At its peak in the 1970s, the UFW represented fewer than 100,000 members, but still managed to capture the imaginations of millions, particularly within the Chicano community. Its leaders, such as Chavez and Dolores Huerta, became household names. Its slogans — like "Si, se puede" ("Yes, we can") — are still chanted today.
The roots of the organization were humble. Through much of the 20th century, Chicanos faced systemic job and housing discrimination. They, along with Filipino workers, formed the bulk of the labor force in the West’s thriving agriculture sector. But farmworkers were not covered under the National Labor Relations Act, which gave most others at least the nominal right to form a union.
Despite legal barriers and the outright violence of owners, Chavez’s UFW scored victories where others failed, because of its focus on combining traditional strikes with boycotts, vigils and marches. The actions helped build a moral and ethical infrastructure to the drives that could attract public sympathy. In the fields, the power of the bosses would always crush that of the workers, but with the aid of millions success was possible.
Though the UFW wasn’t protected by the NLRA, it was also not restricted by the Taft-Hartley Act, which made tactics like secondary boycotts illegal for most other labor organizations. Its flexibility and reliance on outside help contrasted sharply with the bread-and-butter approach of most Cold War–era unions, which focused primarily on direct negotiation with employers to improve conditions and wages for their own members. The creativity of the United Farm Workers, as Randy Shaw notes in his book “Beyond the Fields,” reshaped the way progressives in and out of the labor movement thought about strategy.