In a classic, against-all-odds David vs. Goliath battle, America’s marginalized farm workers formed a successful union because they won the hearts and minds of the American consumer. In that fight for social justice, where countless volunteers made victory possible, one of them was one of our own.
“He is my Martin Luther King,” says Pauline Cyr Cormier ’61 of Cesar Chavez, who during the 1960s began the nonviolent struggle for decent working conditions for the farm workers who pick America’s fruit and vegetables. In fields across the nation at that time, pickers were routinely exposed to pesticides from low-flying planes that sprayed the crops. Their dismal pay for hard labor in the hot sun matched the transient living conditions they faced. Chavez and his followers wanted a union, but they had to battle Goliath, the rich and powerful growers who owned the fields.
During the 1970s, the struggle to form the United Farm Workers (UFW) union took to the streets, and Cormier was on the front lines. She and other volunteers across the nation organized and led picket lines in front of countless grocery stores that sold non-union grapes and lettuce. But she and her family took it further when, for five years, they dedicated their lives full time to the cause and lived on just $5 per week from the central UFW organization. Somehow, they managed to make up the rest through charitable donations of clothing, food and shelter from other unions, supporters and the Catholic Church.
Cormier was a young, married woman with three children living in Indiana when her life pivoted. A priest from the University of Notre Dame came to speak to her church group, and he told them that he had his nose broken on a picket line in California while trying to help in the farm worker struggle. After that, she heard about how pesticides used to grow grapes were so strong that they could prevent a picker’s fingernails from growing. She went to farm worker camps in Indiana and saw how migrant pickers were forced to live – 30 large families crowded into quarters with just 4 bathrooms to share. Some families lived in one room. Because the pay was so low, children sometimes had to join their parents in the fields instead of attending school.
Within her Catholic parish, Cormier says the Christian Family Movement group she joined had a focus: observe an unjust situation, make a judgment and then act. She knew she had to act.
Cormier began to learn about Cesar Chavez. His farm worker movement was well-organized, based on home gatherings. At the meetings, people were told what was needed and how they could help. Then those people would hold meetings, and the network would extend ever outward.
Not long after Cormier and her husband made a commitment to get involved with Chavez’ organization, they were first assigned to UFW headquarters in California and then later reassigned to Jersey City, N.J. They lived in a crowded brownstone in a poor urban neighborhood not far from New York City, working around the clock to organize picket lines and urging consumers to boycott non-union grapes, lettuce and Gallo wine when they went to the grocery store.
She learned that a certain local store would put non-union lettuce into union boxes and say they had union lettuce. Cormier pulled together a group to picket and assigned two nuns to the store’s doorway, exhorting consumers not to buy the lettuce there. When the manager approached the picket line with a raised fist, Cormier stepped up and said simply, “If Christ were here, he’d be standing right there with them.”
Cormier was arrested multiple times, but she wasn’t afraid because she knew the Supreme Court backed the protestors’ right to picket in front of the stores. At one point after an arrest, she even showed up with a lawyer and sued the city for false arrest.
When not organizing picket lines, Cormier also set up other assemblies and protests, including helping to organize large marches in the nation’s largest city. One early morning on the George Washington Bridge, she and others held up signs to build awareness about the plight of the farm workers as the morning commuters drove by. She says she got many thumbs-up signals, but she also got the other signal involving a middle finger.
After Jersey City, Cormier and her husband were reassigned to Pittsburgh, where they lived in a convent for free, along with their children. As morning commuters emerged from the tunnels that took them through the surrounding hillsides into the city, she and other protesters would be there holding up pro-UFW signs. She remembers that at one gathering, John Heinz, the president of Heinz Ketchup Co., shook her hand.
Throughout her years working for the UFW, her children went to Catholic school for free, because the Catholic Church supported Chavez’ cause. Cormier says her children, ages 7, 9, and 11 when they first joined the cause, often joined the picket lines and that they understood why they were there. They also helped out at the “poster parties” where groups of people would make the signs to hold during protests.
“The kids were great. We had no money and couldn’t even afford a Christmas tree, so we just strung popcorn. They didn’t have toys … people would give them some gifts at Christmas.”
Cormier’s oldest daughter, Debbie Fekos of McKees Rocks, Pa., remembers that her parents told her they would be spending a few years helping people less fortunate and that they would earn just $5 a week. “Even as a child, that didn’t sound like much to me,” she recalls. Though even getting a hamburger during those years was considered a treat, Fekos says she learned to be aware of and open to a lot of different people. “My mother would say the difference between us and the poor people around us was that we could leave this way of life at any time and they couldn’t,” she says.
Back in Westbrook, Maine, Cormier’s parents were not thrilled with their daughter’s chosen lifestyle. They had run a business for many years and had sent her to college. Cormier told her mother, “If I was a nun and had gone to The Philippines on mission work, you would be proud. But this problem is not in The Philippines, it is here.”
Cormier says her parents were the ones who taught her to give. “They gave all through their lives to the Church and to so many people who needed help,” she says. Fittingly, when her dad told her he could pay for only two years at Saint Joseph’s College, Sister Mary Carmel who was the college president at the time, stepped forward to offer Cormier two years of free tuition so she could complete her degree.
“I definitely owe the Sisters of Mercy and Saint Joseph’s College,” Cormier says.
. . . . .
When she and her husband left the UFW movement after five years, it took a long time to get back on track financially. “We didn’t swing back. Our whole lives we were poor,” Cormier says. Her husband continued to work on behalf of unions, but thanks to her degree from Saint Joseph’s, she was able to land a job teaching business at a high school in State College, Pa., where she taught for 25 years. Cormier thinks of her time with the United Farm Workers as a highlight of her life. After many years in Pennsylvania, she moved back to her native Maine in 2006 and is proud to attend the yearly celebration of Cesar Chavez in Portland hosted by the League of United Latin American Citizens.
“Working for others is the Christian way.” Referring to the conditions the farm workers once faced and that she fought to improve, she says, “People should not live like that.”
by Charmaine Daniels
Who is Cesar Chavez?
Cesar E. Chavez co-founded the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO. He fought for more than 30 years for farm workers, leading boycotts and strikes, marching for hundreds of miles, even starving himself through hunger strikes – all the while committed to nonviolence.
After Chavez’s parents lost their farm in Arizona and became itinerant farm workers, he left school in the 8th grade to help support the family. His experiences in the fields and vineyards ignited his desire to help thousands of farm workers achieve fair wages and medical coverage.
After serving in the Navy during World War II, Chavez began to study the social teachings of the Catholic Church. In 1952, while working in the apricot orchards, he joined a self-help group called Community Service Organization. Chavez became an organizer, battling racial and economic discrimination against Chicano residents. When he couldn’t convince the CSO to commit itself to organizing farm workers, his ultimate dream, he resigned and moved his family to Delano, Calif., where he founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).
Traveling to California migrant labor camps, often with his youngest children in tow while his wife worked in the fields, he built a nucleus of farm workers dedicated to his union efforts. In 1965, the NFWA joined with an AFL-CIO-sponsored union in a strike against major table and wine grape growers. Chavez led a successful strike-boycott over five years that rallied millions of supporters to the United Farm Workers by forging a coalition of unions, church groups, students, minorities and consumers. The two unions merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers (UFW), which then affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
By 1970, the boycott had convinced most table grape growers to sign UFW contracts, but vegetable growers – in an attempt to limit the UFW’s success to the vineyards – signed “sweetheart” pacts with the Teamsters Union. When the UFW’s table grape contract had to be renegotiated in 1973, the growers signed with the Teamsters, causing 10,000 farm workers to walk out of the fields in protest. Chavez called for a new worldwide grape boycott. By 1975, a poll showed 17 million American adults were honoring the grape boycott, forcing growers to support the collective bargaining law for farm workers. Throughout the 1980s, Chavez continued to call for boycotts as growers tried to find a way around the farm labor laws, and in 1988, he conducted a 36-day “Fast for Life” to protest the pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their children.
Many skeptics suggested the union would die after Chavez passed away in 1993, but the UFW continues to win elections and negotiate farm worker contracts. In 1994, Chavez was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom – our nation’s highest civilian honor.
When your mother works the picket lines for the United Farm Workers … the view from Debbie Cormier Fekos, who was 10 years old when her parents committed their lives to social justice for exploited farm workers.
What do you remember most about the years your family dedicated to the cause?
I remember our parents telling us that as a family we would be spending a few years helping other people less fortunate than we were. My parents said they would be making $5 a week. Even as a child that didn’t sound like much to me. I think I was 10 years old at the time. I remember living at La Paz in Keene, Calif., where the UFW headquarters was. We lived in a big room that was blocked off into living arrangements, we ate lots of fresh tortillas and rode the school bus to the nearby town of Tehachapi to go to school. The UFW moved us to Jersey City, N.J., and then to Pittsburgh, Pa. Life was all right, we always had what we needed and we always did things as a family. We met and lived with a lot of different people, a few people who we still keep in contact with.
Are you glad for the experience or did you want a more typical childhood?
At times, it was hard moving from school to school. You would make friends, then move again. But it was a good opportunity to travel and see how others lived in good neighborhoods and not-so-good neighborhoods. I remember being on picket lines Saturday mornings, really wanting to be at home watching cartoons! A hamburger was a big treat.
Did the experience mold or impact your life later on?
Overall, I do believe that this experience had an impact on my life. I learned to be aware of and open to a lot of different people, people that my parents worked with and people that we lived with or near. We were exposed to people of various ethnic backgrounds, young activists, families of activists, religious people, non-religious people, and people who lived in poverty. My mother would say the difference between us and the poor people around us was that we could leave this way of life at any time, they couldn’t. I became an occupational therapist, a career based on helping others less fortunate.
·Debbie Cormier Fekos
The late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy called Cesar Chavez “one of the heroic figures of our time,” and flew to Delano, Calif., in 1968 to be with him when he ended his 25-day hunger strike that drew attention in a nonviolent way to the cause of his beloved United Farm Workers union. After Chavez died in 1993, his family and the officers of the United Farm Workers created the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation to inspire current and future generations by promoting the ideals of Chavez’ life, work and vision.