Chávez was taught and trained by Pete Fielding, and started working as a union organizer in 1952 for the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Latino civil rights group. Chávez urged Mexican Americans to register and vote, and he traveled throughout California and made speeches in support of workers' rights. He later became CSO's national director in 1958.
Four years later, Chávez left the CSO. He co-founded the National
Farm Workers Association with Dolores Huerta. Later called the United Farm
In 1965, Filipino American farm workers initiated the Delano grape strike in on September 8, 1965, to protest in favor of higher wages. Six months later, Chávez and the NFWA led a strike of California grape-pickers on the historic farmworkers march from Delano to the California state capitol in Sacramento for similar goals. In addition to the strike, the UFW encouraged all Americans to boycott table grapes as a show of support. The strike lasted five years and attracted national attention. When the U.S. Senate Subcommittee looked into the situation, Robert Kennedy gave Chávez his total support. This effort resulted in the first major labor victory for U.S. farm workers.
These activities led to similar movements in Southern Texas in 1966, where the UFW supported fruit workers in Starr County, Texas, and led a march to Austin, in support of UFW farm workers' rights. In the Midwest, César Chávez' movement inspired the founding of two Midwestern independent unions: Obreros Unidos in Wisconsin in 1966, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in Ohio in 1967. Former UFW organizers would also found the Texas Farm Workers Union in 1975.
In the early 1970s, the UFW organized strikes and boycotts to protest for, and later win, higher wages for those farm workers who were working for grape and lettuce growers. During the 1980s, Chávez led a boycott to protest the use of toxic pesticides on grapes. Bumper stickers read "NO GRAPES" and "NO UVAS" (the translation in Spanish) were widespread. He again fasted to draw public attention. UFW organizers believed that a reduction in produce sales by 15% was sufficient to wipe out the profit margin of the boycotted product. These strikes and boycotts generally ended with the signing of bargaining agreements.
Later in life, education became César's passion. The walls of his office in Keene, California, (United Farm Worker headquarters) were lined with hundreds of books ranging in subject from philosophy, economics, cooperatives, and unions, to biographies of Gandhi and the Kennedys.
The UFW during Chávez's tenure was committed to restricting immigration. César Chávez and Dolores Huerta fought the Bracero Program that existed from 1942 to 1964. Their opposition stemmed from their belief that the program undermined U.S. workers and exploited the migrant workers. Their efforts contributed to Congress ending the bracero program in 1964. The UFW was one of the first labor unions to oppose employer sanctions—a federal law that prohibited hiring illegal immigrants in 1973. Later during the 1980s, while Chávez was still the UFW president, Dolores Huerta, the cofounder of the UFW, was key in getting the amnesty provisions into the 1986 federal immigration act.
On a few occasions, concerns that illegal migrant labor would undermine UFW strike campaigns led to a number of controversial events, which the UFW describes as anti-strikebreaking events, but which have also been interpreted as being anti-immigrant. In 1969, Chávez and members of the UFW marched through the Imperial and Coachella Valleys to the border of Mexico to protest growers' use of illegal immigrants as strikebreakers. Joining him on the march were both Reverend Ralph Abernathy and U.S. Senator Walter Mondale. In its early years, Chávez and the UFW went so far as to report illegal aliens who served as strikebreaking replacement workers, as well as those who refused to unionize, to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
In 1973, the United Farm Workers set up a "wet line" along the United States-Mexico border to prevent Mexican immigrants from entering the United States illegally and potentially undermining the UFW's unionization efforts. During one such event in which Chávez was not involved, some UFW members, under the guidance of Chávez's cousin Manuel, physically attacked the strikebreakers, after attempts to peacefully persuade the illegal aliens not to cross the border fail.
In 1973, college professors in Mount Angel, Oregon established the first four-year Mexican-American college in the United States. They chose César Chávez as their symbolic figurehead, naming the college Colegio Cesar Chavez. In the book Colegio Cesar Chavez, 1973-1983: A Chicano Struggle for Educational Self-Determination author Carlos Maldonado writes that Chávez visited the campus twice, joining in public demonstrations in support of the college. Though Colegio Cesar Chavez closed in 1983, it remains a recognized part of Oregon history. On its website the Oregon Historical Society writes, "Structured as a 'college-without-walls,' more than 100 students took classes in Chicano Studies, early childhood development, and adult education. Significant financial and administrative problems caused Colegio to close in 1983. Its history represents the success of a grassroots movement. "
In 1992 Chávez was awarded the Pacem in Terris Award. It was named after a 1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII that calls upon all people of good will to secure peace among all nations. Pacem in Terris is Latin for "Peace on Earth."
César Chávez died on April 23, 1993, of unspecified natural causes in a rental apartment in San Luis, Arizona. His birthday, March 31, is celebrated in California as a state holiday. All state government offices, community colleges, and libraries are closed, except for K-12 schools. Texas also recognizes the day, and it is an optional holiday in Arizona and Colorado.
The California cities of Modesto, Sacramento, San Diego, Berkeley, and San Jose, California have renamed parks after him, and in Amarillo, Texas a bowling alley has been renamed in his memory. In Los Angeles, César E. Chávez Avenue, originally named Brooklyn Avenue, extends from Sunset Boulevard and runs through East Los Angeles and Monterey Park. In San Francisco, César Chávez Street, originally named Army Street, is named in his memory. At San Francisco State University the student center is also named after him. Fresno named an adult school, where a majority percent of students' parents or themselves are, or have been, field workers, after Chávez. In Austin, Texas, one of the central thoroughfares was changed to César Chávez Boulevard. In Ogden, Utah, a four-block section of 30th Street was renamed Cesar Chavez Street. In Oakland, there is a library named after him and his birthday, March 31, is a district holiday in remembrance of him. In 2003, the United States Postal Service honored him with a postage stamp.
In 2005, a César Chávez commemorative meeting was held in San Antonio, honoring his work on behalf of immigrant farmworkers and other immigrants. In Santa Fe, New Mexico and Madison, Wisconsin there are elementary schools named after him in his honor. In Racine, Wisconsin, there is a community center named The Cesar Chavez Community Center also in his honor. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the business loop of I-196 Highway is named "Cesar E Chavez Blvd." The (AFSC) American Friends Service Committee nominated him three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
On December 6, 2006, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver inducted César Chávez into the California Hall of Fame located at The California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts.
On October 9, 2007 The University of Texas at Austin unveiled their César Chávez Statue on campus.
César Chávez's eldest son, Fernándo Chávez, and grandson, Anthony Chávez, each tour the country, speaking about his legacy.