Since his death in 1993, Cesar Chavez has been honored in many communities across the nation. They have named streets, parks, schools, libraries and other public facilities in his name. This year is the first time his birthday, March 31, is being marked by an official state holiday in California-the first formal state holiday in the U.S. recognizing a Latino.
But the greatest monument to Cesar Chavez is not to be found on a street sign or chiseled in cement. It is seen in the courage to work for change he inspired in his own people and in the continuing work of the union he founded and led for 31 years: the United Farm Workers of America.
UFW President Arturo Rodriguez kicked off a new organizing campaign in 1994, one year after the passing of his legendary father-in-law. Since then farm workers have voted 21 times in elections for the union of Cesar Chavez and the UFW has signed 25 new, or first-time, contracts with growers. As a result, the number of farm workers protected by UFW agreements has grown from about 20,000 in 1994 to well over 27,000 today.
The latest victory came on March 8, when the union signed an historic contract with the nation's largest employer of strawberry workers, Coastal Berry Co. It gives the UFW its first major stake in California's $800 million-a-year strawberry industry. And it makes the company's 750 Ventura County field laborers the best-paid and best-protected workers in the fastest-growing strawberry-producing region in California.
Other recent gains include contracts with big growers who were longtime opponents of the UFW. They include Bruce Church Inc., one of California's largest lettuce producers that battled the union for 17 years. Just last August, the UFW signed its first contract in 27 years with the giant Gallo Vineyards, covering its 450 wine grape workers in Sonoma County.
UFW triumphs have also protected farm workers outside of California. The union won a contract with the largest winery in Washington state, Chateau Ste. Michelle. And it gained a contract for the 450 workers at Quincy Farms in Florida, the largest mushroom producer in the U.S. Southeast.
Another recent California victory was the UFW contract protecting the 1,400 farm workers at Bear Creekalso known as Jackson & PerkinsAmerica's largest rose grower out of Kern County. There, the union, the workers and the company have established a functioning partnership that has meant profitability and prosperity for everyone.
The UFW has shown how workers, given the chance, can contribute to the advancement of their company. At Bear Creek, they have come up with ways to improve the operationand have even joined in strategic planning with company executives and union leaders.
The results at Bear Creek have been dramatic. Among them are increased efficiency and profits as well as impressive reductions in middle management and workers' compensation claims. Workers responded last year by helping to create a new rose named for Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is part of Jackson & Perkins' nationwide marketing campaign targeting Latinos. This year they helped create a new rose named after Cesar Chavez.
Now the UFW is taking the partnership concept to other companies under contract.
The farm workers' influence is also being felt more and more in legislative and political affairs. Last year for the first time, a UFW-sponsored bill on labor relations was passed by the California Legislature. It is aimed at curbing some of the worst abuses farm workers suffer at the hands of farm labor contractors. This year the union has introduced legislation that will also be hotly debated at the state Capitol in Sacramento.
A chief union priority continues to be mobilizing farm workers and Latinos in rural communities to elect candidates who champion the interests of their constituents. Just a few examples of progress were the elections last November on California's Central Coast of state Assemblymem-ber Simon Salinas and county Supervisor Fernando Armenta. Both are former farm workers who won with the UFW's help despite no endorsements or support from the area's powerful agricultural industry.
The union is also continuing to work with labor and community groups in urban communities, where the majority of Latinos live, to elect candidates who are activists for the cause of Latinos and other working people. Last year the UFW helped send Hilda L. Solis to the U.S. Congress from eastern L.A. County. This year, in the same area, the union helped elect Gloria Romero to the state Senate.