This week, President Barack Obama declared March 31 a national holiday, Cesar Chavez Day, to celebrate the community organizer and co-founder of the United Farm Workers. A California state holiday since 2000, Cesar Chavez Day encourages Americans to honor Chavez’s memory through community service and educational events. In declaring Cesar Chavez Day a national holiday, Obama emphasized the importance of “action, selflessness, and commitment” in a White House website post, using Chavez as a model of how to empower others and achieve social change without violence.
Born March 31, 1927, Cesar Chavez spent his youth working in the fields of California, forgoing a high-school education to support his mother and siblings as a migrant farmer. Chavez served in the Navy for two years, and later returned to California, where he married Helen Fabela in 1948. Chavez began his community organizing career registering voters for the Community Service Organization.
In 1962, Chavez co-founded the United Farm Workers with Dolores Huerta, and through the UFW Chavez helped farm workers win the right to organize, form unions, and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with their employers. Like Martin Luther King, Chavez emphasized the need to take action without using violence, instead using tactics like boycotts and strikes.
Chavez is most well-known for the grape boycotts he organized. The first grape boycott began in 1968 in support of the over 5,000 workers striking against grape growers in Delano, Calif. This boycott lasted two years and ended once the growers finally accepted union contracts. The second boycott, begun in 1975, had an estimated 17 million participants and helped push the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) through Congress. ALRA strengthened farm workers’ right to organize and form unions. In the 1980s, when California Gov. George Deukmejian failed to enforce the ALRA, Chavez organized yet another boycott.
Through Chavez’s organizing, farm workers negotiated for higher wages, family health benefits, and pensions. The UFW protested against child labor, sexual harassment at the workplace, and pesticide poisoning of farm workers. Through the UFW, Chavez improved the lives of tens of thousands of families.
Chavez died in 1993, but his legacy lives on through the organization he founded. The UFW continues to promote the rights of farm workers, and their current campaigns include petitioning the EPA to ban hazardous pesticides and advocating for immigration reform. Chavez’s legacy is also evident in Wisconsin, where state workers agitate to maintain their right to organize as a union and protect their health and pension benefits. Cesar Chavez Day encourages Americans to continue to work toward justice and not give up hope despite an economic crisis and uncertain job market.
The White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Presidential Proclamation–Cesar Chavez Day,” WhiteHouse.gov.
United Farm Workers, “The Story of Cesar Chavez,” UFW.org.
Evelina Alarcon, “Cesar E. Chavez, the Farm Worker Leader, honored with a California Legal Holiday,” CesarChavezHoliday.org.
United Farm Workers, ” I Pledge to Support AgJOBS,” UFW.org.
United Farm Workers, “Petition the EPA: Kids & Pesticides Don’t Mix,” UFW.org.