By Jack Jodell, April 2, 2011
This is the second of several installments on ordinary American workers who, through great risk and sacrifice on their part, became great leaders in the American labor movement. It is to people like this we owe a great debt of gratitude for having paved the way for a safe working environment, fair wages, the 8 hour work day, paid vacations, pension funds, and a host of other benefits we now take for granted and which today’s corporatist conservative Republicans and Tea Party members are now TRYING TO TAKE AWAY FROM US!
AGNES NESTOR (1880-1948) was a fierce fighter for workers’ rights and momen’s suffrage. Born in Grand Rapids, MI, she moved with her family to Chicago, IL at age 7, and soon thereafter began work at a glove factory. By age 22, she had had enough of the long hours, low pay, and crappy working conditions found at her company, and became one of the leaders of a successful 10-day strike of women workers against it. Later that year, she took her women workers out of that men-controlled union and helped found the newly-formed International Glove Workers Union , under which she served as national Vice President from 1903-1906; secretary-treasurer from 1906-1913; and general President from 1913-1915; Vice President once more from 1915-1938; and director of research and education from 1938 until her death 10 years later.
Nestor was also a co-founder (along with prominent reformer and slum-worker Jane Addams and five other women) of the Womens Trade Union League and sat on its executive board. This organization was composed of both working class and more prosperous women, and carried with it the express intent to organize labor unions and eliminate sweatshops. It played an important role in bringing about massive strikes in the earliest decades of the 20th century, and was responsible for the formation of both the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. This branching out of the labor movement led to numerous successful strikes in such far-off destinations as Cleveland, Philadelphia, and New York, and helped popularize the concept of unions prior to and during the New Deal.
Nestor also helped organize unions in other industries, and campaigned strongly against child labor, for the adoption of a minimum wage, an 8 hour work day, and maternity health legislation. From 1904 until her death in 1948, she was also President of the Chicago Women’s Trade Union League. Gentle-looking Agnes Nestor was actually a tireless hell-raising fighter who never gave up. As a result of her constant struggle, many of her fondest dreams for all workers were adopted and we all enjoy the fruits of her labor today.
CESAR ESTRADA CHAVEZ (1927-1993) became a giant savior among migrant workers. Born in Yuma, AZ, to a family of Mexican-Americans who originally owned both a general store and a ranch, Chavez was touched by abject poverty and prejudice at a very early age. During the Great Depression, his father had agreed to clear eighty acres of land in exchange for the deed to their family home. The deal was broken, however, and when his father went to purchase the home, he found he could not afford the interest on the loan, so the banker ended up selling it back to the original owner. The family was forced to move to California, where they became migrant workers, Grapes of Wrath style.
In California, the Chavez family soon found that wages were terrible. They picked various fruits and vegetables all year long for a pittance, and often lacked access to necessities such as clean water or toilets. They encountered prejudice here, too: one time, Cesar’s knuckles were wrapped with a ruler for having spoken Spanish, the language spoken at home by his family, at an English-only school. In 1952, he left the fields to become an organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO). He traveled all over California speaking on behalf of workers’ rights and urging Mexican-Americans to register to vote. He became the organization’s President in 1958.
In 1962, Chavez left to CSO to co-found the National Farm Workers Association, a precursor to the United Farm Workers. He led a strike and a march for California grape pickers in 1966 and urged a boycott of California grapes all across the country. His efforts attracted vnational attention: the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare’s subcommittee on Migratory Labor even held hearings in California during this strike, and subcommittee member Bobby Kennedy expressed strong support for the workers. That, of course, was back in the day when unions were strong and responsible government officials would actually listen to and really do something for working people.
The strike lasted for five long years before it was finally settled. During this period, the UFW organized successful boycotts, marches, and strikes for farm workers all across Texas, Wisconsin, and Ohio. The union was successful in getting the passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which granted collective bargaining rights to farm workers. In 1972, Chavez began a series of fasts to protest Arizona’s passage of a law forbidding boycotts and strikes during harvest season. These fasts were patterned after the Catholic method of fasting as penance during Lent, and also after Gandhi’s fasts as a method of nonviolence.
Chavez correctly opposed illegal immigration on grounds that it harmed the progress of the UFW. If striking workers could be easily replaced by cheap illegal labor, it would completely undermine his efforts. His opposition to the Bracero Program, a program by which growers were guaranteed a constant supply of cheap immigrant labor, caused that program to be ended in 1964.
Cesar Chavez died peacefully in his sleep 1993, after a fast of several days. President Clinton posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom the very next year. My favorite quote from him rings as true today as it did when he first uttered it: “Who gets the risks? The risks are given to the unquestioning consumers, and the poor work force. And who gets the benefits? The benefits are only for the corporations, the money makers.”
The gains achieved through the pain and struggles of Agnes Nestor and Cesar Chavez must NOT be allowed to be rolled back or done away with by crazed budget-cutting Republicans! We owe it to both of these great individuals to KEEP ALIVE ALWAYS THE STRUGGLE FOR FAIR PAY AND JUSTICE IN THE WORKPLACE!