Chávez Is Jailed for Organizing a National Lettuce Boycott

Labor organizer and farmworkers’ rights leader César Chávez was jailed for boycotting lettuce growers, elevating him to the status of champion of the oppressed and the poor in the minds of many Americans. The boycott led to legislation that benefited farmworkers.

Summary of Event

Throughout the history of the farm labor movement in California, growers have relied on a cheap, dependable workforce that has been composed primarily of minorities. The state’s first farmworkers were American Indians. The Native American population in the state was reduced from an earlier level of 300,000 to 30,000 in 1860 through disease and ill-treatment. Native Americans were replaced by Chinese, who had been brought to America to help construct the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads. The Chinese were eager to work in America, even though thousands succumbed to disease on the passage across the Pacific. When farmers replaced livestock and wheat with fruit and truck crops toward the end of the nineteenth century, even more Chinese immigrated, until Congress suspended Chinese immigration in 1882. Lettuce boycott (1970)
Labor unions;lettuce boycott
[kw]Chávez Is Jailed for Organizing a National Lettuce Boycott (Dec. 4, 1970)
[kw]National Lettuce Boycott, Chávez Is Jailed for Organizing a (Dec. 4, 1970)
[kw]Lettuce Boycott, Chávez Is Jailed for Organizing a National (Dec. 4, 1970)
[kw]Boycott, Chávez Is Jailed for Organizing a National Lettuce (Dec. 4, 1970)
Lettuce boycott (1970)
Labor unions;lettuce boycott
[g]North America;Dec. 4, 1970: Chávez Is Jailed for Organizing a National Lettuce Boycott[11040]
[g]United States;Dec. 4, 1970: Chávez Is Jailed for Organizing a National Lettuce Boycott[11040]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 4, 1970: Chávez Is Jailed for Organizing a National Lettuce Boycott[11040]
[c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 4, 1970: Chávez Is Jailed for Organizing a National Lettuce Boycott[11040]
[c]Business and labor;Dec. 4, 1970: Chávez Is Jailed for Organizing a National Lettuce Boycott[11040]
[c]Trade and commerce;Dec. 4, 1970: Chávez Is Jailed for Organizing a National Lettuce Boycott[11040]
Chávez, César
Huerta, Dolores
Brown, Jerry
Meany, George
Kennedy, Robert F.
[p]Kennedy, Robert F.;and organized labor[organized labor]
Lindsay, John V.

At almost exactly the same time that the Chinese labor supply was cut off, Japan relaxed its long-standing ban on emigration, and workers from Japan began to pour into California. By 1910, their numbers had swollen to more than forty thousand. Even though the Japanese were industrious, they were not ideal workers from the growers’ viewpoint because they dreamed of owning land and becoming farmers in their own right. Agitation over the “yellow peril” and the “rising tide of color” in California culminated in 1924 in a new immigration act that ended immigration from Asia. Fortunately for the growers, the Mexican Revolution of 1910 opened another pool of foreign labor.

Tens of thousands of rural families fled Mexico, and by 1920 the census reported nearly 100,000 Mexican nationals in California. Between 1942 and 1964, California received special dispensation to use Mexican contract workers. The influx of these braceros (literally, “arm-men”) increased the Mexican population in the state by 100,000. For the most part, the growers welcomed the contract workers because they could be forced to work for whomever they were told under terms set by the growers. In addition to those who immigrated legally from Mexico, an untold number of workers crossed the border illegally into the United States. In some ways, these workers were entirely at the mercy of employers and labor contractors. Except for a brief period during the 1930’s, when thirty thousand Filipinos were imported to California, Mexicans provided the bulk of the farm labor force for most of the twentieth century. Mexican immigrants fit the growers’ concept of the perfect labor force because they did not, for the most part, aspire to land ownership or to fringe benefits.

For nearly one hundred years, agricultural employers beat back attempts to organize the workforce. Prior to the 1960’s, migrant workers had never won collective bargaining rights because they had not been highly motivated to organize. In addition, their itinerant lives made it difficult for them to meld into a solid group. Although the farm labor movement was active during the twentieth century, it was not very effective, primarily because leadership did not come from the groups that made up the workforce. Leadership came from political groups (such as the Industrial Workers of the World), intellectuals (such as Ernesto Galarza), urban unionists (such as Norman Smith and Clive Knowles), and the clergy (such as Father Thomas McCullough).

César Chávez in 1966.

(Library of Congress)

César Chávez succeeded where his predecessors had failed partially because he worked in the fields as he organized and was trusted by the farmworkers as no other leader had been. As the son of migrant workers, Chávez and his family had lived in their car or in tents without heat or light, had gone without shoes in the winter, and had eaten mustard greens to stay alive. Chávez and his brothers and sisters attended segregated schools, which provided little more than child-care service.

Until his family learned the tricks of the labor contractors, they had worked hard harvesting fields only to be cheated by growers when the work was completed. There was no job security, and fringe benefits were few. The labor camps that they lived in periodically were a collection of nine-by-eleven-foot tin shacks that collected the heat of the summer sun and lacked indoor plumbing. Many of the conditions that Chávez’s family and thousands of other Mexican families experienced were similar to those endured by the waves of Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and Filipino workers who had preceded them.

Chávez became involved in the farm labor movement almost by accident. Like many second-generation Mexican Americans, he and his wife had left the migrant stream and probably would have left agricultural work altogether if Chávez had not spoken to Father Donald McDonnell McDonnell, Donald . Father McDonnell got Chávez interested in the farm labor movement by telling him about Pope Leo XIII’s endorsement of labor unions. Through Father McDonnell, Chávez met Fred Ross Ross, Fred , a representative of the Community Service Organization Community Service Organization (CSO) who had come to California to set up local chapters. In 1953, Chávez became a statewide organizer for the CSO and, with the help of his principal assistant and a labor organizer in her own right, Dolores Huerta, built the CSO in California to twenty-two chapters. After ten years, Chávez left the CSO because, unlike many CSO leaders, he believed that it would be better for his people to end the bracero system and upgrade farmwork instead of fleeing to an uncertain future in the cities. He believed that farm labor organizing should be emphasized much more than it was.

After withdrawing his life savings of $900 in April, 1962, Chávez and his family moved to Delano, where he founded the National Farm Workers Association National Farm Workers Association that same year with no outside help. The NFWA’s first big strike occurred at the Delano grape strike, in response to a cry for help in 1965 from the Filipino grape pickers in Delano. At that time, grape pickers in Delano received $1.20 an hour, which was $.45 less than the federal minimum wage. The pickers lived in shacks with no heating or plumbing. In addition, pickers were often accidentally sprayed with insecticides. At stake were the interests of 384,100 farmworkers in California and 4 million agricultural workers in the United States.

To keep pressure on the table-grape growers, Chávez and Huerta decided in 1967 to stage a nationwide boycott against them. By 1968, with the support of the Roman Catholic church and such influential Americans as Senator Robert F. Kennedy and New York City mayor John V. Lindsay, the boycott succeeded in lowering grape sales by 12 percent. Chávez’s twenty-five-day fast in 1968 united California’s farmworkers behind the movement and established Chávez as a hero. Victory was finally achieved in 1970 when the largest producer among grape growers in the United States, John Giumarra, Jr. Giumarra, John, Jr. , signed contracts recognizing the existence of the union (known by this time as the United Farm Workers United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, or UFWOC), and agreeing to pay $1.80 an hour plus $.20 for each box of grapes. Chávez proved for the first time that field-workers could force an entire industry—85 percent of the grape growers in California—to sign a contract with their union leaders.

Fresh from the triumph of La Huelga (the strike), Chávez embarked on a much more ambitious crusade. This time the product was lettuce, picked by workers in California and Arizona. The lettuce growers not only had the support of corporations such as Purex but also were backed by the U.S. Defense Department, which had refused to buy any “union lettuce.” The UFWOC’s primary target was Bud Antle’s Antle, Bud huge ranch in the Salinas Valley. Antle was one of many growers in Salinas, King City, the Imperial Valley, and the San Joaquin Valley who had secretly signed contracts with the Teamsters Teamsters Union in an effort to destroy the UFWOC.

On September 17, 1970, Chávez announced that the UFWOC was sending people to sixty-four cities in North America to organize a national boycott of lettuce. Chávez’s announcement was in direct defiance of Superior Court Judge Anthony Brazil’s Brazil, Anthony decision the day before to grant permanent injunctions against picketing to thirty growers, on the grounds that this was a jurisdictional dispute that was illegal in California. Knowing full well of the publicity that would develop if he were jailed, Chávez continued the boycott against Antle and ordered that the following statement be given to the press on the day that he went to jail:

Boycott Bud Antle! Boycott Dow Chemical! And boycott the hell out of them! Viva!

Chávez’s contempt-of-court trial was held on December 4. The presiding judge, Gordon Campbell Campbell, Gordon , sentenced Chávez to jail on each of two counts of contempt of court and ordered that he remain in jail until he notified all UFWOC personnel to stop the boycott against Antle. The judge also fined Chávez $500 for each of the two counts. Chávez’s jail sentence generated the attention that he had hoped for. While he was in the Salinas County Jail, visits to Chávez by Coretta Scott King and Ethel Kennedy were covered by the national press and the major television networks.

A week after Chávez was jailed, the State Court of Appeals denied a union petition that the Antle injunction be set aside. The UFWOC then appealed the decision to the California Supreme Court, Supreme Court, California which ordered Chávez’s release twenty days after he was jailed. During a mass of thanksgiving that was held in the parking lot, Chávez told a crowd of about four hundred union supporters, “Jails were made for men who fight for their rights. My spirit was never in jail. They can jail us, but they can never jail the Cause.” Four months later, the California Supreme Court ruled that the UFWOC had the right to boycott Bud Antle.


Chávez was correct in his assumption that the contempt-of-court trial and his subsequent jail sentence would bring La Causa (the farm labor movement) to national attention. Chávez’s charismatic leadership, which was based on Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of passive resistance, convinced many Americans that Chávez was the logical successor to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. The political ramifications of Chávez’s jailing extended to both the union halls and the courts.

The Teamsters’ fear that the court hearing would turn public opinion against them was well founded. In 1973, when the Teamsters called in about one hundred“guards” at $67.50 per day to protect strike breakers from interference by Chávez’s pickets, newspapers across the nation branded them as “goon squads.” Convinced that the Teamsters and the growers were jointly seeking to destroy the farmworkers, George Meany threw the full support of the AFL-CIO AFL-CIO[AFL CIO] behind the grape and lettuce boycotts on April 8, 1974. Finally, in 1979, the Teamsters signed a “peace treaty” with the UFWOC that gave the field hands to the UFWOC and the canners, packers, and farm-truck drivers to the Teamsters. This was an amazing concession, considering that the Teamsters had already persuaded 50,000 of California’s 250,000 agricultural workers to join them rather than the UFWOC. This uneasy alliance was primarily the result of the Teamsters’ desire to repair the damage that their union’s image had suffered through their dispute with the UFWOC.

Chávez’s skill at persuading liberals to regard the boycotts of grapes and lettuce as a just cause eventually produced legislation that benefited the workers. Sensing that allying himself with the farmworkers would help him to be elected governor, Jerry Brown made the creation of workable farm labor relations law one of his primary goals. In September, 1975, the state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act Agricultural Labor Relations Act, California (1975) took effect. The main impetus of this law was the formation of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board Agricultural Labor Relations Board , which gave labor organizers access to the fields. Although the ALRB was too poorly funded to be truly effective, its very existence testified to the belief of many lawmakers in California that the labor disputes were another manifestation of California’s problem of interethnic relations between employers and workers. They interpreted Chávez’s crusade as a struggle not simply for economic security but also for minority self-determination.

Of far more importance than Chávez’s achievements is the way his nonviolent approach to social change carried over to other movements. He demonstrated through his deep emotional commitment to the UFWOC that people of various backgrounds, political persuasions, and faiths will come together for a common cause if it is morally correct. The truth of this statement is born out by the fact that the techniques developed by La Causa have been successfully applied by farmworkers in other lands. Chávez also showed through his courage and hard work that individuals really can make a difference. Lettuce boycott (1970)
Labor unions;lettuce boycott

Further Reading

  • Acuña, Rodolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. A general history of Chicanos, now a classic. Detailed sections on Chicano agricultural labor organizing, tracing Chicano labor struggles to the turn of the century. Also details labor struggles in other sectors of the economy. Well referenced, with an excellent index.
  • Dolores Huerta Foundation. http://www.doloreshuerta .org. This nonprofit organization, based in Bakersfield, California, focuses on community activism and education, especially concerning women and children. Includes a lengthy biography of Huerta.
  • Gonzalez, Gilbert G. Guest Workers or Colonized Labor? Mexican Labor Migration to the United States. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2006. Comprehensive discussion of Mexican labor in the United States. A critical analysis of immigrant workers.
  • La Botz, Dan. César Chávez and La Causa. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006. A biography of Chávez, covering his early life as well as his political activism. Includes discussion of the Delano grape strike and the formation of the UFW. Bibliography, index.
  • Levy, Jacques. César Chávez: Autobiography of La Causa. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975. The standard history of both César Chávez and the UFWA, though not a complete history of the movement because it traces Chávez’s activities only through the first half of the 1970’s.
  • “The Little Strike That Grew to ’La Causa.’” Time 102 (July 4, 1969): 16-22. Provides the background to Chávez’s activities during the turbulence of the 1960’s. It is much more objective than many other accounts of this period.
  • London, Joan, and Henry Anderson. So Shall Ye Reap: The Story of César Chávez and the Farm Workers’ Movement. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1970. Covers only the first few years of the farm labor movement; more useful as a history of the movement in California than as an account of César Chávez’s activities, which make up only the last two chapters.
  • Taylor, Ronald B. Chávez and the Farm Workers. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975. Comprehensive history of César Chávez’s farm movement. Less personalized than Levy’s book but is more objectively written. Portrays Chávez as a “man at odds with himself” who was better at organizing movements than he was at running unions.

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