On Thursday, March 29 the Multicultural Affairs office at GVSU hosted Donicio Valdez, Professor of History and Chicano studies at Michigan State University. The lecture was held as a part of Cesar Chavez Week. Professor Valdez spoke about some of the realities of food production as an introduction, particularly in California where the United Farm Workers (UFW) were born. He showed the audience some old pictures that looked at how people got to the fields; via buses, walking, and old vehicles. Grapes employed more people than any other sector. Professor Valdez then showed a picture of a worker with a bandana over his face and addresses the issue that people were never really informed about the consequences of pesticide exposure.
Cesar Chavez himself moved to California during the Depression. In 1950 he became an organizer in the CSO, organizing Mexican/Americans. Later he became involved in labor organizing. Cesar was one of 4 of the original founders of the UFW. Early on the Filipino community went on strike and convinced Chavez and the UFW to join in, which they did. The two unions merged shortly afterwards. As a union, the UFW was very family centered, with children often at meetings and part of organizing campaigns. The strike spread in California and involved many women in the organizing work as well. Women did a great deal of the education work in addition to working in the fields and taking care of children. Iconography was important to the group, using the Aztec eagle and other Mexican symbols. Many Chicanos in the country were brought in to participate in the movement, which also influenced some of the symbolism. By 1969, the strike had spread to the entire table grape industry.
Boycotts were used early on and were called “Do Not Patronize Campaigns.” The first UFW boycott was in 1965. As a way of dealing with the boycott, one of the targeted companies changed its label, which was illegal, so the UFW called for a boycott of all table grapes. Boycott committees were in communities all over the country, which led to the education of millions of people about the strike and became a major organizing tool for the UFW.
In 1968, Chavez did his first fast, the fast for non-violence. The catalyst was an act of violence, where a foreman drove into a group of strikers, with people responding by surrounding the truck and pounding on it. Chavez responded with the non-violent fast. It was a personal fast for Chavez and on day 13 of the fast he was called into court. People came to the court and since there were so many the court proceedings were delayed. A rally happened in which Bobby Kennedy attended and it was then that the UFW had asked him to run for President. Professor Valdez says that it is speculated that had the UFW not asked him to run in 1968, Kennedy might not have.
The fast caused health problems for Chavez for more than a year. After the fast he stopped smoking and became a vegetarian, even a vegan for a time. The fast really galvanized the movement and forced Chavez from a behind the scenes organizer to a movement spokesperson.
1968 was also important in terms of the studies done on food. Among the findings were that pesticides accumulate in the fatty tissue in the body. These pesticides also cause neurological problems and cancer. There was a famous case in Michigan of DDT contamination of salmon from Lake Michigan. At this time new pesticides were being introduced, including pesticides that were first developed by the Nazis as nerve gas. A farm worker-supported clinic did its first study on the impact of pesticides on farm workers. Records were not kept and businesses, politicians and academics began attacking the UFW with bogus information. The boycott continued which resulted in the table grape owners signing an agreement in 1970. One aspect of the contract was a grievance clause, one that banned DDT and other persistent pesticides, and improved working conditions. The boycott shifted to head lettuce and the UFW was undermined by the growers when they signed a contract with the Teamsters. When Jerry Brown was elected Gov. of California better laws were signed and more contracts with the union. During the Reagan years the UFW lost much ground, but this backlash also led to the next grape boycott that lasted until around 2000. In the late 1980s Chavez did another fast, but the response was different, particularly by the media, which Professor Valdez mentioned had become increasingly owned by fewer and fewer large corporations.
Pesticide exposure persists today. The World Health Organization says that 200,000 people die globally from pesticides and another 4 million die from pesticide contamination of water. While pesticide use increased, crop loss doubled, thus exposing the myth that pesticides are necessary for increased food production. The result was while chemical companies made huge profits the human and environmental consequences have been devastating. Another major change is that most of the farm workers are now undocumented, which allows workers to be taken advantage of by owners even more so than in previous decades. Most of the workers were citizens before, so organizing was easier in some ways.
Professor Valdez ended by talking briefly about how globalization has impacted agriculture and pointed out that under many of the current “trade agreements” worker and environmental protections have been criminalized, meaning that they are illegal under these trade agreements. He also mentioned that there are other models that have been successful. He discussed Cuba as an example and states that Cuba has created a just and sustainable food production policy that the United States could learn from.
Media Mouse also interviewed Professor Valdez, with the focus being on other organizing efforts and the public memory of Cesar Chavez. The interview is available on our audio page or as part of our podcast.