Honoring César Chávez
Op Ed by Rubén Martínez, Ph.D.
César Chávez died near his hometown of Yuma, AZ on April 22, 1993 at the age of 66. Chávez was in San Luis, AZ to assist UFW attorneys defend the union against a lawsuit brought by Bruce Church Inc. (BCI), a giant California-based lettuce and vegetable producer.
Following two days of intense grilling by BCI lawyers, Chávez died in his sleep of natural causes. The jury awarded BCI $2.9 million, but nearly two years later, the Arizona Court of Appeals overturned the decision. A year later, BCI and the UFW agreed on a contract for workers.
Rubén Martínez, Ph.D.
I recount this case to point out that Chávez had major victories and many setbacks in his struggles to unionize farmworkers and obtain contracts with their employers. His efforts involved many tactics and strategies, including nonviolence, labor strikes, boycotts, marches and rallies, legal challenges, fasts, and legislative initiatives.
Today, the work lives of farmworkers are greatly improved compared to the pre-Chávez period, but there have been many setbacks since his time. Driving these setbacks has been the shift in political beliefs from social democratic principles to free market fundamentalism, the ideas of today’s “conservatives.”
The shift is from principles of individual freedom, equality, social justice, and solidarity to principles of radical individualism, limited government, and limits on labor rights. Chávez lived through this shift, having faced the setbacks imposed by then California Governor George Deukmejian, who sided with growers and used the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board against farmworkers by loading the Board with pro-agribusiness members. By the time that Chávez died, the free market fundamentalists had radically changed the political values of the nation, and empowered the wealthy as a ruling class.
They reduced government by cutting taxes, privatizing government functions, eliminating regulations that kept corporate power in check, and reducing the rights of labor. This is the political environment in which we find ourselves today. Indeed, Trump has taken free market fundamentalism to an extreme, continuing to cut taxes on corporations, making the Federal Government dysfunctional, and appointing justices that support free market fundamentalist principles.
Most Americans recognize that the nation is at a crossroads; either, go down the road in which the wealthy rule the country in their own interests, or take the road that promotes equality of opportunity, social justice, and a government that protects the rights of all and promotes social progress.
Free market fundamentalist policies have created great economic suffering among US-Americans, which is why there is great interest in the ideas of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others. In response, conservatives have trotted out the “communist” and “socialist” bogeymen seeking to frighten US-Americans and to mobilize hostile sentiments against social democratic principles.
As we pay tribute to César Chávez, we must remember that it is not enough to honor him for his courage and heroism; we must also act like him. That is, we must have the courage to stand up for basic human rights and dignity, demand competent and just government, and ensure equal opportunity for all.
Rubén Martinez, Ph.D.
Director of the Julian Samora Research Institute
at Michigan State University
E. Lansing, Michigan
Editor’s Note: Reprint of Op Ed that appeared in the March 29, 2019 issue of La Prensa.