Why Does This Topic Matter: Thinking About the Big Issues

Issues of continuing relevance

This page describes some of the general ideas that the Chavez-Higgins website can illuminate in the classroom.


Unionization and Immigration

As the NFWA, AWOC, and the UFWOC (UFW) fought to organize workers in the 1960s and 1970s, two different but related issues would arise at separate times to challenge their efforts, one officially sanctioned by the United States government and one that was not. Both would concern immigration issues. From 1942 until 1964, the U.S. and Mexico concluded several agreements allowing for Mexican manual laborers to come to the United States to take positions that were in demand during World War II. U.S. growers urged the government to continue the program after the end of the war due to claims of continued worker shortages. However, native workers and labor groups began to protest the program, arguing that it cost American citizens jobs. The complaints eventually led to the program's end in 1964. The issue would be revived in 1973 when Mexico requested that the U.S. re-start the program in order to provide work for Mexican workers. The Bishop’s Ad Hoc Committee and the UFW opposed such a move, as it would leave native workers without employment. For those opposed, wrote Monsignor George Higgins, the issue was not unconcern about the needs of these immigrant workers, but that the UFW would not be able to organize a domestic work force and that it would not stop illegal immigration (see The Yardstick – “Let’s Look at the Bracero Program”). The U.S. would not get involved in another bracero program, thus providing a small victory to the UFW. It would not be the last time the UFW would become involved in the illegal immigration debate, as the union would attempt to find a way to compromise with growers on the issue for years. A compromise bill has been in Congress for several years that would allow some undocumented workers to earn residency through continued agricultural work. As of yet, the bill has not been passed.


1. How might people on either side of the immigration debate appropriate the ideas of Chavez to further their argument?

2. What changes, if any, could have been made in the original bracero program that would have allowed it to coexist with the native worker unions?

3. What may have compelled the U.S. to not revive the bracero program in 1973?


The Church and Organized Labor

Throughout the agricultural labor battles of the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. Catholic Church played a role, either at an unofficial local level or officially through the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in assisting workers through support of unions and often by playing the role of negotiator between unions and growers. This period was not the only one in which the Church played such a direct role in the labor movement. From the release of Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII and the acceptance of the Knights of Labor by the U.S. clergy in the latter part of the 19th century to the release of “Economic Justice for All” by the USCCB in 1986 and the National Federation of Priests’ Councils meeting on how to better serve the working class in 2012, the U.S. Church has consistently sought to help the working class, whether Catholic or not. It is a stance that has not always been popular within and outside the Church, as both Catholics and non-Catholics have criticized proponents of such work as taking the Church away from its religious duties. While many priests and bishops, including Higgins, repeatedly defended their motives for involvement by invoking biblical commands as well as papal encyclicals, such explanations did not always placate those opposed to such work. In the case of the agricultural labor fight in California, Church officials and laity often found themselves on opposite sides of the debate, with Catholic growers and sympathetic clergy pitted against Chavez, other Catholic laborers, the Bishop’s Ad Hoc Committee on Farm Labor, and, eventually, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Despite this, the Church, in general, has continued to support the working class now into the 21st century.


1. Has the Church provided adequate justification for becoming involved in labor issues?

2. Why might some continue to oppose the Church’s involvement in labor despite the justifications provided by clergy?

3. Is there a continued need for the Church’s involvement in labor issues in the 21st century?


Impact of the UFW

The United Farm Workers perhaps reached the zenith of its power by 1977. By then, the union had made a lasting agreement with the Teamsters over organizational jurisdiction, successfully entered into agreements with numerous growers that allowed Chavez to end the lettuce and grape boycotts, and, according to author Marco Prouty, claimed over 100,000 members. There is no doubt that in the relative short-term, the union had made an impact on the labor situation in California’s agricultural fields. It is the years after 1977 that remain in question. Prouty argues that internally, the union was unprepared to transition from a social movement to a union, and externally, there was a nationwide downturn in interest in social causes as well as a rise in conservatism. Several staff members resigned, and Chavez was often criticized for his management style. While the union continued to win contracts with growers, its membership numbers began to shrink, so that by 2002, just over 5,000 were counted as members. Those numbers remained steady over the next decade according to the Department of Labor’s Office of Labor Management Standards until 2013, when the OLMS reported a sharp increase to over 10,000. While the union may not be the cause célébre it was in the 1960s and 1970s, it is still at work attempting to improve life for the farm worker. Chavez’ memory is still strongly part of the UFW’s mission, as seen in its website (http://www.ufw.org/), and the UFW motto of “Si, se puede” was famously used by President Barack Obama during his campaign in 2008. La Causa, thus, continues.


1. Does the activism of the UFW still have a place in 21st century labor organization? Why or why not?

2. How can the memory of Chavez assist the UFW in its current efforts? Can that memory be a hindrance to those efforts?

3. What reason might President Obama have had in using “Si, se puede” as one part of his campaign?

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