Marion Moses, who as a trusted aide to the farm workers’ leader Cesar Chavez promoted a nationwide boycott of table grapes and helped create a health care system for impoverished grape pickers, died on Aug. 28 in San Francisco. She was 84.
The cause was heart failure and renal failure, her brother Maron Moses said.
Dr. Moses met Chavez in 1965 at a church near the University of California, Berkeley, where she was pursuing a master’s degree in English, and was struck by what she described as his “strong moral force.” A month earlier, Chavez had led around 1,700 farm workers and their families in his fledgling union to strike against grape growers in California.
Dr. Moses soon traveled to Chavez’s headquarters in Delano, a small city in the heart of California’s table-grape region. At the time, farm workers’ wages in California averaged less than $1.20 an hour (less than $10 an hour in today’s money). Dr. Moses found that the grape pickers lacked running water and toilets, were excluded from health safety labor laws, could be fired at will, and got no overtime or vacations.
Union volunteers such as Dr. Moses, much like the workers, lived in impoverished circumstances, and they earned even less: $5 a week in addition to room and board. Dr. Moses started out sleeping on a farmworker’s floor. By 5:30 a.m., she was on the picket line.
“The valley was hot and dusty and dull,” she wrote later in a firsthand account in The American Journal of Nursing, adding: “I worried about where I would live, what I would eat, what I would do for money. I worried about inconsequential things that never concern me now.”
Dr. Moses devoted the next five years to Chavez and his campaign to force grape growers to the bargaining table and win new rights for farm laborers.
Having worked as a nurse in the Bay Area, Dr. Moses focused on providing health care to strikers. She made hundreds of home visits and ran the union’s health clinic, despite a meager supply of drugs and staggering medical problems.
“Having some kind of health care was a big deal for people and their families,” said Miriam Pawel, who interviewed Dr. Moses for her biography “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez” (2014). “The clinic becomes part of the effort to appeal to farm workers that there is some benefit to them in joining the union.”
Dr. Moses grew in Chavez’s esteem. When he suspected that someone was stealing from the union, he asked Dr. Moses to look into it. (She found evidence implicating the culprit.) Speaking to another biographer, Jacques Levy, Chavez listed Dr. Moses among his five most dependable associates.
“Marion has never said ‘No’ to an assignment,” Chavez was quoted as saying in Ms. Pawel’s biography.
In the summer of 1967, Chavez asked Dr. Moses to help promote a consumer grape boycott across North America. She arrived in New York knowing almost nobody and was introduced to the feminist writer and editor Gloria Steinem, who joined the cause and let Dr. Moses sleep on a couch in her Upper East Side apartment for six months.
The two women picketed supermarkets with Huntington Hartford, the heir to the A.&P. supermarket fortune. They organized a benefit event at Carnegie Hall with the actress Lauren Bacall and the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. They successfully lobbied to get Chavez on the cover of Time magazine.
“Like any good organizer, she was a connector of different worlds,” Ms. Steinem said in a phone interview. “She was at home in the world of farm workers. She was not at home in the world of New York or the media, but she could connect to and communicate with them.”
The boycott swayed public opinion. In 1970, the growers signed contracts with Chavez’s United Farm Workers union.
Dr. Moses’s advocacy helped fuel some of the union’s biggest victories during the contract negotiations: Growers agreed to stop using so-called “hard pesticides,” like DDT, and to add 10 cents an hour in benefits toward a union health care plan. DDT was soon outlawed by the federal government, and the health plan quickly paid out over $2 million in benefits to workers.
Marion Theresa Moses was born on Jan. 24, 1936, in Wheeling, W. Va. Her father, Maron Moses, ran a frozen food distributor, and her mother, Mary Wakim Moses, was a homemaker. All four of her grandparents were Lebanese immigrants.
She graduated from Georgetown University in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, becoming the first of 68 cousins to earn a college degree.
While many of her classmates were the children of lawyers or doctors, her father had attended school only through 11th grade, and her mother only through fifth. “She was by far the poorest in her class,” her brother Maron said. “She’s always had a soft spot in her heart for the underdog, simply because she might have thought she was one.”
She went on to obtain a master’s in nursing education at Columbia University in 1960 and a medical degree from Temple University in 1976.
Her medical achievements included tending to Chavez during his many hunger strikes and getting Janet Travell, President John F. Kennedy’s personal physician, to visit Delano to treat Chavez’s back pain. The therapeutic rocking chair that Dr. Travell prescribed remains on display at the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene, Calif.
From 1977 to 1980, Dr. Moses was a medical resident at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. She grew close to the progressive Catholic activist and thinker Dorothy Day, who, like Chavez, was devoted to the poor. Dr. Moses became Day’s doctor, and the two would discuss books over dinner.
Dr. Moses rejoined the United Farm Workers in California in 1983. Purges by Chavez of onetime allies and the loss of contracts, however, had weakened the union. There were still injustices to take on, including the effects of pesticides on workers, but neither she nor Chavez could recapture the triumphs of the early years.
The clinics where she had gotten her start were shut down, and Dr. Moses left her position as the union’s medical director in 1986. (Chavez died at 66 in 1993.)
Dr. Moses later became an adjunct faculty member at the San Diego State University School of Public Health and continued to study and publicize challenges faced by farm workers. She self-published two books through a foundation she had established, the Pesticide Education Center, and lived austerely, paying for her rent-controlled San Francisco apartment using Social Security.
Even in her final years, Dr. Moses got calls from farm workers and organizers seeking medical advice; they still thought of her as “La Doctora.”
In addition to her brother Maron, she is survived by four other siblings: Martha Moses, Marcella Miller, Martin Moses and Marlene Moses.
Dr. Moses’ reputation for selflessness in her work toward social justice, her associates said, had always insured that she could recruit others to her side.
“To get a phone call from Marion was to know that you were going to be asked to do something,” Ms. Steinem said, “and that you were going to do it.”