United Farm Workers Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first successful American farm labor union, the United Farm Workers used civil disobedience and a social justice platform to win wage concessions, collective bargaining rights, and better working and living conditions from growers, as well as legal protection for previously powerless and unorganized agricultural laborers.

In 1942, wartime labor shortages in the United States led to the establishment of the Bracero programbracero program, which contracted Mexican citizens as temporary Guest workersguest workers. Through the next twenty-two years, more than 4 million of the bracero workers who entered the United States worked in California agricultural fields. One consequence of the bracero program was that Mexican American farmworkers suffered job losses because of their inability to compete with Mexican braceros, who were willing to endure worse working conditions. During the early 1960’s, most agricultural workers in California lived in temporary, insect-infested housing, without clean drinking water, electricity, cooking facilities, or sanitary facilities. Average wages for workers were ninety cents per hour, without benefits of any kind. The average life expectancy of farmworkers was only forty-nine years. Although the federal government terminated the bracero program at the end of 1964, Mexican American farmworkers continued to be impoverished.United Farm Workers;United Farm WorkersCalifornia;United FarmWorkersLabor unionsAgriculture;labor unionsUnited Farm Workers;United Farm WorkersCalifornia;United Farm WorkersLabor unionsAgriculture;labor unions[cat]AGRICULTURAL WORKERS;United Farm Workers[cat]LABOR;United Farm Workers[cat]LATIN AMERICAN IMMIGRANTS;United Farm Workers

Founding of the Union

Born in Arizona in 1927, César Chávez was ten when his father died and his family lost its farm. Forced into migrant farmwork, Chávez attended thirty-seven different schools as his family moved throughout the Southwest, ever looking for work. After completing the eighth grade, Chávez became a full-time migrant worker. In 1948, he married fellow farmworker Helen Fabela, with whom he settled in an impoverished barrio in San Jose, California. There Chávez met Father McDonnell, DonaldDonald McDonnell, an outspoken advocate of fair wages, better treatment of farmworkers, and universal education. Under McDonnell’s guidance, Chávez studied the nonviolent activism of Gandhi, MohandasMohandas Gandhi and King, Martin Luther, Jr.Martin Luther King, Jr.

César Chávez in 1966.

(Library of Congress)

In 1952, Chávez became an organizer with the Community Service OrganizationCommunity Service Organization (CSO), a Latino civil rights group conducting successful voter registration drives and urban campaigns. Within six years, he was CSO’s executive director; however, what he most wanted to do was to create an organization whose primary mission was to protect farmworkers, a vision shared by fellow CSO organizer Huerta, DoloresDolores Huerta. A native-born Californian, Huerta was an effective lobbyist and negotiator who understood the plight of agricultural workers. In 1862, Huerta and Chávez both resigned from the CSO so they could establish the National Farm Workers AssociationNational Farm Workers Association (NFWA).

On September 30, 1962 in Fresno, California, several hundred workers attended the first convention of the NFWA, which would be renamed the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) ten years later. Members set union dues at $3.50, adopted the slogan Viva La Causa (long live the cause), and unveiled an official flag with a black eagle symbol over a white circle within a red field.

The First Strike

In September 1965, Filipino immigrants;farmworkersFilipino grape pickers from the Agricultural Workers Organizing CommitteeAgricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) invited NFWA members to join their strike for decent wages in Delano, California. At that time, the NFWA had 1,200 member-families but only one hundred dollars in its treasury, so it joined the strike on September 16 in order to raise awareness of farmworker concerns. About 5,000 workers picketed more than 30 vineyards in the San Joaquin Valley. Although the growers beat the strikers and sprayed them with chemicals, Chávez insisted on strikers responding nonviolently.

As the strike continued into 1966, it won the support of churches, universities, civil rights activists, community organizations, and labor groups. Strikers called for a consumer boycott of the products of Schenley Industries, a major Wine industrywine grape grower. In March, Chávez and hundreds of strikers began a historic 340-mile, twenty-five-day march from Delano to Sacramento, California’s state capital. By the time they reached the capitol building on Easter Sunday, April 10, they were 10,000 strong. Meanwhile, Schenley had agreed to sign the union’s first contract.

In August, 1966, NFWA and AWOC merged to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (UFWOC). In 1967, the union boycotted Giumarra Vineyards, California’s largest table grape grower. When it was learned that Giumarra grapes were being shipped under other growers’ labels, Chávez called for a consumer boycott of all California table grapes in January, 1968. Volunteers, major supermarket chains, local governments, labor unions in Sweden and Great Britain, and others joined to make the boycott successful. By September, 1970, most California grape growers had signed three-year union contracts covering more than 20,000 jobs and more than 10,000 union members. These contracts provided wage increases to $1.80 per hour, restrictions on use of dangerous pesticides, health care benefits, provision of field toilets, and other benefits.

Continuing the Work

In 1972 the UFW became the United Farm Workers of America, chartered as an independent affiliate by the AFL-CIO. The UFW won the 1975 passage of the landmark California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, establishing collective bargaining for farmworkers. By the 1980’s, about 45,000 farm laborers were protected by UFW contracts. The UFW continued efforts in the Wine industrywine, lettuce, strawberry, vegetable, and other industries. After Chávez died in 1993, Rodriguez, ArturoArturo Rodriguez became the union’s president. Between 1994 and 2005, the UFW bargained on behalf of workers in California, Florida, Washington State, Arizona, and Texas. Since 2000, the UFW has used the Internet to help mobilize massive grassroots support. The UFW has had a significant impact on Latino, labor, and immigrant rights movements.United Farm Workers;United Farm WorkersCalifornia;United Farm WorkersLabor unionsAgriculture;labor unions

Further Reading
  • Dalton, Frederick John. The Moral Vision of César Chávez. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2003. Exploration of how Chávez’s deep religious faith shaped his activism and the UFW.
  • Ferriss, Susan, Ricardo Sandoval, and Diana Hembree. The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997. A companion volume to a public television documentary, this biography includes contemporary eyewitnesses accounts of the farmworker movement.
  • Ganz, Marshall. Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. A former colleague of Chávez in the UFW, Ganz documents the initially powerless UFW’s victory over California’s powerful grape industry.
  • Levy, Jacques E. César Chávez: Autobiography of La Causa. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. Prize-winning journalist’s portrait of Chávez and the UFW.
  • Shaw, Randy. Beyond the Fields: César Chávez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the Twenty-first Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. Study of how the UFW helped shape modern movements for immigrant and labor rights.

Arizona

Bracero program

California

Chicano movement

Civil Rights movement

Farm and migrant workers

Filipino immigrants

Mexican immigrants

Mexican Revolution

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