March 31 is César Chávez Day, a holiday recognized in the State of California starting in 2001. César Chávez is an important figure in American politics; he was a champion of farm workers’ rights and approached his work with the same commitment to non-violence as Martin Luther King, Jr.
César Chávez Day will next be observed on Friday, March 31, 2023.
Celebrating César Chávez Day means recognizing his influence as a labor organizer and workers’ rights champion. How influential? History.com reports a junior senator from Illinois named Barack Obama using a modified version of the Cesar Chavez rallying cry, “Si, se puede” or “Yes, we can” as his campaign slogan.
César Chávez was born in 1927 in Yuma, Arizona. The Great Depression saw hundreds of thousands of people migrating to California and the Chavez family was part of that; Chávez wound up dropping out of school in the 8th grade and becoming a migrant farm worker full time.
He joined the U.S. Navy in 1946 and served two years only to return to the fields afterward. Little did he know that in 1952 he’d start working as a grassroots labor organizer as the beginning of a long career as a worker’s rights champion.
He began his work with a Latino rights agency group, Community Service Organization (CSO). He would work for ten years in this capacity, registering new voters and fighting discrimination.
Over time he became the national director for the agency and ultimately resigned in 1962. History.com reports the resignation came as the result of a disagreement over creating a farm workers’ labor union–something the members of the organization apparently didn’t want.
In 1962, César Chávez took his life savings and founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in Delano, California. This organization was the precursor of the United Farm Workers union.
In 1965, the NFWA joined another group, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), in a strike against local wine grape growing operations. The partnership wound up resulting in a national boycott of grapes in support of some five thousand striking farm laborers, and the two entities wound up merging to create the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee.
“Our opponents in the agricultural industry are very powerful and farm workers are still weak in money and influence. But we have another kind of power that comes from the justice of our cause”. That according to Chávez, would bring the answers the union sought from the strike. But more action would be necessary.
In 1966, he led a 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento in support of farm workers. César Chávez wanted new state laws that would permit these workers to start a union. The grape strike wore on, and Chavez upped the ante by beginning a hunger strike in 1968 to further the cause.
After 25 days, the labor leader felt he had made his point in terms of nonviolent commitment to the cause; he received pledges to assist in the nonviolent protest of labor conditions and was recognized by none other than Senator Robert F. Kennedy who named César Chávez as a “historic figure.” Chávez would use the same tactics in Arizona in 1972 to protest anti-union actions there.
These tactics were effective; the grape strike ended in 1970 and farm workers were able to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with grape farm owners. In 1971, the collective that grew out of the merger between the AWOC and NWFA would redesignate itself as the United Farm Workers Of America.
Come 1975, the influence of Chávez could not be denied; that was the year the Agricultural Labor Relations Act passed, creating a legal framework to permit all farm workers in the state the right to form unions and collectively bargain.
In the 1980s, he would fight against the use of harmful pesticides in California farming and in 1988 he started a third hunger strike to draw attention to this cause. That strike lasted 36 days.
César Chávez died in his sleep in 1993, age 66. He was awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton and to this day the legacy of the labor leader’s accomplishments is felt all across America.
On August 18th, 2000, California Governor Gray Davis signed César Chávez Day into law, celebrating the labor leader’s birthday on March 31 each year. There is also a day of learning and a day of service ordered for California public schools.
This is a state holiday that features the closure of California state offices and state-supported schools. Other states that also close offices and schools on March 31 include:
- New Mexico
Other states have followed suit in some fashion, commemorating the day but not necessarily closing government offices for it; they include Illinois and Rhode Island. Celebrations of the day are often community-based, but labor organizers themselves often choose to use this day to raise awareness of labor causes.
A good example of this was planned for César Chávez Day 2022; farm workers went to major cities in California to serve as “human billboards” as part of a petition for the California Governor to sign the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act.
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