When Cesar Chavez began building the farm worker movement 50 years ago, he knew it would take a strong union to remedy the economic injustices workers suffer at the workplace. He also realized it would require a movement to overcome the burdens of poverty, discrimination and powerlessness people endured in the community. Cesar began a burial program, the first credit union for farm workers, health clinics, daycare centers and job-training programs. With the help of the movement, Cesar built affordable housing- starting with a retirement home for the elderly and displaced Filipino American farm workers and later, multi-family and homeownership communities for farm workers, and other low-income working families and seniors. He established two educational-style Spanish-language farm worker radio stations, the beginning of what is now the nine-station Radio Campesina network. He also established the Fed Ross Education Institute, which trained negotiators, contract administrators and union organizers.
From Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar adopted historic strategies and tactics that were novel to organized labor. He demanded farm workers strictly adhere to a pledge of nonviolence. This different vision of organizing people spurred opposition from inside the UFW. In 1968, Cesar's insistence on nonviolence drew dissent from some union staff and young male strikers who were frustrated by slow progress during the grape strike and anxious to retaliate against abusive growers. Some strikers and staff left the union during Cesar's 25-day fast for nonviolence, but he prevailed. Sen. Robert Kennedy came to Delano as the fast ended, which is when he called Cesar "one of the heroic figures of our time."
Cesar had his second 25-day fast in 1972 in Phoenix, Arizona, over the enactment of the state's punitive law making it impossible for farm workers to organize. His last and longest public fast, at 36 days, was in Delano when he was 61 years old, and focused public attention on the pesticide poisoning of farm workers and their children.
Despite skepticism from some labor leaders, Cesar was the first to apply boycotts to major labor-management disputes. Millions of people across North America rallied to La Causa, the farm workers' cause, by boycotting grapes and other products, forcing growers to bargain union contracts and agree to California's pioneering farm labor law in 1975.
Starting the 1960s, Cesar and others in the movement made $5 a week, plus room and board. Cesar embraced a life of voluntary poverty, as did other movement leaders and staff until the late 1990s. He never earned more than $6,000 a year, never owned a house, and when he died at the age of 66 in 1993, left no money behind for his family. Nonetheless, some 50,000 people marched behind his casket during funeral services held in Delano.
Although he was always proud to be part of the American labor movement, Cesar sometimes departed from the AFL-CIO and other labor allies, even when his stands were not popular among some in his own constituencies, farm workers and Latinos. Cesar came out against Vietnam War in the 1960s and was an early and outspoken supporter of gay rights in the 1970s. The UFW opposed penalizing employers for hiring undocumented workers and championed immigration reform as early as 1973
The 1970s witnessed another internal political fight between those who wanted the UFW to become a conventional business union focused on more money and benefits for its members, and others led by Cesar, who had a vision to be a movement that produces for union members, but also transcends traditional trade unionism to embrace challenges and solutions outside the job site for farm workers and a larger emerging working class Latino community. Although he was, and continues to be, bitterly attacked by his critics for his stand, Cesar won that fight too.