This mythologization of Chavez, however, ignores the equally significant question of how Chavez and his union rallied millions to support the labor rights of some of the most exploited workers in the nation. Along with recruiting a wide array of allies, they also astutely analyzed and utilized mass media, American Cold War culture and consumerism. These tactics enabled Chavez and his United Farm Workers (UFW) to successfully launch what he called “capitalism in reverse,” boycotting California grapes in support of the 1965-1970 Delano grape strike and the larger cause, “La Causa,” of farmworker rights.
The economic system Chavez and the UFW confronted was stacked against the Filipino and Mexican-descent farmworkers they represented. These laborers faced crushing physical demands, exposure to extreme weather and pesticides, low wages, limited or no health-care access, as well as the lack of bathrooms or even washing and drinking water during working hours.
Since Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and other leading conservatives at the time equated the interests of agricultural and commercial property owners with the country’s economic future, they advanced policies that allowed growers to raise and market their crops without interference by labor organizers and farmworkers demanding better labor conditions or pay. Much of the public was sympathetic to this economic vision. After all, they saw the glorification of consumerism everywhere they looked: in advertising, entertainment and even political speeches. Access to consumer goods, the comforts they provided and consumer choices were understood as symbols of American greatness and democracy in the Cold War.
In 1959, for example, Nixon attempted to define consumer goods as emblematic of the superior American way of life to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during a tour of the American Exhibition in Moscow that was recorded for national broadcast. In what became known as the Kitchen Debate, Nixon boosted that Americans had “the right to choose” and didn’t “have one decision made at the top by one government official” regarding their consumer choices. Moments later, Nixon conceded some instances where the Soviets “may be ahead of us — for example in the development of the thrust of your rockets for the investigation of outer space.” Pointing to the importance of consumerist culture to the nation’s self-perception, however, Nixon retorted, in “some instances, for example, color television, where we’re ahead of you.”
Backed by such rhetoric, growers refused to yield to union strikes and attempted to break them by hiring nonunion workers. With limited resources to continue picketing agricultural fields, beginning in 1966, the UFW increasingly recruited social scientists, political operatives, college students and young activists, along with middle-class and even wealthy individuals as volunteers and allies who organized and participated in union boycotts of California grapes across dozens of cities.
For example, anthropologist Jerry B. Brown provided detailed data that showed the specific cities the UFW needed to target to significantly curve consumers’ demand for grapes. The introduction of boycotts in major cities brought more politically engaged, college-educated volunteers that furthered the boycotts’ popularity among consumers and generated more media attention. The union organizers pledged to picket stores that sold Californian grapes, in Chavez’s words, “until we turn enough customers away to make the management realize that it is more profitable to stop selling grapes than to sell them.”
How was this done? UFW organizers made use of the post-World War II consumer culture and its emphasis on brand loyalty where a growing number of shoppers could afford nonessential foodstuffs like grapes. The UFW used grape brands as targets for their boycott, turning customer loyalty into a tool to bring corporate change.
By launching boycotts through the picketing of growers that hired nonunion labor and stores that sold nonunion-produced grapes while also gaining media attention, they informed customers what grapes were cultivated by anti-union growers, tarnishing the brand names of abusive grape growers as well as the retailers that carried those brands. In other words, Chavez and the UFW began to influence the decision-making practices of everyday consumers, ultimately leveraging the power of consumer choices to push for ethical production.
It worked. Chavez — and the UFW — achieved a drop of grape sales in North America’s largest cities. Businesses responded: in 1970 dozens of California grape growers, which produced about 50 percent of the nation’s table grapes, signed union contracts. Chavez and the UFW had won their strike and boycott.
After the initial flurry of contracts, however, the UFW’s successes were few and far between. Competition from the Teamsters union, divisions between UFW members of Filipino descent and those of Mexican descent, the continual rise of hostile anti-union politics throughout the 1970s and the shunning of volunteers and allies by Chavez and the UFW all coalesced.
Without the volunteers and allies who had brought ideas like targeted boycotts and media engagement, the UFW lost sympathetic media attention. As the UFW faltered, growers launched an effective campaign against the UFW-backed 1976 Proposition 14. Proposition 14 would have bolstered California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 (which the Supreme Court is now reviewing) by writing into law funding for the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, protecting secret union ballots for farmworkers and allowing union representatives on growers’ land. Growers painted the proposition as a violation of private property rights. After that defeat, Chavez became more dictatorial, largely scoffed at new tactics suggested by union organizers and obsessed with building an insular commune community with his close followers in Keene, Calif.
Despite these failings, Chavez continues to inspire millions to fight for social justice within and outside the nation’s agricultural fields. Indeed, Chavez’s rallying cry, “Sí, se puede,” or “Yes, we can,” is still omnipresent in political and labor rallies across the country.
But perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from Chavez is not a celebrated rallying cry, but the very tactics he used to build diverse coalitions and inspire meaningful political and economic change by effective messaging and consumer activism. Farmworkers still endure brutal working conditions, and conservatives still advance corporate interests over labor rights. Chavez’s political tactics — media innovation and coalition building — matter even more today to actually fulfill the vision of social justice he had.