In commemoration of Cesar Chavez Day, Santa Monica Next will be taking the day off from publishing. Below is a short piece by long-time Santa Monica activist Ernie Powell about his experience working with Cesar Chavez and the United Farmer Workers during the pivotal years of the farmer workers’ movement.
Today we celebrate Cesar Chavez’s birthday. That day means a lot to me because from 1968 to 1973, I worked as an organizer with the United Farm Workers. I was a young and idealistic activist, hungry to do my part in the fight for justice in the fields. I was a boycott organizer in Los Angeles during the grape boycott; I worked to support a group of farm workers who went on strike for better working conditions and decent wages in San Ysidro, California; I was an organizer in Napa Valley with wine grape workers fighting also for better working conditions and higher wages and, finally, spent a year and a half in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on the lettuce boycott.
Though I never worked day-to-day with Cesar, I saw his work personally and was part of many meetings in which strategy was planned and decisions made. I observed his level of commitment and sacrifice. I have been organizing since those days and through all of those years I never met a more inspirational and dedicated leader.
In every campaign I have ever worked in I remember Cesar’s lessons. What I learned from Cesar both in practice and theory was that people power, grassroots power dedicated to justice, equality, kindness, and fundamental rights can over come monied special interests.
I was fortunate to see many key moments in the movement for La Causa. I was in Delano when Cesar walked into the UFW hiring hall with about a dozen grape growers and, after 10 years of being on strike, the first set of contracts were signed giving those that harvested table grapes good wages, health care, job security, and other benefits. I was in the meeting when Cesar got the call that the lettuce industry was not negotiating in good faith and Cesar made the decision to resume the national lettuce boycott. And I was with Cesar in Lattimer, Pennsylvania in 1972 when he spoke to 2,000 mine workers gathered to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Lattimer strike.
On that day, in 1897 company goons murdered 19 striking coal miners as those workers were peacefully marching for union recognition. Seventy-five years later, the United Mine Workers invited Cesar to be the keynote speaker to commemorate that massacre. His words were nothing less than profoundly inspirational as he recognized that terrible moment in 1897 and reminded everyone present that the union movement, then and now, is dedicated to justice, equality, and economic security (the story of that day was chronicled in “Driving Cesar Chavez,” published in Zocalo Public Square). His words then are relevant now:
“We know only too well the hardship and sacrifice of those mineworkers back on September 10, 1897. For here is a group of workers in America today whose lives so closely parallel the lives of those miners. They too are immigrants, they too have strange sounding names, they too speak a foreign language; they too are trying to build a union; they too face hostile sheriffs and recalcitrant employers; they too are non violent.”
He then inspired the crowd by saying, “Let there be strength and unity in the labor movement throughout this land; let there be only one voice; let there be only one Lattimer; let there be peace; let there be justice, let there be love.”
I was in Lattimer that day with Cesar. The speech, his presence, his total commitment to justice and equality. I saw it all and it changed my life — forever.
His birthday is more than just a day. Those of us who love liberty, who believe in equality, who understand the great successes of the labor movement and other movements for justice must stay strong, must work hard, must fight the battles needed now to protect and expand our rights and freedoms. Cesar Chavez’s life instructs us and inspires us. His birthday is a day that teaches us that the fight for justice can and will be won.
Viva Cesar Chavez.