(b. Yuma, Arizona, 31 Mar. 1927; d. San Luis, Arizona, 23 Apr. 1993)
US; labour organizer and Hispanic political activist Chavez became a migrant labourer at age 10 and was entirely self-educated. An avid reader, he was influenced especially by Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography and, although a radical activist, adopted a philosophy of non-violence which fitted well with his deep Christian commitment. In 1952 he joined a community service organization but left in 1962 when it rejected his ideas for mobilizing itinerant farmers. That year (1962) Chavez founded the United Farm Workers' Union, effectively the first organization of migrant farm workers in American labour history. He also began his campaign to heighten public awareness of the conditions in which many migrant farm workers lived in the USA. In 1965 he launched a grape boycott against the wine producers of the Central Valley of California who refused to give union contracts for their workers. He later embarked on public hunger strikes, tactics which earned him huge sympathy and forced concessions from the employers. In 1970 the UFW signed its first union contract with the growers.
Chavez thereby achieved national prominence becoming the most well-known Chicano leader of his time. Union contracts delivered better wages and working conditions for farmers and their families. His union grew to a peak of about 70,000 members and engaged in a range of other successful boycott campaigns. Largely as a result of Chavez's pressure, California in 1975 enacted an Agricultural Labor Relations Act which recognized the right of farm workers to organize collectively.
Thereafter Chavez's influence declined. His union lost members and economic and political conditions allowed growers to return to employing non-union workers and to cut wages. Nevertheless Chavez remained a heroic figure and an important political strategist among Hispanics and migrant workers, especially in the south-western United States.
Subjects: Social Sciences — United States History.