SI SE PUEDE
By Dick Meister
Cesar Chavez Day is coming up on April 1 -- a state holiday in
California to honor the late founder of the United Farm Workers union. And
certainly I've not encountered, in four decades of labor reporting, anyone
more deserving of such a tribute.
I first met Chavez when I was covering labor for the San Francisco
Chronicle. It was on a hot summer night 37 years ago in the little San
Joaquin Valley town of Delano, California. Chavez, shining black hair
trailing across his forehead, wearing a green plaid shirt that had become
almost a uniform, sat behind a makeshift desk topped with bright red
"Si se puede," he said repeatedly to me, a highly skeptical reporter,
as we talked deep into the early morning hours there in the cluttered shack
that served as headquarters for him and the others who were trying to create
an effective farmworkers union.
"Si se puede -- it can be done!"
But I would not be swayed. Too many others, over too many years, had
tried and had failed to win for farmworkers the union rights they had to
have if they were to escape the severe economic and social deprivation
inflicted on them by their grower employers.
The Industrial Workers of the World who stormed across western fields
early in the century, the Communists who followed, the socialists, the AFL
and CIO organizers -- all their efforts had collapsed under the relentless
pressure of growers and their powerful political allies.
I was certain this effort would be no different. I was wrong. I had
not accounted for the tactical brilliance, creativity, courage and just
plain stubbornness of Cesar Chavez, a sad-eyed, disarmingly soft-spoken man
who talked of militance in calm, measured tones, a gentle and incredibly
patient man who hid great strategic talent behind shy smiles and an attitude
of utter candor.
Chavez grasped the essential fact that farmworkers had to organize
themselves. Outside organizers, however well-intentioned, could not do it.
Chavez, a farmworker himself, carefully put together a grass-roots
organization that enabled the workers to form their own union, which then
sought out -- and won -- widespread support from influential outsiders.
The key weapon of this United Farm Workers union was the boycott. It
was so effective that between 1968 and 1975 fully 12 percent of the
country's adult population -- that's 17 million people -- quit buying table
The UFW's grape boycott and others against wineries and lettuce growers
won the first farm union contracts in history. They led ultimately to
enactment of the California law that requires growers to bargain
collectively with workers who vote for unionization and to substantial
improvements in the pay, benefits and working conditions of the state's
The struggle was extremely difficult for the impoverished workers, and
Chavez risked his health -- if not his life -- to provide them extreme
examples of the sacrifices necessary for victory. Most notably, he engaged
in lengthy, highly publicized fasts that helped rally the public to the
farmworkers' cause and that may very well have contributed to his untimely
death in 1993 at age 66.
Fasts, boycotts. It's no coincidence that those were among the
principal tools of Mohandas Gandhi, for Chavez drew much of his inspiration
from the Indian leader. Like Gandhi and another of his models, Martin
Luther King Jr., Chavez believed fervently in the tactics of non-violence.
Like them, he showed the world how profoundly effective they can be in
seeking justice from even the most powerful of opponents.
What the UFW accomplished, and how the union accomplished it, will
never be forgotten -- not by the millions of social activists who have been
inspired and energized by the farmworkers' struggle, nor by the workers
The UFW won important legal rights for them. But more than union
contracts, and more than laws, farmworkers now have what Cesar Chavez
insisted was needed above all else. That, as he told me so many years ago,
"is to have the worker truly believe and understand and know that he's free,
that he's a free man, that he can stand up and say how he feels."
Freedom. No leader has ever left a greater legacy.
Copyright 2002 Dick Meister, former labor editor of the San Francisco
Chronicle and co-author of "A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize
America's Farm Workers" (Macmillan).