The rich have money – the poor have time. (César Chávez)
For some time, I have been aware of other figures than Saul Alinsky who have taken forward the community organising tradition and made it their own. One of those is César Chávez (1927-1993),a Mexican-American who has become deeply influential in the West and Southern states and who has become known as one of the greatest civil rights leaders in American history. You should please read more about his life and work by following the leads below but I wanted here to write about his legacy and how it might shape organising in the UK.
Wrestling for Justice
Chávez was a firm believer in the principles of non-violence struggling for justice with only the weapons of peace. He stood up for the rights of hundreds of thousands of farm workers and helped them achieve the dignity, fair wages, benefits and humane working conditions of citizens. Born in humble surroundings, he went on to found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) which became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) in which he campaigned for poor people throughout the American continent through strikes, boycotts, marches and eventually even before the US House of Representatives. His ethnic background as a Latino man gave him a special place in the affections of Mexican-Americans to this day; he is remembered in three US states on César Chávez Day, his birthday 31 March each year.
The first principle of non-violent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating. (César Chávez)
Chávez fought for the rights of rural workers who were ignored by the legislation of the time. They were often migrant and low-paid, with appalling conditions as a result. in 1965, he was at the centre of the Delano Grape Strike which called for a boycott of Californian table grapes across the world and after five long years of conflict, brought the growers to negotiate a contract with the workers guaranteeing them the state minimum wage. Chávez stood against the demeaning of the farm workers and the way in which their family lives were crushed by the behaviour of the growers. The actions of the union called the growers back to their part in the common good and held them responsible for the poverty and exploitation of the rural community.
Humanity at stake
Today in London’s most excluded communities there are many who work two and sometimes three jobs just to feed their family. Many travel long distances to humiliating work that puts their lives at risk and are paid less than it costs to feed and clothe a family of four. The least in our society are often the cleaners and the kitchen staff who remain hidden from most people by their role and their oppression. Often from other cultures and languages, these most vulnerable of workers are badly served by the union movement, often unrepresented or poorly resourced and always in fear of losing their job for having an opinion. We need to live in solidarity with such dispossessed workers and fight for their rights to a living wage, safe working conditions, a family life and the right to organise. Their humanity is OUR business.
Chávez was a deeply committed man who was thrown into prison on several occasions. He also followed one of his inspirations Gandhi in undertaking spiritual fasts as both an act of penance and of non-violence. As a devout Catholic, his personal investment in the struggle was exceptional but it shows he was immersed in the concerns of the people. He actively sought to embody his belief and principles in his own life and to link his whole life with the cause.
Making the political personal
For community organisers today, the attitude to the work is profoundly important. Is the organiser hired to do a job or is their work a vocational act of solidarity and defiance? The reality is that organisers approach their work with a mixture of these two. Many seek to fill the bellies of their family first and having any job is a blessing in deprived communities. Many again see organising as a step on a career path, giving them the experience that will inform their career choices in future. A few see their role as organisers as a lifetime commitment which dominates their values and perspective and a few again have conviction of a ‘calling’ or vocational aspect to their work, that a higher good provides meaning to their organising. Motivation is as varied as the organiser profession but Chávez’ example causes me to reflect on how I view my organising.
Being of service is not enough. You must become a servant of the people. (César Chávez)
Our understanding of service today is highly coloured by history and the market. We talk of ‘service industries’, of ‘public service’ and ‘table service’. But Chávez took a deeper line on service. He saw that being of service retained a distance, a control. And he saw that ordinary farm workers understood that you had not given over yourself to the will of the people. Being in service comes from a different place. Becoming a ‘servant of the people’ delivers the service not from a place of superior knowledge or truth but from the experience of the people themselves. It bends the organiser’s will to the purpose and values of the community with whom he or she is working. Being of service is a temporary state whilst being a servant is a permanent objective.
Listen to the past
Chávez was no saint and made mistakes on the way. But he saw an essence of organising – and wrote and spoke about it extensively – that few understand today. I have been inspired by reading his words and I recommend them to my readers. Organising in the UK would be very different if we took César Chávez as one of our examples and as an inspiration.
César Chávez (2008) An Organizer’s Tale – Speeches Penguin Classics
Wikipedia Cesar Chavez http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cesar_Chavez (Accessed 18 Nov 2012)
Frank Bardacke (2012) Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers Verso (Reprint)
United Farm Workers (n.d.) The Story of Cesar Chavez – the official biography from Chavez own union