Activism

Today Is Cesar Chavez Day! Why We Need a New Consumer Movement to Support Good Jobs

Exactly 50 years ago, the United Farm Workers launched their boycott.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cesar Chavez day in a national holiday celebrated in the US on March 31 in honor of the great United Farm Workers’ birthday and enduring legacy. The holiday pays homage to Chavez’s life and work and his commitment to social justice through the use of non-violence, strikes, and boycotts. It is a day to promote service to the community in his honor. Although it is not federal holiday, it has been celebrated as a holiday in many states including California (since 1995), Texas (since 2000), Colorado (since 2003), Arizona, Michigan, Nevada (in Reno since 2003), Nebraska and New Mexico. On March 28, 2014, President Obama proclaimed the day as the national Cesar Chavez Day.

Fifty years ago, Cesar Chavez and the nascent United Farm Workers launched what would become the most famous boycott in modern history. The crusade against California grape growers, and their rank exploitation of farm laborers, captured the imagination of the country and paved the way for better conditions for thousands of workers.

As Chavez and the farm workers proved, the boycott can be a powerful tool for social change. But boycotts are also a blunt instrument to be used sparingly as part of a larger arsenal in the fight for economic justice.

If Chavez were alive today and grappling with the nation’s epidemic of economic inequality, he might well embrace another tactic: building a consumer movement to support good jobs. While activists have yet to seize on this strategy, the opportunity is there for a 21st century visionary to rally the public in the same way that Chavez did half a century ago.

A mass movement for good jobs may seem like the polar opposite of a boycott, but it is really just the other side of the same coin. It relies on the same principle as the boycott -- that consumers should not patronize companies that mistreat their employees -- but offers a different call to action. Rather than punishing one company or industry in a finite campaign, a consumer movement for good jobs would reward employers who treat their workers well, and do so for the long haul.

Whereas the boycott requires abstinence, a good jobs consumer movement depends on the willingness of a significant percentage of the public to patronize socially responsible businesses on a regular basis. This hardly seems farfetched in a time when the popularity of green products and healthy food has reshaped entire industries.

Public support for closing the income disparity gap is undeniable -- witness the continuing wave of cities and states that are moving to increase the minimum wage. But activists have yet to harness the public desire for greater economic fairness into the one force that businesses must listen to: consumer demand.

What if advocates were to arm consumers with the knowledge they need to make principled choices when shopping for groceries, choosing a restaurant or booking a hotel? The fact is that for many everyday purchases it is relatively easy to live your values -- if you have the information at hand.

Chavez understood that people do not want to act against their own morality, and usually won’t if given a clear choice. Activists marking the anniversary of his birth this week would do well to learn this lesson and make it part of their game plan as they seek to reverse the nation’s growing gap between the rich and everyone else. 

 

Cherri Senders is founder and publisher of Labor 411, a Los Angeles-based consumer guide to companies that treat their workers fairly. She can be contacted at [email protected].

 

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