Cesar Chavez's legacy lives on in fight for food system workers' rights

Today, March 31, honors Cesar Chavez, the civil rights leader and labor organizer who grew up the son of migrant farm workers. As farm workers continued to face long hours, poor working conditions, low wages and the use of dangerous pesticides into the ‘60s, Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (now known as United Farm Workers union, UFW) with Dolores Huerta.

Chavez and this farm workers association helped to organize and lead “La Causa,” bringing migrant farm workers together to march, fast, participate in non-violent strikes for fair pay and treatment on the job.

In 1966, Chavez and the NFW drew national attention by leading a strike of grape pickers from California on a march to the state capitol in Sacramento to demand higher wages. All Americans were encouraged to stop purchasing and consuming table grapes in support. This boycott lasted for five years.

In the early ‘70s, the UFW organized the Salad Bowl strike, the largest farm worker strike ever in the U.S., to protest for (and eventually win) higher wages for those working for grape and lettuce growers. The UFW also helped pass the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which allowed farm workers the right to collectively bargain with an employer for wages, work hours, overtime and the processes to file grievances.

“(Farm workers) are involved in the planting and the cultivation and the harvesting of the greatest abundance of food known in this society. They bring in so much food to feed you and me and the whole country and enough food to export to other places,” said Chavez during his fight for farm workers’ rights in the 1960s, according to Food Bank. “The ironic thing and the tragic thing is that after they make this tremendous contribution, they don’t have any money or any food left for themselves.”

While there have been great strides in improved wages and more humane treatment of workers, there is still much to be done to improve the conditions of the working poor and immigrant labor.

“As we push to fix a broken immigration system, protect the right to unionize, advance social justice for young men of color, and build ladders of opportunity for every American to climb, we recall [Cesar’s] resilience through setbacks, his refusal to scale back his dreams,” President Barack Obama said in his proclamation for Cesar Chavez Day 2014.

(Obama’s “Yes, we can!” 2008 campaign phrase was, in fact, inspired by Chavez and Huerta’s slogan, “Sí se puede!” during a 25-day fast in 1972 to protest Arizona passing legislation that banned farm workers from boycotting and participating in strikes during harvest seasons. The Spanish phrase means, “Yes, it can be done.”)

“When we organize against income inequality and fight to raise the minimum wage — because no one who works full time should have to live in poverty — we draw strength from his vision and example,” said Obama.

Food Tank offers five critical ways to fight for the rights of workers in the food system and to continue Chavez’s legacy of working toward living wages, safe working conditions and safe food for all. This includes raising the minimum wage for all tipped workers, improving the safety and health standards at meat packing and processing facilities and giving fast food workers a living wage. Read more here.

One way you can get involved right now is to learn more about the issues farm workers face—while learning about Chavez and his life—by catching a screening of Cesar Chavez, released March 28. Look to your local theaters for screening times.

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