United Farm Workers Union
United Farm Workers Union
The United Farm Workers of America (UFW) is a predominantly Mexican farm labor union operating primarily in California, but also in Arizona, Texas, Washington, and Florida. The organization first emerged in 1965 under the leadership of César Chávez. During the height of its activities in the 1960s and 1970s, the UFW was able to improve working conditions for farmworkers and was part of a broader movement for the social and political inclusion of people of Mexican origin into American society.
During the 1960s, a plethora of political advocacy organizations emerged in the United States pressing for social and political change. This time period is most often associated with the civil rights and antiwar movements, but women, gay and lesbian persons, Native Americans, and Latinos were also active in pressing for change throughout the country. The UFW was part of this social-movement cycle.
The emergence of the UFW in the 1960s was predicated on a long history of Mexican American political mobilizations, dating to the early part of the twentieth century. During the 1930s there were significant instances of farm labor insurgency throughout California (Daniel 1981, González 1999, L. Majka 1992). However, despite widespread labor mobilization, labor unions were unable to significantly alter their situation due to their extreme political and social marginalization.
A major obstacle to farm-labor mobilization during the 1940s and 1950s was the Bracero Program. From 1942 to 1964, the United States imported Mexican guest workers, referred to as “braceros,” to work in agriculture. Originally conceived in response to domestic labor shortages during World War II, the Bracero Program proved highly profitable, and growers successfully lobbied to have the program extended after the war. Because braceros were neither permanent nor American, they were a highly malleable low-wage labor force. Their widespread use throughout the industry depressed wages for domestic workers and made labor organizing exceedingly difficult. Farm-labor advocacy during this period was aimed at government legislation to terminate the program. Ernesto Galarza and the National Farm Workers Union worked closely with a wide variety of urban liberals, churches, and other progressive organizations to repeal Public Law 78, which authorized the program, and in 1964 Congress rescinded authorization to renew the program. The end of the Bracero Program initiated a new era in farm labor mobilization.
César Chávez started the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), the organizational precursor of the UFW, in Delano, California, in 1962. The organization was originally intended to be a farm-labor-based social services and advocacy group with a broad range of goals for political and economic justice. It was only in 1965, when it joined forces with the AFL-CIO–affiliated Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) that the organization explicitly became as a farm labor union.
In 1965 the AWOC, led by Larry Itliong, demanded Coachella Valley grape growers in Southern California increase their wages. After a strike, growers agreed to the increase. Later in the growing season, AWOC workers demanded similar wage increases from growers in Delano. When growers began using Mexican scab labor, AWOC approached the NFWA for support. Although Chávez was initially reluctant, the organizations agreed to work together to better the lives of farmworkers. By 1970 the UFW was able to sign 150 contracts with growers producing 85 percent of California’s grapes. The campaign was successful because of an effective public boycott, and because of links the UFW was able to build to a variety of progressive organizations and elites sympathetic to the farmworker cause.
In 1966 the AWOC and the NFWA officially merged to form the UFW. The new organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO. This relationship proved to be beneficial, as labor groups throughout the country and abroad provided financial support to the UFW. The union also forged links with clerics, church groups, students, civil rights activists, and political figures such as Robert Kennedy. During this period, Chávez began the first of several fasts, inspired by the non-violent tactics of the Indian nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi. The UFW also participated in marches to the state capital, which were influenced by civil rights marches in the South. The public support received by these widely publicized events helped the UFW to counter the
efforts of California agribusiness and their political allies, and they eventually won favorable contracts with grape growers.
The use of Mexican cultural symbols has been central to UFW organization and strategy. It is notable that the grape boycott was started on September 16, 1965, Mexican Independence Day. The UFW emblem, a black eagle on the middle of a red background, is a reference to the eagle found on the Mexican flag. During strikes, marches, and other public events, images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, and Emiliano Zapata, a revolutionary war hero who fought for peasant land rights, are prominently displayed. After the death of Chávez in 1993, he too has become a symbol for the movement.
In 1979 the union moved its headquarters from Delano to La Paz, a small town in the Tehachapi Mountains of California. The union suffered internal strife during this period, and several high-ranking officers left the organization. In the decade that followed, the UFW retreated from the fields and began to focus its efforts on direct-mailing techniques to call attention to the plight of farmworkers, especially the negative effects of pesticides. Scholars have pointed to a hostile political environment, and the increasingly effective anti-union strategies of agribusiness to account for the decreased activities of the union during this time period (Mooney and Majka 1995, Majka and Majka 1992).
When César Chávez died in 1993, his son-in-law, Arturo Rodriguez, took over as head of the organization. With Rodriguez at the helm, the UFW started to organize in the fields again. This effort began in 1996 with a campaign to organize strawberry workers on California’s Central Coast, an enterprise that met with mixed results. The UFW has also moved into urban areas, organizing factories and buying low-income housing. The organization has also continued its political advocacy work, leading some critics to charge that it is neglecting its farmworker roots. While the UFW no longer has as many workers under contract as it did it the late 1970s, its work to increase the social and political well-being of farmworkers continues to be substantial. It is a major political advocacy organization, not only for farmworkers but for all Mexican Americans.
Daniel, Clete. 1981. Bitter Harvest: A History of California Farmworkers 1870–1941. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
González, Gilbert G. 1999. Mexican Consuls and Labor Organizing: Imperial Politics in the American Southwest. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Levy, Jacques. 1975. César Chávez: Autobiography of La Causa. New York: W.W Norton.
London, Joan, and Henry Anderson. 1970. So Ye Shall Reap: the Story of César Chávez and the Farm Workers’ Movement. New York: Apollo Editions.
Majka, Theo J., and Linda C. Majka. 1992. “Decline of the Farm Labor Movement in California: Organizational Crisis and Political Change.” Critical Sociology 19: 3–36.
Martin, Philip L. 2003. Promise Unfulfilled: Unions, Immigration, and the Farm Workers. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Mooney, Patrick H., and Theo J. Majka. 1995. Farmers’ and Farm Workers’ Movements: Social Protest in American Agriculture. New York: Twayne.
Gilbert Felipe Mireles Jr.