• October 4th, 2023
  • Wednesday, 05:06:01 AM

How to Start a Union, When You Don’t Have the Right

Photo: University of New México Press “To Serve the People: My Life Organizing with César Chávez and the Poor” chronicles the pilgrimage of activist and author, LeRoy Chatfield.

By LeRoy Chatfield


“The growers have the money but . . . the farmworkers have the time,” said César Chávez.

From 1962 to 1993, more than 2,200 people—all ages, all walks of life, and from all parts of North América—signed up as full-time volunteers to help César Chávez and his farmworker movement. Tens of thousands of part-time volunteers in U.S. and Canadian cities participated in Chávez’s grape boycott by picketing supermarkets that sold California grapes, attending marches and demonstrations to publicize the boycott, raising funds to support his movement, and most importantly not purchasing California table grapes.

What kind of person, what kind of cause, could be so compelling as to attract thousands of volunteers and boycott supporters?

César Chávez did not believe farmworkers were powerless; they just had a different kind of power than their employers.

After I met César Chávez in 1963, I became one of those full-time volunteers, who walked away from a religious vocation and an eight-year high school teaching career, left my place of residence, and relocated to Delano, California, to join Chávez and his farmworker movement.

The Cause

By the 1960s, the plight of California farmworkers had been well-documented: there was Carey McWilliams’s book Factories in the Fields (1939), Dorothea Lange’s work as a photojournalist during the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration (1935–1940), and John Steinbeck’s best-selling novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), followed by director John Ford’s Academy Award–winning movie based on Steinbeck’s novel that starred Henry Fonda (1940). Moreover, Edward R. Murrow’s Peabody Award-winning national television documentary Harvest of Shame (1960) about the plight of U.S. farmworkers was viewed by millions of Americans, and Dr. Ernesto Galarza published his comprehensive study Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story (1964) about the U.S. emergency wartime use of 4.6 million Mexican citizens to provide cheap field labor to U.S. agribusiness from 1942 to 1964.

Foto: University of New México Press
“Para servir al pueblo: Mi vida organizando con César Chávez y los pobres” relata la peregrinación del activista y autor, LeRoy Chatfield.

Much was known about the plight and suffering of farmworkers—pitifully low wages, a cruel piece-rate wage system designed to push and maximize worker production, hours of nonstop back-breaking stoop labor, no access to drinking water or toilets, no paid work breaks, the financial necessity of having to bring children to work in the fields to earn additional money for the family, and living six months of the year as migrant workers as they worked their way north following the crop harvest seasons. They lived in farm labor camps in one-room shacks with no running water, one electric outlet in the ceiling for a light bulb, a gas line hookup for a two-burner stove, a few water spigots located in the camp for fresh water, and a dozen stall showers and outhouses to serve the toilet needs for several hundred people.

With such god-awful working conditions and pitiful wages provided to so many millions of farmworkers for more than half a century, why could not something more humane have been done to “better” their wages and working conditions? What most Americans, like myself, did not know in the 1960s was that, indeed, “something had been done” to ensure that farmworkers could not “better” themselves.

In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act—federal legislation that guaranteed the right of U.S. workers to organize into unions and bargain collectively with their employers about wages and working conditions. After signing the National Labor Relations Act, President Franklin Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “If I went to work in a factory, the first thing I’d do is join a union!”

The shocking irony of President Roosevelt’s pro-union statement was that this new federal law he had just signed specifically excluded millions of farmworkers (read: Filipinos, Mexican Americans, and African Americans) and domestic workers (read: Filipinos, Mexican Americans, and African Americans). With a stroke of Roosevelt’s pen, the nation’s farmworkers were relegated to second-class citizenship and became forever an underclass of cheap and exploited immigrant labor. Farmworkers were powerless to negotiate with their agribusiness employers and their employment status was reduced to little more than that of a tool for the agricultural industry to use or dispose of as they saw fit. Farmworkers in the United States were barely a cut above slaves or indentured workers. They were powerless.

Powerless, that is, until César Chávez arrived on the scene in 1962 and began his National Farm Workers Association in Delano, California, at 102 Albany Street, which was located on the last southwest corner of Delano in a small converted church building.

Failed Union Attempts to Organize

Despite being excluded from federal legislation that protected the rights of U.S. workers to organize into unions, there were many attempts in the 1950s and early ’60s by organized labor to unionize California farmworkers. The primary catalyst for these organizing efforts was the use of harvest-time strikes to increase wages and establish a union, but each and every organizing effort was systematically crushed by agribusiness that used its powerful influence in the rural communities where its farms were located.

The police and sheriff departments were quick to arrest strikers and union organizers for any alleged violations of the law, corporate lawyers petitioned the local courts to grant injunctions against picketing and other strike activities, district attorneys were quick to file charges with the court about alleged violations of these highly restrictive and probably unconstitutional injunctions, and judges wasted little time making their rulings—guilty as charged—and sentencing the violators to jail. Likewise, the local community newspaper fanned the fears of violence and civil disorder by raising the specter of the presence of “outside agitators” and “communists” as the cause of the labor unrest in the community. If the police and the courts were not enough to break the farmworkers’ strike, the corporate growers would bus in strikebreakers from as far away as the Mexican border to work the harvest. This was the final blow. Yet another chapter was written in the agonizing history of failed attempts to organize farmworkers into a union.

The Community Organizer

In 1962, when César Chávez arrived in Delano, California to begin his crusade to organize farmworkers, he came with a plan. First of all, he did not believe farmworkers were powerless; they just had a different kind of power than their employers. He often said: “There are two kinds of currencies: time and money. The growers have the money, but they do not have the time. Farmworkers have the time, but they do not have the money. Each side uses its own currency.”

One time during my early years working with Chávez, I asked, “César, how long do you think it will be before we win a contract in the table grapes?” He was silent for a minute, then said, “I had planned on it being about twenty years.” I never again asked him that question. We did not have the money, but we had the time.

Chávez came to Delano not to organize workers to call a strike at harvest time with the hope of securing a union contract, but rather to organize farmworkers and their families into a community organization, which he called the National Farm Workers Association. “LeRoy,” he would say, “if I called the NFWA a union, the growers would run me out of town. We are a service agency to help farmworkers with their day-to-day problems—getting a driver’s license, a meeting with the social worker at the welfare department, filling out and filing their annual tax forms, translating and explaining letters received from a government agency and writing an answer back for them, helping them to mediate a student issue with a school administrator, or any other issue they needed assistance with.”

In addition to his NFWA Service Center, his wife, Helen Chávez, administered the state-approved farmworker credit union she and César had organized. Members of the NFWA also received a $500 death-benefit insurance policy to ensure that a family member could be given a proper funeral and burial service. But to receive these services and other benefits of the NFWA, farmworkers had to be members in good standing, which meant their dues of $3.50 a month needed to be paid up. The NFWA created by Chávez was a membership organization for farmworkers, not a charity. This fledgling farmworker community organization became the base to build enough power to challenge their agribusiness employers, to demand they recognize their union, and to bargain collectively about wages and working conditions. Yes, it meant the grower employers would have to share their power. A tall order, and a mountain to climb, but this was the goal set by César Estrada Chávez, and he would commit his life to achieve it.


Excerpt from To Serve the People: My Life Organizing with Cesar Chavez and the Poor by LeRoy Chatfield with Jorge Mariscal appears by permission of the publisher. Copyright © 2019 University of New México Press. To purchase the book, visit the Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.

LeRoy Chatfield is a former organizer who worked with César Chávez to get union recognition for California farmworkers, created a Saturday school educational enrichment program for farmworker children in Bakersfield, managed the Northern California general election campaign for Jerry Brown, and built the largest volunteer charitable organization in Sacramento.


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