the workers bathed in irrigation ditches, lived under bridges or in cardboard shacks and went hungry even as they harvested the fruits and vegetables that others ate. Provided with only a short-handle hoe, generations of farmworkers -- including Chavez –- damaged their backs by stooping for hours under the hot the sun.
Chavez and Huerta were controversial leaders in their time, though they enjoyed the full-throated support of some establishment politicians who supported the civil rights movement, such as Robert Kennedy.
Today, the U.S. government views them as civil rights heroes. Chavez’s birthday, March 31, is celebrated as an official holiday in the state of California and proclaimed by President Barack Obama as Cesar Chavez Day last year. The White House honored Huerta this year with the Medal of Freedom, one of the highest honors the government bestows upon civilians. Huerta's also the subject of several corridos, a storytelling style told through ballads popular along the U.S.-Mexico border, like this one by Los Lobos.
Some critics accuse the UFW of historically supporting anti-immigrant politics because, like most organized labor, the group favored restricting immigration and opposed the Bracero program, a World War II-era initiative that brought temporary fieldworkers to the United States from Mexico. The program was discontinued in 1964.
The UFW denies the claim, saying the group opposed the Bracero program because it undermined the interest of U.S.-born workers and pointing out that Chavez and Huerta were instrumental in securing the amnesty provision of the immigration reform legislation passed in 1986 under President Ronal Reagan.
Politically speaking, this year wasn’t the happiest anniversary the UFW has celebrated. On Sunday Gov. Jerry Brown -- who signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act during his first term as governor -- vetoed the Farm Worker Safety Act, legislation that would have made failing to provide water or shade to workers in hot conditions a misdemeanor punishable by fines of up to $10,000 and up to six months in jail.
“The UFW is appalled at the governor’s decision to deny farm workers the basic legal tools to protect themselves from employers who intentionally put their lives at risk,” UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said Sunday in a statement. “By vetoing AB 2676, the governor continues the policy of giving animals more protections than those currently offered to farm workers.