FOR MANY PEOPLE, the words “Sí Se Puede” and the image of the angular black eagle on a red and white flag are synonymous with César Chávez, the United Farm Workers (UFW), and the popular social movement for farm worker dignity in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. The UFW holds an almost sacred place in movement history as an example of a true grassroots movement that changed not only the lives of many farm workers, but also how Americans thought about the people who grew their food.
Many movement fundraisers, myself included, have heard stories about how Chávez exhorted a young Dolores Huerta not to shy away from asking poor people to pay membership dues. But the story of how the UFW’s fundraising strategies helped build the organization might be different than you imagine. It is a practical yet inspiring story about asking for what was needed and of many hours of hard work by both paid staff and countless volunteers who raised money for and gave money to La Causa.
In 1966, the UFW Organizing Committee was born out of the merger of two unions: the AFL-CIO affiliated Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), whose members were mostly Filipino, and the Chávez-founded National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), whose members were predominantly Mexican. The merger came out of a five-year strike in California’s Central Valley and a subsequent national boycott against several growers including grape, lettuce and wine companies. The striking farm workers were often met with violent and racist opposition but, under the leadership of Chávez and others, adopted the practice of non-violence, which helped them win public broad support. During the boycott, millions of Americans stopped eating grapes, which put pressure on the companies to meet the workers’ demands. The result was that the union won unprecedented contracts for farm workers with better pay, benefits and protections. The movement also powerfully connected middle class Americans with the struggles of the workers who grew their food.
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