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Hundreds participate in march commemorating Cesar Chavez

April 1, 2011

Yesterday, hundreds of people, most school children, march down part of Cesar Chavez Way (Grandville Avenue) for the annual Cesar Chavez Social Justice March in Grand Rapids.

The march brought out students, teachers, union members, politicians, religious leaders and activists. People marched from the corner of Grandville Avenue and Hall St. to Chicago Drive chanting Si Se Puede! Many people wore t-shirt with the United Farmworkers logo on the front while others carried banners and flags. The march ended at Holy Name Catholic Church, where a formal program was held to commemorate the life of Cesar Chavez.

The crowd was welcomed by the pastor of the church and was followed by Rosa Fraga a long-time educator in the Latino/a community. She said that this celebration was not just an event honor the legacy of Cesar Chavez, but “all the farmworkers who give us food.

As Rosa Fraga spoke students brought forth baskets of food that symbolized the kinds of agricultural labor that migrant workers engage in here in West Michigan. She said that the US lives in such abundance, but all of this “has come to us on the backs of migrant workers.

Following Rosa were a group of students who read several statement from Cesar Chavez in both English and in Spanish. The students read comments from Chavez that talked about struggle, courage, hope, education, farmworkers, perseverance and non-violence.

Later in the program people watch a short video by Dan Salas with several people who had participated in the UFW boycotts in the 1960s and 70s in Grand Rapids. One of those who had participated in the boycotts was Michael Johnston, a retired teacher and local labor historian. Johnston and others that had participated in the boycott spoke briefly about their experiences in that campaign and some of them spoke about meeting Cesar Chavez. At one point Johnston told the story of how Chavez responded to the question of how he would want to be remembered. Chavez said, “If you want to remember me, then organize!

At the end of the program Jordan Bruxvoort with the Michigan Organizing Project (MOP) spoke about a new campaign that MOP and other local entities are working on. The campaign is centered around Wage Theft, which is the illegal underpayment or non-payment of workers’ wages.

According to the literature MOP was handing out, “Wage theft affects millions of workers each year, often forcing them to choose between paying rent or putting food on the table. Wage Theft is all around us. It robs from the government’s tax coffers, resulting in cutbacks of vital services. Wage theft puts ethical employers at a competitive disadvantage.”

This campaign was in part initiated by the Mayor of Grand Rapids, who has set up a wage theft task force that will be spending the next several months documenting cases of wage theft in Grand Rapids. For those interested in the campaign you can contact Jordan at jbruxvoort@miorganizingproject.org.

Besides all the positive elements of this event it is worth mentioning some aspects that seem quite contradictory and at least raise some serious questions. The march was led by a group of JROTC students, some dressed in fatigues. Cesar Chavez was a staunch proponent of non-violence, so why would the organizers have students who are participating in a military program led a march honoring Chavez?

In addition, the t-shirt that many people, especially students were wearing with the United Farm Worker (UFW) logo on the front had the logos of AT&T and Fifth Third Bank on the back. I could not get an answer to why there were corporate logos on the shirts, but then during the program one of the organizers read a list of corporate donors off and AT&T and Fifth Third Bank were the largest.

This kind of corporate sponsorship raises critical questions about the relationship of such events to the memory of Chavez and the farmworker struggle. The UFW has always been in battle against large agri-business companies that have close relationships with the banks and companies like AT&T. A case in point is the current struggle that the Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s (FLOC) is engaged in with Chase Bank and RJ Reynolds Tobacco.

In addition, there was very little commentary from any of the presenters about the realities for migrant workers in West Michigan today. According to a report from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission farmworker wages and conditions have not improved much since the 1960s when Chavez and the UFW became nationally known. It would seem that the current conditions of migrant workers would be the most important thing to address at an event commemorating a man who dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of farmworkers in America.

 

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