Stamp of Approval 

Ballot measure seeks to honor Cesar Chavez

click to enlarge The visage of Cesar Chavez was placed on a U.S. postage stamp in September. Colorado voters will decide in November whether to honor him with a paid state holiday.
  • The visage of Cesar Chavez was placed on a U.S. postage stamp in September. Colorado voters will decide in November whether to honor him with a paid state holiday.

It may be cynical, but not necessarily inaccurate, to suggest that the kind of union leaders America likes best are the dead ones.

Take Cesar Chavez, who founded the United Farm Workers Association in 1962 and led one of the most famous labor struggles in American history. In September his visage was placed on a U.S. postage stamp. In Chavez's home state of Arizona, Republican Sen. John McCain is campaigning to preserve "historic Cesar Chavez sites."

In Colorado, Chavez marched from Center, in the San Luis Valley, to the capital in Denver to highlight the mistreatment of potato growers. Former El Paso AFL-CIO President Norman Pledger marched alongside Chavez and remembers housing him and his supporters in the carpenters' union hall in Colorado Springs.

"We couldn't get a doctor in to treat their feet wounds, Pledger recalled. "We finally found a black doctor in Denver who would do it."

While Chavez's campaign for potato growers was not successful, his 25-day fast during the campaign for largely Mexican grape harvesters in California is one of the shining examples of Ghandian nonviolence at work in the labor movement.

Next month, the statewide ballot measure E, sponsored by Denver's Democratic Sen. Rob Hernandez, will attempt to make Cesar Chavez Day a paid state holiday.

Last year, Chavez's birthday was recognized as an optional holiday by the state Senate and House of Representatives and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Owens -- an irony that was not lost on state AFL-CIO president Ellen Golombek.

"During the signing, the word 'union' never passed the governor's lips; I think that says everything," she said, noting Gov. Owens is not a supporter of organized labor.

"We believe it is an honor that's due," Golombek said of the proposed holiday. "Are other people considering it for other reasons? Probably. It's about honoring a person who gave his life to helping abused, mistreated workers, to get the dignity they deserve."

While Colorado's AFL-CIO has put some support behind measure E, it has more pressing fish to fry. "Our primary goal is to keep control of the [state] Senate," El Paso County AFL-CIO president Mark Johnson said.

If Chavez's role as a union activist and organizer are stripped from his official legacy, labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein is not surprised.

"Rather than legitimize the idea of what he stood for, he's sort of turned into a "colorful character,'" Nelson said before citing the example of Cesar Chavez clubs in California that are composed of Latinos, but have nothing to do with farm workers or labor organizing.

Lichtenstein, whose books include a seminal biography of United Auto Workers founder Walter Reuther, adds that Chavez serves more as an identity politics figure than an enduring symbol for the ideals of union solidarity.

Lichtenstein mentioned, by way of a similar example, the late International Longshoreman Workers Union founder Harry Bridges who, despite his open affiliation with the communist party, has streets named after him in various West Coast port cities.

"He's portrayed as a sort of booster of the shipping industry," Lichtenstein adds with a chuckle.

A mere 9-percent of Colorado's workers are members of labor unions, a figure slightly below the waning national average of 13 percent.

If Referendum E passes next month, Colorado will join California in recognizing Cesar Chavez Day as a paid holiday. While California was the birthplace of the UFW and remains its most active state, Colorado has never had a local chapter. Roughly 20,000 state workers may get another day off. What unorganized workers will receive is less obvious.

-- John Dicker


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