Alvaro Huerta's recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reminds us that the struggle for worker rights is difficult and long-term work. At key moments, though, workers have won critical victories that have led to improved living and working conditions in fields and factories across this country.
The question facing North Carolina today is whether we will have the courage to honor the legacy of Chavez and countless others by making vital improvements to the way we do business. Will our children look back 40 years from now and be able to say that we won a great victory in our time? Or will we keep doing business as usual, exploiting some of the most vulnerable workers in our society?
Forty years ago, workers in the United States won a great victory.
On July 29, 1970, the United Farm Workers of America ended its successful grape boycott when the growers agreed to sign the first contract with the union.
It seemed like an improbable outcome, as the battle pitted a mostly Mexican as well as Filipino immigrant workforce against powerful agricultural growers in California.
Led by the late Cesar Chavez and tireless Dolores Huerta, the UFW was founded in the early 1960s in response to the inhumane working conditions for farmworkers in California and other states, such as Arizona, Texas, Florida, and Washington.
While many American workers during this period enjoyed the right to organize, 40-hour weeks, a minimum wage, and relatively safe working conditions, farmworkers lacked these basic rights and protections.
In an effort to seek justice, dignity, and respect in the rural fields of America, UFW leaders, members, and sympathizers organized and joined picket lines and marches, signed petitions, supported labor laws, lobbied elected officials, distributed educational fliers, produced documentaries, penned songs, performed plays, held teach-ins, and generally supported the nationwide boycott.
The charismatic Chavez - who graced the cover of Time magazine on July 4, 1969 - engaged in numerous and lengthy hunger strikes to draw attention to the cause.
As was the case with the civil rights movement, many UFW activists were beaten up and a few were killed for the simple act of supporting the right of farmworkers to organize a union and negotiate for fair labor contracts.
But the rightness of their cause prevailed.