As Cesar Chavez is honored this week, his legacy offers a powerful reminder that achieving real change is difficult, and involves more than chanting “Yes We Can.” Two years after the 2008 election appeared to usher in a new progressive era, many activists are dispirited. Yet Chavez and those who got their start as UFW activists knew well how quickly politics could turn. Chavez began organizing farmworkers in 1962, as John Kennedy’s presidency stirred hope throughout the nation. But Kennedy was killed in 1963, Ronald Reagan was elected California’s Governor in 1966, and Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968; both Reagan and Nixon regularly faced cameras eating non-union grapes. In 1968, the UFW helped bring Robert Kennedy’s victory in the 1968 California Democratic primary. Many believed the close farmworker ally would be our next President, until he was assassinated on primary night as the UFW’s Dolores Huerta stood by his side. Yet Chavez and UFW activists did not allow even such powerful, emotional setbacks to break their spirit. Chavez and the UFW did not just chant “Yes We Can! (“Si Se Puede!”), they practiced it – exercising an unyielding commitment to social justice that provides a roadmap for activists today.

Having written a book, Beyond the Fields, on the ongoing legacy of Cesar Chavez and the UFW, I believe that today’s activists can learn much from the farmworkers movement. Last year, I urged readers to use Cesar Chavez Day to “rediscover Cesar Chavez,” focusing on how the UFW demonstrated the potential success of national grassroots campaigns, reinvented grassroots electoral outreach, and offered the greatest activist “incubator” of our times.

But with the prospects for progressive change diminishing in the past year, Chavez and the UFW provide particularly critical guidance in recognizing the often great difficulty of winning real change. It clearly appears that while candidate Obama insisted that change would not be easy, both he and many of his supporters assumed the 2008 elections would smooth the path to win victories that have never easily been won.

The UFW’s Legacy of Challenges

Four years after commencing what all thought was an impossible effort to organize California’s migrant farmworkers, Cesar Chavez had gotten national publicity and was building strong religious community support. While he did not have the best of relationships with California Governor “Pat” Brown (Jerry’s Dad) – unlike most of today’s labor leaders, Chavez did not hesitate to publicly criticize Brown just because the Governor was a Democrat – Brown was movable on state issues impacting farmworkers.

But Ronald Reagan defeated Brown in the 1966 election, ushering in eight years of anti-UFW hostility throughout many of the state agencies whose jurisdiction was farmworkers.

Richard Nixon’s 1968 election was made additionally painful by the role Chavez and the UFW had played in Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Chavez not only had a close personal bond with the nation’s most influential Catholic – Kennedy had come to the fields to urge Catholic support for the UFW in 1966 and then joined Chavez at the end of his legendary 25 day fast in 1968 – but the UFW’s Latino voter outreach for Kennedy was credited with his winning the California presidential primary that June.

It’s tough enough to devote your life to a candidate that loses; it’s unimaginable to have your candidate murdered on the night of an historic victory.

Despite these setbacks, Chavez and the UFW continued to build the farmworkers movement. In 1970, the union won its legendary grape boycott, as growers finally gave in to the massive consumer avoidance of grapes (Nixon’s Defense Department bought three million more pounds of grapes in 1969 over the previous year to help make up for the boycott. It would similarly triple its lettuce purchases during that UFW boycott).

But winning a three-year grape contract with growers through the boycott did not end the fight. When the contract ended, the growers switched their contracts to the then mob-controlled Teamsters union. Because the National Labor Relations Act did not cover farmworkers, and California had no independent law, the UFW could lose its hard won contracts without a vote of those working in the fields.

Imagine how that must have felt to those who waged a five-year strike and two year international boycott to win these grape contracts.

In January 1975, the New York Times wrote a story arguing that the UFW had failed and that the Teamsters would soon control the table grape, wine and lettuce industries. All the story did was inspire the UFW to intensify its boycott against Gallo Wine, and Fred Ross, Jr. led a march from San Francisco to Gallo’s headquarters in Modesto.

In response to the Times’ announcement of its imminent demise, the UFW brought 20,000 marching into Modesto, even more than had participated in Chavez’s 1966 “pilgrimage” from Delano to Sacramento that had put him on the national stage. In June 1975, less than six months after the Times’ prediction, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act was enacted and the Teamsters left the fields soon after.

Lessons for Today

I think the biggest difference between the mindset of Chavez and UFW activists and those who put their faith for change in Barack Obama and the national electorate is that the former never had a particular timetable or deadline for achieving key goals.
When Chavez started organizing farmworkers, nobody knew it would take 13 years to win labor rights, or if the campaign would win even after two decades.

In 2008, Election Day spelled the end of the Obama for President campaign. We soon learned that the President was not interested in maintaining anything close to his grassroots electoral operation, and it was not long before one-time fulltime campaign activists were reduced to mere bystanders.

As much as Obama tried to insulate his campaign followers from overly high expectations, even he was (surprisingly) unprepared for unified Republican opposition to his agenda. While some say they always knew Obama was a “centrist,” I don’t recall predictions that Obama would not to be a fighter, and that he would quickly seek compromise when major obstacles to his agenda emerged.

So progressives did not get the leader they expected, just as Cesar Chavez and the UFW did not get the Governor or President they hoped for, and had a beloved ally cut down on route to the White House. But the fact that Republicans won the House in 2010, and control of many state governments, is hardly grounds for progressives to give up the struggle.

As we honor Cesar Chavez, remember that he and the UFW understood that the “Si Se Puede” spirit instilled believers in the ability to overcome even the most one sided of challenges; it expressed an unyielding will to succeed, and was never just a chant.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, and The Activist’s Handbook.