Cesar Chavez and the Struggle for Justice During the Covid-19 Pandemic

By Joseph Orosco (March 31, 2020)


Some thirty years ago, Cesar Chavez staged his last major hunger fast. This fast went on for thirty-six days. In his statement issued at the end, Chavez said he had begun the fast because he had to do penance; he was ashamed of himself. For all his years as an organizer, he said he had not truly comprehended the pain and suffering of farmworkers due to exposure to pesticides.   He felt he had not done enough to make people aware of the immensity of the problem.


So after his debilitating ordeal, Chavez went on to speak to numerous audiences across the country, repeating the stories of farmworker children, such as Johnnie Rodriguez, who died after a two year battle with cancer; or of Felipe Franco, who was born without arms and legs to a farmworker mother who had been showered with toxic chemicals in the field. Most importantly, he wanted people to realize that, to the extent to which we all rely on pesticides and cheap farm labor to provide our food, we are also responsible for the suffering of children like Johnnie and Felipe and thus have a responsibility to prevent more pain. Chavez wrote in his statement:


“The misery that pesticides bring will not be ended by more studies or hearings. The solution is not to be had from those in power because it is they who have allowed this deadly crisis to grow. The answer lies with me and you. It is for all of us to do more. We will demonstrate by what we do and not by what we say our solidarity with the weak and afflicted. I pray to God that this fast will encourage a multitude of simple deeds by men and women who feel the suffering and yearn with us for a better world. Together, all things are possible.”

1988. UFW President Cesar Chavez, his mother Juana Estrada Chavez, and Jesse Jackson at the service during which Chavez ended his 36-day hunger strike and Jackson took his up.

I was thinking about Chavez’s words as I read about the two trillion dollar stimulus package passed by Congress to boost the US economy and provide relief for unemployed workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. As James Harrington–an organizer who worked with Chavez—points out, there are about 4 million undocumented workers, many of them farmworkers, who are not eligible for cash relief. And there are close to another 30 million poor people who are not eligible because they have not filed income taxes recently. Many of these people are likely to work in service or hospitality industries that have had to cut back or close down. Its not clear we are sheltering the most vulnerable among us with this package, but we are certainly propping up some of the biggest industries, with almost $500 billion in loans for airlines and manufacturers.


But I think the realization that made me most understand Chavez’s need for penance was thinking about the shelter-in-place regulations going on in many hard hit states. My social media is filled with funny memes and videos about people going stir crazy at home or dealing with their children. Yet, there are millions of working class people who can’t share in this humor because their work is considered essential: grocery store and pharmacy clerks, postal and special delivery drivers, truck drivers, sanitation workers, water and electric utility workers, and of course, public health workers in hospitals. They have to show up so the rest can work from home. Many of them are starting to realize that they are at a greater risk of exposure and have not received from their employers training to protect themselves, or hazard pay, or even masks and gloves. Some of them are starting to strike now, at Amazon and Whole Foods and other retailers, to improve these dangerous conditions. But I can’t get over the feeling that my well-being, and that of millions of other middle class people, depends on the labor of many people who were probably already struggling paycheck to paycheck to get by.


Of course, Chavez didn’t wallow in guilt and self-pity—his realization of the farmworker’s suffering was a call for him to think strategically and to act. First, he came to understand that the use of pesticides was the result of large agribusiness looking to make a quick profit rather than protect the health of workers: “The wrath of grapes is a plague born of selfish men that is indiscriminately and undeniably poisoning us all.”


It is undoubtedly the case that Covid-19 is a plague born of selfish men. Our top leaders in Washington last week were discussing the need to relax quarantine restrictions lest the economy suffer more damage—weighing human lives less than profit making. But more poignantly, we’ve seen how profit motives in New York City have shut down hospitals and, thus, reduced the overall hospital bed capacity over the last twenty years. The most blatant case of selfish greed is that of the large US manufacturer of ventilators, Covidien. In 2014, Covidien swallowed up a competing smaller corporation that had a contract with the US government to build thousands of newly designed and relatively inexpensive ventilators. Covidien then pulled the plug on the contract, saying it was not profitable to make the ventilators, even though the Centers for Disease Control were hoping to stockpile them for future emergencies.


So as Chavez said: “the solution is not to be had from those in power.” I’ve been so impressed to read of all the different mutual aid project erupting across the country in which people are stepping up to collect food and other goods for vulnerable people in their own communities. They are creating thick networks of assistance and developing skills for more organizers.


But more will have to be done. It’s said that physical distancing could become a regular occurrence, not only in dealing with a resurgence of Covid-19, but with other viruses that are expected to become pandemics in the future. We are going to have to yearn and dream for what we will need in a better society. If this experience teaches us anything, it is that we need a much more accessible and equitable public health care system, and better social welfare services, than the US currently offers.


This radical imagining means confronting both political parties that have but profit before people and the corporations that fuel political ambition. However, this is precisely the strategy Chavez envisioned. In an essay written in 1970, he said:


“The attacks on the status quo will come not because we hate but because we know America can construct a humane society for all of its citizens—and that if it does not, there will be chaos…The power class and the middle class haven’t done anything that one can truly be proud of, aside from building machines and rockets. It’s amazing how people can get so excited about a rocket to the moon and not give a damn about smog, oil leaks, the devastation of the environment with pesticides, hunger, disease. When the poor share some of the power that the affluent now monopolize, we will give a damn.”




Farmworker March Has Important Lessons about Nonviolence and People Power

By Joseph Orosco (March 16, 2016)

Fifty years ago this month, a small group of activists left Delano, California and began a march to Sacramento to raise national awareness about the plight of farmworkers. Continue reading “Farmworker March Has Important Lessons about Nonviolence and People Power”

Lessons from what Cesar Chavez did right — and wrong

The recent release of Cesar Chavez: An American Hero, and the premiere of the documentary Cesar’s Last Fast at the Sundace Film Festival, give us new opportunities to reflect on the lessons of Chavez’s life of activism. While his charismatic leadership turned him into a powerful force for justice, an unyielding grip on his position of authority ultimately weakened the organization he worked to build.

The title of An American Hero is appropriate. Chavez’s life unfolded like a classic American success story. His family lost everything during the Great Depression, and Chavez managed to get only an eighth grade education in between stints working in the fields of California. Yet he went on to found a powerful organization that forever changed American history by giving voice to some of the most disadvantaged members of our society. There are valuable lessons to take from his determination, as well as his stubbornness.

Start from the margins

Before establishing the United Farm Workers, Chavez was a community organizer in an established civil rights group called the Community Services Organization. CSO was built around Saul Alinsky’s principles of organizing and funded partly through Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago. Chavez eventually rose to be CSO’s executive director because of his ability to mobilize communities to stand up for themselves against police brutality and municipal neglect. Although he was not making a fortune from CSO, he drew a steady salary that his wife, Helen, and their children could appreciate.

Then, after a decade, he gave it all up. He had proposed that CSO begin to advocate for the farmworkers of California, and the board of directors rejected the idea, so Chavez resigned his leadership position and lost the only source of income for his family. For several years, he and Helen, along with fellow organizer Dolores Huerta, traveled throughout California’s Central Valley sustained by their dream of a union for farmworkers, made up by farmworkers.

Chavez’s decision to leave CSO teaches us the power of working outside the state and established organizations to make social change. Working for peace and social justice sometimes requires developing alternative institutions that prefigure the kind of inclusive world in which we want to live. Chavez could have stayed at CSO, doing good work to assist Mexican-American voters throughout California. But he knew that already existing groups don’t always serve people living at the margins. Later, after the UFW established itself, Chavez continued to insist that farmworkers develop their own credit unions, coops and alternative service agencies.

Sacrifice to minimize the suffering of others

Chavez’s willingness to sacrifice and give up the safety and security of a steady life is surely one of the most inspiring aspects of his character. He would display this kind of commitment many times in his career, most notably during his three major hunger fasts. Chavez’s last fast in 1988, which is the subject of Richard Ray Perez’s new documentary, went on for 36 days. He described his suffering as slight in comparison to the pain felt by the farmworkers poisoned by indiscriminate pesticide use. He explained that he wanted to use his own suffering to draw attention to this injustice.

“The evil is far greater than even I had thought it to be, it threatens to choke out the life of our people and also the life system that supports us all,” Chavez said. “This solution to this deadly crisis will not be found in the arrogance of the powerful, but in solidarity with the weak and helpless.”

While Chavez demonstrates that sacrifice is a necessary component of social justice work, it is equally important to note his ongoing self-reflection on the uses of that sacrifice. He never called the fasts “hunger strikes” because they were not meant to be coercive. Instead, they were meant to raise awareness about the extent of structural injustice in society.

In ways like this, Chavez was constantly examining how his personal choices might impact the suffering of the most vulnerable members of society, and how he might use his position to bring to light their struggles. He wanted us all to question our most ordinary decisions, from what we eat to where we shop. He explained that his fasting was intended to encourage everyone to think about what we take for granted in our everyday lives. “It pains me that we continue to shop without protest at stores that offer grapes; that we eat in restaurants that display them; that we are too patient and understanding with those who serve them to us,” he said. “The fast, then, was for those who know they could or should do more — for those who, by not acting, become bystanders in the poisoning of our food and the people who produce it.”

Use multiple measures of success

By the late 1980s, the UFW was in trouble. It had lost several significant union certification elections and was hemorrhaging members. The pesticide fast had failed to spur growers to reduce their use of chemicals on grapes. In comparison to the 1960s and 70s — when the UFW catalyzed historic legislative changes and attracted the support of high-profile politicians like Robert Kennedy — the last years of Chavez’s life looked like a failure.

Chavez was undaunted, but not because of unwarranted optimism. He heeded Martin Luther King’s teaching from the Birmingham jail: Social change in the United States will not come automatically because of the goodness of its people. It will come from communities becoming organized and raising enough creative tension that the unjust status quo cannot continue.

Too often, activists measure their success only in terms of recognition from the state or from the size of rallies or demonstrations. Chavez recommended thinking about movement success in terms of whether our organizing is creating new connections and bringing people together — especially those that are usually marginalized in society — in ways that develop their capacities and confidence, and that help them to articulate new, transformative visions: “Our opponents must understand that it’s not just a union we have built,” he said. “Unions, like other institutions, can come and go. But we’re more than an institution!”

Charisma can cripple a movement

Chavez’s career also contains a cautionary tale for social justice activists. Most accounts of his leadership tend to wrap up after the successes of the grape boycott and the legislative victories that won protections for farmworkers in California. Recent books by Miriam Pawel and Frank Bardacke, however, reveal disturbing patterns of heavy-handedness by Chavez that verged on paranoia in his later years. Chavez did not seem able to handle challenges to his personal authority.

When some farmworkers in the Salinas Valley proposed an alternative, less-centralized form of decision making for the UFW in 1981, he had them purged from the union, along with any members of the central leadership that had allied themselves with those whom Chavez called “traitors.” When organizers admitted fatigue, he was not above publicly shaming them for their inability to sacrifice, creating a culture of guilt and fear of his wrath. Some see the decline of the UFW in recent decades as a result of it being too tied to the personality of Chavez. His own undoing was the result of building an echo chamber of followers around himself, a mirror that reflected his saintly image but that was not always connected to the needs and interests of the grassroots.

This lesson is not meant to detract from Chavez’s legacy, or to lend fuel to those who would prefer to dismiss him altogether. Instead, it should be encouragement to those who strive for horizontal leadership that mutually supports and empowers a democratic network of organizers across many movements. Building a movement culture that spreads leadership and authority among a wide number of activists can be a potent way to strengthen efforts grounded in labor, the environment and identity that are at the center of so much social justice work today.

We ought to be grateful that Hollywood is bringing attention to La Causa and depicting community organizing among Latinos as a place of heroic struggle. Cesar Chavez has become an icon for social justice and a symbol of Latino success and power. But while we celebrate his legacy, we should also take heed of the way that he very humanly failed to live up to his own ideals, and learn how we can build movements that help us all to be the best individuals, and the best organizers, that we can be.