Cesar Chavez and farm workers get respect from U.S. Labor Department

In another tribute to Cesar E. Chavez and the farm workers movement, the U.S. Labor Department on Monday named the auditorium at its Washington headquarters after the legendary California labor organizer.

It also added pioneers of the farm workers movement to its Hall of Honor, a recognition inside the department’s headquarters to Americans who have improved the quality of life for workers.

Chavez, who died in 1993 at the age of 66, was added in 1998 to the group. It already includes George Meany, Samuel Gompers, 9/11 rescue workers and the striking 1968 Memphis sanitation workers.

“Coming up the ranks in California, I had the privilege of working alongside many UFW leaders,” said U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, a former California state legislator and congresswoman. “No challenge was too great. No corporation or politician was too powerful. They built a union unlike any that had come before it. They turned a community into a movement -- and that movement became a powerful force for change.”

“As labor secretary, I’m proud to work in a building that houses the Labor Hall of Honor,” she added. “It serves as a reminder not just of our history but also of our continuing responsibility to the American worker.”

The event, coming days before what would have been Chavez’s 85th birthday on March 31, was the latest recognition of Chavez -- and less controversial than the naming of a Navy ship after him last year. That drew criticism from Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), who said it appeared to be “more about making a political statement than upholding the Navy’s history and tradition.’’

Chavez’s California retreat in the Tehachapi Mountains also was added to the National Register of Historic Places last year.

On Monday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and members of Chavez’s family were among those in attendance for the naming of the Cesar E. Chavez Memorial Auditorium and the Hall of Honor ceremony. A mosaic of Chavez, donated in 2010, has been placed outside the auditorium.

The ceremony comes as President Obama and his fellow Democrats work to shore up their support among Latino voters before the fall election.

Although the hall recognizes the pioneers of the farm workers movement as a group, United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez spoke about five UFW “martyrs.” They included a 21-year-old worker who was shot to death in 1983 after he voted in a union election at a dairy farm near Fresno and a 28-year-old striker who was killed in an Imperial Valley lettuce field in 1979.

In paying tribute to the pioneers of the farm worker movement, the Labor Department said the movement “took the very best of other social justice movements — including lessons from Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., effective civil disobedience and other peaceful tactics — and married them with modern strategies that involved consumers, students and effecting change by working within existing institutions. The movement drew upon and energized celebrities, politicians, the faith community, and other thinkers and doers.”

“It wasn’t just about one single person. It was thousands of ordinary people inspired to act with extraordinary courage.”


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