Cesar Chavez: One man's struggle against the high cost of cheap labor

Cesar Chavez lived for the American Dream. His cause for labor rights and sane immigration policies should be an inspiration for us all. Photo: Cesar Chavez

FLORIDA, February 22, 2012 — As the debate over illegal immigration rolls on, the life and legacy of one man receives little attention.

Few probably expected the the hardscrabble town of Yuma, Arizona to produce much in 1927. A mere outpost in the barren stretch of desert separating California’s snow capped mountains from the bountiful plains of the Midwest, it was not exactly a hopping locale.

Yet, one of the greatest leaders that the American labor movement has ever known — and probably will ever know — was born there and then. Cesar Chavez began farm work during his teenage years, after the Great Depression claimed his family’s business. This was put on hold during World War II, in which he served in the Navy. 

When he returned to his home state, he saw that his fellow migrant workers were receiving low grade pay for high caliber labor. Resolving to better their situation, he became a political activist. This led to the formation of the Community Service Organization in 1952, which strongly and successfully championed the rights of Latin Americans.

Chavez recognized early on that one of the biggest threats facing legal laborers were illegal aliens. With the latter’s presence diminished, the demand for the former would rise exponentially, entailing better wages. 

After co-founding the National United Farm Workers Association — today known simply as the United Farm Workers — in 1962, he directed union efforts toward educating workers about their civil liberties. He also helped organize remarkably effective strikes and boycotts of agribusinesses which were abusing their workers. Through all of this and far more, national awareness was raised about the plight of migrant laborers in the West.

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Despite Chavez’s successes in politics, tackling illegal immigration proved to be far more difficult. UFW members did everything from alerting the Immigration and Naturalization Service of illegals’ whereabouts to picketing the offices of that agency in demand of a serious crackdown. By 1973, problems with illegals had grown so dire that the union literally manned the Mexican border in order to stop those crossing it unlawfully. 

In 1979, as Vernon M. Briggs Jr. of the Center for Immigration Studies notes, Chavez “demanded that the federal government take seriously its duty to keep illegal immigrants out of the fields and out of the country. He boldly stated that if “my mother was breaking the strike and if she were illegal, I’d ask the same thing”….The reason, he explained, is that picket lines and unions are about wage levels and employment opportunities for workers. Combating illegal immigration is about economic issues: “it’s not a political game.” “People are being hurt and being destroyed with the complicity of the federal government,” he added.”

Nonetheless, only a few years later, farm owners reached their long awaited goal: managing to essentially circumvent the UFW. Bringing in a seemingly endless stream of illegals to work their properties for next to nothing, they dealt a traumatic blow to the union they loathed with a passion. Chavez and his allies were left to see much of the progress they had made thoroughly eroded. 

Consequently, legal migrant workers were priced out of their profession, which left illegals totally dominating their industry’s labor supply. Of course, wages fell to black market rates well beneath the federally mandated minimum.

Succumbing to natural causes in a humble apartment near Yuma in 1993, Chavez stands to this day as a man who gave a voice to the silent and hope to the downtrodden. No doubt, he has earned a cherished spot in American history.

While the UFW never was able to completely unionize Western farm workers, its leader has lived long past his death as a champion of civil and labor rights causes.

Much of this article was first published as Workers’ Rights Revolutionary Cesar Chavez; An American Story on Blogcritics.org

Far-left? Far-right? Get real: Read more from “The Conscience of a Realist” by Joseph F. Cotto

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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