Op Ed by
Rubén Martínez, Ph.D.
César Chávez died near his
hometown of Yuma, AZ on April 22, 1993 at the age of 66. Chávez
was in San Luis, AZ to assist UFW attorneys defend the union
against a lawsuit brought by Bruce Church Inc. (BCI), a giant
California-based lettuce and vegetable producer.
Following two days of
intense grilling by BCI lawyers, Chávez died in his sleep of
natural causes. The jury awarded BCI $2.9 million, but nearly
two years later, the Arizona Court of Appeals overturned the
decision. A year later, BCI and the UFW agreed on a contract for
Rubén Martínez, Ph.D.
I recount this case to
point out that Chávez had major victories and many setbacks in
his struggles to unionize farmworkers and obtain contracts with
their employers. His efforts involved many tactics and
strategies, including nonviolence, labor strikes, boycotts,
marches and rallies, legal challenges, fasts, and legislative
Today, the work lives of
farmworkers are greatly improved compared to the pre-Chávez
period, but there have been many setbacks since his time.
Driving these setbacks has been the shift in political beliefs
from social democratic principles to free market fundamentalism,
the ideas of today’s “conservatives.”
The shift is from
principles of individual freedom, equality, social justice, and
solidarity to principles of radical individualism, limited
government, and limits on labor rights. Chávez lived through
this shift, having faced the setbacks imposed by then California
Governor George Deukmejian, who sided with growers and used the
California Agricultural Labor Relations Board against
farmworkers by loading the Board with pro-agribusiness members.
By the time that Chávez died, the free market fundamentalists
had radically changed the political values of the nation, and
empowered the wealthy as a ruling class.
They reduced government by
cutting taxes, privatizing government functions, eliminating
regulations that kept corporate power in check, and reducing the
rights of labor. This is the political environment in which we
find ourselves today. Indeed, Trump has taken free market
fundamentalism to an extreme, continuing to cut taxes on
corporations, making the Federal Government dysfunctional, and
appointing justices that support free market fundamentalist
Most Americans recognize
that the nation is at a crossroads; either, go down the road in
which the wealthy rule the country in their own interests, or
take the road that promotes equality of opportunity, social
justice, and a government that protects the rights of all and
promotes social progress.
Free market fundamentalist
policies have created great economic suffering among
US-Americans, which is why there is great interest in the ideas
of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others. In
response, conservatives have trotted out the “communist” and
“socialist” bogeymen seeking to frighten US-Americans and to
mobilize hostile sentiments against social democratic
As we pay tribute to César
Chávez, we must remember that it is not enough to honor him for
his courage and heroism; we must also act like him. That
is, we must have the courage to stand up for basic human rights
and dignity, demand competent and just government, and ensure
equal opportunity for all.
Rubén Martinez, Ph.D.
Director of the Julian Samora Research Institute
at Michigan State University
E. Lansing, Michigan
Editor’s Note: Reprint of Op Ed that appeared in the March
29, 2019 issue of La Prensa.