Farmworkers and the Union: A Lesson from Viva La Causa

Students will understand the organizational and agenda issues common among labor unions.
Grade Level


Activites will help students:

  • Understand the organizational and agenda issues common among labor unions, with particular focus on techniques central to the United Farm Workers during la causa.
  • Explore the tension between employers’ interests and those of workers.
Essential Questions
  • What does the phrase, “power in numbers” mean to you?
  • What are some benefits and challenges of labor unions?
  • What basic rights should all workers expect?
  • What type of person would you want to represent you in a negotiation for your rights?

This lesson is part of the Viva la Causa teaching kit.



A union is an organization of workers who have come together to achieve common goals in key areas such as wages and workplace conditions. The union bargains with the employer on behalf of workers and negotiates a labor contract guaranteeing workers certain rights and benefits. In this lesson, students will delve deeper into the three objectives and activities typical among unions: collective bargaining, industrial action, and political activity.



After viewing the film, ask students the following questions and list their responses on the board.

  • Based on your viewing of Viva La Causa, why did the farmworkers strike?
    (Answers will vary, but may include: They wanted better working conditions, fair pay and the dignity accorded to them as human beings.)
  • Why do you think the growers resisted the workers needs for better wages and working conditions? How did the growers exercise power over workers before and during the strike?
    (Answers will vary, but may include: The growers resisted because it would cost them more money and because they didn't think things needed to change and it was OK to treat workers that way. That's how things had always been. During the strike, the growers used threats, guns, intimidation and strikebreakers to exercise their power.)
  • How did the farmworkers place pressure on the growers to address their concerns?
    (Answers will vary, but may include: The farmworkers went on strike, educated the public, boycotted products and sought allies.)
  • Why did the farmworkers get involved in national politics? How did this benefit the union?
    (Answers will vary, but may include: The farmworkers' struggle came to the attention of Senator Robert Kennedy, who brought national attention to the cause. When the public learned of the farmworkers' plight, many Americans were sympathetic and ultimately joined in actions like the boycott. Because Kennedy believed in treating wokers fairly, many volunteered for his presidential campaign.)
  • When the strike finally ended after five years of struggle, what did the workers gain? What did the growers gain?
    (Answers will vary, but may include: The farmworkers won toilets in the fields, cold drinking water, rest periods, grievance procedures, pesticide controls, a hiring hall, a wage increase and the right to be represented by a union. They also gained their dignity and the respect of growers. The growers got their product back into the market and learned a lesson on treating people with dignity.)
  • What were some of the sacrifices farmworkers made during the struggle?
    (Answers will vary, but may include: Farmworkers paid a great price for their involvement in the movement. Most lost their jobs, cars and homes.)

Emphasize that the everyday worker makes a union the powerhouse that it is. Also emphasize that unions operate through dialogue and nonviolent means to make life better for workers.

Distribute the Farmworkers and the Union handout to students. Explain that three main areas of focus for unions typically are collective bargaining, industrial action and political activity.

Ask students to draw from the class discussion and pencil in specific actions undertaken by the farmworkers and their union. Ask students to write a summary sentence about why unions are important.

As a culminating activity, give students an audience and purpose beyond the classroom to share what they've learned. Students can either (a) write their summary statements on postcards and mail them to local unions to show support, or (b) write statements on large protest signs and place them in strategic areas of your community. When feedback comes to you, be sure to share the impact of the students actions with them.


Extension Activity

To deepen students' understanding of labor unions, divide them into five diverse small groups. Ask each group to research one of the following "Fast Facts" and to uncover at least five details related to its theme.

Groups should consolidate their findings on poster board or large sheets of paper, using words and illustrations to communicate key facts and issues. Groups should present their findings to the whole class. Students' posters also can be displayed in school common areas to educate others about unions in the U.S.

Fast Fact: Unions have made life better for all working Americans by helping to pass laws ending child labor, establishing the eight-hour work day, the five-day work week, protecting workers' safety and health and helping create Social Security, unemployment insurance and the minimum wage. AFL-CIO

Fast Fact: Dolores Huerta co-founded the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez. It was a pioneering role. Then and now, women tend to be underrepresented in union leadership. Today, women represent 44 percent of all union members in the U.S., but hold just 21 percent of lead organizer positions. The Institute for Womens Policy Research

Fast Fact: When workers seek to join unions today, 90 percent of private employers oppose their efforts, according to Cornell University researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner. Some employers harass workers. Others threaten to close facilities, and an astounding 25 percent illegally fire workers seeking to join a union.

Fast Fact: According to a 2007 Gallup poll, 60% of Americans approve of labor unions, while 32% disapprove. The highpoint in approval occurred in the mid- 1950s, with a 75% rating in 1953 and again in 1957. The low point was 55% in 1979 and 1981.

Fast Fact: The Universal Declaration on Human Rights affirms, "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests." In the U.S., however, the National Labor Relations Act, which governs unionization, excludes certain workers, including agricultural laborers, and leaves more than three million agricultural workers without federal protections to organize. Some states, like California and Arizona, have laws regulating at least some aspects of collective bargaining for workers excluded from the federal law. Human Rights Watch