Essay on United Farm Workers: Role of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez

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Throughout American history, civil rights movements have played a key role for many ethnicities in the United States, and in many ways have shaped our society to what it’s become today. One particular movement that occurred during the 1960’s was the Chicano farm workers movement also known as the United Farm Workers (UFW) and its fight for restoration of land, rights for farm workers, and educational reforms- originally forming from the union of two workers’ rights organizations, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). Founded by Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, they began the movement with a small following and made their way from camp to camp trying to organize farm workers, however they were constantly met with obstacles impeding them from holding any power to their cause. As a result, the living and working conditions of the workers were subpar all while avoiding the any repercussion from the law. The United Farm Workers movement was a necessity because of the injustices surrounding the extremely low wages, cruel living conditions of migrant laborers, sexual harassment with women workers, discrimination in employment and the need to implement and enforce laws surrounding their labor.

The inception of the United Farm Workers Association began with a woman named Dolores Huerta, having been raised in Stockton, California in the San Joaquin Valley, she was no stranger to farms. Upon obtaining a degree at Delta Community College she went on to become an elementary school teacher for a short amount of time, where most of her students were children of farm workers. It was with this exposure that she was able to gain insight on the living conditions of the children- many of them living in poverty, with very limited food and other regular necessities. Upon being exposed to the children’s living situations, she went on to become one of the founders of the Stockton Chapter of the Community Service Organization, a civil rights organization founded in 1947 by Fred Ross, Antonio Rios, and Edward Roybal and was a source of a political support for Roybal during his long political career. Moreover, the organization worked diligently to improve the well-being and economic conditions of the farm workers and fight against discrimination within the farms. Alongside the Community Service Organization Dolores went on to create the Agricultural Workers Association in 1960, the main focus of it leaning towards lobbying politicians to take action on, allowing migrant workers without U.S. citizenship to receive public assistance and pensions creating Spanish-language voting ballots and driver tests.

In order to further her cause, she expanded her network in 1962 and co-founded a worker’s union with activists Larry Itliong- a Filipino American labor organizer, and Cesar Chavez- a civil rights activist. Later down the line the union was called the United Farm Workers (UFW), a creation caused due to the rise of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), which was made up of Filipino workers and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) was composed of Mexican migrant workers. With the union of both parties’ strikes would continue in 1965 and 1966 throughout the fall and winter seasons, protesting against grape growers in Delano, California regarding the lack of pay and acceptable working conditions.

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It was the first major strike where both Mexican and Filipino farm workers united, since both parties would typically protest with their own party since the other would usually be scheduled to work. This was particularly important because it would grow into a much larger boycott where help was sought out from the consumers in the more populated urban areas. It would soon become less of an effort for the organization to find supporters, with the help of the media they would begin to gain more exposure and thus begin to gain a following from the American people, some going as far as coming to California from out of state and looking for ways to help the cause. While the support would continue to increase so would adverse effects that follow protesting during that time, many would be arrested by local law enforcement, injured by their own employers while picketing the fields they worked, along with facing unemployment with the rise of undocumented workers, also known as strikebreakers, “often illegal immigrants from Mexico, who worked for low wages at struck farms'. Directly going against what the organization was fighting for, something that even outside the farm protests was being seen throughout the American business world, losing jobs to outside sources overseas, or just giving the work to people who can do it for cheaper, impacting the American workforce. The organizations efforts would not only be seen locally throughout the state but also would receive nationwide coverage, so much so that the department of defense would soon be involved; but not in a positive way, the farm owners’ ties to government would prove to be a worthy adversary to the workers. “Students in New York protested the Department of Defense and accused them of deliberately purchasing boycotted grapes, refusing to enforce immigration laws, and therefore interfering with the success of the UFW”.

One of the major turning points of the organizations efforts was at the end of summer when the grapes ripened, in Delano, located north of Bakersfield. Farmers were being paid on average ninety cents an hour, plus ten cents per basket they filled- as of the farm owners/ growers were ignoring state laws along with providing unsanitary working conditions. “At one farm the boss made the workers drink from the same cup “a beer can” in the field; at another ranch workers were forced to pay a quarter per cup. No ranches had portable toilets. Workers’ temporary housing was strictly segregated by race and they paid two dollars or more per day for unheated metal shacks- often infested with mosquitos- with no indoor plumbing or cooking facilities”. According to the Department of Industrial Relations Labor Enforcement Task Force, “you have the right to rest and meal breaks, safe and healthy jobs, minimum wage and overtime, benefits if injured or unemployed, taking action without being punished”. Showing the blatant disregard for the workers job and living conditions. On top of dealing with these horrible living conditions, the workers also had to endure the unfair treatment given by the farm laborer contractors, where they “played favorites with workers, selecting friends first, sometimes accepting bribes”.

The Delano grape strike would launch in the fall of 1965, proving to be a significant turning point for the UFW, Cesar Chavez, and the farmworkers, thanks to his three-hundred-mile march, an act that the growers would make fun of, due to the fact that they would march for days but would refuse to do a day’s work. Unbeknownst to them that March would soon be no laughing matter, Chavez’s march from Delano to Sacramento would begin to gather the attention of media outlets, promoting citizens to think and start to make choices whether they would stand with the cause or simply turn a blind eye. As a country that hold religion in high regard, his march, and images of him limping, bleeding, and completing the march on Easter Sunday would win the hearts and minds of the American people and would know the truth of the injustices the farm workers had been enduring for such a long time.

Moreover, the importance of the UFW was that it was able to bring to light the unfair wages and harsh living conditions of the farmworkers as well as highlight the injustices and racism exhibited by the growers, to include our very own department of defense and the favoritism it held for them, along with treating the farm workers unfairly as well. However, the UFW would eventually gain success and would be a prime example of how activists could succeed utilizing progressive tactics and movements to include: “conducting consumer boycotts and corporate campaigns, building alliances between religious community and labor unions, framing issues of economic justice in moral and spiritual terms, and engaging in activities such as spiritual fasts, encouraging civic participation among union members, emphasizing voter outreach and election day activities, building coalitions of labor- community groups- and students, generating media attention…”. With the tactics being successfully being implemented, the UFW would achieve major wins for the farm workers.


  1. Burt, Kenneth C. “The Search for a Civic Voice: California Latino Politics”.
  2. Regina Books, pp.53-78. Accessed November 15, 2019.
  3. Authors. “Dolores Huerta Biography”. A&E Television Networks. April 1, 2014. The Accessed November 15, 2019.
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