César Chávez’s Struggle to Bring Racial and Economic Justice Continues Today

By Zoe Ziliak Michel and Liz Ben-Ishai

In 2015, Oregon’s Fair Shot for All coalition successfully campaigned for the passage of a new state-wide law ensuring all workers can earn paid sick days. As is often the case in such campaigns, the coalition had to make tough choices and compromises along the way to secure victory. At one point, the group faced strong pressure to exclude the state’s (often Latino) agricultural workers from the bill. In response, Ramón Ramirez, president of coalition member Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, argued, “We can’t […] claim to be progressive and then allow farmworkers to get excluded.” The coalition—which was formed with strong commitments to racial and economic justice—agreed, and the exclusion was dropped from the bill.

As we celebrate César Chávez Day, we recognize how work by coalitions like Fair Shot for All honors the legacy of the civil- and labor-rights leader who fought for Latino farm workers’ rights. Long after Chávez and Dolores Huerta co-founded what is now the United Farm Workers, the work of promoting racial and economic justice in America is far from complete. To support the ongoing efforts of advocates and policymakers fighting for racial and economic justice, today CLASP is releasing a new brief, Good Jobs for All: Racial Inequities in Job Quality. The data in this paper make clear that 50 years after Chávez’s activism, people of color still disproportionately lack access to the labor protections everyone deserves.

In addition to the Fair Shot for All coalition, more groups around the country are working to remedy this disparity. In Minneapolis, members of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), a grassroots organization fighting for racial and economic justice, are organizing to pass laws establishing job quality protections such as paid sick days and fair scheduling. NOC organizer Ron Harris explains, “The thousands of stories we collected about employers hiring new people instead of giving out more hours to their current employees or getting schedules the day before people were supposed to work…were coming from low-income communities of color.” He says the group’s campaign “tried to connect the dots, highlighting that the people most likely to suffer from [unfair schedules] are those with black and brown faces.” For NOC, “connecting the dots” means waging a campaign for public policies that create better jobs and address the city’s racial disparities, which are among the highest in the country.

Work by Fair Shot for All, NOC, and other groups and coalitions around the country emphasizes the importance of addressing racial justice and economic justice in concert.  In Good Jobs for All, we find that in addition to unequal wages, racial disparities exist in other aspects of job quality, such as access to paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, and fair scheduling practices. For example, Latinos are much less likely than Whites or Blacks to have access to paid sick days. Blacks and Latinos are also more likely than Whites to be working part-time despite preferring full-time work. Without protections like paid sick days, people who must take time to care for themselves or others may lose their wages or even their jobs, going from low-income to no-income. Without access to full-time work, many working families are barely getting by. Improving job quality—both across the board and for people of color in particular—will help more people stay in the workforce and earn decent wages, ultimately reducing racial and economic disparities.

Good Jobs for All provides data that can help groups working on job quality issues to follow the lead of Fair Shot for All and NOC by approaching their work through a lens of race equity. By drawing attention to the considerable racial inequities in access to decent jobs, this brief helps advocates and policymakers frame their job quality work in terms of its critical importance for people of color. In celebrating the legacy of César Chávez, we must also commit to carrying the torch of racial economic justice efforts that he and his contemporaries lit decades ago.

Read the brief >>