Guest blog: César Chávez, jail time and migrant justice today

By George Sheridan,

The drinking faucet was attached to an overflowing toilet in the middle of the cell. There were no beds. Some of us slept on metal tables; some sat on the sticky floors. I was with a group of teachers arrested nearly a decade ago for demonstrating at the California State Capitol. We were protesting legislators who had blocked the budget, denying students the learning opportunities that all children deserve.

Lockup, even in a county jail, is a place no one wants to be. But from suffragist Alice Paul to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., to César Chávez, jail is a common experience for those who fight for justice in America.

César Chávez, born on March 31, knew that fight well. He wrote, “God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. He gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on earth.” He also said, “When we are really honest with ourselves we must admit our lives are all that really belong to us.” So it is how we use our lives that determines what kind of human beings we are. 

This week America honors César for his work to bring justice to the farmworkers of California. But if César, who led the United Farm Workers, is remembered a hundred years from now, it will not just be for the grape and lettuce strikes and boycotts. It will be because of the  example he set for groups like Migrant Justice.

Migrant Justice, based in Vermont, is organizing farmworkers to improve and advance their fundamental human rights. Its cutting-edge human rights organizing and the concrete victories it has been able to achieve through its approach have become a national model. Migrant Justice carries on the work of César Chávez, earning the immigrant-led organization NEA’s human and civil rights award.

Migrant Justice began its Milk with Dignity campaign in 2015, calling on Ben & Jerry’s to take responsibility for abusing farmworkers’ rights. The campaign had some success, but Ben & Jerry’s has not yet implemented a full program to secure the rights of farmworkers within the company’s Northeast dairy supply chain. The work continues.

In recent weeks the Trump administration began targeting high-profile immigrant activists around the country. Leaders of Migrant Justice were arrested during these actions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

As hundreds of Migrant Justice’s supporters protested in Boston, NEA took the unprecedented step of calling on ICE to release the detained leaders. Two are free, but a third remains in jail.

Our core American values are violated when people are arrested for speaking up, or for doing what we know is right, just, and courageous. We believe these arrests had one intent: to discourage immigrants from organizing for their rights and dignity by attacking an organization led by immigrants. Can the Trump administration break the community’s spirit by targeting its leaders?

When ICE zeroes in on immigrant community leaders, the agents are attacking workers’ right to organize.  And they are making our job as teachers harder. All students have the right, regardless of immigration status, to a quality public school education, which includes a safe and stable learning environment. How can students succeed – how can they even focus on their studies – when they live in fear that their parents may be snatched from their homes or picked up across the street from their school?

I had the privilege of working with César Chávez and the Farm Workers Union for eight years. Because of that, I have a special connection to Migrant Justice and the campaign it is waging for the dignity of workers.

For more than 50 years, NEA has recognized and honored those who fight for human and civil rights. It is our privilege to stand shoulder to shoulder with the leaders of Migrant Justice, and in doing so to celebrate the life and legacy of César Chávez. Solidarity forever!

George Sheridan is a teacher in the Black Oak Mine Unified School District in California and a member of the Executive Committee of the National Education Association. For eight years, he was an organizer for the United Farm Workers, AFL-CIO, led by Cesar Chavez.

Migrant Justice, a Vermont-based organization fighting for the rights and dignity of dairy workers. Migrant Justice received the NEA César Chávez Acción y Compromiso Human and Civil Rights Award, which honors a nominee who follows in the exemplary footsteps of the labor rights and civil rights activist in philosophy, work, and leadership in improving the lives of workers.  

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