UFW founder Cesar Chavez dead at 66

SAN LUIS, Ariz. -- United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez, who for decades led battles for the rights of millions of migrant workers, was found dead Friday at the home of a former union official, apparently of natural causes. He was 66.

Police said Chavez died some time during the night in the San Luis home of Maria Hau. His body was found by UFW Secretary Treasurer David Martinez, one of eight union officials staying at Hau's house.


According to a statement released by the UFW headquarters in Bakersfield, Calif., Chavez was to attend the Yuma trial of a suit brought against the union by Bruce Church Inc., a large Salinas, Calif., agribusiness firm.

Tony Reyes, mayor of San Luis and a longtime friend of Chavez, said Chavez was trying some yoga exercises Thursday night for the first time, but he said they did not appear to be strenuous.


Martinez discovered Chavez's body after he failed to get up for breakfast.

Chavez apparently died of natural causes around 11 p.m. Thursday.

'He still had a magazine in his hands when he died, an Indian artifact magazine,' Reyes said. 'He seemed like he just went to sleep and passed away.'

Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of the UFW with Chavez, was in Salinas organizing a local boycott against Church. She immediately issued a call for calm.

'We are concerned about getting the word out to the workers,' she said. 'We want them to remember Cesar and not do anything violent to mar his memory.'

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown called Chavez's death the passage of a 'great union leader.'

'It's a shock,' he said. 'I'm very sad. He was one of the most important labor leaders since World War II....He stood apart from the rest. He stressed the need for cooperation (within the union)....He wanted to give power to the powerless.'

In Washington, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland released a prepared statement calling Chavez 'an inspiration to generations of activists; to us trade unionists and countless others.'

Chavez founded the UFW, the nation's first viable agricultural union, in 1966, becoming a figurehead fighting the battles of migrant crop workers in California's San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere.


In recent years he organized boycotts of California-grown seedless grapes, contending growers have endangered the health of farmworkers by using chemical pesticides.

The life of Chavez, a tough-minded pacifist, was dominated by struggle and faith.

He battled stubborn growers, the rival Teamsters Union, the violent passions his movement provoked and the fears of the downtrodden field hands who had little hope.

During his nearly 30 years as a union activist, Chavez believed his cause was just and supported by the American public, and that his unionizing efforts must be accomplished with a minimum of bloodshed and ill will.

Chavez forged a union that grew from a dirt poor, loosly organized entity into a high-tech organization with a pension plan, medical benefits, a retirement village for aging farm workers, and a high-tech headquarters.

Cesar Estrada Chavez was born March 31, 1927, on a ranch outside Yuma, Ariz., one of five children of Libradao and Juana Chavez.

The family lost its 100-acreranch during the Depression and became migrant workers, following the harvest around the Southwest with thousands of other Mexican-American families.

Chavez began working in the fields at age 10 and remembered attending nearly 70 different schools in his haphazard formal education that ended after the seventh grade.


He joined the Navy in 1944 and returned to farm labor work in the fields of California after World War II.

He met Helen Fabela in the grape fields around Delano, Calif., which was to become the base of his union organizing operations in the 1960s, and married her in 1948. She bore their eight children and worked beside him in the fields and later on the picket lines.

Chavez began forming the National Farm Workers Association about 1962 and within two years had 1,000 members and $25,000 in its credit union.

In September 1965, another small farm workers' union, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, which was made up of mostly Filipino farm workers, struck DiGiorgio Corp. and Schenley Corp., two of the largest corporate farming operations in California.

Yielding to pressure from impatient NFWA members, Chavez called for a strike vote and the membership voted overwhelmingly to join the walkout.

Chavez scored his first big victory six months later when his strikers staged a 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, the state capital, to publicize their plight.

When the march ended on Easter 1966, Schenley announced it would sign an agreement allowing the NFWA to represent its field workers. Chavez's union had established a strong foothold.


It was at that point that the Western Conference of Teamsters moved into the fields of Central California to begin organizing in direct competition with Chavez's union.

This forced Chavez to strengthen his position by merging with the AFL-CIO to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee.

Following a bitter campaign, an election was held for field workers at DiGiorgio in September 1966 with Chavez's union beating the Teamsters so badly that they withdrew from farm worker organizing temporarily.

Following the DiGorgio victory, Chavez picked up contracts with several wine grape growers but the majority of table grape growers in the central valley remained vociferously non-union.

The steadfast refusal of growers to hold union representation elections, coupled with the increasing threat of violence on picket lines, convinced Chavez of the need to switch tactics to a total boycott.

In mid-1969 Chavez sent union representatives to major cities throughout the United States to urge consumers not to buy non-union harvested California table grapes and not to patronize retail stores that carried non-union grapes.

It worked.

By 1970, growers were being hurt badly by the nationwide boycott, and 26 Delano growers who produced half of California's table grape crop signed three-year contracts with Chavez covering some 8,000 workers.


About the same time, the Teamsters Union re-entered the Central California fields, signing 30 lettuce, carrot, celery and strawberry growers in the Salinas Valley. In 1973, when Chavez's original contracts with most of the table grape growers expired, the growers refused to renew contracts with Chavez and signed what Chavez called 'sweetheart contracts' with the Teamsters.

Chavez, a wily and shrewd tactician, went back to the boycott, his greatest weapon in previous battles. The union leader's strength and the boycott were too much for the Teamsters, who pulled out once again when their grower contracts expired.

Meanwhile, Chavez and the UFW expanded their operations to farm workers in other crops in California, Arizona, Texas and Florida.

Some heralded Chavez as the Mexican-American Martin Luther King Jr. Clergymen and civil rights advocates, including Robert F. Kennedy, flocked to California from around the nation to join Chavez on the picket lines.

He once said of his unionizing efforts, 'I suppose if I wanted to be fair I could say that I'm trying to settle a personal score. I could dramatize it by saying that I want to bring social justice to farm workers, but in truth I went through a bit of hell as did a lot of people and I see the union movement as evening the score a little bit for all of us.'


In 1983, 21 years after he began his unionizing efforts, Chavez saw two projects he visualized from the start become realities.

In May the union's first radio station went on the air, broadcasting news, music and union items in Spanish throughout the central San Joaquin Valley.

A month later, the union's pension plan was put into place. He traveled throughout Central California handing out the union's first pension checks to retiring farmworkers, telling the recipients their checks represented 'the realization of one of my fondest dreams.'

He is survived by his wife and children. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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