Cesar Chavez Civil Rights Activist and American Labor Leader

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Migrant farmworkers are individuals who move from farm to farm working for low wages as their work is needed. Migrant farm workers endure dangerous working conditions due to the use of pesticides in the fields. Unfair wages and poor working conditions were very common among migrant farmworkers in the 1960's in the United States. Individuals who worked picking grapes earned an average of ninety cents per hour in 1965 (Racco, 2014). Many of the workers, including children, worked long hours, suffered abusive treatment from their employers, and risked their safety by operating unsafe machinery. Not only were farm workers experiencing poor working conditions and unfair wages, but they were also living in poor housing which often times lacked cooking appliances, personal privacy and indoor plumbing. During this time, neither California nor federal labor laws protected farm workers (Racco, 2014). Cesar Chavez was a civil rights activist who fought for farmworker's right and made a big difference in improving wages and working conditions. I will discuss the life of Cesar Chavez and his contributions to farm labor, as well as the organization he worked in and how it contributed to social justice.

Cesar Chavez and Contributions

Cesar Chavez was a civil rights activist and a labor leader. Chavez was born in Arizona, where his family had lived since his grandparents immigrated from Mexico. Chavez's parents owned a farm and a store in Arizona but lost it during the Great Depression. This forced the family to become migrant farm workers and move from farm to farm as the work was needed. As a child, Chavez worked part-time in the fields with his family. After graduating from middle school, Chavez had to begin working full-time in the fields in order to help support his family, since his father was injured from a car accident and was unable to work. During World War II, Chavez decided to serve in the U.S. Navy. Once he returned from World War II, he continued to work as a farm worker in California.

Experiencing the struggles of farm workers first hand, Chavez was encouraged to advocate for better working conditions and wages. Chavez utilized non-violent means to bring attention to farm workers struggles. Chavez lead marches, boycotts and participated in several hunger strikes (Miller, 2000). He also brought awareness to the dangers of pesticides and the negative effects on farm workers' health. In the 1950's, after Chavez's efforts of improving working conditions for farm workers and working as a community and labor organizer, he founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in 1962. In 1965, NFWA began working in collaboration with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to strike against grape growers in California (Thomson, 2012). As a result of this collaboration, the two unions merged and renamed in 1972 to United Farm Workers (UFW). Being part of this association, pushed Chavez to advocate for farm workers and lead him to dedicate his life to improving their working conditions, as well as improving treatment by employers and improved wages.

Causes of the problem

In the 1900's, farm workers made attempts to organize but failed after many tries. Mexican and Japanese farm workers attempted to unite in 1903, in order to fight for better working conditions and wages. Their attempt to organize failed and was ignored when the American Federation of Labor refused to support them. Later in the 1920's, further efforts to organize were made by some communist unions. These efforts also failed due to the fact that employers were not required by law to negotiate with farm workers at that time (Racco, 2014). During that time, employers could fire individuals legally for engaging in union activity. Also, farm workers' temporary employment, mobility and their economic circumstances made it difficult for them to organize.

In 1941, the Bracero Program was enacted. The Bracero program was established to address Second World War labor shortages. The United States government and the Mexican government worked in collaboration to allow individuals from Mexico work as guests in the United States in the agricultural industry. Individuals were allowed to work until the harvest was over. Thousands of Mexican workers came to the United States to work in the fields, which provided employers with an opportunity to cut wages. The program was extended until 1964 (Pawell, 2014).

Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW)

As mentioned previously, the United Farm Workers (UFW) was created as a result of the UFWA (led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta) and AWOC (led by Larry Itliong) working in collaboration to organize a grape strike against growers in California (Thomson, 2012). When working with this union, Chavez stressed nonviolent interventions and drew attention due to their boycotts, marches and hunger strikes (Pawell, 2014). Despite numerous conflicts, struggles and legal barriers, Chavez was able to improve working conditions and secure wages for farm workers in California, Florida, Texas and Arizona. The creation of the UFW encouraged and contributed to a new era of social justice movements in the United States. Chavez and the UFW also helped redefine farm labor activism (Shaw, 2008). Chavez and other leaders managed to overcome the struggles and failed attempts to create a permanent union for farm workers, which would help them advocate for their rights.

Although Chavez, in collaboration with the United Farm Workers (UFW), managed to make many changes in order to improve farm working conditions, there are many other things that could have been improved. For example, the UFW was able to improve working conditions and secure wages for farm workers only in some parts of the United States, it did not guarantee perfect working conditions. In July 2008, Ramiro Carillo Rodriguez, a farm worker who was 48 years old died of a heat stroke while working as a farm worker in California. According to the UFW, he was the 13th farmworker to die of a heat stroke since 2003. In 2006, California implemented heat regulations, but the UFW argue that the regulations were not strictly enforced. In 2013, farm workers form a facility in Fresno, voted to de-certify UFW (Fernandez, 2018). Everything that Chavez worked hard for, continues to be a struggle for many farm workers today.

Chavez's Accomplishments

Chavez was a labor leader who advocated not only for his family and himself, but also for many individuals who were not able to speak-up for themselves. Chavez helped organize and fight for better working conditions and wages for farmworkers. Chavez utilized non-violent communication and means to bring attention to the struggles that the farmworkers were facing and were being unnoticed. Chavez lead marches, boycotts and participated in several hunger strikes throughout his life. Chavez also brought awareness to the health issues and consequences of farmworkers who suffered as a result of pesticides. Although Chavez managed to make many changes and create social justice for farm workers, the working conditions of farmworkers can still be improved. Even today, farmworkers are not paid decent wages and face some dangerous working conditions. All farm workers need their basic rights protected, whether they are citizens or immigrants.


Cesar Chavez was a farm labor leader and a civil rights activist who managed to improve working conditions and wages of many farm workers in the United States. Being part of the UFW also provided Cesar Chavez with an opportunity to contribute to a new era of social justice movements. His work changed the lives of thousands of individuals and their families for the better. After a life time of working towards social justice and facing many challenges, Chavez died of natural causes in 1993, when he was 66 years old. His efforts are remembered and the difference he made are remembered every year on March 31, which is a U.S. federal holiday that commemorates his legacy.

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Cesar Chavez Civil Rights Activist and American Labor Leader. (2019, Aug 02). Retrieved June 25, 2024 , from

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