It was a hot, dusty day on a back road some miles south of Sacramento, California. The speaker was a young Mexican-American, one of the small band of striking grape pickers who, almost three weeks earlier, had set out on a 250-mile "pilgrimage of penance and prayer" from Delano to the state's capitol. Foot-weary though he was after twenty days on the road, he said with a kind of joyous conviction: "If we get to Sacramento and Cesar says we go on to Washington--I say, okay, I go to Washington."
It is not an ordinary type of leader who can evoke that kind of commitment. But Cesar Chavez, to whom the young worker was referring, is no ordinary kind of man. To be sure, his appearance is ordinary enough. He is a short, muscularly built, thirty-nine-year-old American of Mexican background. When you meet him, however, you gradually become aware that some of the things said about him, which sound so extravagant and which cause him so much embarrassment, might well be true.
"Perhaps the most important Catholic in California" is how he was recently described by Monsignor William Quinn of the Bishops' Committee for the Spanish Speaking. "The greatest labor leader to come along in a generation." That came from one of the top men of the AFL-CIO. Others have been suggesting that Chavez may well turn out to be the Martin Luther King of the Mexican-Americans. If the truth about Chavez is anything remotely like this, he obviously is a man to be reckoned with. It would seem worthwhile to try to take his measure.
Chavez is the founder and general director of the National Farm Workers Association based in Delano, California. Like the vast majority of the Association's members, he comes out of a migrant labor family which followed the crops in the Southwestern states. That kind of life does not allow for much formal education. His intermittent schooling ended with the seventh grade, but over the years his searching mind and love for books have made him knowledgeable and articulate on a wide range of subjects.
Chavez' early years were typical of those of the countless thousands of Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. His family was constantly on the move, exceedingly poor, easily exploited by employers and labor contractors, with none of the benefits of the agricultural wealth they helped to produce.
As a young man, while working in Delano, he met and married a strong-souled Mexican-American girl who shared his growing conviction that farm workers need not and should not be victims of injustice.
A significant turning point in Chavez' life took place when he met a scholarly, zealous, young priest from San Jose, California, Father Donald McDonnell. Father McDonnell not only understood the Chavez' frustrated passion for justice but showed them how it might be achieved. He acquainted them with Catholic teachings on the rights and dignity of workers and the need for organization.
With Father McDonnell's encouragement, Chavez accepted a job as organizer for the Saul Alinksy-inspired Community Service Organization. For almost a decade he and his wife and their growing family (they now have eight children) traveled throughout California wherever Mexican-Americans had begun to settle, talking with them, one-by-one or in small groups, about how the CSO, their organization, would give them the strength of unity.
In this effort Chavez had considerable success. But eventually he realized that he was not effectively reaching the poorest and most disadvantaged of the Mexican-Americans, the seasonal farm workers, who were in the greatest need of help.
So, Chavez quit the CSO, turned down a $21,000 Peace Corps job offer, and settled in his wife's hometown of Delano. There, while both of them and their older children worked intermittently as grape pickers and pruners, he began in 1962 to lay the foundations for the National Farm Workers Association.
Preferring to build soundly rather than quickly, and thinking of the NFWA as something more than just a labor union, Chavez spent three years signing up more than 2,000 Mexican-American families as dues-paying members, developing what is now a thriving credit union, beginning the publication of their own monthly El Malcriado (The Disadvantaged), starting a burial insurance program. Future plans envisioned a cooperative grocery store, a cooperative garage and service station (for farm workers, their cars are as essential as their hands), legal
and medical aid, and a wide range of other services of which, until now, poverty has deprived them.
In fact, just before the strike broke out in Delano last September, the NFWA had won a $286,000 grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity for some of these projects. On Chavez' initiative, however, the grant was suspended for the duration of the strike. Although the Federal money in no way would have been used to support the strike, Chavez felt that critics would assume so. Besides, he realized that he could not devote sufficient time and energy to administering the grant while he was deeply involved in leading the strike. While disappointed, of course, at the necessity of postponing the projects, he stated: "Our assault on poverty has already been launched. The only way to fight farm labor poverty is with a union contract."
The present NFWA headquarters in Delano is a small, run-down, crowded, former grocery store on the edge of town right across the road from vineyards, which have been struck now for more than eight months. The telephone is constantly jangling and a radio-telephone squawks now and then. The strike against more than thirty grape ranches spread over more than 400 square miles requires constant and quick communicatiqns-shifts of picket lines, warnings of threatening violence, pickets being arrested on trumped-up charges. NFWA staff members, many of them unpaid volunteers, move in and out to confer hurriedly, get new directions, work on a new press release.
In the middle of this amiable confusion, Chavez seems unflappable. He listens patiently and intently. His voice is soft, his speech articulate. His decisions are never given as orders. Asking, "Don't you think it would be good to...?" or "Shouldn't we...?", he gets consent and action without commanding.
Clad though he always is in working clothes--his plaid shirt is almost a uniform--his quiet dignity is impressive. His eyes capture your attention. In them you see a strange combination of gentleness and strength, sadness and humor. His brown, burnished skin and black hair make clear his Mexican origin. He is one with his people and proud of it.
But his people have granted him an admiration and a leadership that are extraordinary. Said one NFWA member: "He has come up out of poverty because we needed him. He is among the greats." In him and in the National Farm Workers Association they have entrusted their hopes and their ambitions. At the moment, they see all of their future bound up in the success of the NFWA's strike against the Delano grape growers.
So, we have to talk about the strike. Few would quarrel with the statement that it is the most important and exciting thing going on now in California. The strike was started early in September 1965, not by the NFWA but by the AFL-CIO-sponsored Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. This fledgling union is made up in Delano mostly of aging, Filipino bachelors whose single status is a monument to the inhumanity of our previous immigration laws which allowed men but not women to come in from the Philippines. They went on strike when the area growers refused to match the wages being paid for the same work in nearby California valleys. When these six hundred AWOC members walked off the job they were ejected from the company barracks where some of them had lived for as long as twenty years.
Although living in the same community and often working side-by-side in the fields, the Filipino and Mexican-American communities in Delano never had much in common. But the NFWA immediately recognized that the AWOC cause was also their cause. They saw the time had come when they had to stake a common claim on a better way of life. They, too, were tired of being pushed around and treated as second-class citizens. So, a week after the AWOC went out, the 2,500 NFWA members joined them. They struck and set up picket lines, as best they could, at the entrance gates of some thirty-two ranches, including the giants of the area, the DiGiorgio Fruit Corporation with 4,500 acres, and Schenley Industries, with only a little fewer.
That strike is still going on today, ten months later. With remarkable tenacity, the NFWA and AWOC members have held out despite being evicted from their homes for non-payment of rent, having their cars repossessed, and just barely existing on donated food. From the very beginning, the strikers took and, despite constant and grievous provocations, have kept a pledge of non-violence.
The growers who are struck are not the kind to take tkis type of challenge lying down. All through the harvesting and pruning seasons of last fall and winter they advertised and sent recruiting teams throughout California, to Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and even deep into Mexico to round up strikebreakers to supplement those they were able to find in the Delano area. NFWA and AWOC pickets persuaded many of the strikebreakers out of the fields; still, the growers got their grapes picked and their vines pruned (though the quality of the work and the crop suffered considerably).
It would seem to some that in this regard at least the strike has been a failure. But that is too early and too superficial a reading of the situation. The strike is still on. The picket lines still form every day. "Counter-recruiters"--NFWA and AWOC truth squads--have gone everywhere in the Southwest and into Mexico to publicize the strike and to discourage workers from taking Delano jobs as strikebreakers. If necessary, the unions are ready, and feel themselves able, to continue the strike throughout the harvesting and pruning seasons late this year.
The strikers have reason to hope, however, that they will not have to hold out that long. While their Lenten pilgrimage from Delano to the state capitol at Sacramento was dramatizing their cause--on the last day, Easter Sunday, they were joined by 10,000 sympathizers and allies--a major breakthrough was announced. Schenley Industries, second-largest Delano grower, whose public image if not also its sales charts had been hurt by a nationwide NFWA-sponsored boycott of its products, had suddenly agreed to recognize the National Farm Workers Association and to bargain collectively with the union as the legitimate representative of the workers. A few days later this breakthrough was reinforced by a similar offer from two wineries controlled by Roman Catholic organizations outside the area of the strike.
Chavez, of course, is delighted with this historic development and has hope that other growers will soon conform. He knows, however, that the growers, particularly the largest of them, the DiGiorgio Fruit Corporation whose yearly sales run into hundreds of millions of dollars (and whose S&W Fine Foods brand products are now under boycott), are tough and resourceful. They are an independent breed of men who have repeatedly risked everything in a relentless struggle to force these hot, thirsty lands into productivity. Though they could not have won this battle without the help of a Federally-subsidized water supply, they take fierce pride in having made the desert produce crops in rich abundance: tomatoes, melons, grapes, and a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables.
The battle that the growers fought was a ruthless one against both the forces of nature and the devices of men. Those who survived and won the victory did so because they were the fittest and toughest. That means that, like the battle itself, they, too, have been ruthless, even in their dealings with other men. They openly proclaim their lack of trust in fellow growers. The industry has a long history of busted deals, labor pirating, and cutthroat competition.
They have been ruthless too in dealing with their labor force. Ever since the Civil War days when they were denied the use of slaves, they have incessantly reached out to find and exploit disadvantaged workers of this and other nations. Over the generations they have brought in hordes of Chinese, Japanese, Hindus, Arabs, and Okies and Arkies in the Dust Bowl days--and Mexicans, always Mexicans, either U. S. citizens or aliens from across the poverty-stricken border. They could not have slaves but they created their own cruel adaptation of slavery.
Now the victims of this exploitation are beginning to demand their emancipation. They are beginning to speak up with an organized voice and organized power. They are beginning to threaten an end to poverty and discrimination. Migrant farm families usually earn less than $2,000 a year.
The workers are demanding that at long last they receive what most other American workers already have: a minimum wage, elimination of child labor, unemployment insurance, and, above all, legal protection of their right to organize and to bargain collectively with the employers as equals. If Chavez succeeds, labor will be more costly but, even more important, the growers will have lost their unilateral power to control others' lives by arbitrary decision.
The organization and movement which Chavez heads do not constitute the first effort on the part of farm workers to achieve justice and decency in their work and in their lives. None of these previous efforts has ever succeeded. Why does Chavez seem to be succeeding where the others have failed?
For one thing, the time is right. It is not at all coincidence that the NFWA began to achieve a leadership role only short months after Congress had brought the bracero program to an end. Under that program, so long as growers had been able to call in thousands of Mexican citizens to harvest the crops or to break a strike, there was little chance that domestic workers could organize effectively to represent and defend their own interests.
There is no doubt either but that the farm labor movement has benefited from the civil rights movement. Farm workers, whether Negro or Mexican-American, as most of them are, have been deprived of equal rights not just on the basis of race but also on the basis of occupation. Precisely as farm workers they have been deliberately excluded from practically every piece of social and welfare legislation, either state or Federal, passed in the last thirty or forty years. It was not difficult to identify events in Delano with those in Selma, Alabama. That explains why SNCC and CORE and other civil rights groups and leaders have backed Chavez with volunteer staff workers, publicity, and funds.
Another factor of great importance is that the Delano workers, although seasonal, are now also residential. No one yet has figured out how to organize into a coherent union those farm workers whose lives are essentially migratory. But once migrants began to settle permanently in a community as they have in Delano and elsewhere and to commute seasonally to jobs within a feasible radius, it became possible to begin organizing.
Of key importance, too, has been the growth of a nation-wide network of knowledgeable and concerned allies. The beginning of this growth might well be dated from the television showing of the late Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame." Before that film shocked a nation which had just finished a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner, there had been only a relative handful of "professionals" who were concerned with, and involved in, migratory labor problems. But "Harvest of Shame" exposed to millions of decent people the miserable, inhuman conditions under which farm workers live and work. Champions of reform, such as Senator Harrison Williams Jr. of New Jersey, Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz, the United Auto Workers' Walter Reuther, and others suddenly found themselves with countless allies in their crusade for justice for agricultural workers.
The emergence of Chavez and the NFWA in Delano gave a sharp focus to that crusade, and the farm workers there found that they were not alone. After having survived, somehow, for the first months of the strike on their own meager resources, they are now getting substantial (if still inadequate) financial support from these allies. "In the past," says Chavez, "we were never able to keep a strike going long enough to win outside support. Before our cause was known, it was over. This time it is different ... We're getting help. This time we can win. This time we will win."
Finally, Chavez himself has repeatedly emphasized that without the backing of the churches the Delano effort would have little chance to succeed. From the beginning, the NFWA has had the friendly and helpful assistance of the Migrant Ministry of the California Councils of Churches. Since the strike has dramatized the workers' struggle for justice, churches and synagogues throughout the country and national church leaders have given the struggle their unstinted moral and even financial support.
Strangely enough--or perhaps it was to be expected--the churches closer to home have not been sympathetic to the strike. Though the great majority of the AWOC and NFWA members are Roman Catholics, as indeed are most of the growers, one "outside" priest, Father William King from Oklahoma, was moved after visiting the area to comment: "Except for generalizations, the diocese has done nothing. It is trying to pretend that there is no strike." Moreover, the Ministerial Association of Delano, mostly Protestant but including also the local Catholic priests, has openly condemned the strike. Some have suggested that this local timidity or opposition can be connected with the fiscal needs of the churches.
No such timidity, however, has characterized the concern and commitment of the churches elsewhere. So strong and open, in fact, has been church support for the strikers that one of the growers' chief spokesmen, Martin Zaninovich, warned: "Church leaders had better start looking for other financial means to carry out these radical theories they are attempting to force on us." Zaninovich even suggested that elections be held in the churches "to determine if, the philosophy church leaders are expounding today is representative of the attitudes of their flocks."
The reason why Chavez has been able to make headway ultimately lies in his intimate understanding of his own people and of California's farm industry. Previous efforts, while undertaken with great good will and considerable expense, were usually led by those whose organizing experience had industries. What worked there would not work equally well in the fields. Chavez, however, had practically grown up in the fields and, in addition, had years of experience in organizing Mexican-Americans in California's communities.
It was his insight, for instance, that contributed to the NFWA's and AWOC's pledge of nonviolence which, as the civil rights movement has demonstrated, and as Gandhi had shown earlier in India, is not only a sound and admirable posture, but also an effective instrument of justice. It was Chavez too who had the inspiration to characterize the trip from Delano to Sacramento not as a march of protest but rather as a pilgrimage of penance and prayer.
In a message explaining the purpose and spirit of this effort, Chavez wrote:
"In every religious-oriented culture 'the pilgrimage' has had a place, a trip made with sacrifice and hardship as an expression of penance and of commitment...
"The penitential procession is also in the blood of the Mexican-American, and the Delano march will therefore be one of penance--public penance for the sins of the strikers, their own personal sins as well as their yielding perhaps to feelings of hatred and revenge in the strike itself. They hope by the march to set themselves at peace with the Lord, so that the justice of their cause will be purified of all lesser motivation.
Although Zaninovich called the pilgrimage "a parade that is nothing more than a publicity stunt for the benefit of the news media," all less-biased observers note that it was precisely its deeply religious character which made it so noteworthy and effective.
Another aspect of that pilgrimage makes clear the soundness of Chavez' longer range plans. As his weary marchers passed through the dozens of small towns along the way, they elicited support from local residents. The pilgrims carried no food or bedding. They were fed and put up each night by local sympathizers. As they moved on from town to town, they left behind a committed core of friends and future allies. Said Chavez: "As much of the support as possible must come from people along the pilgrimage route. The man who helps us now is a man that we can hel; later on when the strike in Delano has been won. All along the route are people, poor people, who want to help us. A little inconvenience now means much more support later on. And it works. That you can see every day. The important thing is, it works." As proof, Chavez points to the hundreds of new NFWA members signed up during and since the pilgrimage.
So, Chavez is looking to the future, beyond the day when the strike will be won. What does that future hold? Among other problems and challenges, there is a touchy, delicate situation which at this time is rarely discussed: the fact that there are two unions, NFWA and AWOC. Although they are now working together in the closest harmony, no one really expects that in the long run there can be two potentially competing unions. One or the other will have to bow out of the picture. The most likely outcome is that the strictly union activities of the NFWA will be merged with those of AWOC, the AFL-CIO affiliate with its largely Filipino membership.
Whether or not this development takes place, it would seem that Chavez himself will have to face a difficult personal decision. If he stays with the NFWA and devotes his total energy to the community development aspects of the association, that slow and complex movement, important though it is, will limit his influence and effectiveness to one area or a small group of communities.
It is not known if Chavez shares the vision which others see for him. That vision encompasses a truly national farm workers' association with Chavez the one man now on the scene who could bring this about. Certainly the needs of the agricultural workers in Texas, Colorado, Michigan, Alabama, and Florida are as great and urgent as those in California. Such a nation-wide organizing effort would be enormously difficult even if Congress does soon bring farm workers under the protection of the National Labor Relations Act. It would probably be an impossible task without the all-out support of organized labor.
In the meantime it is vital for Chavez and the NFWA that the struggle at Delano be won. Victory there, if and when it comes, will certainly enhance Chavez' already considerable stature. But it is not likely to change the man himself. Chavez does not seek personal recognition, and praise only embarrasses him. A recent letter of his makes that clear and also provides a remarkable insight into the kind of man he is. In turning down a national award for which he was chosen, he wrote: "What has happened in Delano during the past year is not the work of any one man and I do not believe it would be fitting to honor any one. We, as a group, can only bring honor by continuing to fight here in Delano and by continuing to remain non-violent in our struggle.
"The danger among our farm workers, indeed among anyone who becomes suddenly pressworthy, is that we lose sight of ourselves and of our real place in society. I believe that there is an ever-present danger that we will lose our humility, then our loyalty to performing menial tasks, then our tie to the small people, and then our cause. When we are honored or acclaimed, I believe that we risk all this.
"Please thank the members of your group for their kind offer."
So speaks the man who is determined to lead his people out of bondage, the leader who provides the greatest hope of our generation that the isolated and exploited farm worker will be brought into the mainstream of American life.
FATHER JAMES L. VIZZARD, S.J. has long been the director of the Washington, D.C. office of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference; he is the chief spokesman on Capitol Hill for his church on farm and farm labor matters. He travels the country widely, and his account of Cesar Chavez and the Delano strike is based on personal, on-the-scene observation.