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United Farm Workers president: Why we’re striking for Black lives

July 19, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

By joining the Strike for Black Lives on July 20, the United Farm Workers (UFW) proudly upholds a legacy of solidarity with other oppressed people going back five decades.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram to Cesar Chavez in 1966, early in the five-year-long Delano grape strike. “Our separate struggles are really one—a struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity,” King stated. “We are together with you in spirit and in determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.”

Chavez carefully followed King’s career beginning with the 1955–56 Montgomery bus boycott. Two key UFW strategies were borrowed from King: nonviolence, which both King and Chavez learned from Mahatma Gandhi, and the boycott, which had never before been applied in a major American labor-management dispute. The union boycotted California grapes. We learned righteous protests like boycotting that rely on genuine solidarity among divergent groups of people can move powerful forces, either corporate or governmental.

Moreover, Chavez and other early UFW organizers embraced a transformational vision of trade unionism that transcended focusing solely on economic improvements—better wages, hours, and working conditions—for union members. They were convinced the UFW also had to address the crippling dilemmas farm workers faced in their communities such as substandard housing, lack of educational opportunities, and discrimination based on ethnicity and language. They likewise believed the union had to work closely with other communities struggling for change against the slow violence of oppression and poverty.

So during the late 1960s, Chavez and the union strongly opposed the Vietnam War, despite support for the war by many national labor leaders who backed the UFW. As early as the mid-1970s, Chavez unequivocally endorsed gay rights, long before it was popular. He attended events with Harvey Milk. How could you demand equality for your own people when you tolerate prejudice against anyone else because of who they are, he reasoned.

Chavez led the UFW in working with disparate groups from the Black Panther Party in Oakland to Neighbor to Neighbor’s international boycott of Salvadoran coffee that helped end the death squads in El Salvador.

The UFW will continue that tradition on July 20 by participating in the Strike for Black Lives along with labor and racial justice organizations such as the Poor People’s Campaign, Fight for $15, and the Movement for Black Lives.

Most farm workers, living and laboring in remote rural regions, have difficulty engaging in mass urban protests. But the movement in which we now take part stretches beyond city streets to the fields, orchards, and vineyards that feed this country. Standing in solidarity with fast food and other workers in Los Angeles and across the nation, the UFW will host a number of worker-led actions on July 20, communicating the simple message that none of us are free until all of us are free.

Farm workers at companies under union contracts in California and Washington state will strike in solidarity for eight minutes and 46 seconds—how long George Floyd lay under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee—to affirm the truth that Black lives matter. Seattle labor activists will car caravan to the state’s Yakima Valley to witness how workers laboring at different jobs can share in common cause.

Campesina and the Forge are Spanish- and English-language radio networks, respectively, owned and operated by the Cesar Chavez Foundation, a sister organization with the UFW in the farm worker movement. They have aired extensive programming since early June for their 1.5 million listeners and followers over 11 stations in four states educating Latino audiences about Black Lives Matter, the Black experience, and nonviolent calls to action. They cover topics ranging from the history of slavery to modern-day racism and police brutality.

King sent a second telegram to Chavez while Chavez fasted over 25 days for nonviolence in 1968. “The plight of your people and ours is so grave that we all desperately need the inspiring example and effective leadership you have given,” it read. King was assassinated the following month. Chavez later wrote that King’s life and death “gives us the best possible opportunity to recall the principles with which our struggle has grown and matured.”

The successors of Cesar Chavez will carry on that struggle by striking for Black lives on July 20.

Teresa Romero is president of the United Farm Workers of America. She is the first Latina immigrant to lead a national union in the U.S.