The Bracero program, an informal arrangement between the United States
and Mexican governments, became Public Law 78 in 1951. Started during
World War II as a program to provide Mexican agricultural workers
to growers, it continued after the war.
| ||For more than a century farmworkers
had been denied a decent life in the fields and communities
of California's agricultural valleys. Essential to the state's
biggest industry, but only so long as they remained exploited
and submissive farmworkers had tried but failed so many times
to organize the giant agribusiness farms that most observers
considered it a hopeless task. And yet by the early 1960's things
were beginning to change beneath the surface. Within another
fifteen years more than 50,000 farmworkers were protected by
union contracts. |
Public Law 78 stated that no bracero-a temporary worker imported
from Mexico-could replace a domestic worker. In reality this provision
was rarely enforced. In fact the growers had wanted the Bracero
program to continue after the war precisely in order to replace
The small but energetic National Farm Labor Union, led by dynamic
organizer Ernesto Galarza, found its efforts to create a lasting
California farmworkers union in the 1940's and 50's stymied again
and again by the growers' manipulation of braceros.
Over time, however, farmworkers, led by Cesar Chavez, were able
to call upon allies in other unions, in churches and in community
groups affiliated with the growing civil rights movement, to put
enough pressure on politicians to end the Bracero Program by 1964.
CONDITIONS OF FARM WORKERS & THEIR WORK
Farm labor contractors played favorites with workers, selecting friends
first, sometimes accepting bribes. Child labor was rampant, and many
workerswere injured or died in easily preventable accidents. The average
life expectancy of a farmworker was 49 years.
| ||But some things hadn't changed. Grape
pickers in 1965 were making an average of $.90/hour, plus ten
cents per "lug" (basket) picked. State laws regarding working
standards were simply ignored by growers. At one farm the boss
made the workers all drink from the same cup "a beer can"in
the field; at another ranch workers were forced to pay a quarter
per cup. No ranches had portable field toilets. Workers' temporary
housing was strictly segregated by race, and they paid two dollars
or more per day for unheated metal shacks-often infested with
mosquitoes-with no indoor plumbing or cooking facilities. |
NEW ORGANIZATIONS, NEW POSSIBILITIES
Two organizations attempted to represent and organize the farmworkers.
One had been formed in 1959 by the AFL-CIO, called the Agricultural
Workers Organizing Committee. It was an outgrowth of an earlier
farmworker organization, the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA),
founded by Dolores Huerta. AWOC was mostly composed of Filipinos,
Chicanos, Anglos and Black workers. The Filipino workers in particular
had experience organizing unions in the fields and with strikes.
Two of its early leaders were Larry Itliong, a Filipino, and Dolores
Huerta, a Chicana.
The National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) was started by a young
Chicano named Cesar Chavez in 1962. Chavez, the son of a family
of extremely poor farmworkers, had risen through the ranks of the
grassroots Community Service Organization (CSO) to become its national
director. CSO worked with communities to solve problems through
organizing and direct action. But when CSO refused to concentrate
its efforts on organizing farmworkers, Chavez left to found the
NFWA. From his base in Delano, he traveled for three years from
town to town in the central valleys of California, meeting with
groups of farmworkers in their homes, tirelessly building an organization
he hoped would one day become an effective union. His co-founder
was Dolores Huerta, one of the CSO's farmworker activists.
BEFORE THE BEGINNING
Two short strikes occurred in the spring of 1965. Eighty-five farmworkers
in a McFarland rose farm asked the NFWA to help them gain a wage
increase. Assisted by Chavez and Huerta, the workers struck. After
a few days the growers agreed to the wage increase but not to union
recognition. The workers contented themselves with the money and
returned to work.
Around the same time AWOC led a walkout of hundreds of Filipino
and Mexican grape pickers in Coachella Valley. Although the bracero
program had officially ended the year before, a new U.S.-Mexico
agreement allowed growers to import Mexican workers, if they were
paid $1.25 an hour, and never paid more than domestic workers. When
Coachella grape growers attempted to pay the local workers less
than the imported workers, the Filipinos, many of whom were AWOC
members, refused to work.
Coachella grapes, grown in southernmost California, ripen first
in the state. Getting the grapes picked and to market quickly is
crucial to the Coachella growers' profits. After ten days the growers
decided to pay everyone $1.25 per hour, including Chicanos who had
joined the Filipinos. Once more, however, no union contract was
IT STARTED IN DELANO
At the end of summer the grapes were ripening in the fields around
Delano, a farm town north of Bakersfield. Many of the farmworkers
from the successful Coachella action had come up to Delano, trailing
the grape harvest. Farmworkers demanded $1.25 per hour, and when
they didn't receive it, on September 8 nine farms were struck, organized
by AWOC's Larry Itliong.
After five days growers began to bring in Chicano scabs from the
surrounding area. AWOC approached Chavez and asked the NFWA to join
the mostly Filipino strike. At a meeting on September 16, packed
with hundreds of workers, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church
in Delano, the NFWA voted unanimously, to shouts of "Viva la Huelga!",
to strike too. Chavez was apprehensive. Asked later when he felt
his organization-which had $100 in its bank account, would have
been ready to go out on a big strike, he replied, "About 1968."
In joining the strike, the NFWA, with many more members than AWOC,
took the lead. It also strengthened the ethnic make up of the strike:
now the majority of workers involved were Chicano. By September
20 more than thirty farms were out, with several thousand workers
leaving the fields. Despite the large numbers of striking farmworkers,
however, the workers could not muster picket lines at all the ranches
simultaneously. There were many fields strung across hundreds of
NFWA and AWOC set up a system of roving pickets, with different
fields picketed each day. Fifteen or twenty cars full of pickets
would go to a field where a grower was attempting to use strikebreakers.
Striking workers, often harassed by the growers and police, sometimes
violently, would try to get the scabs to leave the fields. Remarkably,
their appeals were successful much of the time in persuading workers
to join the strike.
The growers made a mistake almost immediately. They had always
been able to end strikes with small wage concessions. Soon after
the strike began, they raised wages to $1.25 per hour. This time
they were shocked to discover it wasn't enough. The raise merely
encouraged the strikers to believe they were being effective. Now
there had to be a union, too.
SQUEEZING THE COMPANIES WITH A BOYCOTT
Shortly after the strike erupted, Chavez called upon the public
to refrain from buying grapes without a union label. Union volunteers
were sent out to big cities, where they established boycott centers
that organized friendly groups-unions, churches, community organizations-to
not buy grapes, and in turn to join in publicizing the boycott.
The strikers' cause was boosted by other events in the nation at
the same time. The Civil Rights movement had increased public awareness
of the effects of racism, including lowered standards of living
for the victims of prejudice in housing, employment, schools, voting,
and other areas of daily life. The Civil Rights movement focused
attention on the treatment of Blacks in the south. But the situation
in the fields of California proved similar enough that the largely
Chicano and Filipino farmworkers benefited by the new public understanding
of racism. As a result, millions of consumers stopped buying table
THE BIGGER THEY ARE . . .
The two biggest growers in the Delano area, Schenley and DiGiorgio,
were the most vulnerable to the boycott. Both companies were owned
by corporate entities with headquarters far from Delano. For each
company grape growing was a relatively minor part of a larger economic
empire. Schenley and DiGiorgio had union contracts with workers
in many other parts of their business. The boycott had the potential
to hurt sales in other product areas, and to harm labor relations
with their other workers.
Schenley was the first to crack. Soon after the strike began Schenley
had sprayed striking workers with agricultural poisons. In protest
the NFWA organized a march to Sacramento. Seventy strikers left
Delano on foot on March 17, 1966, led by Chavez. They walked nearly
340 miles in 25 days. Along the way they picked up hundreds of friends
and rallied with thousands of people. A Chicano theater group, El
Teatro Campesino, staged skits about the struggle from the back
of a flatbed truck every night. The march attracted media attention
and public support. Arriving in Sacramento on Easter morning, Chavez
announced to a cheering demonstration of 10,000 supporters in front
of the Capitol building that Schenley had bowed before the pressure
and signed an agreement with the NFWA.
Within weeks, DiGiorgio agreed to hold a representation election.
But before the election could be held, a complication arose. The
International Brotherhood of Teamsters, ignoring the questions of
social justice at the core of the farmworkers' campaign for union
recognition, offered itself to DiGiorgio as a conservative alternative
to the NFWA/AWOC. The grower eagerly assented. Chavez and the NFWA,
infuriated at this betrayal by another union, called for the workers
to boycott the election. Heeding the call of the union, more than
half the 800 workers at DiGiorgio's huge Sierra Vista ranch refused
Governor Pat Brown appointed an arbitrator, who ordered another
election. This time the NFWA beat the Teamsters decisively. The
two largest growers in Delano were employers of union labor.
LA HUELGA CONTINUES
However, the strike dragged on at dozens of grape farms throughout
the Delano area. In the past a farmworkers' union would have been
unable to survive such a long conflict. But there was strength in
worker solidarity. NFWA and AWOC merged during the summer, just
before the DiGiorgio election. On August 22, the two organizations
became the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (UFWOC).
The new union received organizing funds from the AFL-CIO, as well
as strike support from other unions consisting of food, cash, and
Despite continuing Teamster collusion with the growers, the UFWOC
organized steadily in the fields, and the grape boycott gathered
steam in the cities. By 1970 the UFW got grape growers to accept
union contracts and effectively organized most of that industry,
claiming 50,000 dues paying members - the most ever represented
by a union in California agriculture. Gains included a union-run
hiring hall, a health clinic and health plan, credit union, community
center and cooperative gas station, as well as higher wages. The
hiring hall meant an end to discrimination and favoritism by labor
In cities around the country UFW support became stronger. UFWOC,
as Chavez had envisioned, had become both a union and a civil rights
movement, and this was the key to its success. The dual character
of the farmworkers organization gave it a depth of moral pressure
and sense of mission felt by members and supporters alike. It seemed
as if the farmworkers of California had finally created a union
that would last.