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13.5: Labor Movements- Agricultural Workers

  • Page ID
    196297
    • Mario Alberto Viveros Espinoza-Kulick & Kay Fischer
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    California's Dependence of Immigrant Farmworkers

    Filipinx farm laborers working on a lettuce field
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): A crew of Filipinx farmworkers cut and load lettuce in the Imperial Valley, California. 1937. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USF34-T01-016206-E. (Public Domain; Photo by Dorothea Lange)

    Since the early 20th century, the California agriculture sector has largely depended on immigrant farmworkers. This started with Chinese immigrant laborers who shoveled irrigation channels and cleared the land in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River deltas, helping to transform this region into one of the most fertile farmlands in the nation. Anti-Asian racism persisted and with each iteration of Asian exclusion laws, the agricultural industry of California depended on the labor of different groups including Japanese, South Asian, Filipinx, and Mexican laborers. In the 1930s, some 400,000 white laborers impacted by the Great Depression came with the Dust Bowl migration and were also hired to work in the farm fields (Sowards, 2019, p. 19).

    The Bracero Program (1942 - 1964) was another important moment in California’s agriculture worker history. A joint agreement between U.S. and Mexican governments resulted in the “importation” of male agricultural laborers, also referred to as braceros, from Mexico to the U.S. to help fill the labor shortage during WWII. The second initiation of recruitment resulted from a U.S. executive order, and was essentially a guest worker program where braceros were hired cheaply to work temporarily and returned to Mexico. During such back and forth migration by Mexican workers, the lines of being documented and undocumented became blurred, resulting in a large-scale migration of undocumented workers to the United States (Quintana, 2018).

    Mexican farm workers topping sugar beets
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Mexican agricultural workers in Stockton, California in 1943. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-fsa-8d29109 (Public Domain; Photography by Marjory Collins)

    Growers benefited from hiring immigrant laborers with limited access to other work opportunities and civil and human rights. According to Marshall Ganz, “Growers, in other words, learned how to recruit a workforce too powerless to give them much trouble—a workforce of impoverished new immigrants, noncitizens, and people of color” (2009, p. 24). This naturally resulted in not only abysmal pay, but enormously challenging working and living conditions. In addition to the physically tasking labor of bending over repeatedly under harsh weather, workers were exposed to dangerous chemicals, and families were forced to continuously move with the crop seasons, keeping their children out of school. By the 1960s, life expectancy for farmworkers in California was around forty-nine years (Ruiz and Korrol, 2005, p. 241).

    Large growers in California had developed a tried and true strategy of hiring workers of different ethnicities and pitting them against each other through segregated housing and a racially and ethnically stratified wage scale, relegating the least desirable jobs and lowest pay to those on the bottom of the racial hierarchy, often Filipinx laborers (Mabalon, 2013, p. 66). Filipinx laborers were a part of “a massive army of seasonal migratory workers toiling up and down the West Coast” (p. 69), working in what writer Carey McWilliams called “factories in the fields.” Growers claimed that Filipinx and Mexican workers were more physically suited for these harsh working conditions that oftentimes kept white workers away (Lee, 2015, p. 180).

    The Start of the Delano Grape Strike

    The Delano Grape Strike of 1965 is arguably the most important and successful farmworkers' strikes in California labor history. The strike was initiated by Filipinx labor leader Larry Itliong, with the eventual merging of the Filipinx union and the Mexican union headed by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. The strike ended up lasting five long years, and Chicano Studies historian, Rudy Acuña, pointed out that César Chávez emerged as a civil rights leader and an icon for the Chicano movement (“Struggle in the Fields,” 1995, 19:05 - 19:48). This strike is also recognized by Alex Fabros, Filipino American Labor Historian, as the Filipinx “civil rights movement in California” (Delano Manongs, Arroy and McKay, 2014, 01:22 - 01:26). Yet there is a notable “historical void regarding the role of Filipinos in this important labor movement” (Scharlin and Villanueva 2000, xxv). Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, both longtime Filipinx labor organizers and farmworkers were instrumental in the development of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union and approaching César Chávez about the grape strike in Delano.

    By the 1960s, Filipinx agricultural workers had spent over three decades working crop cycles up and down the west coast, striking “for a few cents more each season,” and therefore had a strong labor consciousness (Delano Manongs, Arroy and McKay, 2014, 08:19 - 08:42). Dolores Huerta, labor organizer with the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), later with the United Farm Workers, explained how Filipinx workers had a reputation for leading many strikes and were known to be militant (07:29 - 07:52). The strikes would result in wage increases, but workers continued to face challenges because a contract was never signed, which would institute more long-term changes in favor of the workers (07:53 - 08:18).

    These older Filipinx farm laborers were also affectionately called manongs by the 1960s, a term of respect meaning “elder brother” in the Illocano language spoken by this community (from Luzon, Philippines). The manongs were in their twilight years by this decade and faced discriminatory policies that banned them from owning property, voting, and the most devastating were the anti-miscegenation laws that banned interracial marriage. This caused what many call the “lost generation” - the second generation of Filipinx people that might have been, had it not been for racist laws. The manongs were largely bachelors with no children of their own (04:19 - 04:55). With no property, barely any savings for their retirement, and no children to rely on, the manongs had everything to lose if their work conditions didn’t improve.

    A mural with faces of Philip Vera Cruz, Larry Itliong, and Cesar Chavez and protestors marching for the strike
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): A mural depicting UFW organizers, Philip Vera Cruz, Larry Itliong, and Cesar Chavez in Los Angles. (Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; Photo by Kenny Chang)

    Filipinx workers were encouraged when they won a “wildcat” (spontaneous, grassroots) grape strike in Coachella Valley in the summer of 1965. The strikers decided to move north and attempted another grape strike in Delano, under the banner of the largely Filipinx led, Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), AFL-CIO (Chávez, 2005, p. 247). Philip Vera Cruz who had spent over three decades working in the fields and in canneries and restaurants, ended up an organizer with the AWOC, AFL-CIO (Lee, 2015, p. 301-302). Vera Cruz noted that this strike changed his life, reflecting that “As a Filipino it gave me the opportunity to participate in the political struggles of this country” (Scharlin and Villanueva, 2000, p. 33).

    Larry Itliong, a dynamic and respected leader of the Filipinx labor movement, known to be tough and always have a cigar in his mouth, was the southern regional director of the AWOC. Like Vera Cruz, Itliong had a long history as a laborer in the United States, starting at age fifteen, working in the farmlands of California and in the Alaskan salmon canneries. Described as brave and strong, Itliong called himself “a son of a bitch…in terms of fighting for the rights of Filipinos in this country” and stated that he wasn’t scared of anyone (Delano Manongs, Arroy and McKay, 2014, 07:12 - 07:27).

    On September 8, 1965, Filipinx members of the AWOC met at the Filipino Hall in Delano and made the decision to strike. The night before, Itliong warned strikers that even if they voted to strike, there were plenty of Mexican workers in Delano who would likely break the strike. He told them, “you’re going to suffer a lot of hardships, maybe you’re going to get hungry, maybe you’re going to lose your car, maybe you’re going to lose your house.” Workers replied, “We don’t care” (Mabalon, 2013, p. 261). As Itliong predicted, the strike was brutal. The growers responded with violence, used intimidation tactics, and attacked homes in the labor camps by turning off the lights, gas, and water (Delano Manongs, Arroy and McKay, 2014, 13:41 - 14:26). Strikers lost their jobs and homes, and ended up having to sleep in their cars.

    The United Farm Workers: A Filipinx and Mexican labor union

    The growers used race to pit workers against one another, regularly hiring Mexican workers to cross the picket line. Filipinx strikers understood that in order for their strike to be successful, they needed Mexican workers to join them. Filipinx and Mexican community members of Delano would socialize together, but out on the fields, they were segregated (Delano Manongs, Arroy and McKay, 10:09 - 10:22). Itliong knew Dolores Huerta from when she used to be an organizer for the AWOC. He approached Huerta and Chávez days after the grape strike in Delano began with a determination to convince the NFWA to join the strike. Chávez initially said no, that they needed more time to organize. Huerta pointed out that the NFWA had planned to organize discreetly and wanted five more years to organize the whole San Joaquin Valley before striking (Ruiz and Korrol, 2005, p. 247).

    Itliong convincingly argued “that if the Mexicans did not stand with the Filipinas/os, if they were scabs while the Filipinas/os struck, then when the Mexicans went on strike, the Filipinas/os would be scabs” (Mabalon, 2013, p. 261). Fabros provided context by stating,

    …you have to remember, the Filipinos were getting old. For them, for every penny, for every quarter, for every dollar, for every lug that they got paid extra, that went into the retirement fund (Delano Manongs, Arroy and McKay, 2014,15:53 - 16:30).

    For Mexican workers and the NWLA, it would be risky to join the strike. They didn’t have a strike fund nor any savings to support a walkout. Artist Ester Hernandez, who was a child of farmworkers during this era explained that, “...the bosses of the fields were threatening everybody left and right that they would lose their jobs, or that they would not be hired, or there were even threats of deportation….So it was pretty frightening” (The Struggle in the Fields, 1995, 09:01 - 09:25). Eliseo Medina, a labor organizer with the NFWA, remembered being moved by Chávez’s words at a union meeting, sharing that he gave everyone hope that they could win despite their fears (10:17 - 10:53). Hernandez added that her family realized there was a lot at stake, but that, “even if we starved to death, that we would not be alone….we had to stay and fight because otherwise nothing was going to change” (11:28 - 11:52).

    Chavez speaking to an audience
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFW) president, César Chávez. (Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0; By Movimiento)

    Mexican workers voted to join the strike on September 16 (Mexican independence day) and then Filipinx and Mexican workers were united, fighting for the same cause. The AWOC and NFWA combined and formed a new union, the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFW), with Larry Itliong as second in command under César Chávez (Delano Manongs, Arroy and McKay, 2014, 18:38 - 18:45).

    Strikers met challenges on the fields, as growers brought in bus loads of replacement workers and attempted to halt the effectiveness of the strike with legal injunctions, limiting where strikers could picket. Strikers were also met with violence and arrests (The Struggle in the Field, 1995, 20:42 -22:08). Soon strike organizers orchestrated a grape boycott campaign, involving the average consumer who were encouraged to boycott purchasing grapes at their local supermarket until a deal was made with the UFW. Then governor of California, Ronald Reagan, would eat grapes in photo ops as often as he could, stating that he thought the boycott was immoral (Delano Manongs, Arroy and McKay, 2014, 19:38 - 1944).

    With the peregrinación or Easter pilgrimage march in 1966, the movement gained mainstream visibility, changing “the course of American labor history” forever (Ruiz and Korrol, 2005, p. 248). A 300-mile march to the state capital resulted in Chávez emerging as the leader and the farmworkers’ struggles became a symbol of the Chicano civil rights movement. Acuña emphasized that in addition to addressing the farmworkers’ demands, Chávez also discussed larger economic justice issues and talked about non-violence (The Struggle in the Fields, 1995, 19:36 - 19:48).

    An important aspect of this movement was non-violence, especially in contrast to the violence inflicted by growers and local police. It was important that, “Both César Chávez and Huerta adhered to the principles of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr” (Ruiz and Korrol, 2005, p. p. 247). In an effort to maintain non-violence principles, Chávez made a decision to go on a fast on Valentine’s Day, 1968. When Chávez broke his fast after 25 days, he attended mass, along with 4,000 supporters, including Senator Robert Kennedy, showing that the workers believed in Chávez’s leadership (The Struggle in the Fields, 1995, 39:32 - 44:15).

    Protestors encouraging shoppers to boycott Safeway
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): UFW picket line urging a boycott of the Langley Park, MD Safeway Store which was carrying non-UFW grapes, Summer 1973. (Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0; Photo by G. Dunkel/Workers World, retrieved from Washington Area Spark)
    A UFW flyer from 1969. Details in caption.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): A UFW leaflet with the phrase "Support Boycott of California Grapes" passed out in the Washington, D.C. are circa 1969 during the years-long boycott of California table grapes in an effort to secure a labor contract for farmworkers. (Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0; Image retrieved from Washington Area Spark)

    Huerta successfully conducted an industry-wide grape boycott from 1968 - 1969, which received nationwide public support, with an estimated 17 million consumers supporting the boycott in 1970, shipments falling by 22% (Ruiz and Korrol, 2005, p. 248). After five long years of the strike, multiple growers signed contracts with the UFW and their grapes were officially union approved, stamped with the UFW label, “signaling the union’s approval to consumers” (p. 248). Twenty-six growers signed contracts with the UFW, raising wages to $1.80 an hour and $0.20 per box. They also secured hiring provisions around seniority when hiring workers, and placed strict protocols on the use of harmful pesticides (Ruiz and Korrol, 2005, p. 248 - 249).

    Growers and farmworkers signed the contracts in the union hall in Delano on July 29, 1970, almost five years after the strike began. There was hope for this momentous ending to the most important farm working struggle. Eliseo Medina, a labor organizer noted the movements’ impact: “I think the greatest achievement is in the change that it made on people. Teaching them how they could fight, how they could stand up for their rights and win” (The Struggle in the Fields, 1995, 50:55 - 53:58).

    For the Filipinx manongs, the signing of the contracts didn’t result in their favor. As the boycott gained national coverage, the media was focused on Mexican workers. Itliong commented: “To hear what’s going on, newspapers and TV and everything, it’s done by Mexicans. Nothing is being done by us. So naturally the Filipinos started drifting away” (Delano Manongs, Arroy and McKay, 2014, 20:16 - 20:28). Manongs left Delano in order to work the crop cycle and survive, essentially walking out of one of the longest strikes in labor history. Once contracts were signed in 1970, and the manongs returned to Delano for the new grape harvest season, they found that they were pushed out of work (21:38 - 21:48). New union rules favored local farmworkers over migrant workers, so the manongs ended up losing their jobs. Worse still, farmers closed the labor camps so Filipinx workers lost their homes as well. Fabros explained that many of the manongs held Chávez in high regard and didn’t want to say anything negative. He stated that ultimately the strike had achieved a union, a goal for the manongs, but, "I don’t think it was in the image that they wanted. They didn’t control it. We started it, we lost in the end" (21:49 - 22:51).

    Of the frustrations Itliong faced working in the UFW, he said, “To tell you the truth, I’ve never taken the shit that I’ve been taking in this organization. But I do it, because I think it’s bigger than me for the farmworkers to have an organization. It’s the reason I do it” (22:51 - 23:08). Itliong eventually left the union and continued to work for the Filipinx community. He left behind a vision for a retirement home for the manongs and the UFW built this home in 1974. Richard Chávez commented that many volunteers came to help build it. At the opening celebration in 1975, a manong shared that this home gave him hope “That I’m going to be in a home that I might call my own, our own” (23:33 - 23:46).

    Sidebar: Dolores Huerta

    A portrait of activist, Dolores Huerta in a blazer, smiling
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Dolores Huerta at the Montclair Film Festival in 2017. (Licensed under CC BY 2.0; Photo by Tony Turner/Montclair Film)

    Dolores Huerta has been described by Alicia Chávez, professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, as “Unflappable as a union organizer…unapologetic as she lived against the grain…she leaves an indelible legacy of labor-organizing in U.S. history” (Ruiz and Korrol, 2005, p. 240). Huerta played an instrumental role in the success of the farmworkers movement of the 1960s, yet as noted by author Stacey K. Sowards, César Chávez is the established public figure representing the movement, and Dolores Huerta, on the other hand, had “received relatively little attention” (2019, p. 1).

    Born April 10, 1930, in Dawson, New Mexico, Huerta was named Dolores Fernández. Her father was a coal miner, but also worked as a farm laborer and was involved in labor issues. When her parents divorced, Dolores moved to Stockton, California, where she was raised among the diverse farm working community of the Central San Joaquin Valley. Although Dolores was not a farmworker herself, her upbringing was influential in her decision later in life to be a labor organizer.

    Dolores earned an Associate’s degree and provisional teaching credentials at the College of the Pacific in Stockton and she taught English to the children of migrant farmworkers, giving her insight into their lives (Ruiz and Korrol, 2005, p. 243). But she eventually left teaching to go into community organizing. Dolores helped mobilize Chicanx communities for voter registration campaigns, addressed police harassment, and advocated for access to healthcare. After meeting César Chávez, they founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in 1962, in Delano, CA, which eventually became the United Farm Workers, or UFW. Huerta ended up dedicating 40 years of her life to this organization, playing “...an integral role in the UFW, as cofounder; vice president; key negotiator with growers; advisor to Chávez; lobbyist in Washington, DC, and Sacramento; and boycott organizer” (Sowards, 2019, p. 2).

    The NFWA joined the Delano Grape Strike in 1966 and Dolores was known as an intrepid organizer, helping to formulate the UFW’s base by talking to people one by one. She conducted door-to-door canvassing, traveled to speaking engagements, and became the first woman and Chicana to organize a union contract with California growers in 1970. And all while a mother to eleven children. Dolores continued lobbying for laws that would protect farmworkers, which eventually led to the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. She also spoke up for women’s rights (Ruiz and Sánchez Korrol, 2005, p. 241).

    Despite such major accomplishments, her leadership was largely ignored and she faced various challenges due to racial and gender discrimination. In one interview Dolores shared that she faced backlash for being an organizer from her family, farmworkers, as well as religious leaders. She had to work undercover through her husband and brother because organizing wasn’t considered appropriate for women (Sowards, 2019, p. 31). Furthermore, much of Dolores’s contribution to the movement “may have been misattributed to Chávez” including the slogan, “Si se puede” (p. 8).

    Of Dolores’s legacy, Alicia Chávez wrote: “She championed the often unrecognized skills that women brought to the union from their own life experiences, such as management of limited resources, organization, and vision for the long-term well-being of their families” (Ruiz and Korrol, 2005, p. 252). It’s certainly not an overstatement to acknowledge Dolores Huerta’s role and the unique skills she brought to the table in one of the most important labor movements of U.S. history.