Cesar Chavez, president of the United Farm Workers, speaking at College of Saint Teresa’s Institute on Justice. The theme was “Attaining Justice Through Compassionate Leadership."
Chavez, of La Paz, Keene, Calif., has been the president of the United Farm Workers (UFW) since it began 17 years ago. The UFW first gained national attention when it successfully challenged California table grape growers with a five-year nationwide boycott of table grapes that ended in 1970. The UFW is the first agricultural workers union successfully organized in the United States.
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(00:00:05) Will it coming yesterday evening late afternoon from Los Angeles? in the plane it was the lady sitting next to me and she said she recognized me. So she wanted to know who I was going to say. I told her I was coming here to College of Saint Teresa to speak and she said How in the world are invite you there? And I said she said that's odd and I said it's different. It's even more odd. When you consider that the people in the college near my home would not be caught dead inviting me to speak to them. (00:00:52) We are. (00:00:57) I have done so much work in various crops up and down California and some of the other states, Arizona and so forth. that I had found an easier way not to not to numerate all the crops are many over a hundred to just say that I picked everything under the sun except pockets and I feel a lot at home here at Saint Teresa. We have a common friend and co-worker. We have a beautiful person working with us in La Paz. Our headquarters who has come from your community. It's really a gift to us. And I say that if I Union turns out to be someday the best administer Union the United States don't believe don't blame me blame sister Florence Weber. (00:02:00) Aye (00:02:02) just before I left yesterday morning. I went to see her and she want to be very sure to be removed to send her regards to you and to tell you that she thinks often of you and wanted me to be very sure when I came here to feel that I was at home and I am I was asked to speak on ministering compassionately while challenging systems. And I pondered how am I going to accomplish this and it came to me that I should not make a speech but I should really have a conversation with you because I think it'll be easier to get my point across and even more. So if I were to just have a conversation with you and then invite your questions at the end of the of the conversation. I think I should first give you a little bit of background into the into the migrant workers, especially a migrant worker in California that when I've been working with the most but it used to be and then after that we can talk about some experiences and I think I will be able to you will see in the in the conversation. What we have up what we are all about and what we've been doing for all these years. Farm laborer or migratory labor or agricultural labor headed its roots in California in terms of a modern way of doing business the so-called agribusiness. and it's been kept that way because in the original beginning in California of the development of Agriculture, unlike almost any other state the people were there and then agriculture started so that the crops that were planted were planted with the viewing mind that they had excessive number of workers just at the end of the building of the railroads. When they had been imported to the United States several hundreds of thousands of Chinese young men. They had they had now built the railroads and they were those success number of workers in every culture begin to develop. Besides the climate one of the reasons you find even today so much intensive heavily intensive and labor crops in California is because that's the way it started. He continued that way in order to continue. The large numbers of workers needed to produce the strawberries and the tomatoes and the blueberries and all of the hand intensive labor crops. There's been a one wave of immigrants after another brought into the state. First Chinese and the Japanese then the Filipinos then blacks then the southern whites then Mexicans then punjabis then Arabs then braceros and on and on it continues. now Central Americans and God knows what later. So that from about the late 19th century until up until even today? Poverty discrimination both racial and economic powerlessness and a part of the workforce their hopelessness and expectation were part and parcel of the life of workers. The terrible social injustice has that many. many scientists said that this was needed in order to continue education agriculture in many workers themselves accepting it feeling that there was nothing they could do. And many many attempts to erase or do deal with the with the problems of exploitation many attempts by many people since about 1890. Many International unions try to organize them. The F of L tried the CIO tried then the FLC open emerge they tried the Communists had been there. They socialized have been there a number of ethnic group organization from among the workforce in every single instance was beaten back into the ground. Every single attempt was defeated. And then of course we came on the scene. and one of the reasons that we were able to be successful, I think is that What we came into the area of organizing workers we were coming from them. We had been those that have been defeated. We were those that had been try to organize were those that suffer the exploitation and the powerlessness and the poverty and so forth so we know one thing we know ourselves. when we started the the greatest the most terrible obstacle that we had was the crippling fear tremendous fear on the part of workers to join a union. And I don't know if you have been in a situation where a whole Workforce a whole group a whole Community is in the clutches of fear, but it's a very very very difficult and sad situation. They said Look, it can't be done Gnostic whether it cannot be done. This is very common. because every time that they try to organize this either the organize ourselves out, they run out of money the employers are very powerful and on and on and on so that they would say things like when I would say, why do you say you can't organize ourselves and they would say well because the girls are too rich and we're too poor or things like well the Growers are too powerful and we're too weak. Any kind of a hopelessness that set in among those workers? which invited and kept social injustice and in Essen in that inevitable consequence for this long period of time We came into the scene. We knew that there were certain principles that we had to work by we're going to try to to succeed where everybody had failed. (00:08:57) first (00:08:58) don't question sacrifice seem to us. Had to be really looked at and had to be dealt with in a commitment had to make be made to it in order to be able to to win and when I say sacrifice, I basically I'm saying that we have to work without pay they'll have to build our community for all of us would share and where we had is Staffing organizers that we would recruit families were among the workers who would give themselves totally and completely to the task of organizing but not getting any salary. Also that we had to insist that the worker sacrificed even though on top of the poverty and the hopelessness and other things that they were faced with we still have to insist that they sacrifice and make a personal contribution if we're going to be successful. and it was a difficult thing to do because first of all when you ask people to come work with you, but you say you can have all the excitement in the world, but they won't be any money. So now I'm not too many coming others that would want to come and work found that they had enough support from with their own families to do it. We started by ourselves. I was living in Los Angeles today children and my wife and myself we moved into Delano. This is in the lower 17 Valley and began working give up my paycheck. And for the first 90 days I was so fearful. So frightened about not getting paid every week. Did I couldn't keep my mind in organizing. I was about 20 years ago. Those theories have long since disappeared and the only fear I might now I have is how do I how do I keep the union going but in terms of my own personal money? my own personal bills, that's You don't worry about that anymore. the we also knew that if that if the workers going to escape the Trap the poverty trap we couldn't. We had to to not. Trap ourselves in thinking that because there was the poor there was nothing they could do. Let me give you a little story. We started the union and we're collecting dues before there were any benefits. It was just they were paying dues or nah. Really on on a on a promise I suppose but we had to collect the dues and I I was one go collect him and I came in McFarland California device. It is a small community mostly Farm Workers. I came in it was in a December Merry Christmas very cold. And it's very little work and I Came Upon This work with paid three months dues the previous three months. He was not delinquent for December, which I should have been paying the first of the month and I came to see him. (00:12:03) And I (00:12:03) caught him just as he was leaving to go to the store. And so I'd say I've come to collect the dues and give him a few words of encouragement and I wanted the 350s because this will be collected and he looked at me and he said I have five dollars here and I was going to go to the store to buy food. Look we have nothing. and he said but if it's if it's very important, if you go with me to the store, I'll change the fight our been I'll give you (00:12:35) 350 (00:12:37) and you talk about making a decision. There was one of the I thought one of the best decisions now Bond the terrible decisions to make at the time. So I followed my by half a block when the story broke the $5 bill give me 350 and I gave my receipt and I parked the car the my car was parked a parked outside the store. So I stayed there and I saw him go to the counter and buy a dollar fifty worth of food for his family of five in this wife. I went home and I felt terrible about that. I know that at least I had enough Faith to know that that if he paid those 350 now this would somehow would help us to have a union someday. He would have more than five dollars, but there was a long long way off now to make that decision and I went home and I tell you that I had a difficult time going to sleep. the other principle that we No, we had to incorporate and I work with faith and faith is a very it's called by many names. Let me give some examples who started out in the lane of where I grew up in a new lot of people know me as a farm worker. That was just one of the many thousands of them. Nothing special nothing significant. Amanda ridiculing my own friends would say hi. You know, he's not an organized workers. He's lazy. He doesn't want to work through the Phillies wife's working the feel. He's riding on this car all day long. That's fate. They would say they would say he's up. He's really a very nice guy, but he's touched he's crazy isn't having a how can you do it? We're all his powerful angry business conglomerates. He can't do (00:14:24) it. (00:14:25) He still cares suppose but he said he's a little crazy. That's faith. (00:14:30) Then (00:14:31) pity that's almost little one to take people would you could sense that? I would why would friends that I grew up. We used to work in the fields. Would come by and show in their own way pity towards me like Bogota Seto. It was difficult to take that's that's fate. And then being despised by some. Because we in America have a very kind of a different kind of attitude. We say things that we don't really mean for instance. They would say well if he's so concerned with workers and he wants to help them. He must be a communist. It was a my God, you know do they are they the only ones that have do they have a monopoly on caring for people? What about us Christians? Don't we care for people? I know they really didn't mean that but that's what they were saying. Because we have like a mandate right from Jesus a mandate to do something about conditions if we're going to love our brothers and our sisters. And then we had the principle of non-violence. and we said that that The guy get God gave us a life to each Essence a teacher when I was in the race, very special possession and there's no one that can take it with you take it away because we don't know it. It's not ours. God has given it to us no matter how just the cost. Maybe we don't have right to take a life. And because of that. We know that violence sooner or later leads to death and destruction so forth. We also know that Violence is really a very unnatural act. Limited how unnatural it is the newspapers never report natural things that happen. There are million fights between wives and husbands in his world every day and they make up non-violently and is there in the papers but you let her husband a wife get into a fight for there's violence is in the paper. And one is led to believe that there's all this violence around but really in fact, there's an awful lot of non-violence happening every day of Our Lives, but it's so natural didn't nobody pays any thought to it. also non-violence is a powerful extremely powerful weapon. If you want to call it that is it you force people on your position you force them. To your own rules you force them to deal with you in your own and your own principles and it's extremely powerful and people think that non-violence is really cowardice T. But it is I've seen in my in my experience. Brave much of work or something about Brave Street brawlers and people who when they join the movement I remember one one incident one incident where we were organizing and we're having a dispute with the Teamsters Union and this Teamster man came and hit one of our men. Our farm worker young and pretty tough and and and pretty used to fighting in the streets and with knives and God. I mean I'm talking about some rough, but it made this commitment to be in the union and one of the commitments was he going to work with us. You cannot be violent under any circumstances. I remember we were in this little place outside this teach farm. He gets struck by the teamster man, and this worker looks at me. And ghost looks at me and goes like this and I looked at him he says. He tells us he's right. I'm not afraid of you. You should know that. I'm not at the least afraid of you. But I got this commitment. That I wish I didn't have right now and he was saying that you could see a couple of tears run down his cheeks, you know where he he was not afraid but he was so concerned that the other the opponent know that he knew that he wasn't afraid. And the the man struck him froze just froze look at him and he doesn't know what to say and turn around and left. And we had a tremendous administration of the thyroid non-violence. People are not we're not violent, right? We're not even a were made in the image of God. How can we be violent? But to be able to have us trained-to-go killer other people then to be violent. They have to train us. Otherwise you pick up a young man game a gun and that's it. But they don't do that wouldn't dare do that any government throughout the history as well. You put them in a special training. Situation and train young men or men to be violent to be able to shoot someone and kill someone for whatever reasons. But we don't do it naturally. Now to be nonviolent. And to work nonviolent into resist non-violently also training is necessary. Of course. I remember in Delano in the early days of the movement. It was a very difficult difficult struggle. We had the whole bunch of packing sheds being burned like one every night and we were being accused by everybody that we were doing it and I began to believe it and I went talk to work and see what cannot do that and say no, we're not doing it. Finally I decided to fast for 25 days on his long fast and I began to extract commitments from from the young people from the older people and everybody that we were not going to be involved in violence and we were I was going to give up they fight and disappear and they were coming soon. We're not doing it was not us and I didn't believe it very well. The strike ended we won after a long strike and boycott and then the shits continue to be burned. You puzzle me finally they were caught but it happened. Was that the local fire department people not the department, but some of the fireman for the chairs were being burned they would be put on on regular Duty and then special those who are getting two paychecks for working one shift. So But in that fast and that I was very insistent and so the people went we went non-violence. Anything and everything can be said about non-violence. Jesus told us about there's no one can add to what he said Gandhi tried it out and and and showed us in this Century how it works and dr. King did it and we've done some of it but there's nothing we can write about it. It's all written. It's all been said so that we then had the opposite effect. So we have a lot of grown men after this stuff about my 17th day on not eating and everybody think I'm going to die and so forth. We see man going around being very powerless, but very very little work was being done. So he said no. No, that's not non-violence. We want you to be man continued to be man. But but if you want to be Pious be Pious but work too because that's what it's needed, you know. I've often experiment and I'm sure that some of you have or most of you. If you are upset with someone. Somebody something makes me very upset. stop eating In about two or three days, you're so worried about your stomach. You're not you can't worry about us being made with someone else. And we're also very careful in the in the Quest for justice not to confuse it. For instance mercy, and Justice are two separate things. Mercy is a beautiful thing, but it's different than Justice. To go into find labor camp and taking the Christmas basket. Two workers and in Wishing Well, it's a beautiful Act of Mercy, but it's not really going to change much Justice on the other hand is something very difficult and almost always controversial. Because you're trying to change. A system you trying to change something. That's that's going to cost is going to give those that don't have much a little bit more. It's going to ask the ones that have some to give some of it to the others and it's of necessity a conflict. so that Wellness is a very important. Thing to do justice to little different. It's always controversial so it's difficult. (00:23:47) The (00:23:47) church for many years brought baskets to workers and went around and have Catechism classes for the children. Those things were good, but not to the church really join the workers and they're boycotting grapes in 1967. The things were the change because from the Bishops of this country for the first time. Endorse the idea that we should not eat The Grapes of workers and have Justice. We won that battle and a lot has to do with endorsement from the church. And things really changed they don't have to go now and take them Christmas baskets. They have a good wage and they have a good benefits. And by the way thing else dignity dignity. the being poor without digging is one thing being proved with digging this quite something something different. You would see that men who struggle and women to be equal to be counted to be considered as human beings when that recognition comes. That's when the that's when they're they began to get back that sense of worth tremendous Transformations take place, and I've seen it before my eyes many times. (00:24:58) We've been on strike now against the the basic lettuce industry. This is the iceberg head latest 4645 and a half months. We've had some very terrible consequences one, of course was one of our members was murdered by some Foreman back in on February the 10th in Imperial County near Central The strike continues its a very difficult strike for us basically because the employers have been able to get from Mexico mostly in Central America replacements for the people who left the jobs. So we now boycotting was striking and we're also asking people not to buy the the iceberg head lettuce, but even more important also not to buy the Chiquita banana and let me explain why the United brand company owns. She keep the banana but also owns the Sun Harvest Company, which is a biggest producer of head lettuce in the world, and we're trying to boycott the ensuing get him to the table to negotiate. Most Americans are not aware that the money is not made in the racing of the crop. In fact, the large corporations don't even know land. They don't want to own land Lenny's a burden for them. They do is that they want to be free to exploit it. Let me tell you what how they do it. They do it through what they call deals in lettuces and you're very good example, a grower shipper would come in and say 250 small Growers or a hundred or two hundred. I want you to plant me 50 acres of lettuce here. So I want to start harvesting on the first day of April and I want you to plan a hundred there so I can start on the 10th day of April and so on down the line and they will then grubstake then we'll give them so much money to buy the Seed and to pay for the for the for the energy for the oil for the gas and they the tractor driver and Then when the when the letter if there's a freeze if there is a rain the the shipper didn't lose anything but if the latest comes and it's it matures ready to be sold in the grocery shipper, the shipper comes in with his Crews cut the lettuce sells the letters and then gives the grower his small part who makes the money while you take a look at it. Last year and this is an exception. But you get you let me give an exception last year there were days of lettuce sold for twenty dollars a box $20 Box means that they're 24 heads of lettuce. You were paying over a dollar here dollar fifteen a dollar Thirty and sometimes a dollar fifty New York in downtown Manhattan. There were selling lettuce last year for as much as a dollar 99 the hit that's an exception. But generally you were paying 80 cents and 70 cents and 90 cents. Let me know. Let me tell you about it cost the employer $3. That's what they say to produce including all the costs labor and everything to produce and to into ship and to deliver to a major American City Carton of lettuce which has 24 hits but they pay the workers and pay the workers piece rate. Let me give you an idea. There are 32 men in a ground crew. 32 men they get under the old contract they get 57 cents per box. For divided among 32 men if you divide that by 24 is not too much money per worker per head and there's not too much money included for the other work it's done. So it's not it there. See it's just that that it's a deal and the demand you have one one week of solid. Hot spell throughout the country in the price list goes June because everybody wants to eat salads. In 1970 you make some by 1970 the industry cleared six and a half million dollars in 1970 in 1978 the industry cleared 71 million dollars in 1970. Our people were getting $2 an hour under the the cost of living index to Dollars In 1970 were worth a dollar seventy one cent. In night at the end of 1978. They were getting three dollars and seventy cents in the in the cost of living index put out by the Department of Labor those 370 were worse than a dollar eighty four. So in eight years the workers increase their standard of living by 13 cents an hour and and the piece right workers Fair even worse in 1970. The workers were getting 40 cents a box those 40 cents were then worth under the cost of living index. We're worth 34 cents. They're now getting 57 cents those 57 cents because of inflation is not really worth twenty eight cents. So it looks Sixth Sense. They're getting six lengths since Less in real money than they did eight years ago.