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Championing migrant farmworker rights: Cesar Chavez's impact in Michigan

Claudia Duran a Latina migrant farmworker. She stands on a blueberry field in Allegan County. She is wearing a straw hat and a neon short sleeved green shirt with a gray long sleeve shirt under. She is carrying three large white buckets. The buckers are filled to the top with blueberries. A migrant farm worker can be seen on the background picking blueberries.
Claudia Duran has been picking blueberries in a field in Allegan County as a migrant farmworker for the last 18 years.

Growing up Cesar Chavez would migrate with his parents and his four siblings from job to job in Arizona and California picking crops and enduring poor working conditions and low wages. It was these experiences in the fields that eventually led him to organize agricultural worker boycotts and form the National Farmworkers Association, the nation’s first labor union for farm workers.

Elena Herrada
Elena Herrada
Elena Herrada

Elena Herrada first became involved with Chavez’ organizing in the 1970’s through her connections with the United Auto Workers Union.

“I worked on the boycotts beginning in about 1975 and then, I hosted Cesar many times at my home in Detroit, because he would travel and do speaking engagements, urging support for the boycotts,” Herrada said.

Cesar Chávez attends a Labour Party press conference in the United Kingdom in 1974.
Les Lee
Getty Images
Cesar Chávez attends a Labour Party press conference in the United Kingdom in 1974.

In 1965, the National Farmworkers Association, now known as the United Farm Workers, joined the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, a predominantly Filipino labor organization to boycott grape growers in Delano, California. By April 1966, Schenley Industries, the second largest grower in Delano, signed a labor agreement with the NFWA making it the union’s very first agreement.

In Michigan, the boycott extended to six major grocery chains when they opted to remove California grapes from their shelves.

At the time Herrada helped organize some of the boycotts in Michigan.

“We would be outside of Meijer and other stores that don’t even exist anymore passing out flyers and leaflets to educate consumers,” adds Herrada.

The movement for Herrada was deeply tied to the needs of the working class people in the state.

“Chicanos came as farmworkers and became factory workers and became union auto workers,” she said. “Cesar’s reach would resonate with us.

Migrant farm labor has historically lacked protections. In 1935, the first National Labor Relation Act established fair labor standards, minimum wage and workers compensation, but even then migrant workers were left out.

“They weren't even considered human beings, and still are not, but if there's a consumer boycott that's going to win out,” Herrada said. “Because the growers are not able to sell these products, people will not buy them.”

This was top of mind for Chavez when he first visited the mid Michigan region in the summer of 1973 to raise awareness for a grape and lettuce boycott.

Diana Rivera
Michigan State University
Diana Rivera

Diana Rivera was a student at MSU at the time. She says she grew up working in the farm fields and felt inspired by the way Chavez was organizing for better working conditions for migrant workers.

“I just walked away from that experience,” she said. “Knowing that humble people, quiet people can actually move mountains if they want to.”

Rivera would eventually graduate from MSU and become Michigan’s first Chicano Studies Librarian and the head of the university’s Cesar Chavez Collection. Back then, the collection was the first of its kind east of the Mississippi.

Rivera says the collection reflects Chavez’ commitment to unions and nonviolence organizing, and she hopes it serves as a template for others.

“On what they see as important to work toward for the Latino community,” Rivera said “Not just the Latino community, but for the underserved, the unhoused.”

For Lansing resident Paulo Gordillo, Chavez was the symbol of what radical rebellion can accomplish when people organize themselves.

But Chavez also was a man of contradictions. Despite being Mexican American he launched a campaign in the seventies to report undocumented workers to federal authorities.

“He saw the influx of migrants as a hindrance to the current workers on the ground,” Gordillo explained.

At the time, undocumented workers were filling the positions in the fields that migrant farm workers were striking against.

Gordillo says recognizing Chavez serves as an example of acknowledging individuals in their entirety – both the good and the bad.

Skyler Ashley

This is part of the reason why Gordillo advocated for years to get the city of Lansing to rename North Grand River Avenue as the “Cesar E. Chavez Avenue”.

“I’m just very proud of the work we have put in to have a street named after one of our heroes and for me personally, one of my heroes,” Gordillo said.

Today migrant farmworkers across the country remain excluded from federal protections that forbid employers from firing a worker for joining a labor union.

This inspires Gordillo in his work at MSU supporting first generation college students –many of whom are Latino. He says he hopes to inspire the next generation to continue to organize for change.

“There's still a lot of work that needs to be done and I want to continue to lead that fight,” he said.

Michigan is home to tens of thousands of migrant farm workers, many who travel back and forth across the country throughout the year picking fruits and vegetables. More than one third of migrant workers in the state are foreign born according to data from the U.S. Census.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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