Here in California last Thursday, it was a state holiday -- the birthday of Cesar Chavez, founder and leader of the United Farm Workers Union. There were no brass bands nor Main Street parades, but this day this year comes at a crossroads for unions in America.
In Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere, public employee unions are under siege. Many conservative commentators have asserted a difference between these unions of largely white collar bureaucrats and the struggles of miners, farm workers, and the really/truly oppressed. But Chavez himself made no such distinctions -- he was, in the finest Catholic tradition, a bulwark for dignified labor no matter who it was and where the work happened.
That key to Chavez is made clear in a column by the new Archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose Gomez. Writing in the archdiocesan newspaper The Tidings, Gomez notes of the labor leader: "In everything, he declared that life is sacred and that the human person has a dignity as a child of God that no one can take away."
Yes, Chavez fought for the most discarded in our society -- farm workers still fight for basic human rights, still struggle to provide a better life for their children. In comparison, yes, a public school teacher or motor vehicles inspector has no complaint.
But they know what Chavez knew: without a strong union, their standard of living will inevitably decline. They have seen it in other crafts and skills and professions -- from auto workers to textile manufacturers.
Like Chavez then, it seems today's unions are fighting against a tide of history and human behavior too strong to overcome. But Chavez did -- and migrants workers throughout the Southwest and beyond regard him today as a kind of saint. As Archbishop Gomez writes, his defense of human dignity was "heroic."
The work of maintaining that dignity, safeguarding it, continues with new urgency today.