Robert Kennedy courageously took on injustice wherever he found it, even when it was unpopular or dangerous to do so. In the 1950’s, some labor unions – originally designed to establish and protect the rights of workers had been hijacked by powerful crime bosses who used violence to enforce unethical money-making schemes. As a member of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation, Robert Kennedy took on the infamous Jimmy Hoffa, President of the United Teamsters Union.
A decade later, Bob Kennedy would courageously stand up with the United Farm Workers in California, led by Cesar Chavez, to demand a living wage and humane treatment for the migrant farm workers.
Serving justice through the law
1957 | The U.S. Senate Labor Rackets Committee
Labor rights movements
1. 1966 | Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers
As a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Migratory Labor, Robert Kennedy was appalled to learn about the abhorrently unfair working conditions endured by farmers mistreated by large agricultural businesses. Always wanting to witness situations first-hand, Kennedy flew to California to meet with striking farm-workers who faced terrible working conditions, particularly in the grape fields.
With Cesar Chavez in the lead, the United Farm Workers organized to peacefully protest for fair wages, lunch breaks, bathrooms and access to clean water – rights that most laborers had been legally granted in the 1930’s. However, they were being subjected to unfair arrest. Watch Kennedy take on those who were abusing the rights of these workers:
Kennedy was deeply moved by what Chavez was fighting for and that we was doing so through non-violent means. He threw his full support behind efforts to overcome injustices directed towards farm workers.
Beyond Bobby and Cesar’s respect for one another was a genuine friendship that has been maintained between the Kennedy and Chavez families until this day.
2. 1968 | Appalachia
…I’ve seen proud men in the hills of Appalachia who wish only to work in dignity, but they cannot, for the mines have closed and their jobs are gone, and no one — neither industry, labor nor government — has cared enough to help …
We went to eastern Kentucky . . . , the last visit we were able to make before Kennedy decided to run for president. Visiting families and holding community hearings in a school gymnasium, we documented the existence of serious hunger in that economically devastated former coal-mining area. The inquiry revealed not just the economic decline but the power disparities. In nearly every place, especially rural communities, where we found a severe unwillingness to help the poor, we also found, and not always because of ethnic differences, a pocket of feudalism in America: a local power structure committed to perpetuating itself at all costs and unwilling to countenance the slightest improvement in the lives of the excluded, for fear they would gain the confidence and the wherewithal to overturn the status quo at the ballot box. Elected officials, judges, police officers and sheriffs, and local bankers and business people were always ready to use any tool necessary to quash dissidence whenever it appeared. This was true in Cesar Chavez’s world in California, in the Rio Grande valley in south Texas, in Mississippi, and in Appalachia. -Peter Edelman