Cesar Chavez: Lessons from a Labor & Environmental Justice Leader

Posted on 03/28/2022
Cesar Chavez social media graphic

Cesar Chavez: Lessons from a Labor & Environmental Justice Leader 

And the many ways he fought for a dignified healthy life for the exploited workers

By Marta Segura, M.P.H.

Director, Climate Emergency Mobilization Office

Board of Public Works

Cesar Chavez was and is many things to many people.  A Mexican-American Visionary, a labor leader, a civil-rights activist, Faith leader, Housing champion, and he was committed to nonviolent resistance practiced by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.  He was also mentored on how to organize with Fred Ross at the Los Angeles based, CSO, Community Service Organization.  Chavez won important victories to improve working conditions and better compensation for farmworkers with multi-faceted and intersectional strategies.  For me, he will always be the forefather of environmental justice.  His Grape Boycotts influenced my life’s work and I had never heard anyone connect food to the detrimental impacts of pesticides before Chavez. During the 1980s, when I was in high school and then college, Chavez led a boycott to ban the use of toxic pesticides on grapes. “NO GRAPES” and “NO UVAS” bumper stickers were everywhere, but also educational pamphlets with photos of children born with spina bifida and other birth deformities. I was in tears and angry all at once when I first read about the connection to pesticides and these innocent babies who never had a chance to live a healthy life.  I didn’t sign up for membership, but I was one of his many “organizers”  sharing his campaign with my high school friends, and later in college, writing my senior thesis on this topic.  I now realize Chavez inspired me to be the first Chicana to major in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Barbara in the early 80s.  I also want to share that Dolores Huerta was equally inspiring, and Chavez to his credit lifted her as an equal who complimented him and she added fire and feminism to the movement!  This was post-civil rights California, Reagan’s California, and many people who made decisions and led the State and Nation were still stuck in the 1960’s way of thinking.  So for me, seeing this kind of compassionate, multi-faceted, and diverse leadership protecting the most vulnerable among us was everything!

Chavez was acutely aware of the disparate unhealthy conditions of farmworkers, from the back-breaking conditions in the fields and lack of water during the extreme heat in the summer months, to the pesticides being sprayed over the workers and their families. Farmworkers then and now are exploited and invisible.  He once said, “We farm workers are closest to food production. We were the first to recognize the serious health hazards of agriculture pesticides to both consumers and ourselves.”  He also saw the damage to the soil and the environment.  He was ahead of his time, but truth be told, he learned from the wisdom of the farm workers and was wise and compassionate enough to realize this is where we get our vision and our strength, from the people.

It grieved him to see how pesticides and fertilizers led to cancer, birth deformities, chronic pulmonary and organ failure, and yes death. Chavez recognized the role of a healthy environment and the need for food free from pesticides for consumers as well.  His strategy was brilliant, he thought if people knew that the Grapes were laden with pesticides and they boycotted the exploitative growers who were responsible, that would catalyze awareness, compassion, understanding, and support of the Farmworker’s unhealthy work and living conditions.    He unified consumers from every walk of life to the plight of the Mexican, Filipino, and Muslim farm workers in California and beyond.  

There is no doubt in my mind that  Chavez was instrumental in calling attention to the intersectionality of  Environmental injustices, health disparities, poor housing conditions, lack of access to health insurance, education, and living wages.  Today, we see many leaders who advocate for an intersectional approach of unifying environmental justice, ecosystem health, housing justice, workforce equity, and health care access are inextricably connected.  Nonetheless, the fight for equity and justice in the arena of Climate, Environment continues to be a struggle.  Humans silo issues, they silo people, and we miss the big picture and the big opportunities to integrate economic recovery with the recovery of our dignity, health, and environment.  We have an opportunity to make good on the vision of the Labor Leader Cesar Chavez and optimize the opportunity of creating livable communities, Healthy Thriving communities, dignified and high wage jobs in the green economy, and really affordable and green housing that everyday people and farm workers can afford with a Renewable Energy focused Restorative Economy.  Let’s make good on the vision of Cesar Chavez and the wisdom of our community that led him to this dream.   

Call to Action! :  We will reflect, dialogue and learn about the intersections among  Equity, Justice and Climate Resilience at this next phase of the Climate Equity LA Series in April 2022, both in honor of Labor Leader Cesar Chavez and  Earth Day!   Please Register here:  Community Climate Resilience & Adaptation