UCI was where I became active with the United Farm Workers in the late 1960s and contributed to the New University (‘72). I knew Cesar Chavez in his last 24 years, serving as his longtime press secretary and speechwriter for $5 per week plus room and board, the same “pay” Cesar received.
He took me with him everywhere in California as his personal aide — weeks and months at a time almost, constantly on the road. It was just Cesar, our security detail, his two magnificent German Shepherds — Boycott and Huelga — and me in our little two car caravan. I was with him twice in the 1970s, when federal agents notified us of assassination plots, once supplying a photo of the hit man. We endured attacks, threats and racial epithets during bitter and bloody strikes. There’s something about getting shot at on a picket line that focuses the mind.
No American labor leader or union I saw championed undocumented workers earlier and more consistently than Cesar and the UFW — refusing to check their immigration status, opposing the law, making it illegal to hire them decades before other unions acted similarly and helping create the 1987 federal immigration law’s amnesty provisions, which let more than one million agricultural workers legalize. What Cesar and UFW members — including undocumented members — strongly opposed was strikebreaking by anyone, a bedrock ethos of America’s labor movement.
I knew the four principal Filipino UFW leaders: Larry Itliong, Peter Velasco, Philip Vera Cruz and Andy Imutan. When the Delano grape strike began in 1965, Cesar rejected demands from a few nationalistic Chicanos to disassociate from fellow Filipino strikers. At the urging of Filipino UFW members, Cesar toured the Philippines with Philippine labor leaders and Luis Taruc — a famed revolutionary leader of the Hukbalahap guerillas against the Japanese in World War II — who I knew. Cesar met with Ferdinand Marcos to accept a posthumous award for Larry Itliong.
Cesar’s transformational vision of trade unionism brought him to oppose the Vietnam War in the late ‘60s and embrace LGBTQ rights in the ‘70s. I met Harvey Milk while accompanying Cesar to events in San Francisco.
When he spotted young UFW staff with talent — especially those from farm workers or working-class families — he’d convince them to become something more: accountants, administrators and negotiators. He wanted results at the office but saw the greater good of helping people fulfill their dreams — dreams some didn’t even know they had at the time.
He gave hundreds of opportunities no one would have given him when he was a young migrant worker with an eighth-grade education. Cesar made people believe in themselves — those who almost no one considered important. Maybe that’s why he succeeded where so many others — with much better education and a lot more money — tried and failed for 100 years to organize farm workers.
Submitted by Marc Grossman. He can be contacted by firstname.lastname@example.org.