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        Cesar Chavez | Labor Leader and Civil Rights Activist

        Migrant farm workers in the United States were exploited routinely by the agricultural industry, which forced them to work in unsafe conditions for little pay. They had no political representation or advocates until Cesar Chavez established the United Farm Workers, the first successful union for farm laborers. Students will watch a short video and examine two primary sources in order to understand how Chavez was able to successfully organize a movement among some of America’s poorest and most oppressed workers.

        Lesson Summary

        In this lesson, students will learn about the remarkable organizational skills of Cesar Chavez. In addition to watching a biographical video, they will analyze a photograph of Chavez during a protest against grape growers, and they will read a speech in which Chavez reflects on the accomplishments of the farm workers’ movement. They will then evaluate how Chavez’s tactics could be adapted to a current day labor-related issue.

        Time Allotment

        20 - 40 minutes

        Background

        Vocabulary

        • Migrant - a person who moves from place to place
        • Exploitation - taking unfair advantage of a person or group of people
        • Fledgling - new
        • Adobe - a building material of sundried bricks that is common in the southwestern United States 
        • Strike - a planned cessation of work to demand better wages and/or working conditions
        • Plight - a bad situation

        Links

        AFL-CIO - The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations is the largest trade union in the United States. Beginning in 1886 and 1935 respectively, the two separate unions were merged in 1955. The AFL-CIO reached its peak in terms of membership and political power during the 1960s and 1970s. The organization now comprises 56 separate unions and has twelve million members.

        For an overview of the labor movement in the United States, see:

        For a brief history of the AFL-CIO, go to

        Background on Cesar Chavez | Labor Leader and Civil Rights Activist

        Cesar Chavez was born in a small adobe home in Yuma, Arizona, on March 31, 1927. His parents, immigrant Mexican American ranchers, lost their ranch and home during the Great Depression. In 1939, like many immigrants, the Chavez family moved to California to labor as migrant farm workers, toiling in the fields up and down the state, following available employment. Chavez left school after just seventh grade in order to work the fields full-time.

        With his family members, Chavez endured grueling labor for paltry wages, racism, and dangerous working conditions. For example, pesticides were sprayed on crops even while the workers were in the field. Migrant farm workers put up with these working conditions because they had no one to turn to for help.

        In 1952, Chavez joined the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group. He quickly rose in the ranks, but in 1962 he left his position as national director. He wanted to focus on farm workers, who still were in desperate need of better pay and safe working conditions.

        Chavez joined Dolores Huerta to found the Farm Workers Association. He garnered national attention in 1965 when he joined forces with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to strike against California grape growers. In 1966, the unions merged to form the United Farm Workers.

        For years, Chavez battled the grape growers for better compensation and improved work conditions. He organized a march on Sacramento in 1966, called for a national boycott of California table grapes in 1968, and went on a hunger strike in 1968, continuing the practice of non-violent protest. In 1970, the growers finally recognized the United Farm Workers union and signed labor contracts with the union.

        In 1975, Chavez used his platform as a labor leader to help push through California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which established and formally protects the collective bargaining rights of migrant farm workers. However, powerful growers and government officials undercut the law’s effectiveness. In 1984, Chavez had to once again call for a boycott when the grape industry refused to stop spraying crops with pesticides, which exposed the workers to grave diseases due to the contact with the grapes.

        This boycott pushed Chavez to another hunger strike, which lasted 35 days. Although the second boycott was unsuccessful, Chavez laid the foundation for a movement that ultimately would raise wages and improve working conditions for workers in California and other states with major agricultural industries. Jesse Jackson, Robert Kennedy, and many others voiced their support for Chavez’s tireless efforts.

        Cesar Chavez died on April 23,1993, at the age of 66. Chavez is remembered today as a fixture of the American labor movement and one of the country’s best-known Latino civil rights activists.

        Introductory Activity

        (5 minutes)

        Ask students: Have you ever been part of an organized group that successfully achieved a goal? What was the key to your group’s success? 

        Introduce Cesar Chavez:

        A migrant farmer himself while still a boy, Cesar Chavez became a leader of agricultural workers in the western United States. Through his organizational efforts, poor farm laborers were able to substantially improve their wages and working conditions.

        Learning Activities

        Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)

        Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.

        Download the Graphic Organizer [PDF].

        Play the Video:

         

        Discussion questions after viewing:

        1. How do you think Chavez’s background helped him to emerge as the leader of the migrant farm workers’ movement? 

        2. What were some of the strategies used by Chavez as he led the migrant farm workers’ movement?

        3. At several points in his career, Chavez went on prolonged hunger strikes--one lasted 36 days. Why do you think he did this? Does this seem like an effective technique?

        4. Compare Chavez to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. How were they similar and different?

        Examining Primary Sources

        Visual Primary Source Activity (10 minutes)

        This photograph was taken by Barry Sweet, an Associated Press photographer on December 19, 1969 outside of a Safeway supermarket in Seattle, Washington. Chavez is the central figure in the photo: the man in a plaid jacket holding the “Don’t Buy California Grapes” sign. A strike by workers and a consumer boycott had been launched against grape growers in September of 1965. In 1968, Chavez went on a 25-day hunger strike to express disapproval for the violent turn the movement had taken in some places. Chavez’s hunger strike, another form of non-violent protest, garnered national attention, hence the significant press coverage of this Seattle protest. After five years, the strike was resolved in favor of the agricultural laborers when nearly all of the major growers signed contracts with the United Farm Workers of America in 1970.

        Questions:

        1. After four years of strikes and protests, why would Chavez choose to come to a Seattle supermarket holding a sign?
        2. Seattle’s Mayor, Wes Uhlman, gave Chavez a “first citizen” award during his visit. Uhlman, who had opened opportunities for women and racial minorities in city employment and within his administration, was also pressuring local labor unions to diversify. He chose to greet Chavez personally when he arrived in Seattle, a move that garnered a large number of complaints from Seattle citizens. Do you think the woman holding a sign with the mayor’s name on it was there to support or to protest the mayor’s choice to honor Cesar Chavez? What might the sign say below the mayor’s name?
        3. When this photograph was taken, Chavez had just completed a 25-day hunger strike and had been leading the same strike and boycott against grape growers for over four years. How do you think he was able to find the inner resources to continue the struggle? Why do you think the press in Seattle would be interested in covering Chavez’s visit to their city?
        Written Primary Source Activity (25 minutes)

        Students will read and answer questions about excerpts from a speech given by Cesar Chavez to the Commonwealth Club of California on September 9, 1984. Chavez’s labor organizing and legislative successes had peaked in the 1960s and early 1970s, culminating with California Governor Jerry Brown’s 1975 signing of the California Agricultural Relations Act, which legalized collective bargaining for farm workers. The next year, however, California voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 14, a proposal developed by Chavez to allow unions to visit and recruit members on private property. Following this defeat, the United Farm Workers (UFW) lost members, and Chavez feuded with his former allies in the union leadership. By the early 1980s when this speech was delivered, both the UFW and Chavez had lost substantial power and influence. Indeed, in 1983 California Governor George Deukmejian refused to carry out state laws protecting farm workers, thus Chavez gave this speech at a particularly disheartening time for the farm workers’ movement.

        The Commonwealth Club of California was founded in 1903 as a forum for people to learn about and discuss societal issues and challenges. Chavez addressed the group at the invitation of its then president, Shirley Temple Black (formerly Shirley Temple, a very famous child actress during the 1930s and 1940s). Members of the Commonwealth Club were generally societal elites, people who had significant influence in the state. Although Chavez and his movement were in decline by the mid-1980s, Black’s invitation gave Chavez an opportunity to remind the audience of all he and his movement had accomplished. In the speech, Chavez reflects on the oppression and exploitation he experienced in his youth and considers the impact of his multi-decade struggle to organize farm workers. 

        To listen to the entire speech, go to http://esl-bits.net/listening/Media/CesarChavez/default.html To watch a video of the speech, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qB1jwR1h9qo

        Download the Primary Source Activity [PDF].

        Culminating Activity

        This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.

        In the United States today, there are still many challenges faced by working people. For example, fast food workers have gone on strike to ask for a higher minimum wage, Uber and Lyft drivers have sought the right to form labor unions, and there is growing concern about state leaders seeking to pass “right to work” legislation--laws that significantly lessen the power of labor unions. Chose a current labor issue for which to organize a movement. After doing research on the topic, determine which strategies employed by Chavez would be helpful in achieving your movement’s goals. Can you think of other tactics that might be useful that were not used by and/or available to Chavez?

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