[Honoring Larry Itliong and a generation of radicals whose
political ideas are as relevant to workers now as they were in 1965.
This article is from the (forthcoming) May/June 2018 issue. Published
in honor of May Day.] [https://portside.org/]
HOW FILIPINO MIGRANTS GAVE THE GRAPE STRIKE ITS RADICAL POLITICS
May 30, 2018
Dollars and Sense
_ Honoring Larry Itliong and a generation of radicals whose political
ideas are as relevant to workers now as they were in 1965. This
article is from the (forthcoming) May/June 2018 issue. Published in
honor of May Day. _
Filipino immigrant workers at an organizing rally at the Forty Acres,
the historic home of the United Farm Workers., David Bacon
The great Delano grape strike started on September 8, 1965, when
Filipino pickers stayed in their labor camps, and refused to go into
the fields. Mexican workers joined them two weeks later. The strike
went on for five years, until all California table grape growers were
forced to sign contracts in 1970. The conflict was a watershed
struggle for civil and labor rights, supported by millions of people
across the country. It breathed new life into the labor movement and
opened doors for immigrants and people of color.
California's politics have changed profoundly in the 52 years since
then, in large part because of that strike. Delano's mayor today is a
Filipino. That would have been unthinkable in 1965, when growers
treated the town as a plantation. Children of farm worker families
have become members of the state legislature. Last year they
spearheaded passage of a law that requires the same overtime pay for
farm workers as for all other workers-the second state, after Hawai'i,
to pass such a law.
The United Farm Workers, created in that strike, was the product of a
social movement. The strategic ideas the union used to fight for its
survival evolved as the responses of thousands of people to problems
faced by farm worker unions for a century-strikebreaking, geographic
isolation, poverty, and grower violence. The tools they chose, the
strike and the boycott, have been used by farm workers ever since.
Every year spontaneous work stoppages like it take place in U.S.
fields, although not on that scale. Anger over miserable wages and
living conditions led workers in Washington State, for instance, to go
on strike four years ago. They then organized the country's newest
farm worker union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia (see David Bacon,
"These Things Can Change," Dollars & Sense, March/April 2015).
Combining action in the fields with a boycott of Driscoll's berries,
they won their first union contract last year.
In the years since 1965, farm worker unions have grown to over a
dozen, in Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Texas, Ohio, North Carolina,
Connecticut, Florida, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania, in addition to
California. To one degree or another, all draw inspiration from the
movement that started in Delano.
Liberal mythology holds that farm worker unions hardly existed until
the creation of United Farm Workers in the '60s and that the farm
worker unions and advocacy organizations of today appeared with no
history of earlier struggles. But the importance of the Delano strike
requires a reexamination of this idea, especially a reassessment of
the radical career of Larry Itliong.
LARRY ITLIONG AND THE FILIPINO RADICALS
Larry Itliong, who headed the Agricultural Workers Organizing
Committee (AWOC), not only shared the strike's leadership with Cesar
Chavez, but actually started it. Chavez was born in 1927 near Yuma,
Ariz.; Itliong was born in 1913 in the Philippines-almost a generation
before. By 1965 he had been organizing farm workers for many years.
During the 1930s, Filipinos and other farm workers formed left-wing
unions and mounted huge strikes. According to Oberlin professor Rick
Baldoz, "The burgeoning strike activity involving thousands of
Filipinos in the mid-1930s occasioned a furious backlash from growers
who worked closely with local law enforcement."
One of the most important people to influence Itliong was Carlos
Bulosan, who wrote America Is in the Heart, a classic account of life
as a Filipino migrant farm worker during the 1930s. The FBI considered
the book dangerous-evidence of the reader's Communist sympathies
during the Cold War. Both men were active in the union organized by
Filipino workers in the salmon canneries on the Alaska coast. These
were mostly single men, recruited from the Philippines to come as
laborers in the 1920s. In Alaska, their union fought to end rampant
discrimination and terrible conditions, and forced the fish companies
to sign contracts.
Known as "manongs," these men were the children of colonialism. From
1898 to 1946 the Philippines was a U.S. colony, and even in the most
remote islands, children were taught in English, from U.S. textbooks,
by missionary teachers from Philadelphia or New Jersey. Students
studied the promises of the Declaration of Independence before they
knew the names of Jose Rizal, Emilio Aguinaldo, and Andres Bonifacio,
who led Filipinos in their war for independence against the Spaniards,
and later against the Americans.
The manongs were radicalized because they compared the ideals of the
U.S. Constitution, and of the Filipinos' own quest for freedom, with
the harsh reality they found in the United States. Some even
volunteered for the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil
War, opposing fascism in the country that was their former colonizer.
In Spain, Pedro Penino organized the Rizal Company, named in honor of
Baldoz gained access to the file on Bulosan kept by the FBI, which
monitored Filipino radicals. "The fact that these partisans attracted
the attention of federal authorities during the Cold War is hardly
surprising," he says. "Filipino workers had developed a well-earned
reputation for labor militancy in the United States dating back to the
Many of the manongs were Communists, believing that fighting for
better wages was part of fighting against capitalism and colonialism,
to change the system. Bulosan wrote, "America is not bound by
geographical latitudes. America is not merely a land or an
institution. America is in the hearts of people that died for freedom;
it is also in the eyes of people building a new world." In 1952 he was
hired by leaders of the fish cannery union to edit its yearbook. Among
its many appeals for radical causes, it opposed nuclear war and U.S.
military intervention abroad, and urged solidarity with the Huk
movement in the Philippines, which was fighting continued U.S.
domination of its former colony.
Until 1949 the fish cannery union, Local 37, was part of the farm
workers union of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the
United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America
(UCAPAWA). As the Cold War started, the CIO expelled nine unions,
including UCAPAWA and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union
(ILWU), because of their left-wing politics and often Communist
leaders. At the height of the McCarthyite hysteria more than 30
members of Local 37 were arrested and threatened with deportation to
the Philippines, including its officers Ernesto Mangaoang and Chris
Mensalvas, and activists Ponce Torres, Pablo Valdez, George Dumlao and
Eventually Mangaoang's deportation case was thrown out by the courts.
He argued that he couldn't be deported, given that he'd been a U.S.
"national" since he arrived in Seattle in the 1920s. "National" was a
status given Filipinos because the Philippines was a U.S. colony at
the time. Filipinos couldn't be considered immigrants, but they
weren't citizens either.
FILIPINO WORKERS KEPT FARM UNIONISM ALIVE IN THE COLD WAR
Larry Itliong had a long history as an organizer. He was Ernesto
Mangaoang's protégé, and was Local 37's dispatcher, sending workers
on the boats from Seattle to the Alaska salmon canneries every season.
After the salmon season was over, many Filipinos would return home to
California's Salinas and San Joaquin Valleys, where they worked as
farm laborers for the rest of the year.
In the segregated barrios of towns like Stockton and Salinas they
formed hometown associations and social clubs. Itliong used these
networks to organize Filipinos when they went to work in the fields,
including strikes in Stockton's asparagus fields in 1948 and 1949. At
the time, growers kept workers under guard in labor camps, where if
they held open meetings, they risked being fired and even beaten. To
help the asparagus cutters organize, Itliong would sneak into a camp,
crawl under the bunkhouse, and speak to workers through the cracks in
UCAPAWA was destroyed in the 1949 CIO purge, and the Filipino local in
Seattle was taken in by the ILWU. It survived, and today is part of
the ILWU's Inland Boatman's Union. The Federal government tried to
bankrupt Local 37, forcing its leaders to exhaust their resources on
high bail and lawyers' fees. With the radicals tied up in legal
defense, a conservative faction took control of the union and stopped
its farm worker organizing drives. That group held it until it was
thrown out in the 1980s by a new young generation of radical
Filipinos, two of whom, Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes (a former farm
worker) were assassinated by agents of Philippine dictator Ferdinand
Yet in the early 1950s Filipino farm workers continued to organize.
Ernesto Galarza built an alliance between them and the National Farm
Labor Union (NFLU) in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the union
mounted thirty strikes. Galarza was an immigrant from Nayarit, a poet
and writer as well as an organizer. The NFLU struck the giant
DiGiorgio Corporation, then California's largest grower, for 30
months, and was eventually defeated. Supporters of the workers made a
movie about it, Poverty in the Valley of Plenty, which urged people to
boycott the company's fruit. Di Giorgio used its political muscle to
have it banned, and sued any organization that tried to show it.
In 1959 the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) was set
up by the merged AFL-CIO. After hiring Itliong as an organizer because
of his history among Filipino workers, AWOC used flying squads of
pickets to mount quick strikes. In 1961, AWOC, together with the
United Packinghouse Workers, another leftwing former CIO union, struck
the Imperial Valley lettuce harvest, demanding $1.25 per hour.
Growers kept wages low by employing bracero contract labor from
Mexico. Under that program growers brought workers under
tightly-controlled, highly exploitative conditions. During the strike
the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened braceros that they would
be deported if they joined the mostly-Filipino strike. Galarza said,
"The state was flooded with braceros while we were on strike. I lost
track of the number of times I was thrown out of camps trying to talk
with them. If they were seen talking with you they were deported home
to Mexico." Despite the threats, however, some braceros joined the
ITLIONG AND THE FILIPINOS IN THE DELANO GRAPE STRIKE
Finally, in 1965, led by Itliong, Filipino workers struck the
vineyards in the Coachella Valley, near the Mexican border, where
California's grape harvest begins. They won a 40¢/hour wage increase
from grape growers and forced authorities to drop charges against
arrested strikers. After winning in Coachella, the strikers moved with
the grape harvest into the San Joaquin Valley, where their strike was
met with fierce opposition.
In Delano, Filipinos workers began sitting in at the camps, refusing
to leave to go to work. UFW founder Dolores Huerta described to
historian Dawn Mabalon the first days of the Delano strike, saying
that she, Cesar Chavez, and other National Farm Worker Association
(NFWA) organizers were shocked at grower violence against the
Filipinos. "Some of them were beaten up by the growers [who] would
shut off the gas and the lights and the water in the labor camps,"
Huerta recalled. Growers kicked the Filipino strikers out, forcing
them to move into town, and Filipino Hall in Delano became the center
of the strike. If Delano's mayor today is a Filipino, it's because of
what the growers started in 1965.
The timing of the 1965 strike was not accidental. It took place the
year after Galarza, Huerta, Bert Corona, Cesar Chavez, and other civil
rights and labor activists forced Congress to repeal Public Law 78 and
end the bracero program. Farm worker leaders knew that once the
program ended growers would no longer be able to bring braceros into
the U.S. to break strikes. Nevertheless, the grape barons searched for
strikebreakers throughout the conflict's five years. From their first
picket lines in Delano, strikers watched as growers brought in crews
to take their jobs. When braceros were no longer available, often the
Border Patrol opened the border, and trucks hauling strikebreakers
roared up through the desert every night. Local police and sheriffs
provided armed protection.
Both Filipinos and Mexicans wanted to keep growers and the government
from using immigration policy against them. Strikers and labor
advocates sought policies that would instead favor families and
communities. In the 1965 immigration reform, passed the year after the
bracero program ended, they established family reunification as a
basic principle. This enabled thousands of people, especially family
members of farm workers, to immigrate from the Philippines, Mexico,
and other developing countries, while keeping employers from treating
immigration purely as a labor supply system.
IMMIGRATION REFORM AND THE BOYCOTT
Today, President Trump's talk about ending "chain migration" is coded
language for trying to do away with family reunification, an
achievement of the civil rights movement. Both Trump and growers want
to return to a more overt labor supply system in agriculture, based on
the H-2A guest worker visa program, much like the old bracero program.
The government uses raids and deportations against undocumented
workers, much as it did during the bracero era of the 1950s, to
provide a pretext for importing contract labor. ICE audits the records
of growers, finds the names of undocumented people, and demands they
be fired, while conducting deportation raids in farm worker
communities. At the same time, the Departments of Labor and Homeland
Security certify grower applications to import a mushrooming number of
H-2A contract workers-160,000 in 2016, 200,000 last year, and more
predicted for this year.
"ICE uses audits and raids to create fear and anxiety," according to
Armando Elenes, vice-president of the United Farm Workers. "People get
afraid to demand their rights, or even just to come to work. Then
growers demand changes to make H-2A workers even cheaper by
eliminating wage requirements, or the requirement that they provide
In 1965, once the threat of replacement by braceros was removed,
strikers then built a strategy to force growers to negotiate. Of all
the achievements of the grape strike, its most powerful and enduring
was the boycott. It leveled the playing field in the fight with the
growers over the right to form a union, and kept growers from using
violence freely, as they'd done in previous decades. Armed grower
militias had killed strikers in Pixley and El Centro, Calif.,in the
30s. Nagi Daifullah and Juan de la Cruz lost their lives in the grapes
in the 1973 strike. Rufino Contreras was shot in a struck lettuce
field in the Imperial Valley in 1979.
Non-violence, as urged by Cesar Chavez, was not universally accepted,
however, especially by Filipino labor veterans. According to Mabalon,
"Many of the members of the Filipino union, the AWOC, were veterans of
the strikes of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s and were tough leftists,
Marxists, and Communists. They met the violence of the growers with
their own militancy, and carried guns and knives for self-defense. For
them the drama of marching behind statues, hunger strikes,
turn-the-other-cheek style was alien."
The boycott couldn't end grower violence entirely, but after farm
workers crossed the enormous gulf between the fields and the big
cities, they didn't have to fight by themselves. The political
philosophy shared by most Filipino workers saw the strike as the
fundamental weapon to win better conditions. Nevertheless, they could
also see the boycott's power, and for several years during the strike
Itliong was the national boycott organizer. This strategy gave new
energy to the rest of the union movement, and led to the most powerful
and important alliance between unions and communities in modern labor
history. Today, similar alliances are the bedrock of progressive
tactics among union activists across the country, helping to give
labor struggles their character as social movements.
FILIPINOS AND MEXICANS: UNEASY ALLIES
Growers had pitted Mexicans and Filipinos against each other for
decades. The alliance between Itliong's AWOC and the Cesar Chavez-led
NFWA was a popular front of workers who had, in many cases, different
politics. AWOC's members had their roots in the red UCAPAWA. NFWA's
roots were in the Community Service Organization (CSO), which was
sometimes hostile to Communists. Yet both organizations were able to
find common ground and support each other during the strike,
eventually forming the UFW.
Eliseo Medina, a farm worker who later became vice-president of one of
the country's largest unions, the Service Employees, remembers:
"Before the strike began, we lived in different worlds-the Latino
world, the Filipino world, the African-American world and the
Caucasian world. We co-existed but never understood who we were or
what each other thought and dreamed about. It wasn't until the union
began that we finally began to work together, to know each other and
to begin to fight together."
Cold War fears of communism obscured the contributions of Itliong and
the Filipinos. In his famous biography of Cesar Chavez in The New
Yorker, writer Peter Matthiessen claimed: "Until Chavez appeared,
union leaders had considered it impossible to organize seasonal farm
labor, which is in large part illiterate and indigent..." In reality,
many Filipino workers in Coachella and Delano were members of ILWU
Local 37 in 1965, when the grape strike began. Every year they
continued to travel from the San Joaquin Valley to the Alaska fish
canneries. Through the end of their lives, they were often active
members of both unions-Local 37 and the United Farm Workers.
But relations between Filipinos and Mexicans deteriorated after the
grape strike. In the first UFW table grape contracts, won in 1970, the
hiring hall system broke up the Filipino crews. These were, in effect,
communities of single men who'd worked together for 30 or 40 years.
Accusations of discrimination against Filipinos in hiring halls were
widespread. Many Filipino leaders were foreman, with a tradition of
bargaining for their workers with growers to win better wages and
working conditions. Itliong mostly organized through them, to get
whole crews on board. The 1970 contracts stripped away their powers.
Some supported the Teamsters, who offered those foremen their power
back during that union's raid on the UFW in 1973. But the most
pro-union Filipino workers, including ones who had been foremen,
stayed with the UFW. Relations grew even more difficult when Cesar
Chavez visited dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. He then
tried to use the Philippine consul in San Francisco to win over
Filipino workers in UFW organizing drives. UFW vice-president Philip
Vera Cruz resigned. Itliong had left even earlier. "Differences
between the leadership and the rank and file in organizing styles and
priorities, philosophies of organizing, and strategy began to pull the
coalition apart," Mabalon says. Pete Velasco, however, one of the
original AWOC leaders, stuck with the UFW, and was an executive board
member when he died in 1995, two years after Chavez.
CONDITIONS OF FARM WORKERS TODAY
Overdependence on boycotts in the 1980s and 90s had a high price. In
the fields there were few elections and even fewer strikes. As a
result, Medina says, "Workers today are back where they were before
the union. Most are working at minimum wage again. Employers are back
to just trying to get the work done in the cheapest way possible,
regardless of the impact on workers."
At the height of the union's power in the late 1970s the base farm
wage was twice the minimum wage. Today that would be over $20 an hour.
Doug Adair, a young white activist when the grape strike began, got a
union job in the fields and worked there the rest of his life. He
remembers, "When I worked under that first contract our wages and
benefits were over double the minimum wage of American workers. We had
a health plan that was the envy of many other unions. We could sit
down with the growers and bargain over grievances. We wouldn't always
win, but we could negotiate our working conditions."
California has a law recognizing the right of farm workers to form
unions, and another that requires growers to negotiate first time
contracts-both products of UFW political action. In the last decade
those laws enabled the union to regain contracts where workers voted
for it years ago. Today workers under union contract can enforce state
restrictions on pesticide use and requirements for better safety
conditions. Contract wages aren't what Adair remembers, but they're
significantly higher than the farm labor average.
Nevertheless, today many workers earn less than the legal minimum, law
or no. Growers tore down most labor camps in California in the era of
the great strikes. As a result, thousands of migrant field laborers
sleep under trees, in cars, or in the fields themselves as they travel
with the harvest. Most workers have toilets and drinking water, and
where they know their rights, they don't have to use the short-handled
hoe, which caused debilitating back injuries to generations of farm
workers before it was banned in California. But labor contractors, who
were once replaced by union hiring halls, have retaken control of the
fields. And as contractors compete to sell the labor of farm workers
to the growers, they cut wages. Because contractors have the power to
give work or to fire workers, the problem of sexual abuse in the
fields has become rampant. They demand sex from women who need a job
to support their families, or simply allow daily humiliation.
The lack of safe working conditions was dramatized by the death in
2008 of 17-year-old Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, who was denied shade
and water and collapsed in 100-degree heat. The low value put on her
life and that of workers like her was also dramatized-by the sentence
of community service given by the state court to the labor contractor
responsible. West Coast Farms, the grower, wasn't penalized at all,
because it claimed the contractor was responsible for conditions in
its grape field.
A NEW GENERATION AND THE LEGACY OF RADICALISM
But just as Larry Itliong followed the migration of Filipino workers
from Seattle to Alaska and then back to California, the migration of
workers today is offering similar opportunities to farm worker
organizers. An upsurge among indigenous Mexican farm workers is
sweeping through the Pacific coast. Work stoppages by Triqui and
Mixteco blueberry pickers led to the organization of their independent
union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia in Washington State. In the San
Quintin Valley of Baja California, thousands of blueberry and
strawberry pickers walked out for three weeks in 2015, organizing an
independent union as well. In 2016 at the beginning of the blueberry
picking season, indigenous Mexican workers at Gourmet Trading near
Delano refused to go in to pick, and voted 347 to 68 for the UFW. Last
year they signed their first union contract.
The indigenous Mexican workers in all of these strikes come from the
same towns in Oaxaca, Puebla, Guerrero, Chiapas, and Michoacan. They
get the worst pay. According to the Indigenous Farm Worker Study, the
median family income in 2008 was $13,750 for an indigenous family and
$22,500 for a mestizo (non-indigenous) farm worker family. Neither is
a living wage, but the differential reflects structural discrimination
against indigenous people.
Activists and organizers in the movement of people from Oaxaca have
radical politics and a history of activism, just as Mangaoang and
Itliong did. One UFW organizer in McFarland, Aquiles Hernandez, from
Santa Maria Tindu, belonged to the leftwing caucus in the Mexican
teachers' union, was fired and imprisoned for 72 days.
Indigenous organizer Rufino Dominguez used migrant community networks
to organize agricultural strikes in Mexico and later in California.
Some of his ideas came from indigenous culture and the politics of
leftwing organizations in Mexico. But some also came from the farm
workers movement in California, with roots going back to those
Thousands of people learned the skill of organizing in the grape
strike and its aftermath. One of them, Rosalinda Guillen, helped
organize FUJ and worked many years for the UFW. She says, "Today farm
workers can organize because of what other farm workers did in the 60s
and 70s in California. This is one of the most important legacies of
Larry Itliong and Cesar Chavez, this coming together of different
workers with different religions and different political views."
In Trampling Out the Vintage, Frank Bardacke calls Itliong "a veteran
old-style unionist [who] did not have the language of democracy in his
arsenal." Yet Itliong spent a lifetime organizing workers in radical
fights against growers. His contribution, and that of his generation
of Filipino radicals, should be honored-not just because they helped
make history, but because their political and trade union ideas are as
relevant to workers now as they were in 1965. Those ideas, which they
kept alive through the worst years of the Cold War, helped lead a
renaissance of farm labor organizing that is still going on today.
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