Community, Dignity of Work, and Responsibility: Honoring Cesar Chavez and Philip Veracruz

Posted: March 30, 2011 in Education, Organized Labor, USD

Two years ago the young men and women of MEChA and AChA of USD asked me to deliver comments at the annual Chavez mass.  In 2009, after reading the Autobiography of Philip Veracruz, student organizers decided to rename the mass to honor both Cesar Chavez and Philip Veracruz and the spirit of multiethnic and multiracial union coalitions.  Today, on the eve of Cesar Chavez’s birthday, I decided to repost my comments to both honor the legacies of both men, but also to remind us all of the importance of Community, Dignity of Work, and social justice.  Unions across the country are being attacked for standing up for the rights of all workers. Lost in the media representations and rhetoric are the facts that unions were responsible for the 8 hour day, overtime pay, child labor laws, and collective bargaining rights.  As we celebrate Cesar Chavez’s birthday –let us remember not only his legacy of work, but his commitment to working people.

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Community, Dignity of Work, and Responsibility are just 3 of the central principles that informed the lives and organizing of Cesar Chavez and Philip Veracruz. While many are familiar with the amazing work of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, far fewer realize that Veracruz, as a first Vice President of the UFW, and the Filipino farm workers were equally instrumental in those successes, for if it were not for the spirit of collective solidarity and multiethnic coalitions, the farm worker movement would not have been as powerful or influential as it was.  So today, we gather to commemorate the lives of both Chavez and Veracruz who along with their fellow workers, teach us the importance of fellowship, human dignity, and sacrifice. More importantly, we gather as a community, to celebrate and honor workers and the dignity of work here on our campus.  We honor the contributions of those at the University of San Diego, who contribute everyday to all aspects of campus life. We honor those whose dedication, commitment, and contributions –whether big or small, are often overlooked and unacknowledged.

Cesar Chavez once said, “When we are really honest with ourselves we must admit that our lives are all that really belong to us, so it is how we use our lives that determines what kind of people we are.“ So, in the few moments I have, I want to reflect on the ideas of solidarity, social responsibility, and dignity of work which were central to the work and activism of Chavez and Veracruz, and to the Catholic Church. More importantly, I want each of us to think about how these ideals pertain to us individually as well as our university community.

Solidarity, simply defined, is the union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities, interest, and purpose.   However as most of us know, whether through our everyday experiences, or our involvement in clubs, organizations, and community work –developing this union or fellowship among individuals is not easy. There are often conflicts, differences of opinions or in approach –however, it is often the process of working through these differences that provide the unique opportunity for creating understanding, empathy, and purpose.  The development of the farm workers movement is no different.  In his autobiography, Philip Vera Cruz critiques and analyzes the development of the UFW and the leadership –including and perhaps most pointedly the work of Cesar Chavez.   His concerns were often rooted in, what he felt, was the silencing of Filipino membership within the union. Despite these frustrations, both he and Chavez felt that unity could be achieved through the development of greater understanding of the common issues all farm workers faced.  Veracruz says, “ I know that misunderstood issues can become destructive and eventually divide individuals and groups, even a union.  But I believe workers will unite successfully only when there’s a better understanding of the issues in their entirety, including honest differences of opinion which could give a broader view of the solutions to our problems.”  In order to achieve these aims, the UFW needed to find ways to bridge their communities, by communicating honestly about the issues facing them, and creating new ways of working collaboratively. Without a doubt, this type of work must continue to be embraced both within our university, our country, and our world.

In his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo VIII reminded the Catholic community that the well-being of the rich and working class are intertwined and that each had the responsibility of looking out for one another.  He wrote, “Justice, therefore, demands that the interests of the working classes should be carefully watched over by the administration, so that they who contribute so largely to the advantage of the community may themselves share in the benefits which they create-that being housed, clothed, and bodily fit, they may find their life less hard and more endurable.  Pope John Paul II, reaffirmed this belief in his 1981 encyclical Laborem exercens, when he wrote, “the Church considers it her task always to call attention to the dignity and the rights of those who work, to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated,“  These ideas of interconnectedness, social responsibility, and dignity at work are central to the work of the UFW, Chavez says, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community…Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”

As a university community, we must be more diligent in working to embody the spirit of these writings and principles. Even today, as we celebrate a mass honoring workers, -many of the workers who take impeccable care of our classrooms, residential halls, gardens, and offices are unable to join us at mass because they either had to take vacation time or lose pay in order to participate in a mass held in their honor. To truly honor the dignity of the worker, we must move beyond picnics and celebratory pictures and instead reflect on how we can improve practices and support workers in ALL parts of the university.  Even in fiscally challenging times, it’s easy to push aside years of dedication and service to our university in favor of outsourcing and subcontracting.  Like many publicly and privately held corporations, we need to hold ourselves as an entire institution to moving away from what’s comfortable and hiring those ‘like us’ and instead consider what differences does to enhance us.  As a university, more importantly a Catholic university, committed to promoting the core values of academic excellence, knowledge, community, ethical conduct and compassionate service we have a responsibility to do more, and be more –to privilege humanity, and honor the dignity of work and the lives of the workers who assist us everyday by showing the same commitment to them as they show to each of us.

The news is not all dire.  In fact, I believe that many of our students work proactively to make change happen. Veracruz would say that our students are the “golden foundation for the struggle of all people to improve their lives.”  Recently, a group of our students banded together to address the issue of sweatshop labor and worked to advocate for a change in our University bookstores purchasing policies. Particularly after learning about the exploitative conditions and labor violations that Honduran garment workers faced when sewing for Russell athletics –one of our major clothing vendors –they worked fastidiously to implore and motivate this university to make the ethical and moral decision. Their efforts were rewarded with the University putting the vendor on probation. The simple fact that our students embody the spirit of Veracruz and Chavez’s work –and the morals and values advocated through Catholic Social teaching should make us proud –and motivate all of us, individually and collectively, to do more to both honor and protect workers at our campus.

Let me end my comments by borrowing the words of Dorothy Day, a woman whose activism with the Catholic Workers Movement inspired both Chavez and Veracruz.  When reflecting on the movement, she says, “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?“  Each of us has an opportunity to live the morals, values, and ethics promoted by Chavez and Veracruz… it’s time for each of us to love our community and our university enough to make change happen.

Se Puede?

Si Se Puede!

Mabuhay Estudyantes! Que Vivan los trabajadores!

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