By Katie Lloyd
Every Inauguration Day, White House residence staff scrambles to pack up the outgoing family’s possessions and remove them. They then clean everything, from ducts to furniture, and bring in the new family’s items. (Berkowitz, 2021) An important part of this is the chosen art that is placed in the Oval Office, an element that symbolizes the incoming president’s hopes for his presidency. In the Washington Post article, “A look inside Biden’s Oval Office,” a bust of Cesar Chavez can be seen behind the Resolute Desk (Linskey, 2021.) In all likelihood, this selection embodies Biden’s promise to encourage and incentivize the formation of unions (Biden for President, 2020.) The placement of Chavez’s bust poses an opportunity for a little reminder: what exactly was the history behind the United Farm Workers, the union founded by Chavez himself?
The mission of the United Farm Workers (UFW), is to work toward a safe and just food supply (Our Vision, n.d.) It began under the name National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in 1962 and was co-founded by Dolores Huerta (Britannica, 2019.) In 1965, the association joined a strike started by Filipino American workers in Delano, California and merged with that organization the following year (United Farm Workers History and Geography, n.d.). When the NFWA and American Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), united to fight against the mistreatment of farmworkers, they retitled into the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee and became a union (Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (A.W.O.C.) and the National Farm Workers Association (N.F.W.A.) Pin, n.d.). A few months later, the coalition launched a national grape strike, to protest long-term poor pay and terrible working conditions, and inspired other farm workers to organize (United Farm Workers History and Geography, n.d.)
The Delano Grape Strike was unique in that it called for consumers to join the cause and boycott the product. Appealing to the consumer to boycott on behalf of the grape strike was revolutionary as the main strategies of most unions were solely striking and marching (Garcia, 2013.) The UFW even got stores to stop selling the agricultural product. It was innovative in other senses as well. When a man named Jerry Brown came to Delano to write about farm worker communities for his dissertation, Chavez convinced Brown to use his skills in order to help the union. After grape growers redirected their grapes to the European market, the UFW even persuaded the unions of dockers there to refuse to move them off the ships (Garcia, 2016.) Other events were organized by the UFW. They got more farm workers to join the union, negotiated contracts with individual farms and farm groups, filed lawsuits, opened more offices, gave public speeches, and gained support from religious leaders and other groups (Anastas, n.d.)
Despite his reputation, Chavez did not single handedly build the UFW and unite workers (Garcia, 2013.) Dolores Huerta and Helen Chavez, the wife of Cesar Chavez, were important as well and deserve part of the praise given to Cesar Chavez. Huerta co-founded the union and was vice-president for some time. She was the first contract negotiator, directing the whole department and played the public role as an advocate, making speeches to the public. Helen Chavez had a more administrative and supportive role. She led registration crews, did the bookkeeping, participated in strikes herself and influenced her husband behind the scenes (Rose, 1990.)
The UFW continues its mission today, under the leadership of Teresa Romero (Executive Board, n.d.) It largely performs its duties in the states of California, Oregon, and Washington—primary states where farm workers are. The union has campaigns, endorses candidates, pushes for immigration reform and continues to sue for protections (Gamboa, 2018 & Rodriguez, 2021.) It endorsed Biden during his presidential campaign and applauded his choice of Kamala Harris as his Democratic running mate (Davis, 2020). As U.S. senator of California, Harris has worked directly with the UFW (Sherman, 2020). Biden and his administration plan to hold companies accountable and make joining unions easier—promises that the UFW would like to come to fruition (Biden for President, 2020).
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Anastas, K. (n.d.). Mapping UFW Strikes, Boycotts, and Farm Worker Actions 1965-1975. University of Washington Mapping American Social Movements Project. Retrieved February 2, 2021, from https://depts.washington.edu/moves/UFW_map-events.shtml
Berkowitz, B. (2021, January 19). What it will take to move the Bidens into the White House. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/local/white-house-transition/
Biden For President. (2020, October 12). The Biden Plan for Strengthening Worker Organizing, Collective Bargaining, and Unions. Joe Biden for President: Official Campaign Website. https://joebiden.com/empowerworkers/
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Davis, C. (2020, June 24). “Elections matter”: Biden receives endorsement from United Farm Workers, which represents thousands of employees in agriculture. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/biden-receives-united-farm-workers-endor...
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Gamboa, S. (2018, August 29). Teresa Romero, a Mexican immigrant, will be United Farm Workers’ first female president. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/teresa-romero-mexican-immigrant-will...
Garcia, M. (2013). A Moveable Feast: The UFW Grape Boycott and Farm Worker Justice. International Labor and Working-Class History, 83, 146-153. doi:10.1017/S0147547913000021
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Linskey, A. (2021, January 21). A look inside Biden’s Oval Office. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/01/20/biden-oval-office/
Our Vision. (n.d.). United Farm Workers. Retrieved February 1, 2021, from https://ufw.org/about-us/our-vision/
Rodriguez, R. (2021, February 2). Judge doubles down on order ensuring Foster Farms poultry workers protected from COVID. The Fresno Bee. https://www.fresnobee.com/news/business/agriculture/article248931654.html
Rose, M. (1990). Traditional and Nontraditional Patterns of Female Activism in the United Farm Workers of America, 1962 to 1980. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 11(1), 26-32. doi:10.2307/3346700
Sherman, J. (2020, August 11). UFW applauds Biden choice of Harris, citing her ‘fight for equal treatment & protection of farm workers’ and their joint support for overtime pay plus genuine agricultural immigration reform. United Farm Workers. https://ufw.org/harrisvp/
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