(3 of 11)
No man, however, personifies the Chicanos' bleak past, restless present and possible future in quite the manner of Cesar Chavez. He was the unshod, unlettered child of migrant workers. He attended dozens of schools but never got to the eighth grade. He was a street-corner tough who now claims as his models Emiliano Zapata, Gandhi, Nehru and Martin Luther King. He tells his people: "We make a solemn promise: to enjoy our rightful part of the riches of this land, to throw off the yoke of being considered as agricultural implements or slaves. We are free men and we demand justice."
The dawning of Chavez's social awareness came in a seamy San Jose, Calif., barrio called Sal Si Puedes —"Get out if you can." Through Fred Ross, a tall, quiet organizer for Saul Alinsky's Community Service Organization, Cesar began to act on Alinsky's precept that concerted action is the only means through which the poor can gain political and economic power. Chavez, a Roman Catholic, has delved deeply into the papal social encyclicals, especially Rerum Novarum and Quadra-gesimo Anno.* "What Cesar wanted to reform was the way he was treated as a man," recalls his brother Richard. "We always talked about change, but how could we go about it?" Cesar Chavez went about it by working with the C.S.O. among Mexican Americans for ten years. Then, in 1962, he left to form a farm workers' union.
The conditions under which farm laborers toil have improved somewhat since the squalid Depression era so well evoked by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle; yet field work remains one of the most unpleasant of human occupations. It demands long hours of back-breaking labor, often in choking dust amid insects and under a flaming sun. The harvesttime wage for grape pickers averages $1.65 an hour, plus a 250 bonus for each box picked, while the current federal minimum wage is $1.60.
Despite this, the seasonal and sporadic nature of the work keeps total income far below the poverty level. Average family income is less than $1,600 a year. There is no job security, and fringe benefits are few. If they are migrants, the workers must frequently live in fetid shacks without light or plumbing (though housing, bad as it is, is frequently free or very cheap.) As a result, many have moved to the cities, where even unskilled labor can find work at decent wages.
Chavez was not the first to try to organize farm workers. Ineffective efforts to found agricultural unions date back to the turn of the century. But only in Hawaii, where Harry Bridges' tough longshoremen's union used its muscle to win the first farm-labor contract for sugar-cane workers in 1945, did unionization take hold. Agriculture is outside the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board, which has provided federal ground rules for industrial workers' unions since 1935; on a national level, there is no similar mechanism for farm workers.