On September 8, 1965, Filipino American grape workers, members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, walked out on strike against Delano-area table and wine grape growers protesting years of poor pay and conditions. The Filipinos asked Cesar Chavez, who led a mostly Latino farm workers union, the National Farm Workers Association, to join their strike.
Cesar and the leaders of the NFWA believed it would be years before their fledgling union was ready for a strike. But he also knew how growers historically pitted one race against another to break field walkouts. Cesar’s union voted to join the Filipino workers’ walkouts on Mexican Independence Day, September 16, 1965. From the beginning this would be a different kind of strike.
–Cesar insisted the Latino and Filipino strikers work together, sharing the same picketlines, strike kitchens and union hall.
–He asked strikers take a solemn vow to remain nonviolent.
–The strike drew unprecedented support from outside the Central Valley, from other unions, church activists, students, Latinos and other minorities, and civil rights groups.
–Cesar led a 300-mile march, or perigrinacion, from Delano to Sacramento. It placed the farm workers’ plight squarely before the conscience of the American people.
–The strikers turned to boycotts, including table grapes, which eventually spread across North America.
But Cesar knew the strikers’ greatest weapon was simply their decision not to quit, to persevere no matter what the odds or how long it would take. The strikers had to be prepared to risk everything—beginning with their financial security.
Two and a half years into the strike, during the winter of 1967-68, some strikers, especially some young men, were impatient. There was no hope of victory any time soon. Thick Tule fog shrouded the valley, making things seem even drearier.
Some young male strikers talked about violence, about striking back at the growers who abused them. By fighting back they could prove their machismo, their manliness. Cesar rejected that part of American culture that, he said, “tells our young men that you’re not a man if you don’t fight back.” He had already begun boycotting table grapes, following the tradition of his hero, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Cesar also followed Gandhi and Dr. King’s practice of militant nonviolence.
Some of the strikers equated nonviolence with inaction or even cowardice. Cesar believed exactly the opposite. He believed nonviolence is more powerful than violence, that it supports you if your cause is just. He believed nonviolence forces you to be creative–that it lets you maintain the offensive, which is crucial to winning any contest.
But for Cesar, nonviolence was more than a tactic or strategy that could be discarded if it wasn’t working. He once wrote, “However important the struggle is and however much misery, poverty and exploitation exist, we know that it cannot be more important than one human life.” Cesar also quoted Gandhi, who said, “Do something! Offer your life! If you really want to do something, be willing to die for it.”
He didn’t teach people by lecturing or by telling them what to do. He led by example. He planted little seeds of hope that sprouted into a renewed movement.
Again following the example of Gandhi, Cesar announced in February 1968, he was fasting to rededicate the movement to nonviolence. He went without food for 25 days, only drinking water. It was an act of penitence for those who advocated violence and a way of taking responsibility as leader of his movement.
The fast divided the UFW staff. Some didn’t understand why Cesar was doing it. Others worried about his health. But the farm workers understood. A Catholic mass was said daily near where Cesar was fasting in a tiny windowless room of an adobe-walled gas station at the Forty Acres, the UFW headquarters outside Delano. Hundreds, then thousands, came.
In 25 days, Cesar lost 35 pounds. His doctors said his life was in danger.
But the fast worked. All talk of violence stopped. Dr. King wrote Cesar, expressing admiration and solidarity. The fast ended during a mass in Delano with thousands. Senator Robert F. Kennedy was there, he said, “out of respect for one of the heroic figures of our time.”
Cesar was too weak to speak, so his statement was read for him. It ended with, “It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives to we find life. The truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be men.”
The grape strike continued. So did the grape boycott.
For 100 years before Cesar Chavez, farm workers tried, and failed, to organize a union. Every strike was crushed. Every union was defeated.
Cesar knew the farm workers couldn’t win with just a field strike. The growers controlled all the rural social and political institutions.
Cesar read about Gandhi’s boycott of salt in 1930. He carefully followed Dr. King’s Montgomery bus boycott in the mid-1950s.
For the first time in American history, Cesar and the United Farm Workers (the result of a merger in 1966 between the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and the National Farm Workers Association) decided to use a boycott in a major labor dispute. The boycott changed the scene of the battle from the fields, where the odds were stacked against farm workers, to the cities, where farm workers could appeal for help to the American people, whom Cesar called “our court of last resort.”
Hundreds of grape strikers traveled across the U.S. and Canada, telling their stories and organizing mass support for the grape boycott. The strikers were joined by thousands of supporters who helped tirelessly organize the boycott.
Cesar and the farm workers believed if consumers in communities throughout North America knew about the suffering of field laborers—and saw the grape strikers struggling nonviolently—they would respond. For Cesar, nonviolence couldn’t be understood in the abstract. It could only be seen in action. He said, “the whole essence of nonviolent action is getting a lot of people involved, vast numbers doing little things.”
He knew most people couldn’t drop what they were doing and dedicate themselves completely to the movement like the grape strikers, most of whom lost their homes, cars and worldly possessions. But Cesar and the farm workers showed ordinary people that by making little sacrifices every day—by not eating grapes—they could directly help the poorest of the poor.
The boycott connected middle-class families in big cities with poor farm worker families in the California vineyards. Millions stopped eating grapes. At dinner tables across the country, parents gave children a simple, powerful lesson in social justice.
By 1970, the grape boycott was a complete success. Table grape growers at long last signed their first union contracts, granting workers better pay, benefits, and protections.
In the decades that followed, Cesar and the UFW continued using nonviolent strikes, boycotts, marches and fasts to help farm workers stand up for their rights and gather support from ordinary Americans to aid them in their efforts. Those efforts continue to this day through the work of the United Farm Workers of America and the Cesar Chavez Foundation.