Yes, Obama Can Honor Cesar Chavez's Legacy

04/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Barack Obama adopted "Yes We Can" as his campaign theme, he hearkened back to the "Si Se Puede" rallying cry popularized by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW). As we celebrate Cesar Chavez Day on March 31, the President should consider a more lasting action to honor the UFW leader's legacy: revising the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) so that it no longer excludes farm workers.

In 1935, racially discriminatory laws prevailed in much of the United States. In drafting the NLRA, Congress deferred to such laws by excluding two categories of predominately non-white workers -- "agricultural laborers" and "domestics" -- from labor protections. Despite the progress in racial attitudes that paved the way for Obama's election, this primarily race-based labor exclusion has remained.

Jerry Cohen, who was UFW General Counsel from 1967-1981, is among those who think it is time for the NLRA to protect farm workers. On March 8, Cohen sent a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, in which he cited the parallel between the United States in 1935 and South Africa. Cohen observed that the foundation of apartheid was solidified in 1924 when an alliance of white workers and Afrikaner nationalists formed a Nationalist Labor Pact government. That same year the Industrial Conciliation Act was passed, setting up the legal machinery for collective bargaining. "Blacks" were specifically excluded from the definition of "employees" who were to receive the protections of the Act.

As Cohen writes, "Now while Congress was not so blunt as to deal out "blacks" and "browns" specifically in their New Deal labor legislation, most farm workers and domestics are in fact black or brown. For 73 years our sleight of hand has been more subtle but no less damaging because race, powerlessness and economic injustice are inextricably intertwined."

The New Deal's failure to protect farm workers sanctioned their continued exploitation by large growers. Whereas industrial workers steadily unionized after passage of the NLRA, farm worker organizing efforts failed, as growers could legally fire workers expressing interest in unions. This is the legal minefield Cesar Chavez faced in 1962 when he embarked on his historic campaign.

Despite this legacy of failure, and equipped only with the community organizing skills he had learned from this mentor, Fred Ross Sr., Cesar Chavez galvanized nationwide support for the farm worker cause. Through marches, fasts, consumer boycotts, and alliances with people of faith, and by utilizing the skills of women, Latinos, and young activists otherwise denied labor organizing jobs, the UFW became a powerful national movement. The UFW won contracts with California's most powerful growers, and passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975.

But Chavez and the UFW had always set their sights beyond California. In the early 1970's, the UFW mobilized to defeat anti-farmworker bills in Florida and Oregon. Chavez also inspired the creation of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), which successfully organized farmworkers in Ohio and the Midwest.

After Arizona's governor signed an anti-farmworker measure in 1972, the UFW initiated a recall campaign against him. As UFW activists registered voters and obtained signatures on recall petitions, Chavez began a public fast to highlight the state's unfairness to farmworkers. When local supporters told Chavez that the recall effort could not succeed, Dolores Huerta insisted "Si Se Puede" (it can be done), and Chavez announced that this would become the UFW rallying cry. Although the recall was struck down on questionable legal grounds, the UFW showed its potency outside California by registering so many new voters that Arizona elected its first Latino Governor in 1974.

But the UFW was not able to extend the legal protections won in California to all of the nation's farm workers. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the launching of Chavez's historic drive, and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Fred Ross, Sr., the race-based exclusion of farm workers and domestics written into the 1935 NLRA remains intact.
It's time to rectify this injustice.

President Obama harnessed the "Yes We Can " spirit in winning the presidency. He can now honor Cesar Chavez's legacy by finally giving those who work in the fields federal labor protections at least equal to those afforded other workers.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (