U.S. military interests and economic practice played a key role in starting a never before seen wave of migration that has transformed the entire landscape of America’s culture and economy. The book begins with the U.S. territorial expansion that brought Cuba, Puerto Rico, and most of Mexico under American control. Also, military operations that set up American regimes in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic took place.
It is not taught in schools that the large Latino population and immigration into America is a direct result of American government action. Instead, a pall of antagonism exists despite the truth that millions from South and Central America were financially ruined, physically injured, or forced to leave home because of those actions. The American Latino has had a tough journey, and Harvest of Empire, covering five centuries, delineates that journey and shows how deeply the Latino influence in American culture goes.
I located this book’s table of contents online, which provides a basic outline of the book which summarizes what it’s about. It follows below.
Fred Ross, an early-workers’ rights activist that worked with Cesar Chavez early on, is known for his organization of grass-roots campaigns. In this fast-paced book, Ross tells the story of Chavez’ first effort at organizing farmworkers—a little known fight between Chavez and a rag-tag group of farmworkers against hundreds of growers and government agencies. This battle ultimately led to the creation of the United Farm Workers of America in 1962 after four years of hard work.
Chavez’ ability to communicate the farmworkers’ difficult plight is highlighted by Ross. People were drawn together to end discrimination and exploitation. It is an against-all-odds story of the “little man” working within a corrupted system, and gathering honest people and officials to his cause in order to ensure that abuses were documented, citizenship classes and attainment were ensured, voting rights were secured, and the restoration of human dignity took place—all through the defeat of practices evil and unjust.
Yates is critical of the messiah-ification of Cesar. Instead, Yates praises author Pawel for both demythologizing Cesar and showing that he was but one of many people who made UFW history. Pawel’s book features 8 protagonists who sort of fell into the movement but went on to be leaders of their own right of the farmworkers movement. Extensive interviews and research were done in preparing this book, which puts people integral to the union’s historical trajectory on record as opposed to only hearing from or about Chavez.
The book begins with the exciting rise of the UFW (grape strikes, boycotts, teamsters, fasts, marches, the 1975 Labor Relations Law) and hints at the troubles to come, with Chavez’ personality and politics being ultimately at fault. Examples of his refusing laundry machines because “we probably wouldn’t take care of them and…he didn’t do his own laundry anyway” are used, underscoring his sexist, martyr-like rhetoric.
The second half of the book discusses the stalling of the UFW’s power and the strange “off the deep end” behavior of Chavez, which includes trying to start a new religious order and turning his successful drug rehab organization program Synanon into a cult. Instead of building a real union with pay equity and collective bargaining rights, Chavez moved from one idealistic philosophy to another while insisting that he be the only leader instead of handing it over to the workers themselves. It is revealed that Chavez did not like or trust the rank and file workers on whom he had built the movement and would routinely hold information from them or alter it and disparage them to others. Chavez actively worked to sabotage strikes that he did not directly organize (lettuce strikes).
Chavez used to slander, threats, violence, an assassination attempt, abrupt union rule changes, and the firing of challengers in order to defeat the opposition and maintain control. His sons now run the empire that Chavez began—housing developments, radio stations, consulting businesses, fundraising mailing campaigns, marketing schemes, etc. Pensions and health funds are plush but few workers get any of the benefits.
Cesar Chavez’ son-in-law Arturo S. Rodriguez describes Chavez’ life’s work. While his wife worked the fields, Chavez babysat the kids as he drove up and down California recruiting farmworkers into his union. Only one or two out of a hundred would take the risk.
In 1962 the Kennedy administration offered to make Chavez head of the Peace Corps in part of Latin America. Chavez turned the position down. Founding the UFW was a leap of faith, however it paid off with collective bargaining rights and union contracts requiring breaks for employees, bathrooms, banning of discrimination, pesticide safety procedures, the outlawing of DDT, medical benefits, a pension plan, profit sharing, parental leave, banning of dangerous tools, unemployment and disability and workers’ comp, and federal amnesty rights for immigrants.
Chavez applied strategies of Gandhi and MLK in forwarding his movement—something that had never been tried before. Chavez embraced voluntary poverty until the 90s. Rodriguez insists that Chavez was never comfortable with the cushy lifestyle and paychecks that other union leaders embraced. Chavez is characterized as a pro-gay, anti-war, warrior of peace.
The opposition to Chavez’ ideals is mentioned but without specifics and is propagandistically characterized as headed by sore losers who don’t understand how to run unions. The fight between growers and workers continues and Rogriguez explains that it is hard but hard-fought battles have been won by the UFW, which also continues after Chavez’ death to realize his vision with after-school tutoring programs, affordable housing, radio, and promotion of his ideas through literature and training programs.
Chavez’ family was forced to move to California after they lost their farms in Arizona during the years of drought during the Great Depression, as depicted in Grapes of Wrath. The family slept on the road, moving from farm to farm in search of work. Cesar was ten. He attended 38 different schools before dropping out in 8th grade. Cesar learned from his father the inequality of farm labor, and from his mother the value of compassion. Cesar joined the navy in 1946 and returned to marry his high school sweetheart Helen Favela two years later. They would have 7 children. A local priest taught Cesar about Gandhi and in 1953 Cesar met Fred Ross, who recruited him for the CSO and taught him how to organize. Chavez became president of CSO but resigned in 1962 when the group refused to help organize farmworkers.
It is common knowledge that whatever group is the poorest and most recent arrival to this country ends up in the fields. Strikes against unfair conditions trace back as early as 1903 in the Oxnard sugar beet strike by Japanese immigrant workers. At that time, unions were actually illegal and people could be fired for organizing. In 1936 the National Labor Relations Act gave most Americans the right to join unions but farmworkers were excluded so that Southern politicians would help pass the law. The bracero program of 1941 undercut domestic wages by bringing in cheap immigrant labor.
The union issue exploded in 1965. Chavez joined his group with AWOC. Together they overcame insurmountable odds, even successfully organizing a national grape boycott in the face of unscrupulous label switching practices by the growers. In 1969 the growers signed historic contracts with UFOC (which would become the UFW—the only successful union ever established to defend the rights of those who grow and harvest crops). The contracts agreed to seniority and hiring rights, protection for workers from pesticides, higher wages, freshwater and bathrooms, and medical plans. As opposed to normal unions, Chavez worked for the reclamation of dignity for the marginalized. He was dedicated to the cause, even fasting for nearly a month. His efforts would start a major shift in American politics, making the voting power of Latino Americans a force to be reckoned with.
There were setbacks though. Unions and teamsters were brought in which rolled back the gains that the UFW had fought for. And they brought violence to the ensuing strikes, many were injured and two died. Legislative victories were had in Jerry Brown’s 1975 gubernatorial election, but when a Republican governor stepped in in 1982, enforcement grew lax and new grower-friendly/worker-unfriendly legislation was favored.
Chavez continued to work, focusing more on pesticide awareness and the building of low-cost housing for farmworkers. While some might say he veered away from the necessary issues, Chavez will always be remembered for his most important contribution to the movement as a tireless symbol for worker equality and justice. Chavez died on April 23, 1993, at the age of 66.
Also in the PBS website is a Eulogy for Chavez describing him as a man as well as a symbol and the great effect he has had on thousands of people even after his death. There is also a timeline.
The majority of this timeline comes from pbs.org because they had a fully formed one already set up on their website, with additional facts and dates added in from other sources.
1903: Japanese Mexican Labor Assoc. sugar beet strike, Oxnard, California. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) refuses to let the organization join if it accepts Japanese or Chinese members
1909: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded in response to the 1908 race riot in Springfield, Illinois, the birthplace of President Abraham Lincoln
1913: International Workers of the World Wheatland strike near Marysville, California. The strike leaves four men dead. California passes a law restricting “alien land purchases” to keep Asians from buying property
1924: Immigration Act bars entry to all Asians, leading to the importation of workers from the Philippines, an American possession
1927: Cesar Chavez born, Yuma Arizona, to Juana and Librado Chavez. He will be one of seven children
1935: The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) is formed
1936: National Labor Relations Act takes effect, excluding farmworkers from protections enjoyed by other workers
1937: The Chavez family loses their store and farm, and becomes migrant farmworkers in California CIO organizes shed workers in Salinas. Autoworkers sit-down strikes lead to a contract at General Motors in Detroit
1941: the United States and Mexican government started the bracero program, which brought thousands of Mexican nationals north to work in the fields in the U.S. Often, braceros were used to undercutting domestic wages and break strikes.
1942: Bracero program begins, authorizing the importation of Mexican workers under contract to do agricultural and railroad work. Faced with the threat of a Negro march on Washington, President Rosevelt establishes the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) and opens war industries to blacks. Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) is founded in Chicago by conscientious objectors James Farmer and George Houser.
1946: Cesar Chavez joins the Navy, serves 2 years in the Pacific
1947: The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and CORE organize the Journey of Reconciliation, the first freedom ride on buses in the south. Taft-Hartley act limiting labor organizing is passed by Congress over President Truman’s veto
1948: Cesar Chavez marries Helen Favela. They move to San Jose
1949: Paul Robeson’s concert in Peekskill, NY attacked by vigilantes. CIO expells nine progressive labor unions that refuse to expel Communists from their leadership
1952: Fred Ross recruits Cesar Chavez into the Community Services Organization. Chavez becomes a community organizer and rises to head the organization
1954: The US Supreme Court outlaws "separate but equal" schools in the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education
1955: Rosa Parks refuses to sit in the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Black citizens begin the Montgomery bus boycott, and Martin Luther King emerges as a leader. The AFL and CIO merge to become the AFL-CIO1960Black college students begin lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, leading to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
1960s: Chavez came out against the Vietnam War.
1961: 1961 SNCC and CORE begin Freedom rides by bus through the south
1962: Cesar Chavez leaves CSO and returns to Delano, California to start the National Farm Worker Association (NFWA). He is joined by Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla, Jim Drake, and others. The Kennedy administration offered to make Chavez head of the Peace Corps in part of Latin America.
1963: March on Washington, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech
1964: Three civil rights workers are killed in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer voter registration campaign of SNCC. The bracero program ends.
1965: The Delano grape strike begins. The mostly Mexican NFWA joins mostly Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). Malcolm X is assassinated at the Audobon Ballroom in New York by men associated with the Nation of Islam. Civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama. Voting Rights Act passed
1966: Farmworkers walk 300 miles from Delano to Sacramento in a pilgrimage that ends on Easter Sunday. NFWA signs its first contract with Schenley. NFWA and AWOC merge to become the United Farmworkers Organizing Committee (UFWOC)
1967: Striking farmworkers and supporters begin a national boycott of California table grapes after the Giumarra Corporation tried to disguise their shipments by using other grape growers’ labels.
1968: Cesar Chavez fasts in Delano for 25 days. He is joined by Sen. Robert Kennedy at the end of the fast. The UFW campaigns for Robert Kennedy in the California primary. Martin Luther King is assassinated in Memphis Tennessee while leading garbage workers to strike. Robert Kennedy is assassinated in Los Angeles California on the night of the California Presidential primary. Chavez’ insistence on nonviolence drew dissent from some union staff and young male strikers frustrated by the slow progress of the grape strike and anxious to retaliate against abusive growers.
1969: Delano growers sign historic contracts with UFWOC.
1970: UFWOC signs three-year contracts with the Delano growers, ending the grape strike and boycott. Salinas lettuce and vegetable growers sign with Teamsters Union. UFW protests deal and declare strike and boycott. Chavez, in the 1970s, also supported gay rights.
1972: The UFW admitted as a full member to the AFL-CI. Chavez fasts in Arizona against restrictive farm labor law. The slogan of his fast is Si Se Puede!
1973: When grape contracts expire, growers sign with the Teamsters Union. Major UFW strikes spread throughout California, with thousands arrested and two dead.
1975: California passes the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), the first law recognizing the rights of farmworkers to organize and bargain collectively. The UFW wins a majority of elections
1978: The Teamsters Union withdraws from the fields
1981: President Reagan fires air traffic controllers
1982: George Dukmeijian is elected governor of California with strong support from agriculture. Enforcement of the ALRA slows
1988: Cesar Chavez conducts a Fast for Life, his last and longest fast, in Delano California
1993: Cesar Chavez dies in Yuma, Arizona. His funeral in Delano CA is attended by 40,000 people. Arturo Rodriguez is named new UFW president
1994: Cesar Chavez is awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor by President Clinton
1994 to 2004: UFW wins new contracts representing workers in rose, mushroom, strawberry, wine grape, lettuce and vegetable workers in California, Florida and Washington state
2000: California establishes a state holiday in honor of Cesar Chavez
2003: Cesar E. Chavez commemorative stamp is issued by the United States Postal Service
Day, M. (1971). Forty acres: Cesar Chavez and the farm workers. New York, NY: Praeger Publications.
Gonzalez, J. (2001). Harvest of empire: A history of Latinos in America. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Rodriguez, A. S. (2011-2012). Why Cesar Chavez led a movement as well as a union. Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy, 23, 15-21.
Ross, F. (1989). Conquering Goliath: Cesar Chavez at the beginning. Keene, CA: United Farm Workers.
Tejada-Flores, R. (2004). Cesar Chavez & the UFW. PBS. Retrieved from PBS: http://www.pbs.org/itvs/fightfields/cesarchavez1.html
Yates, M. D. (2010, May). The rise and fall of the United Farm Workers. Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine, 62(1), 51-59.