Grape Pickers' Strike
Grape Pickers' Strike
United States 1965-1970
During the years before 1965, the agricultural unions—the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) and National Farm Workers Association (NFWA)—sought recognition from grape growers and hoped to enter into contracts by fair negotiations as guaranteed by collective bargaining rights. Because farm laborers were excluded from coverage under the provisions of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, or Wagner Act, they sought to be legally protected in the workplace by unions as were the majority of workers in other industries throughout the United States. The push by union leaders to have farm workers fairly represented and under contract reached its apex after 1965.
With growers' failure to recognize the unions, the California farmworkers initiated a strike against grape growers. These strikes, between 1965 and 1970, ultimately unified the two primary agricultural unions and demonstrated the effective power of boycotts. These actions also publicized to the American public the substandard, often dangerous, working conditions in the fields. In addition to representation and fair wages, the unions sought decent working conditions. These included a ban on pesticide use while workers were in the fields, clean drinking water, and basic health benefits. By the time the strikes were officially halted by the United Farm Workers in 1973, they had also helped to change conditions in the fields for laborers, although significant improvements of working conditions were comparatively slow to come.
- 1945: On 7 May, Germany surrenders, marking the end of World War II.
- 1950: Senator Joseph McCarthy launches his campaign to root out communist infiltrators.
- 1955: Rosa Parks refuses to move from her seat near the front of a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and is arrested. The incident touches off a boycott of Montgomery's bus system, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., which will last well into 1956.
- 1960: An American U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers shot down over Soviet skies brings an end to a short period of warming relations between the two superpowers. By the end of the year, Khrushchev makes a scene at the United Nations, banging his shoe on a desk. As for Powers, he will be freed in a 1962 prisoner exchange.
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- 1969: On 20 July, assisted by pilot Michael Collins, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin become the first men to walk on the Moon.
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Event and Its Context
Preceding the strikes, complex issues had simmered for decades, notably those concerning racial tensions and immigration. Racial tensions existed not only between employers and field workers, but also among the workers, starting with the first Chinese and Japanese recruited to farm in the state. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, those able to continue farming were flooded with workers—poor whites and African Americans escaping areas with no job prospects. Beginning in 1942, growers began the controversial use of braceros, or guest workers from Mexico. Since 1900, four unions had attempted to unionize agricultural workers. The grape strikes in the 1960s were not the first ones in the state. Among preceding actions was a 1938 Kern County strike that moved into the cotton fields.
Clearly, wage disparity precipitated the strike. Grapes, particularly table grapes, are a labor-intensive crop and a perishable commodity. Trouble erupted in May 1965, when braceros were paid $1.40 per hour while seasonal workers earned between $1.20 and $1.25. A box bonus added about 30 or 35 cents per hour on average.
The first grapes to ripen were in the far south of the state, in an area known as the Coachella Valley. Typically, workers moved frequently as they followed the harvest throughout the state. The Filipino workers were considered the most skilled of these grape workers, and those who worked in the vineyards were affiliated with AWOC, an AFL-CIO affiliate formed in February 1959. When wages were disputed at the start of the 1965 season, Larry Itliong, an AWOC organizer, eventually got Coachella Valley growers to agree to a wage increase.
As the seasonal workers followed the harvest, growers in other regions continued favoring the braceros with higher hourly wages, and the others continued to demand $1.40 per hour and 25 cents per box. By now, the harvest had moved to Delano, California. The growers in Delano did not respond to Itliong's request to discuss the issues by 8 September, resulting in a strike by the Filipino workers. There were about 3,500 grape workers in Delano at the time. About 1,000 people walked off the job or picketed. The growers refused to negotiate.
The independent NFWA, another agricultural labor union organizing in the area, consisted of about 1,200 members, almost all of them Mexican Americans. The union's founder was Cesar Chavez. Eight days into the grape strike, Chavez called his union together to discuss whether they should support the AWOC strike. The NFWA first asked for recognition and contracts. With no answer, the NFWA joined the strike. Marshall Ganz, a labor organizer who would later dissect the events of the strike, called this "the beginning of the grape strike … [but] more as the first step in the birth of a farmworkers movement." From the outset, Chavez—inspired by a deep respect for the Indian leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, his own religious training, and the American civil rights movement—insisted on a nonviolent strike.
State officials concluded that the strike was indeed a labor dispute and prevented growers from hiring either braceros or workers referred by the farm labor office. At the time, grape growers ranged from corporate operations such as Di Giorgio Corporation and Schenley Industries to resident growers, who also owned vineyards in the region. Growers hired strikebreakers, and union members went to shape-ups (early morning day-worker selection by labor contractors), distributed leaflets, and asked laborers to honor the Delano strike.
During the first months of the 1965 strike, local sheriffs and state police tracked the picketers, and intimidation became common. Despite Chavez's peaceful resistance, violence was also common. Growers and their foremen carried through on threats with fists, dogs, and automobiles. In one case, growers sprayed the strikers with pesticides, temporarily blinding them for days.
Pesticide use was one of the primary union concerns. "You can smell the poison sometimes in Delano," Chavez told Peter Matthiessen, author of Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution. "It's very, very strong. Workers can't begin to comprehend the dangers of these sprays; most of them look so innocent. I'm determined to do battle against the growers on this." Nevertheless, Mattheissen noted that Chavez was initially reluctant to press this issue, which would become central in late 1968.
Grape loading points for distribution were picketed as well. Sympathetic union members such as dockworkers also supported the strike by refusing to handle Delano grape shipments. Additional support came from other unions—notably the United Automobile Workers—as well as churches and college students. Caravans brought needed supplies into Delano. Additional alliances were forged with civil rights groups such as the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and other left-wing organizations.
On 18 December 1965 the NFWA called additional attention to the situation through a consumer boycott of Schenley products. Because the company's products included beverages consumed and given as gifts at the holidays—scotch, bourbon, and wines—the union hoped to dent sales and attract attention to the workers' plight. It helped little.
The support of the church was pivotal in the success of the strike from its start. The farmworkers, many of them Catholic, saw the support of clergy and nuns as an endorsement of the strike. Religious images, such as the Virgin of Guadalupe, were often carried in marches. The church, however, was not united in its opinion. Most of the growers were Catholic, too. As pointed out by John Gregory Dunne in Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike, "Most of the financial support for the Church came from the Anglos, while the Mexicans made up the bulk of the parishioners." This formed a rift within the church.
Even the priests were polarized and frequently spoke out against each other's opinions. With the encouragement of Bishop Hugh Donohoe, on 16 March 1966 the church issued a formal position on farm labor, asking for legislation that would include farmworkers under the National Labor Relations Act.
The Nation Learns About Delano
It was not until 1966 that national attention was focused on the situation in Delano. In March 1966 the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Migrant Labor, headed by New Jersey Senator Harrison Williams, conducted hearings throughout the state to better understand the issues of those working in the fields. The vocal presence of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and his call for farmworkers' collective bargaining rights drew media and public attention.
To coincide with Lent, Chavez and supporters made La Peregrination (The Pilgrimage) to Sacramento. The more than 230-mile protest march sought to elicit support from Governor Pat Brown. Ganz states there were three main objectives: "to win support for the strike, … to pressure Democratic Governor Edmund G. Brown, who was up for election that year and concerned about Mexican American voters, [and] to gain public support for the Schenley Boycott by demonstrating the injustice of the farmworkers' plight." As the march progressed, word reached Chavez that Brown was in Palm Springs vacationing as a guest of the entertainer Frank Sinatra. Union representatives were sent to Palm Springs as was a telegram requesting an audience with Brown. It went unanswered. As the march reached Sacramento, Chavez was contacted by a Schenley Industries representative seeking a contract. Chavez left to negotiate and returned just as the group reached the state capital. Schenley Industries had agreed to recognize the NFWA in Delano.
Di Giorgio Corporation indicated its willingness to unionize, but negotiations broke off in April 1966. A consumer boycott of the company's various food products was announced to put pressure on the firm. Di Giorgio consented to an election but allowed the Teamsters to be placed on the union ballot as well, much to the chagrin of Chavez, who was wary of that union's involvement. They had already been expelled from membership under the AFL-CIO umbrella. Just before the election, the AWOC and NFWA merged on 22 August and became the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), AFL-CIO. Despite victory in these elections, there was still no contract.
Continuing to seek contracts, the UFWOC launched a strike against Giumarra Vineyards Corporation, then California's largest table grape grower. Yet another consumer grape boycott was launched in August 1967 to assist in that strike. When nonunion growers began to "borrow" union labels to place on grape boxes, a strike was announced against all California table grapes. Union organizers were sent throughout the United States and Canada to spread the word. Meanwhile, the boycott was working; grapes were rotting in warehouses and growers were taking a financial hit. Support abroad bolstered the strikers. "A lot of people adhered to the boycott, and it had a real dramatic impact on the grape industry in California," said economist Kevin McGee in a 2001 article.
Frank Bardacke, writing in The Nation in 1993, observed that boycotts might not have been the optimal union priority during this era. "Ultimately, it interfered with organizing in the fields. … From the point of view of building the boycott, it was a genius decision. But from the point of view of spreading the union among farmworkers themselves, it was a disaster."
During the winter of 1968-1969, thanks to a back problem, Chavez was physically unable to lead the union. He worked from bed, sending out letters to growers, calling for negotiations to avoid a third boycott year. In early 1968, as the union continued to seek contracts, he decided to launch a fast to draw attention to his continued commitment to nonviolence. He broke his 25-day fast at an Easter Sunday mass with family members and Robert F. Kennedy at his side.
With Richard M. Nixon, a Californian, in the White House, union leaders had hoped issues important to farmworkers might be heard. Members of the Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor, including Edward Kennedy and Walter Mondale, sided with the union, entering into the record on 11 October 1968 a point-by-point rebuttal to each of the growers' claims about conditions of farmworkers. This document concluded, "The grape strikers do not ask for pity or charity, only their rights. They are not rejoicing in the boycott. It is tragic that the grape industry will not talk with representatives of their employees."
Boycotts Effective in Securing Contracts
Grapes were also an issue in the presidential elections in 1968. Every Democratic candidate, including eventual nominee Hubert H. Humphrey, supported the boycott, while Nixon defiantly and openly provided grapes at campaign events. California's governor, Ronald Reagan, who had been elected in 1967, served as a celebrity spokesperson for the growers. He frequently called the boycott "immoral." By 1969 the growers were claiming damages of about $25 million thanks to the boycotts. The growers launched a $2 million public relations campaign to bolster their position and increase grape consumption. Nixon ordered the Department of Defense to purchase grapes to be shipped to military personnel in Vietnam and Europe, drawing the wrath of antiwar protestors. In 1969 the government bought 11 million pounds of fresh grapes—eight pounds for each service member in Vietnam, or six times the volume purchased in 1967. Reagan appeared on television in 1969 in support of the growers.
In May 1970 the stalemate between growers and union representatives was broken when the two leading Delano growers signed contracts with the union. Ultimately, in July 1970, 26 Delano growers signed three-year UFWOC contracts, giving 10,000 workers union representation. This placed 75 percent of the state's table grapes under contract. The wages for workers had increased from $1.10 per hour to a contracted $1.80 per hour. In addition, this contract initially gave a 20-cents-per-box bonus to workers and required growers to contribute to the union health plan on behalf of each worker. The hourly wage rates were scheduled to increase to $1.95, and then to $2.05 in 1972. The boycott continued despite this so-called victory. The union still sought contracts with grape growers in other parts of the state.
The price of this contract was high for union members who had been on strike for five years. Almost all of them—an estimated 95 percent—lost their homes and cars. Now the difficult work began for the union: seeing that the growers would adhere to the contracts. Eventually, the union brought the entire California table grape industry under contract, successfully unionizing some 70,000 workers. The UFWOC became the United Farm Workers in 1972 and remained an active voice for farmworkers into the twenty-first century.
Chavez did not call an official end to the grape strike until fall 1973. By then an estimated 17 million Americans had stopped consuming table grapes and continued to actively boycott them and related products. It was not until 1975, with the passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, that California farmworkers were given the legal right to organize.
Although conditions in the fields purportedly improved for workers since the 1960s, there remained vociferous calls for reform. Similar boycott tactics were implemented against various growers, even specific corporate farming operations.
Chavez, Cesar Estrada (1927-1993): Born in Arizona, Chavez first became active in the Community Service Organization in California in 1952 with the encouragement of Father Donald McConnell and Fred Ross. He served as its general director between 1958 and 1962. He left to organize grape workers and formed the National Farm Workers Association in 1962.
Giumarra, John G., Jr.: The third generation of the California agricultural Giumarra family, John G. Giumarra had graduated in 1965 from Stanford University Law School and was practicing business, labor, and real estate law in Orange County, California, when he was asked to return to help the family business. Giumarra Vineyards was the target of union organizing throughout the 1960s. Giumarra was one of the growers at the fore of publicly opposing the union during the grape strikes. He cited the period between 1970 and 1973 as the most turbulent of his career.
Huerta, Dolores Fernandez (1930-): A native of New Mexico, Huerta grew up in Stockton, California. She earned a teaching degree and taught elementary school. While living in Stockton in the mid-1950s, she became active with the Community Service Organization. She met Cesar Chavez there, and they formed the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the UFW. She remained an active labor organizer and negotiated the key 1970 contract that ended the Delano grape strikes. She served as vice president of the UFW between 1970 and 1973.
Itliong, Larry (1913-1977): Born in the Philippines, Itliong immigrated to the United States as a teenager. He started his lifelong career as a union organizer' while working in the fishing and canning industries in the northwestern United States. He was a staff member of the AWOC and assistant director and national boycott coordinator of the UFWOC. Itliong resigned from union work in 1971.
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—Linda Dailey Paulson