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PORTSIDE  February 2012, Week 3

PORTSIDE February 2012, Week 3

Subject:

Larry Itliong: The Farm Workers' Filipino Champion

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Date:

Mon, 20 Feb 2012 22:33:05 -0500

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The Farm Workers' Filipino Champion

By Dick Meister

The birth date of Cesar Chavez, the late farm workers'
leader, will be celebrated next month, and rightly so. 
But it's well past time we also celebrated the life of
probably the most important of the other leaders who
played a major role in winning union rights for farm
workers and otherwise helping them combat serious
exploitation.

That's Larry Itliong. He died 35 years ago this month
at age 63. Itliong got involved in the farm workers'
struggle very early in life, not long after he arrived
as a 15-year-old immigrant from the Philippine Islands.
He was among some 31,000 Filipino men who came to
California in the late 1920s.

They migrated throughout the state doing low-paying
farm work, isolated from the rest of society and
discriminated against because of their race.  They were
prohibited from marrying Caucasians, from buying land
and otherwise integrating into the community at large.

The Filipinos were perhaps the most isolated of the
groups of penniless workers that growers imported from
abroad. That, however, caused the Filipinos to band
closely together. They formed extremely efficient work
crews to travel the state under the direction of their
own leaders, at times even forming their own unions.

They actually struck - a rarity for farm workers at the
time  when grape growers in Southern California's
Coachella Valley rejected their pay demands in 1965.
The strike was led by Itliong, who was then working for
the AFL-CIO's recently-formed Agricultural Workers
Organizing Committee. The strikers got what they wanted
in just ten days.

Elsewhere, however, the Filipinos were forced to accept
growers' terms, initially after brief strikes at
several vineyards to the north.  But their fortunes
changed after they struck grape growers in the Delano
area of Kern County, where many Filipinos lived.

Again, they called on Itliong to lead them.  He clearly
understood the deep anger and frustration that
motivated his fellow Filipinos  an understanding based
on his own long experience. Soon after he came to
California from the Philippines, he turned to farm work
and, while still in his teens, was involved in an
unsuccessful tomato pickers strike in Washington State.

After that, Itliong traveled up and down California,
trying, as he said, "to get a job I could make money on
. . . Whatever money I made from one job was not enough
for me to live on until I got to the next job." He
barely made enough to pay for food and the cigars he
seemed to be endlessly chomping. School was out of the
question. But Itliong did learn plenty.

Like Chavez, he said he learned that farm workers could
not improve their wretched working and living
conditions, could not win any rights, if they did not
band together to demand decent treatment.

Itliong did not have the intellectual and philosophical
bent of Chavez. Nor did he share Chavez' deep distrust
of outside unions and their orthodox tactics. But
Itliong was as convinced as Chavez of the need for
unionization. And the depth of his conviction made
Itliong a natural leader among the Filipinos.

He was readily hired as a full-time organizer by the
AFL-CIO's Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee,
eventually leading the strike against Delano grape
growers that drew worldwide attention, much of it
focused on Chavez.

The vineyard strikers were seeking no more than a pay
raise of 15 to 20 cents an hour. But growers refused to
negotiate with Itliong and meanwhile evicted strikers
from the grower-owned camps where they lived.

Growers relied on animosity between Mexican-American
and Filipino workers, caused in large part by the
growers' practice of setting up separate camps and work
crews for various racial and ethnic groups.

But Chavez, who was then forming a union in Delano for
Mexican American workers, did not hesitate when Itliong
asked him for help.  Chavez felt that his group, then
called the National Farm Workers Association, wasn't
ready to strike itself, but would honor the picket
lines of the striking Filipinos.

Yet if they were to honor the picket lines of Itliong's
group, Chavez' members asked, Why not strike
themselves? Why not? And so they did.

That became the grape strike of 1965 that drew
worldwide attention and support and ultimately led to
the unionization, at long last, of California's farm
workers. It was Larry Itliong and his Filipino members
who started it all, and who played an indispensable
role throughout the struggle.

Without them there could not have been a strike.
Without them, there could not have been the victory of
unionization, without them no right for the incredibly
oppressed farm workers to bargain with their employers.

Within a year of the strike's launching, Chavez and
Itliong's organizations merged to form what became the
widely acclaimed United Farm Workers union the UFW.
Chavez was president, Itliong vice president. Chavez
and the UFW's far more numerous Mexican American
members were in firm control.

Itliong never really accepted this situation. He
finally resigned from the UFW's executive board in
1971. He complained that the union's outnumbered
Filipinos "were getting the short end of the stick"
from the Anglo lawyers, clergymen and other activists
who were Chavez' chief advisors.

Itliong preferred the more orthodox tactics of the
AFL-CIO organizing committee, apparently not realizing
it was the unorthodox tactics of Chavez' group that
finally led to unionization  boycotts, non-violence,
use of religious and student groups and all manner of
other help from outside the labor movement.

But this is not to detract from the extremely important
role Itliong played in bringing farm workers a union of
their own. He may not have clearly understood the need
for new tactics, but he most certainly understood the
paramount need of farm workers for unionization, and
the great needs of Filipino Americans generally.

Larry Itliong devoted most of his life to seeing that
they got much of what they badly needed.


Dick Meister has covered labor and politics for more
than a half-century. He's the co-author of, "A Long
Time Coming: The Struggle To Unionize America's Farm
Workers." Contact him through his website,
www.dickmeister.com 

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