Pre-United Farm Workers: A Little Background History
Agriculture has always been a big part of the economic industry of California. As mentioned in most American history classes, workers for these agricultural farms and plantations have come from various sources, such as prisoners from the British colonies or the African slaves. After slave labor became outlawed, much of California's farm labor came from places like China, Japan, and other South Asian countries. These people were asked to work in fruit orchards and sugar beet fields. However, when it became apparent that hiring laborers from Mexico was cheaper, and therefore, much more profitable for businesses, workers from this country started to take over the agricultural farms in the valleys.
From the very beginning, one of the major issues of farm labor is the poor living conditions of the farmers. Most of them (including children) had no access to adequate healthcare, proper housing, and most importantly, decent wages. As a result of this, many of them had organized and led strikes throughout the years. In 1910, the Industrial Workers of the World went on a strike by letting the growers' crops rot. In the 1930s when only single Filipino farm workers were being imported into the US to work on farms, while Filipinas were being kept out so as to keep wage expenses minimal, the Filipinos organized and went on various strikes. One particular strike happened in Salinas Valley and involved Filipino lettuce cutters who wanted union rights and better working conditions. In addition to these, organizations, such as the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) conducted several more attempts to organize farm workers into emancipating themselves from their awful conditions in the 1940s and 1950s, respectively. However, all of these attempts failed for various reasons, which ranged from competition between existing unions, racism, workers' lack of funds to support a union, and organizers' lack of knowledge of what migrant agricultural workers actually need.
The problem was further exacerbated by the growers' lobbying for the establishment of the Bracero Program, which they were successful at. This program allowed Mexicans to work in the fields during harvest season and will be sent back to their country once this season was over. The most appealing aspect of this program to growers was that labor costs were very low and they had no obligation to provide benefits, such as housing, healthcare, and education for the children. Because there was a steady source of cheap labor from Mexico, farm workers who lived in California had no leverage--they found it hard to unionize and demand fair wages and decent working conditions.
The Emergency Committee to Aid Farm Workers is a non-profit organization founded in 1961 to help publicize the problems of underemployed and unemployed farm workers facing competition against foreign contract labor, such as the Bracero Program.
This Committee sought to address the following needs:
Assist farm workers in achieving redress for their grievances
Encourage workers to seek help from the government or community agencies in improving their working conditions
Provision of increased steadier employment
Establishment of a program that will provide farm workers with the skills, confidence and assistance in getting work that is available in the area
The huge problem stemmed from the fact that although there were numerous unemployed domestic farm workers, Mexicans were being employed for extended periods of time for these jobs. In 1964 alone, about 5,000 Mexicans were being employed in citrus farms. This number signifies the amount of jobs that could've been extended to the domestic and migrant workers who actually live in California. However, the lack of skills of these domestic and migrant workers in the area of citrus farming, as well as their unpreparedness in handling a job that was tailored for single, male Mexicans who live in barrack-type camps further worsened the problem. A lot of the migrant workers came with their families; this meant that they could not live in barracks and had to find family housing and pay for food and other living expenses. Mexican workers who were only in the farms for the season didn't have these issues to deal with.
As such, the Committee was founded to help create programs that will give domestic and migrant workers the adequate training that they would need and to establish regulations that gives preference to domestic workers on jobs wherein foreign workers were employed in.
Establishing United Farm Workers
The year 1964 signified the abolishment of the Bracero Program; however, one year later, a US-Mexico agreement was established. This new agreement, which angered many domestic farmers, stated that Mexican farm workers can still be imported to California if they were only paid $1.25 per hour and never more than the domestic farmers. However, growers violated this stipulation by reducing the wages of the Filipino Coachella grape pickers who were mostly members of AWOC. According to Andy Imutan, one of the original strikers from the 1965 protests, growers decided to reduce their wages to $1.10 per hour. To express their discontentment, they organized a picketing and after 10 days they were able to get their wages up to $1.40 per hour. This victory, although glorious, was a bit short-lived as the same situation started happening in Delano, California.
Philip Vera Cruz, a labor leader and farmworker, and Larry Itliong among a few others met in Delano to discuss the situation and decide on a course of action. This decision, which will later be known as one of the most important decisions ever made for the California farmworker's plight, was for all Filipinos to go on strike against the grape growers. The decision travelled like grapevine, and soon many farmworkers had heard about the call to set up picket lines at every grower's ranch and initiate a grape strike. To lessen the impact of the strike, the growers called on Mexican American farmworkers to work in place of the Filipinos. Instead of being discouraged, this empowered the strikers even more, and they made the decision to ask the Mexicano workers Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, founders of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), that were organizing to join them in their cause.
Eventually, this led to the merging of AWOC and NFWA to become what is now known as the United Farm Workers (UFW). The strike went on until 1970s and had many early successes. As part of their strategy, they decided to boycott the grapes of certain growers, namely Schenley Industries, Di Gorgio (S&W Foods and Treesweet), and Giumara Vineyards. Because NFWA was based on the principle of nonviolence, the UFW as a whole spread awareness about the farm workers through picket lines and press conferences. They asked the public to boycott the grapes of the aforementioned growers. Huerta, although a woman (and somewhat bound by her gender and Mexican-American heritage) was a major figure in this five-year strike. However, the boycotted growers found a way to circumevent their efforts by changing the labels on their boxes to depict names of non-boycotted growers. Huerta helped the organization solve this problem by posing a solution that called for the boycott of all California grape growers instead of only a few. This risky strategy worked, and the growers were forced to negotiate with the farm workers, ending the strike in 1970. At this point, Huerta was given the task of negotiating the farm workers contracts. Once again, she proved to be an asset to the union by obtaining a contract that raised "the workers' minimum wage to $1.75 an hour, with a $.25 bonus for each box picked. The following year the minimum would rise to $1.90 an hour. The growers would contribute $.10 an hour for a health and welfare plan and $.02 an hour for a fund established to provide low-cost housing and retraining." (Mullikin & Jones) In addition to this, the new contract also gave farm workers paid holidays and vacations.
("A Glorious History, A Glorious Legacy"by Eliseo Silva. Bottom left: portrays Philip Vera Cruz, Larry Itliong, Cesar Chavez, and the Delano Grape Strike.)
Article by Ruben Salazar charging growers about how they weren't helping in phasing out the Bracero Program.
A poster made in 1970 asking everyone to join in the Grapes Boycott.
A letter from Cesar Chaves asking people to boycott grapes during Christmas that year.
After the establishment of the UFW, the organization succeeded in achieving several more much-needed changes towards the betterment of the farm workers' plight. 1970s became a productive year for the organization as their numbers grew and they obtained better wages and adequate housing for their members. Equally as important as these was UFW's success in achieving better conditions for children farm workers. Among these achievements were the reduction of child labor in the fields and the provision of education for these children. Furthermore, UFW also lobbied for the establishment of a bill that will control the use of pesticides in farming.
Despite these various accomplishments that the UFW achieved in the 1970s, a few unfortunate events caused the organization to lose ground the following year. When Jerry Brown was still the California governor, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) was established to help unionized and non-unionized farm workers air their grievances. "The Act required growers to participate in collective bargaining with farm workers who have voted for union representation. It also prohibited unfair labor tactics and established a five-person California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) to conduct secret ballot elections." (Mullikin & Brown) However, when Brown's term of office ended, the ALRB stopped performing as effectively as before, which in turn affected UFW's service to its members. But probably more more instrumental in causing UFW to lose the momentum that it gained in the 1970s was the internal conflict between the leaders that started arising. Various biographies of Philip Vera Cruz talks about his critique of Cesar Chavez's authoritarian style. However, Chavez's apparent concern for the welfare of the union, as well as Cruz's thoughts about needing to preserve a united image for the organization, prevented Cruz from objecting to Chavez's top-down management approach in leading UFW.
But two significant events caused Cruz to finally decide that he couldn't continue working with someone like Chavez. First was Chavez's display of support for Ferdinand Marcos' (10th President of the Philippines) dictatorship in the Philippines, and second was his invitation of Blas Ople, who Cruz thought was a fascist labor minister, to speak in front of the UFW in a 1977 Convention. Furthermore, Cruz mentions in his autobiography that Chavez's leadership style "promoted the suppression of criticism, which deprived union members of their right to reason for themselves."1 Perhaps adding more fuel to the negative feelings caused by these issues was Cruz' sentiment that the people who actually initiated the strikes were never really properly credited. For example, Larry Itliong, one of the other initiators of the Delano Grape Strike which was an integral event that allowed the formation of the UFW, was never credited for the work that he put in creating this monumental event for the farm workers. Although he and Itliong were never really close, Cruz feels that the direction to which UFW was heading (one that mostly credits Cesar Chavez as the integral character in the establishment and progression of the union) was unfair not only to Larry, but the other farm workers who were part of the movement's initial inception. As a result, Cruz broke free from the union; such divisions from within lead to the organization's downturn.
Main Tactics Utilized by the UFW During the 1960's and 1970's
The UFW convinced all of its members to walk out on their employers to improve wages or working conditions. The main difference between a walkout and a strike is that walkouts are often spontaneous and do not need to have all members of the group present. In most cases, walkouts were followed by strikes or boycotts against the employers.
Major Occurrences of Successful Walkouts:
AWOC walk out on strike against Delano-area grape growers with NFWA to convince the growers to sign a Union Contract.
UFW walkout on Perelli-Minetti wine grape operation to convince the growers to sign a Union Contract.
UFW walkout against all Salinas Valley growers for signing the Teamsters Union Contract, instead of UFW's.
Typically after a walkout, the UFW would call on its workers and its supporters to strike against the employer. A strike is typically a work stoppage planned and supported by the entire union. Sometimes strikes were not effective, because other non-union workers or strike breakers would simply take the jobs of the striking union workers.
Major Occurrences of Successful Strikes:
Spring - Summer 1966
Following the walkout, AWOC and NFWA workers went on strike for 5 years, which eventually led to the Union's first contract, but it needed other tactics to be successful.
A strike combined with other tactics helped convince the DiGiorgio Fruit Corp to sign a contract with the UFW.
Following the walkout on Perelli-Minetti operation, the UFW went on strike and convinced them to sign a Union Contract.
The UFW strikes against Giumarra Vineyards Corp., California's largest table grape grower, which led eventually led to an international protest.
10,000 Central Coast farm workers started to strike after walking out on California lettuce and vegetable fields.
The UFW typically used boycott in addition to strikes to economically pressure employers into settling with the Union. Boycotts are acts of voluntarily abstaining from purchasing or dealing with whichever company is being boycotted. In some cases, international boycotts happen, when strikers, union volunteers and supporters in different countries join together to boycott the same company.
Major Occurrences of Successful Boycotts:
Fall & winter 1965 - 1966
March - April 1966
Spring - Summer 1966
To put further pressure on the Delano-area grape growers, the UFT boycotted Schenley Industries, one of the largest wine grape growers in the area.
After the first boycott did not convince the growers to sign the contract, the UFW boycotted Schenley again for four months, before the company finally gave in and signed the contract.
In conjunction with the strike, the UFW boycotted the DiGiorgio Fruit Corp, until they agreed to sign a contract with UFW instead of the Teamsters Union.
1967 - 1970
Following their walkout and strikes, the UFW boycotted all of Christian Brothers and Almaden wineries' products. They eventually signed an union contract with them.
After other table grape growers allowed Giumarra to sell their grapes, the UFW expanded their boycott to all California table grape growers. Eventually, grape strikers, union volunteers, and other supporters spread across the United States and Canada to form an international boycott. Eventually, most California grape growers signed their first UFW contracts.
In addition to striking, the 10,000 Central Coast farm workers boycotted some of the larger vegetable companies, which eventually led to them abandoning their Teamster contracts and signing new contracts with UFW.
The UFW used marches to bring national attention to the different issues they were supporting. They would typically have foot marches to important political symbols, such as the state's capital.
Major Occurrences of Successful Marches:
March - April 1966
To bring attention to their 5 year long strike, Chavez and other strikers walked 340 miles to Sacramento to bring attention to the plight of the farm workers.
In addition to reforming certain companies, the UFW also promoted the political rights of its members. The UFW did everything from supporting a candidate to supporting or protesting a bill.
Major Occurrence of Successful Political Action:
The UFW devoted its resources to supporting Robert Kennedy's presidential primary campaign. This was the first of many political projects to come. This movement was so successful, that Kennedy won some precincts with 99% and 100% of the votes.
While the UFW was a heavily action-based organizations during its conception, it has become more a political entity fighting for farm workers' interests.
Here are some of their more current legal campaigns and links to join them:
Minimum Wage: The UFW currently lists the minimum wages in all 50 states. They offer phone and legal assistance to farm workers, who claim they are not being compensated fairly for their work.
To contact the UFW about this issue please visit: Here
Heat Regulation: Due to the rising number of deaths of farm workers due to heat, the UFW has tried to fight to protect workers from excessive work during hot days. In addition to the protection of workers, the UFW seeks to prosecute employers, who fail to adhere to laws governing workers during heat waves. The UFW cites the apathy of law enforcement and lawmakers to deaths of numerous teens and others.
To contact the UFW about this issue please visit: Here
In addition to legal campaigns, the UFW also endorses certain political candidacies and bills, upon approval from the union.
A list of political figures and bills that the UFW currently endorse can be found Here.
To try and gain more widespread notice, the UFW has become increasingly integrated with technology. They currently boast theirown website,MySpace,Facebook,Flickr, andYoutube Page. While the UFW has become more of a political entity, one tradition, they still honor, is marching duringCesar Chavez Day. Below is a video from their march in 2008.
After Cesar Chavez's resignation from the Community Service Organization (CSO) due to their refusal to commit to organizing farm workers, he established the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in his hometown of Delano, California. With a generous donation of $900, Chavez formed this organization from the ground up in an effort to unionize farm workers as a solution to problems that farm workers and CSO members faced. From the time of its inception, Chavez traveled throughout the agricultural lands of Southern California to find migrant farm workers in an ongoing effort to build the groundwork of the NFWA. As more agricultural workers flocked to Chavez's cause, the NFWA was finally able to hold their first convention in an abandoned movie theater in Fresno, California. In this newly established convention made up of hundreds of farm workers ready for change, the NFWA revealed its symbol of hope as they unveiled the organizations brand new flag. As this flag was to symbolize all that the organization stood for, it was made up of a red background with a black eagle silhouette upon a white circle in order to represent the bold and powerful people that embodied this organizations heart and soul. After three years of searching to form his grassroots organization, Chavez's NFWA increased to 2,000 members and with these numbers gained the organization was ready to bargain to increase workers wages with nearby growers. Coincidentally in 1965, another organization named the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) created a strike in Delano opposing grape growers, as this organization decided to begin their strike in using the non-violent technique of a walk out on September 8th, 1965. At this time Chavez's NFWA, was asked to step in and help in their causeas nearly 1,200 of the NFWA members families voted to join their partnering organizations efforts for a just workplace on Mexico's Day of Independence (September 16th). As the AWOC members were made primarily of Filipino American agricultural workers and the NFWA consisted mostly of Latino American agricultural workers, the congruence of the two organizations for a correlating cause brought together two distinct groups of immigrants that faced the same debilitating conditions which lead them to gain a different perspective from the other migrants while strengthening their collective power in numbers. A year later while the strike was still in full effect, the NFWA converged with another group named the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in order to establish the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC).
Here is a link to a video of Tony Mendez, of the DiGiorgio Corporation, speaking to his co-workers before they begin their protest against the DiGiorgio Corporation in Delano. The workers persist with their peaceful protest, as they picket along the streets of Delano and stop a bus of recently employed DiGiorgio workers in order to inform them of the unjust wages and conditions that are being forced upon the already employed DiGiorgio workers.
The lyrics of this "Corrido" translate in English as:
"Ballad of Delano"
In the year '65, '66, there abouts
Our people rose up
In the fields of Delano
Demanding better wages
For toiling in the fields.
In the state of California
In Kern County
The words were heard,
"Hurry, countrymen! Come
And join the union;
It will be a lot better for us."
"Why do we go out on strike?
It's not to hurt anybody.
That's what a certain man would say,
Cesar Chavez is his name,
We only ask for what's fair
And for human dignity.
In the state of California
In the San Joaquin Valley
This famous struggle
Drew so much attention
That senators came
To see if they could resolve it.
Murphy and Kennedy came
To consult with our people
They listened to our views
And left keenly aware
That at the center was a
Hard working and decent people.
With the beautiful patron banner
Of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Our Mexican people
Are marching to Sacramento
To fight for rights.
Dear Lord granting they will win.
As mentioned earlier, efforts to organize the California farm workers have been initiated early on. In 1959, for instance, George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, asked Norman Smith to start organizing these farm workers in order to get better working conditions for themselves. In June 1960, these efforts gave birth to the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). This organization was "an outgrowth of an earlier farm worker organization called the Agricultural Workers Association, which was founded by Dolores Huerta." (ufw.org) Smith served as its director until 1962, at which point C. Al Green replaced him and served as the organization's director until 1966.
During this seven-year time span, AWOC was able to achieve several victories in the fight for the betterment of the farm workers' plight. Among such victories were the strikes that the organization held against California growers and farm labor contractors to help domestic and migrant farm workers better wages. In addition to this, AWOC also fought for job security and union rights, and also established a welfare program to help its members in dealing with the growers and the government's oppression.
Also mentioned in an earlier section was the government's cooperation with the growers by providing a law called Public Law 78, which enabled the growers to hire foreign nationals. Because these foreign (Mexican) workers agree to receive less payment, they were hired by growers as strikebreakers, which means they act as replacement for the domestic and migrant workers going on strike. This created a particularly huge problem for AWOC members in getting other farm workers to organize. However, AWOC persisted on in acquiring evidence for such illegal and unfair activities from the part of contractors and growers. In 1964, Public Law 78 was abolished, and in 1965, AWOC, led by its Filipino members merged with NFWA to form the United Farm Workers.
The National Sharecroppers Fund came from the "National Sharecroppers Week," which is an annual event that supports the fledgling Southern Tenant Farmers Union. The purpose of the NSF was to assist the rural poor with financial assistance, and details on government aid programs to help them upgrade their living conditions. They have documents of Fay Bennett and her work with the NSF, the National Advisory committee on Farm Labor, the Migrant Children's Fund, the National Council on Agricultural Life and Labor, and the Citizens' Crusade Against Poverty. They have information on NSF's struggles to offer technical and organizational aid to the rural poor; and personal incidents of sharecroppers in the southern United States.
The Condition of Farm Workers in 1962
Report to the Board of Directors of National Sharecroppers Fund
By Fay Bennett, Executive Secretary
Concentration of Control: Wealth vs. Poverty
In the early 1950's there were 5.4 million farms but later that decade the number of farms decreased to 3.7 million. About 66% of families who lived on farms earned less than $1,000 a year from both farm work and nonfarm related work. In the year 1962, it took about $4,000 to place an average size family above poverty, according to the Conference on Economic Progress and authorities.
Greatest Poverty in the South
The average size of farm land for a white person was 382 acres and was worth about $37,816. The average size for non-whites was 56 acres and was worth about $3,029. In the 1950's; about half the Black-operated farms were lost in the South.
Hired Farm Workers
The average annual earnings of farm workers went from $1,125 in 1960 but than in 1961 it dropped to $1,054 due to increased job loss in agriculture.
Mexican Contract Workers
The largest number of foreign workers came from Mexico but it decreased from 291,420 in 1961 to 194,978 in 1962. The main reason for the decrease was because the U.S. Department of Labor's decision. They decreased the minimum wage for Mexican contract workers to $1.00 in some states to even 60 cents in other states.
Puerto Rican Farm Workers
In 1962, 13,526 Americans from Puerto Rico came under contract to work in the United States. They were guaranteed 90 cents an hour and 160 hours for every four weeks they worked. They were also promised health insurance, workmen's compensation coverage, and English classes for workers who wish to further their education.
Federal Program: Farmers Home Administration
In 1962, FHA granted $754 million in loans to rural families. 10,000 out of the 214,000 people who borrowed money were Black which signifies an increase of about 40% over fiscal 1960.
Legislation: The Migrant Health Act
The 1962 Health Service Act allowed for a $3 million a year for three years for a health project in areas with migrants workers. This money was used for family clinics, and often scheduled appointments by public health nurses to migrant camps.
United Farm Workers National Union Constitutional Conventions
The United Farm Workers National Union began meeting at their biannual conventions as a way to bring together the people of which the Union is composed. The National Executive Board also expressed their wishes for the Union to "continue working together to keep the hope of farm workers alive" and for the Union to "work stronger after [ their ] first constitutional convention." However, the main goal of the first Constitutional Convention was to write the constitution for the United Farm Workers National Union. Although the Union had been chartered more than a year prior, and had been functioning without a constitution for that period of time, the National Executive Board felt writing a constitution would be a good way to lay out the Union's rules and conduct.
As a result of the 1st Annual Constitutional Convention, the National Executive Board wrote the Proposed Constitution for the United Farm Workers of America. The Proposed Constitution included the following parts:
Part I - Name, Jurisdiction, Headquarters, Organizational Structure and Authority, Insignia and Symbols
Name: United Farm Workers of America (UFW)
Jurisdiction: United States
Structure: Convention, National Executive Board, and Ranch Communities and Organizing Communities
Authority: The Convention is highest authority, then the National Executive Board. Between Board meetings, administrative authority rests with the President.
Part II - Objects an Commitment to Non-Violence
Purposes of the Union: Unite all farm workers, negotiate wages and working conditions, and safeguard the rights of workers
Purposes will be carried out only through nonviolent means
Part III - Membership
All farm workers are eligible for membership
Disqualifications: Must meet full sentence of disciplinary action of a ranch community or organizing committee, can't be a supporter of a competing union, can't be an employer representative
Application: Applicants must pledge to meet union obligations, pay required fees, and consent to the union being their only agent for collective bargaining
Part IV - Conventions
Held every two years on the Friday preceding Labor Day
National officers and delegates constitute the convention
Committees: Appointed by the President prior to the Convention: Credentials, Rules and Order of Business, Resolutions, Constitutions, and Elections. Resolutions is comprised of 25 delegates, all other committees are 5 delegate
Part V - The National Executive Board
Nine national officers elected by the Convention are the members of the National Executive Board
The Board supervises the affairs and property of the Union
Specific powers: submit resolutions to the convention, acquire and dispose of property, bank and invest the Union's funds, borrow money and use the Union's property as security, make guarantees, submit referenda to the membership, charter subordinate bodies ad suspend or revoke such charters under certain conditions, levy limited special assessments, publish a newspapers, and delegate its powers to committees or members of the Board
Part VI - National Officers and Representatives - Titles, Terms of Office, Vacancies, Disqualifications, Duties, Limitations on Power, and Discipline and Removal From Office
Convention elects a President, a Secretary-Treasurer, 3 Executive Vice-Presidents, and 4 Vice-Presidents; each having a four year term
Vacancies are filled by a member of the National Executive Committee
Part VII - Board of Auditors
Conventions elects a five-member board of auditors, including a chairman and secretary, each serving a two-year term
Part VIII - Ranch and Organizing Committees
Ranch communities are unchartered subordinate bodies of the union
Each community elects a President, Secretary, and 3 committeemen
Part IX - Referendum and Recall
The Conventions, the National Executive Board, or 20% of the Ranch Communities and Organizing Communities may request a referendum
Part X - Collective Bargaining - Negotiations, Contracts, Grievances
The Union is the only bargaining agent of its members
Only the President may negotiate Union contracts
No action (i.e. strikes) may be taken without approval from the National Executive Committee
This Wiki page was originally made by the USC students listed above as a project for their AMST 252 class (Black Social Movements, taught by Prof. Robin D.G. Kelley), and also to help future information seekers through having a one-stop site for the history of the United Farm Workers, its work in the year 2000 and beyond, and a page for other sources about the organization.
The group would like to thank Prof. Kelley and Adam Bush for teaching them a lot not only about the different historical and contemporary struggles, but also for opening their eyes to the plight of the community that they live in. Special thanks also go out to the people at the Southern California Library for being so accommodating and helpful to the group while they were conducting their research.