Cesar Chavez film tells story of heroic farmworker struggle

Cesar Chavez mural.
Sunday, November 23, 2014

Cesar Chavez
Directed by Diego Luna
Written by Keir Pearson
Australian release TBA

The 1936 National Labor Relations Act in the United States recognised the rights of US workers to organise and collectively bargain -- but excluded farm workers.

Cesar Chavez tells the story of the heroic struggle of super-expoited farm workers -- frequently immigrants -- and their leader Cesar Chavez for their rights to organise for a dignified living.

Chavez, born to a farming family in Arizona, moved with them to California when the family lost their farm during the Great Depression. He became a farm worker at the age of 11, at a time when mass unemployment gave the farm owners immense power over workers.

Determined to change this, Chavez joined the Community Service Organization, where he learned the principles of community organising. By 1962, when Chavez returned to Delano in central California, farm workers were subjected to precarious employment as day labourers with no minimum wage ・ paid as little as US$2 a day.

Workers from different ethnic groups were pitted against each other and decent working conditions -- such as toilet facilities in the fields -- were denied.

The film -- not a documentary, but an artistic representation of the struggle and the people involved -- portrays the arduous and dangerous work of organising within the community during the 1960s and '70s.

It depicts the solidarity developed in the course of the struggle, the violence of the bosses and the state, the farm owners・ racism and the toll of their sacrifices on Chavez and his family.

It also explores the many tactics employed by the United Farm Workers, as Chavez (played by Michael Pena) first makes contact with Mexican workers willing to organise, then along with his wife Helen (America Ferrera) and other comrades, take up work in the fields alongside them.

The newly formed union, co-founded by Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), establishes a credit union to make links with more workers, and distributes literature to explain to workers their rights. It uses cartoons because of the high rate of illiteracy.

As the bosses cut wages of Filipino workers in 1965, the new union is called on for solidarity. A strike wave spreads throughout the region. Linked to the strike is a boycott campaign, which spreads throughout the US.

It features an epic 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento to put the spotlight on the mistreatment of farm workers.

As grape growers and wine makers feel the boycott pinch but remain intransigent, and newly inaugurated president Richard Nixon facilitates grape export to Europe and promises the military will purchase the excess, the union seeks and finds the solidarity of a consumer boycott and union bans in Britain.

What stands out in the film is the self-organisation of the workers, hand-in-hand with outreach to other workers and unionists, consumers, religious communities, students, civil rights groups for support on the basis of justice and human rights.

A contradiction of the times that the film highlights is the intersection of sexist attitudes and militant anti-racist working class solidarity. It is exemplified in Chavez's insistence his wife Helen not risk arrest -- after declaring his willingness to do so -- asking "who'll look after the kids?"

She stands up to him with the same determination she then displays in leading resistance to a court injunction prohibiting the use of the word “huelga” (Spanish for strike) in the vicinity of the farms. As she is arrested and led away, others take up the call.

The role of violence in the struggle is also, in part, portrayed as a manifesto of machismo. Chavez’s commitment to non-violence is also portrayed as derived from his Catholic convictions. Other protagonists point to the importance of not being portrayed as “crazy Mexicans” to retain public support.

A remarkable episode the film recounts from the five-year strike-and-boycott movement is Chavez’s 25-day fast, directed toward the strike movement itself. He begins the fast in response to an act of retaliation to strike-breakers’ violence on the picket line.

The hunger strike is both a call to the movement to unite in renouncing violence and a demonstration of his commitment to pursue the strike and maintain non-violence.

Despite the violence of the farm owners and support from local, state and federal authorities, the crippling boycott and strike forces the growers to capitulate. They sign an agreement with the union in 1970. After five years, the union wins a law recognising farm workers’ right to organise.

Cesar Chavez is still highly relevant today, at a time when undocumented workers have been deported by the Obama administration in record numbers, and when the struggle for a $15/hour minimum wage is being fought by underpaid workers across the US.

The film joins the rich heritage of those like Matewan and Made in Dagenham that keep alive the knowledge of working class history and by so doing, dare us to struggle and win.

[For a more detailed account of the development of the UFW and the politics of Cesar Chavez, including contradictions and limitations, check out Bruce Neuburger's first-hand account of these years in Lettuce Wars.]

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