Led by cofounders César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, the National Farm Workers Alliance (NFWA), a predominantly Mexican American labor organization, launched a strike against Delano area grape growers on the symbolic date September 16, 1965. One week prior, Filipino workers went on strike against grape growers in the Coachella Valley, approximately 300 miles southeast of Delano. Led by Larry Itliong and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), the combined AWOC and NFWA grape strike marked the beginning of a crucial harvest season of discontent among California growers and their workers. In late 1966, the NFWA and AWOC merged to form the UFW with Chávez as union president. Through the community organizing strategies learned during his early days working for the Community Service Organization (CSO) in the 1950s, Chávez helped make the Delano grape strike and boycott a cause-célèbre for the civil rights movement bubbling across the United States in the mid-1960s. The UFW established alliances with black power groups, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party. The Delano grape strike was carried out by students and young activists, as much as it was by farm workers. San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles area college students joined the picket lines in Delano and other public demonstrations, most notably a nearly 300-mile walk, or perigrinación (a pilgrimage), by striking workers and their supporters from Delano to Sacramento to call attention to the plight of migrant farm workers.
Acknowledged by labor historians for their innovative strategies, UFW leaders pioneered a number of tactical approaches toward sustaining the life of the Delano grape strike, including launching an international secondary boycott against table grapes, as well as retailers that purchased non-union harvested grapes. The legendary Chicano activist and artist Luis Valdez worked actively in sustaining the Delano grape strike through creating El Teatro Campesino, where farm workers and their supporters passed the drudgery of the picket line by engaging in performance art, mimicking the plight of the farm worker, the grape strike, and relations between growers, the union, and strike breakers. In the history of the Mexican American civil rights movement, Delano became sacred ground and parallel in importance to many southern U.S. cities historic to the African American freedom struggle.
Although 1970 marked the ending of the first Delano grape strike, a series of labor strikes across the United States led by the UFW continued into the 1970s and 80s. Until his death in 1993, César Chávez and the UFW led numerous strikes against both table grapes and lettuce and fought for a number of other legislative protections for farm workers, including the passage of the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act.
Delano area residents expressed public outrage over the fact that their small farming community was vilified by union supporters during the grape strike and formed anti-union groups such as the Delano Citizens League and Mothers Against Chavez. Scholars recently have begun to assess the impact of the Delano grape strike on the economic roots of Reaganism, the anti-statist economic and political philosophy pioneered by Ronald Reagan as he swept into the California governor's office in 1966 and later into the U.S. presidency in 1980. The Delano grape strike not only marked a turning point in the long history of Mexican American labor and civil rights activism, but also how state and federal authorities crafted public policy toward farm labor thereafter.
Oliver A. Rosales
Pawel, Miriam. The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009; Shaw, Randy. Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle For Justice in the 21st Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008; Araiza, Lauren. “'In Common Struggle Against a Common Oppression’: The United Farm Workers and the Black Panther Party, 1968-1973.” Journal of African American History 94, 2 (Spring 2009): 200–223; Ganz, Marshall. Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement. New York: Oxford Press, 2009; Holmes, Todd. “The Economic Roots of Reaganism: Corporate Conservatives, Political Economy, and the United Farm Workers’ Movement, 1965-1970.” Western Historical Quarterly 41 (Spring 2010): 55–80.