Immigration Reform 2013: How Cesar Chavez And the UFW Shaped Today’s Debate

Shortly after they return from their Easter recess, members of Congress will vote on comprehensive immigration reform. The legislation is the result of strong bipartisan cooperation in both the House and the Senate. In an attempt to rebuild a tarnished image of their party, many GOP lawmakers who had opposed the legislation are now behind the package. Some think this legislation owes its likely passage to the 2012 national election. But the roots go back to the early 1960’s and a man named Cesar Chavez.

It is generally accepted that a majority of farm workers are in this country without documentation. In 2010, in an attempt to refute the claim that undocumented workers were taking American jobs, the United Farms Workers (UFW) offered to place any American who asked, in the fields picking crops. The challenge was successful in that there were only a few dozen takers. To understand what this has to do with current efforts to reform our immigration system and Cesar Chavez, we need to go back to 1965 and a place called Delano, California.

On September 8, 1965, mostly Filipino grape pickers belonging to the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee walked out of the fields in Delano to protest historically poor pay and working conditions. They asked Chavez and his National Farm Workers Association, as the UFW was then called, to join the strike. Eight days later, they accepted, beginning a five-year strike and boycott of table grapes grown in California. The strike ended on July 29, 1970, when growers signed their first union contracts. For the first time, farm workers were guaranteed better wages and working conditions.

Chavez’s emphasis on non-violence caught the attention of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. Both lent their support and in the 1968 California Presidential Primary campaign efforts by Chavez gave Kennedy 99% - 100% of the vote in some east Los Angeles precincts. To this day, the UFW is a political force.

The 1970’s saw the UFW’s strength grow. Confronting the Teamsters Union, UFW-led strikes convinced growers to abandon Teamster contracts and sign with the UFW.  A nation-wide boycott of non-union lettuce erased all doubts of the power of the UFW. 1972 saw the union gain a contract with Coca Cola covering its Minute Maid growers in Florida. That year also saw the union successfully challenge a Nixon administration attempt to place farm workers under federal labor statues. Farm workers had been excluded from those requirements since 1935. 1972 also was the year the UFW became an independent affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

After violence erupted against strikers protesting the non-renewal of a contract with grape growers in 1973, Chavez called off the strike, calling instead for a national boycott of table grapes and Gallo Wine. Polls showed 17 million Americans participated in the boycott.

UFW influence continued to grow. In 1975 California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. A 1977 agreement with the Teamsters settled their rivalry, giving the UFW sole right to organize farm workers.

The 1980’s and 90’s saw more growth and more strikes. The union now represented farm workers in California, Florida, Texas, Washington, and Arizona. At one point, membership was estimated at 40,000. Tragedy struck the UFW on April 23, 1993. Cesar Chavez dies. Some believe his death was hastened by his several hunger strikes. Some 40,000 mourners, including Ethel Kennedy, Jerry Brown, and Jesse Jackson attended the funeral where it all began in Delano.

But the relationship of the UFW to today’s immigration reform does not end with Chavez’s death. On August 8, 1994, President Clinton posthumously awarded the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Chavez. Organizing and political activities reach new heights as the union utilizes the Internet to reach hundreds of thousands of supporters.

In 2003, the UFW formally enters the fight for immigration reform with the introduction of the Agricultural Jobs (AgJobs) Act. This legislation would give legal status to farm workers currently in the country. The bill did not reach the floor. It was reintroduced in 2005, 2009, and 2011, reaching the floor in 2005.  In that vote, though it had support of a majority, there were not 60 votes to end debate.  

This brings us back to the present by way of 1986. The Immigration Reform Act of 1986 is mostly known for its granting amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants. The act also required employers to verify the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S. The proposal about to be voted on by Congress does much more for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the country.

Today, Cesar Chavez would be smiling. What was in the AgJobs Act has a good chance of becoming law. Under the proposal, families of migrant workers may be allowed to join them. And after strict conditions are met, there will most likely be a path to permanent residency and citizenship.

All indications are a comprehensive immigration reform bill will be presented to President Obama for signature. It would be nice to see Cesar’s wife Helen and Dolores Huerta among those invited to the signing ceremony.