César Chávez was one of the most inspirational agricultural labor leaders in the 20th century, and his union, the United Farm Workers (UFW), was the first agricultural union to make substantial gains for field and migrant workers.
California Growers' Rise to Power
By the beginning of the 20th century, California bonanza wheat farmers (farmers with high acreage, large workforces, and modern equipment) began to plant fruit trees and vegetables. Improvements in transportation soon made the Central, Imperial, and Coachella valleys the most important vegetable-producing areas of the nation.
In 1905, citrus growers organized the California Fruit Grower's Exchange, known under the brand name Sunkist. Within the first two decades of the 20th century, this group came to control two-thirds of the California citrus marketplace. Because of the high cost of irrigation, wealthy growers began to consolidate their landholdings over the first four decades of the century. By 1935, three companies controlled 40% of the prunes and raisin supply, three wineries sold 26% of the wine produced, and four companies owned 66% of the cotton ginned in the state. These increasingly powerful growers needed a large workforce at harvest time.
Recruiting Migrant Workers
California growers at first turned to Chinese immigrants that populated the state in the late 19th century, but xenophobia and racism soon cut off this labor source. Growers then turned to other ethnic groups, including the Japanese, Filipinos, and Mexicans. Owners began to favor Mexicans and Mexican Americans because they believed these workers were more docile than Asians, were less likely to unionize, and usually left the area soon after the harvest. Growers came to believe that they needed and had the right to an unlimited supply of cheap labor. This idea led them to appeal to the federal government for help with perceived labor shortages during World War II. Consequently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) started the Bracero Program, which allowed the federal government to recruit workers from Mexico to perform the hard labor required to plant, cultivate, and harvest a crop. Growers were able to use these braceros as strikebreakers until the program was ended in the 1960s.
Because migrant workers were mobile and often foreign, unions generally ignored them. Growers also over-recruited laborers to keep wages low and rid themselves of troublesome workers. Because of growers' political and legal power, any workers who attempted to strike could be quickly broken up. Still, some unions tried to organize the workers to improve their wages and working conditions. The first major attempt to organize workers was by the Communist-controlled United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America in 1931. Although they saw limited success in the fields, they were able to raise the consciousness of writers and newspaper reporters like Carey McWilliams. After World War II, the National Farm and Labor Union (NFLU) began to organize workers. A 1947 grape strike in the San Joaquin Valley turned violent when the growers hired thugs to break the picket lines and destroy the union's headquarters. The growers were able to lay the blame for the violence on outside agitators in the national press, and the union crumbled in the Cold War climate of the 1950s because of its links to the Communist Party. To further lessen the abilities of a strike to succeed, growers got the Harry S. Truman administration to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, which prohibited secondary boycotts, sympathy strikes, and massive picketing. In 1952, they also got Congress to exempt them from prosecution for hiring illegal workers.
Beginnings of the Farmworker Movement
It was in this atmosphere that César Chávez began to organize workers. He became an organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO) in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. Moving to Delano in the San Joaquin Valley, he began efforts to organize a union called the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). Another union called the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) was attempting to organize Filipino workers in the area. Chávez planned on building the infrastructure of the union slowly, establishing its newspaper entitled El Malcriado
, and developing symbols that could be used to rally workers in the upcoming years.
Circumstances changed Chávez's plans when his young union got caught up in a grape pickers strike by AWOC members near Delano in 1965. Although the Bracero Program had officially ceased the previous year, Gov. Pat Brown and President Lyndon B. Johnson, under pressure from growers, agreed to allow a limited number of braceros to do fieldwork in California for at least $1.40 an hour. When Filipino workers in the Coachella Valley discovered that they were being offered $1.25 an hour, the AWOC decided that a strike was in order. The AWOC called on the NFWA to join the walkout, which would be known as the Delano grape strike.
Fight for Union Recognition
What had started out as an attempt to get growers to raise wages turned into an opportunity to get them to recognize the union's right to represent the workers. With the aid of his top organizers, Gilbert Padilla and Dolores Huerta, Chávez would struggle over the next five years to get local growers to sign contracts with the union. Great effort was placed on building solidarity among the strikers, until the two unions merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). With the support of the Catholic Church and philanthropists, the UFWOC began to reach out to other unions, students, and protesters to aid them in the cause.
From the very beginning of the strike, Chávez stressed the nonviolent principles practiced by Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi, which proved difficult at times. Growers like Bruno and Charles Dispoto sprayed picketers with pesticides and threatened them with dogs. As cries of "huelga
" ("strike") mounted in 1965, growers began a smear campaign and increased the level of violence. Politicians and other labor leaders began to voice their support and visit Chávez. After a march to Sacramento in March 1966, the union almost got the Schenley liquor company to recognize it.
Other companies in the valley proved more difficult. Chávez called a strike against the DiGiorgio Corporation after a series of fruitless negotiations. The company fought back by obtaining an injunction limiting the number of picketers around its Sierra Vista Ranch. DiGiorgio tried to enlist the Teamsters by rigging worker elections on its farms so that the Teamsters would win and sign sweetheart deals with the company. After a great amount of political pressure, new elections were held with the UFWOC coming out victorious. DiGiorgio quickly signed contracts with the union, which it would break within the next two years.
Grape Strike Goes Nationwide
In 1967, the UFWOC began focusing on the biggest grape concern in the state, Giumarra Vineyards. Giumarra immediately obtained an injunction limiting the number of strikers, sparking a nationwide boycott against table grapes. The violence in the fields continued to escalate. In October 1966, Manuel Rivera had his leg crushed when a grower plowed his vehicle through a picket line. As some people's talk turned toward violence, Chávez went on a 25-day fast in 1968 to reaffirm his commitment to nonviolence. This action would become the defining moment in the history of the union's activities, as national press coverage increased and growers tried legal action to force Chávez to eat.
By 1969, the boycott was having a deep effect on Giumarra and other growers, although the U.S. Department of Defense had increased its annual grape purchasing. On July 4, 1969, growers filed a lawsuit against the union for losses sustained by the boycott because activists had been able to stop sales of California table grapes in Detroit, Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Montreal, and Toronto. Ten growers around Coachella that controlled 15% of the market began to negotiate with the union. In April 1970, they agreed to sign contracts with the union. On the heels of this success, Bruno Dispoto agreed to sign union contracts, and Giumarra soon followed.
Yet, vegetable growers in the Salinas Valley that did not want to deal with the UFW signed sweetheart deals with the Teamsters. UFW sympathizers walked off their jobs and began to picket the growers on August 2, 1970. The union dispatched organizers to the lettuce-growing areas, and Chávez decided to apply pressure in the form of a boycott against the companies. Violence between the two unions escalated and reached a head when UFW attorney Jerry Cohen was seriously injured in an attack by Teamsters. In the midst of the chaos, Dolores Huerta was able to reach an agreement with InterHarvest. Within several weeks, other companies began to rescind their Teamster contracts. In November, Chávez was jailed for not complying with a court order to stop boycotting Bud Antle lettuce. Released on Christmas Eve, he continued the boycott into 1971.
A Continuing Struggle
The UFW became a part of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) the following year. By 1973, when the UFW's contract with table grape growers came up for renegotiation, the growers signed with the Teamsters, causing 10,000 farm laborers to walk out of the fields in protest. Alarmed, Chávez called for a new boycott of grapes. Two years later, over 17 million Americans were honoring the boycott. That same year, growers supported the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, a collective bargaining law for farm workers. After its passage, the UFW won most of the union elections in which it participated.
By the early 1980s, thousands of farm workers were enjoying better pay, health coverage, pension benefits, and other UFW contract protections. Yet in 1982, Republican George Deukmejian was elected governor of California with the help of over $1 million in growers' campaign contributions. Under Deukmejian, the farm labor relations board that had helped workers ceased to function and enforce the law. In response, Chávez called for another grape boycott, which was not nearly as successful as the first two. In 1988, Chávez went on a 36-day fast to protest the pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their children. Many feel the fast led to a decline in his health and his death five years later. The UFW still works to defend the interests of farm workers across the state of California.
T. Jason Soderstrum
Day, Mark. Forty Acres: César Chávez and the Farm Workers. New York: Praeger, 1971; Dunne, John Gregory. Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike. New York: Farrar, 1976; Guerin-Gonzales, Camille. Mexican Workers and American Dreams: Immigration, Repatriation, and California Farm Labor, 1900–1939. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994; Pawel, Miriam. The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009.