A trio of great Hispanic leaders

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Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his columns.

It's Hispanic Heritage Month, an excellent time to remember three of the most important Hispanic labor leaders in U.S. history. All three were engaged in the much needed and very tough job of organizing and improving the generally poor conditions of the nation's largely Latino farm labor force.

Cesar Chavez, of course, is one of the farm worker leaders we should particularly honor. Another is Dolores Huerta, who joined Chavez in founding the United Farm Workers union – and who, in fact, is still organizing and otherwise helping Latino workers, particularly women.

The third leader who's especially deserving of honor is the lesser known but no less important t pioneer farm labor organizer, Ernesto Galarza. Despite his important work, Galarza has been largely forgotten – though certainly not by me.  He's been dead now for a quarter-century, but I recall him well from my days as a reporter covering farm labor:

His shining, black hair and fierce, penetrating gaze. His angry, intense words and slashing speeches against those who resisted demands for reform. His scholarly writing and novels and poetry - and his teaching.

Galarza was one of the loudest and most unusual of the voices that have been raised for the farm worker. He had a Ph. D., wrote a half-dozen books and numerous pamphlets and articles , and taught at all levels, from elementary school to university.

Yet Galarza was also an active union organizer - a key leader in laying the groundwork for the farm labor movement led by Cesar Chavez.

Galarza came to California's fields in 1948, as an officer of the American Federation of Labor's now long gone National Farm Labor Union. He had grown up in California, and had worked on farms as a teenager.

But Galarza had left that behind to head off to college on a scholarship and, eventually, to Columbia University for a doctorate in Latin American affairs.

After that, Galarza worked for the Pan American Union in Washington – until, characteristically, he became enraged over what he felt was the organization's overlooking the exploitation of Latin American workers by US business interests. He resigned to take the job with the National Farm Labor Union.

Galarza led several strikes, but he was completely thwarted by the federal Bracero program that allowed growers to import penniless, undemanding Mexican workers to replace US workers who dared to strike or otherwise seek better treatment. So Galarza shifted his efforts into trying to abolish the Bracero program.

For more than a dozen years he fought a frustrating and often lonely battle. He spoke out endlessly before legislative committees and elsewhere, He issued hundreds of reports documenting the abuses of U.S. and Mexican workers under the Bracero program,. But the program remained untouched, and by 1960, Galarza's union was gone. Near exhaustion, he turned mainly to writing and teaching.

But finally, in 1964, the public pressure that Galarza had a key role in generating led Congress to kill the Bracero program. It's no coincidence that year, 1964, was the same year in which Cesar Chavez began his organizing drive. For Galarza was correct: The existence of the Bracero program had made farm labor organizing impossible.

By the time of Galarza's death at 78 in 1984, the Chavez-led United Farm Workers had become an effective, nationally supported union.

The farm labor system still relies heavily on desperately poor immigrant workers, But thanks to the farm workers union that Ernesto Galarza helped bring about, many workers have had the chance to seek – and many have won – the right to the decent lives that Ernesto Galarza spent so much of his life seeking for them.

I was fortunate enough to also get to know Cesar Chavez.  I first met him when I was covering labor for the San Francisco Chronicle. It was on a hot summer night 45 years ago in the little farm town of Delano in southern California.

"Si se puede . . . It can be done . . . Si se puede." He said it repeatedly as we talked deep into the early morning hours.

Si se puede . . . But I would not be persuaded. Too many others, over too many years, had tried and had failed to win for farm workers the union rights they had to have if they were to escape their severe economic and social deprivation. The Industrial Workers of the World who stormed across western fields early in the 20th century, had first tried organizing farm workers - and failed. Failing, too, were Communist organizers, socialists, and AFL and CIO organizers.

I was certain Chavez' effort would be no different from theirs. Boy, was I wrong.  I had not accounted for the tactical brilliance, creativity, courage and just plain stubbornness of Cesar Chavez.

He understood that farm workers had to organize themselves, not depend on outsiders to do it. Chavez led the workers in creating a union of their own, which then sought out – and won – widespread support  from influential outsiders through boycotts and other tactics of non-violence patterned after those of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Chavez proved beyond doubt that the poor and oppressed can prevail against even the most powerful of opponents – if they can effectively organize themselves and adopt non-violence as their principal tactics. As Chavez explained, "We have our bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons."

The results of the Chavez-led organizing drives were impressive - the first farm union contracts in U.S. history, and the California law, also a first, that requires growers to bargain collectively with workers who vote for unionization.

Chavez worked closely with Dolores Huerta in creating and leading the United Farm Workers union. Huerta was, for instance, one of the principal leaders of the worldwide grape boycott that forced growers to agree to those first farm labor contracts  – which Huerta negotiated despite her lack of experience in contract bargaining.

Huerta's work with the UFW was just a part of her lifelong and extraordinarily successful and courageous fight for economic and social justice that she waged while also raising 11 children.

Huerta's traveled the country, speaking out and joining demonstrations for a wide variety of causes and successfully lobbying legislators for important gains for Hispanic immigrants and others.

Huerta started out as an elementary school teacher in northern California in 1955, but soon tired of seeing the children of farm workers regularly come to school hungry. That, and her anger over the injustices suffered by the local farm workers, led Huerta to quit teaching and join the Community Services Organization – the CSO – an organization founded by community organizer Saul Alinsky, with Chavez eventually serving as its General Director.

The CSO helped local Chicanos wage voter registration drives and take other actions to win a strong political and economic voice. But when the CSO's other directors refused to agree to a union organizing drive among local farm workers, Chavez and Huerta quit to organize on their own. Like so many others, the CSO directors said it couldn't be done. Thankfully, they were wrong and Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta were right.

But being right is just the first step, essential as it is. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of poorly treated farm workers badly need to be organized, badly need the decent treatment that unionization can bring them, as it did to many others that the extraordinary efforts of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Ernesto Galarza helped bring to many others.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his columns.