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.

Chavez and Huerta are the subjects of an upcoming bio pic directed by Diego Luna, starring Michael Peña and Rosario Dawson.

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.

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  • Cesar Chavez

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  • Strawberry Field Farm Workers

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  • Working In Lettuce Fields

    In this Feb. 1, 2012 photo, a group of farm workers stretch and warm up before beginning work in the lettuce fields near Holtville, Calif. Thousands of Mexicans leave their homes each morning to become a pillar of one of most unusual and depressed labor markets in the United States. California's Imperial Valley consistently registers the nation's highest unemployment rate - 26.4 percent in January - yet it looks south of the border to fill many of its jobs because locals shun $9-an-hour jobs picking crops. Mexicans enter the country legally each morning and return home each night. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • California Government Discusses Heat-Related Illness

    (L-R) California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, California State Senator Abel Maldonado and United Farm Workers (UFW) President Arturo Rodriguez attend a news conference as the UFW logo is displayed at the state Capitol August 2, 2005 in Sacramento, California. Schwarzenegger, Maldonado, Rodriguez, and California State Senator Dean Florez praised new proposed regulations to protect Californians who work outdoors from heat stress illnesses, and called for their implementation as soon as possible. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • Dolores Huerta

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  • Rev. Jesse Jackson with Cesar Chavez

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  • UFW President Arturo Rodriguez's "WalMarch" Speech

    The shared struggle between warehouse workers and farm workers is discussed in a speech by the president of the United Farm Workers (UFW) Arturo Rodriguez. The 50-mile, six-day pilgrimage from the Inland Empire to Los Angeles is an effort to raise awareness to the plight of 85000 warehouse workers in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. The laborers face indoor heat, dehydration, and inadequate pay moving boxes for WalMart subcontractors.

  • ¡Si, Se Puede! (Yes, It Can Be Done!): Bobby Kennedy Visits Cesar Chavez-REVISED

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  • Ceasar Chavez During A Fast On Behalf Of The UFW Grape Boycott

    DELANO, UNITED STATES - AUGUST 01: Ceasar Chavez's (C) during fast on behalf of the UFW during boycott of the grape growers, with wife Helena (L) , his mother Juana (2R) and Rev. Jesse Jackson (R). (Photo by John Storey/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

  • Daily Journey From Mexico To California's Imperial Valley

    In this March 7, 2012, photo, Maria Guadalupe Pimentel, center, walks with other farm workers during her pre-dawn journey from her home in Mexicali, Mexico, across the border to the lettuce fields of the Imperial Valley in California. Thousands of Mexicans leave their homes each morning to become a pillar of one of most unusual and depressed labor markets in the United States. California's Imperial Valley consistently registers the nation's highest unemployment rate - 26.4 percent in January - yet it looks south of the border to fill many of its jobs because locals shun $9-an-hour jobs picking crops. Mexicans enter the country legally each morning and return home each night. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • Daily Journey From Mexico to California Farms

    In this Feb. 1, 2012 photo, farm worker Javier Hernandez lies across a pair of bus seats tries to get some sleep as he and his crew make their way to the lettuce fields near Holtville, Calif, before dawn. Thousands of Mexicans leave their homes each morning to become a pillar of one of most unusual and depressed labor markets in the United States. California's Imperial Valley consistently registers the nation's highest unemployment rate - 26.4 percent in January - yet it looks south of the border to fill many of its jobs because locals shun $9-an-hour jobs picking crops. Mexicans enter the country legally each morning and return home each night. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • Working In A Lettuce Field

    In this Jan. 31, 2012 photo, farm worker Manuel Soto holds his knife before beginning work in the lettuce fields near Holtville, Calif. Thousands of Mexicans leave their homes each morning to become a pillar of one of most unusual and depressed labor markets in the United States. California's Imperial Valley consistently registers the nation's highest unemployment rate - 26.4 percent in January - yet it looks south of the border to fill many of its jobs because locals shun $9-an-hour jobs picking crops. Mexicans enter the country legally each morning and return home each night. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • Larry Kleinman on the Rise of the Farm Workers' Union

    This is the first in a series of videos speaking with Larry Kleinman, Secretary-Treasurer for the Northwest Tree planters and Farm workers United (PCUN) about the plight of farmworkers in Oregon, and across the country. PCUN shares its ideological roots with the United Farmworkers Union (UFW), but it's a separate organization whose base is concentrated in the Oregon counties of Marion, Polk, and Eastern Clackamas, located south of nearby Portland.

  • Cesar Chavez

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  • Baldemar Velasquez Draws on Years of Farm Worker Activism to Organize in Anti-Union South

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