The Farmworkers’ Movement


United Farmworkers protest (Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University).

In the 19th century, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican workers did most of the low-paid, physically-demanding agricultural work in western states like California and Arizona. By the mid-20th century, most migrant farmworkers in the west were Mexican, due in large
part to the exploitative “bracero program,” which brought thousands of Mexicans to the U.S. from 1941-1964 to undercut domestic wages, break strikes, impede union organizing, and solve World War II labor shortages.

Migrant workers lacked educational opportunities for their children, lived in poverty and terrible housing conditions, and faced discrimination and violence when they sought fair treatment. Attempts to organize workers into unions were violently suppressed.

Cesar Chavez, born in Arizona in 1927, grew up in a family of migrant farmworkers from Mexico who worked in California. He attended 37 schools as a child, faced discrimination and punishment for speaking Spanish at school, and had to drop out after 8th grade to work and support his family.

In 1962, Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association and later created the United Farm Workers with labor activist Dolores Huerta. Chavez led nonviolent labor strikes and weeks-long fasts; protestors faced violence, arrest, and prosecution. The movement established workers’ right to organize and secured better pay and working conditions on many farms. In September 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram of support to Chavez, linking them as “brothers in the fight for equality.”