This post was written by Lynn Weinstein, a Business Reference and Research Specialist in the Science & Business Reading Room.
U.S. organized labor has been gaining influence and power subsequent to the COVID-19 pandemic and the tightening of labor markets. In researching Hispanic Americans in Business for an upcoming library guide, the impact of Hispanic Americans on the U.S. labor movement, particularly those in agricultural farm workers’ unionization efforts in the mid-20th century became a focal point of my study. With the assistance of Junior Fellow Mateo Gonzalez, I located primary and secondary resources on the United Farm Workers Union, César Chávez, and Dolores Huerta. In order to share this information in a timely way to a wide and diverse audience, these resources were published in separate This Month in Business History entries, with an eye towards benefiting students and researchers who may be interested in the historical context of labor movements, and who may be particularly interested in studying the impact of Mexican Americans in particular.
The first entry focuses on the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, which was founded in 1965, when predominantly Filipino American migrant farm workers from the AFL-CIO-affiliated Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) were joined in a series of strikes against Delano, CA, grape growers by the mostly migrant Mexican farm worker led National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), co-founded by Dolores Huerta and César Chávez. The five-year long Delano Grape Strike began and went on to become one of the most significant labor campaigns and associated social movements in U.S. history. The union’s success was routed in its ability to mobilize support from a wide variety of people through the charismatic leadership of then union President, Chávez. The UFW was the first organized entity that advocated for environmental justice, as health issues related to pesticide use led farm workers to fight for regulations on the use of pesticides. Today, the UFW advocates for regulations related to overtime, heat exposure, pesticide safety, immigration, and voting rights.
The second entry focuses on César Chávez, the Mexican American co-founder of the UFW. Chávez used networks established with those involved in the civil rights movement, church leaders, students, other labor unions, politicians, and consumers to form a coalition that would support strikes and boycotts in order to force growers to contract with workers for better wages and working conditions. Chávez adhered to principles of nonviolent protest and action, learned from Martin Luther King, Jr and Mohandas Gandhi. In March 1966, Chávez organized a 300-mile march from Delano to California’s state capitol, Sacramento to gain public attention and support for the migrant grape worker’s cause. The march resulted in one of the large grape growers reaching an agreement with the unions on April 6, 1966.
The third entry provides a biography of Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the UFW. In 1965, Huerta, the Vice President of the UFW, directed the successful national consumer grape boycott aimed at the California table grape industry. In 1972, while UFW President Chávez was undergoing a hunger strike in opposition to an Arizona law restricting workers’ ability to organize, Huerta coined the slogan “!Sí, se puede! (Yes, we can!) in response to workers’ expressed concerns that what was possible in California could not be done in Arizona. Dolores worked on state and national legislation to improve the lives of farmer workers. This work included a California bill that provided driver exams in Spanish, a repeal of the Bracero program, the extension of the Aid to Families for Dependent Children (AFDC) to include California farm workers, the right for farm workers to collectively bargain, and the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which legalized most undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country prior to 1982. In 2002, the Dolores Huerta Foundation (DHF) was created to train individuals to become community activists and organizers.
Both Chávez and Huerta became prominent figures in the emerging Chicano movement, also referred to as El Movimiento, by advocating for improved economic and social conditions for farmworkers. The movement fought against systemic racism and sought political empowerment for Mexican-Americans through greater equity through community outreach to increase access to political participation, including through voting rights protection and advocacy.
I hope that these three entries can bring awareness to César Chávez, Delores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers Union. Each guide provides a biography/organizational profile as well as a variety of print and digital resources on the topic. Although these entries are not exhaustive, they provide good introductions to the subjects and starting points for further research.