Cesar Chavez: His Lifelong Links With Cooperatives

When Cesar Chavez died on April 23, 1993 the cooperative movement lost one of its great believers. From the moment Cesar became an organizer in his early twenties until the end of his life he was a strong supporter of cooperatives and credit unions. Were it another era, and were it not for the tremendous toll of time imposed by the needs of the United Farm Workers Union, Cesar would likely have been a great co-op leader.

Fred Ross, in the prologue to Jacques Levy's book, Cesar Chavez: Autobiography Of La Causa, recounted a house meeting he attended in 1962 where Cesar outlined the need to be organized. When one of the farmworkers at the meeting asked how they could get through the winter with plenty of bills and no work, Cesar replied, "We could have what they call a credit union. It's just like a worker's bank. During the season, each worker loans a little to the bank and learns to save that way, even if it's only a tiny amount. Then in winter, the bank makes loans to the worker at a very low interest."

The next question had to do with death and the cost of burials. Cesar answered, "For that, there could be group burial insurance. There is a law now where a lot of people all doing the same kind of work can all join a burial plan together through their own organization and pay a little each month to cover all the members of the family."

Later that year, Cesar brought to an end the first stage of what would be called La Causa (The Cause). In 86 days he had covered 14,867 miles and met with 2000 farmworkers in the fields and in their houses -- a dry and dusty sample of almost every town in California's Central Valley.

The next step was to hold a meeting and invite everyone he had talked with. At that meeting in Fresno in 1962, the National Farm Workers Association, a service cooperative for farm workers was formed. Two hundred farmworkers attended to approve a constitution that placed heavy emphasis on ". . building a credit union, cooperative, and other self-help projects." Cesar believed that farmworkers would rally around an organization which provided needed services and was not just a union. He never gave up that vision of self-help and community.

Cesar and his wife Helen, who had organized co-ops and credit unions in the 1950s, began to organize in Tulare County. They set up services such as a death-benefit program, a credit union, and a co-op. Helen worked at the counter and sold oil and tires to the members cheaper than anywhere in Delano.

When the grape boycott was launched in 1968, many of the country's consumer food cooperatives joined in. The Santa Monica Co-op, where I was a board member, was the only market in the Los Angeles region which honored the boycott. Later, it was the food co-ops in the USA, Canada, Britain and Sweden that were the only supermarkets to support the grape boycott and then the Gallo boycott. In fact, it was at the request of the Berkeley Co-op in the early 1980s that Cesar formally called an end to the boycott.

In the 1980s, the Union supported the development of four new farmworker cooperatives in Santa Cruz County. The leaders of the cooperatives all came out of the UFW organization. They too wanted to go beyond working for next to nothing, to being their own boss. Although none of the co-ops survived for longer than five years, they did prove that they knew how to farm effectively. Their key problems were too little capital, the sizeable cost of startup and the limitations of cooperative farming. It was clear from what Cesar said and did that economic self-help was the next step for the members of the union. However, organizing them into a union had to come first. Without organization their labor would mean nothing.

In the final chapter of Levy's book, Chavez talked about the future: "Political power is not enough. Although I've been at it for some thirty years, all the time and money and effort haven't brought about any significant change whatsoever. Effective political power is never going to come, particularly to minority groups, unless they have economic power. And however poor they are, even the poor people have to organize economic power."

"Political power by itself, as we've tried to fathom it and to fashion it, is . . . like striking a match that goes out. Economic power is like having a generator to keep that bulb burning all the time. So we have to develop economic power to assure a continuation of political power."

"I'm not advocating black capitalism or brown capitalism. At the worst it gets a black to exploit other blacks, or a brown to exploit others. At the best it only helps the lives of a few. What I'm suggesting is a cooperative movement."

In the spring of 1992, Cesar was invited to Madrid to be honored for his work by the Spanish Government. While in Spain, he visited the successful Mondragon cooperative system which thrives in the economically neglected Basque province. Begun in 1952, the Mondragon co-ops today employ 25,000 people in over 100 different enterprises and are one of the stars of Spain's emerging economy.

Cesar had been interested in the Mondragon system because it paralleled his thinking about how to raise the economic standards of poor people through organization and cooperative economic development: cooperatives taking advantage of technology and machinery to raise their members' standard of living. Cooperatives like those in Mondragon where they are an integral part of community life. Cooperatives which focus on technical education to get their members the best opportunities. Cooperatives which highlight the culture and strengths of their people. Mondragon had become Cesar's model of how a society should develop its people.

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