Death of California union icon mourned across nation

Farmworker movement leader Richard Chavez passed away Wednesday at Bakersfield hospital. Richard helped found the United Farmworkers of America with his brother Cesar. According to union spokeswoman Maria Machuca, he died due to complications from surgery. Chavez was 81.

President Barack Obama issued a statement in which he praised the deceased’s diligence and commitment to his ideals.

     “Richard understood that the struggle for a more perfect union and a better life for all America’s workers didn’t end with any particular victory or defeat, but instead required a commitment to getting up every single day to keep at it,” said Obama.

“Richard spent his life fighting for the rights of farmworkers – some of the most vulnerable and hard working people in our society,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a written statement. Vilsack emphasized Chavez’s dedication to ensuring fair and respectful treatment of all farm laborers.

Brothers Richard and Cesar grew up during the Great Depression on a family homestead near Yuma, Arizona. After the family lost their farm, they labored alongside each other in California fields, vineyards and orchards as migrant workers. Throughout the 30’s and 40’s they stuck by each others’ side, leaving farmwork in 1949 to work lumber mills in Northern California for a year.

By the early 1960’s, Richard Chavez was focusing less on his established carpentry trade and more on helping his brother organize what would become the United Farmworkers of America. For the next three decades, he dedicated himself full-time to union work.

A UFW press release memorialized his varied duties with the organization which, it says:

     “included long stretches organizing the farm workers’ successful boycotts of California table grapes and other products in New York and Detroit during the 1960s and ’70s.”

It goes on to state:

     “He was in charge of administrating union contracts in 1970, and later negotiated UFW agreements and oversaw union bargaining. Richard was first elected to the UFW executive board in 1973. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, he also oversaw construction and helped build most of the major structures on the farm workers’ ‘Forty Acres’ complex outside Delano, including its coop gas station, union office and hall, and health clinic.”

Richard is also credited with designing the union’s flag, a black Aztec eagle.

Chavez is survived by his long-time partner and fellow labor activist Dolores Huerta, his estranged wife, Sally, and nine adult children. He also leaves behind more than a dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

     “He knew how to deal with all kinds of people,” son Federico Chavez told the Associated Press. “I don’t think there was ever a person he didn’t like.”