Chávez and Huerta Form Farmworkers’ Union and Lead Grape Pickers’ Strike Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Union leaders formed the United Farm Workers of America, the first permanent agricultural workers’ union in the United States, and led a major strike of grape pickers. The strike ended with growers agreeing to union demands, leading to the largest victory in the history of farm-labor organizing. The strike also raised public awareness of farmworker rights.

Summary of Event

Throughout the twentieth century farmworkers have struggled to organize themselves against a politico-agribusiness complex that has been rather successful at resisting them. Only since the mid-1960’s have working conditions for farmworkers begun to improve substantially. Improvements in income and working conditions are direct results of the termination of the federal bracero program Bracero program Labor;immigrants Immigration;United States as well as the struggles for union recognition and collective bargaining by the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) and its organizational predecessors, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) and the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). United Farm Workers Labor unions;National Farm Workers Association Strikes National Farm Workers Association Delano grape strike (1965) Labor unions;grape boycott [kw]Chávez and Huerta Form Farmworkers’ Union and Lead Grape Pickers’ Strike (Sept. 30, 1962, and Sept. 16, 1965) [kw]Huerta Form Farmworkers’ Union and Lead Grape Pickers’ Strike, Chávez and (Sept. 30, 1962, and Sept. 16, 1965) [kw]Union and Lead Grape Pickers’ Strike, Chávez and Huerta Form Farmworkers’ (Sept. 30, 1962, and Sept. 16, 1965) [kw]Farmworkers’ Union and Lead Grape Pickers’ Strike, Chávez and Huerta Form (Sept. 30, 1962, and Sept. 16, 1965) [kw]Grape Pickers’ Strike, Chávez and Huerta Form Farmworkers’ Union and Lead (Sept. 30, 1962, and Sept. 16, 1965) [kw]Strike, Chávez and Huerta Form Farmworkers’ Union and Lead Grape Pickers’ (Sept. 30, 1962, and Sept. 16, 1965) United Farm Workers Labor unions;National Farm Workers Association Strikes National Farm Workers Association Delano grape strike (1965) Labor unions;grape boycott [g]North America;Sept. 30, 1962, and Sept. 16, 1965: Chávez and Huerta Form Farmworkers’ Union and Lead Grape Pickers’ Strike[07340] [g]United States;Sept. 30, 1962, and Sept. 16, 1965: Chávez and Huerta Form Farmworkers’ Union and Lead Grape Pickers’ Strike[07340] [c]Business and labor;Sept. 30, 1962, and Sept. 16, 1965: Chávez and Huerta Form Farmworkers’ Union and Lead Grape Pickers’ Strike[07340] [c]Organizations and institutions;Sept. 30, 1962, and Sept. 16, 1965: Chávez and Huerta Form Farmworkers’ Union and Lead Grape Pickers’ Strike[07340] [c]Agriculture;Sept. 30, 1962, and Sept. 16, 1965: Chávez and Huerta FormFarmworkers’ Union and Lead Grape Pickers’ Strike[07340] [c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 30, 1962, and Sept. 16, 1965: Chávez and Huerta Form Farmworkers’ Union and Lead Grape Pickers’ Strike[07340] Chávez, César Huerta, Dolores Galarza, Ernesto

The September, 1962, founding of the NFWA in Fresno, California, by César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and others signaled a new era in the efforts by farmworkers to unionize and bargain collectively with their employers, mostly large agricultural growers. In 1966, Chicanos and Mexicans in the NFWA and Filipino farmworkers in the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), merged organizations to form the UFWOC. In February of 1972, the UFWOC became a full-fledged affiliate of the AFL-CIO AFL-CIO[AFL CIO] and formed the UFW. In 1975, struggles by the UFW culminated in the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act Agricultural Labor Relations Act, California (1975) (ALRA) by the California legislature.

Led by Chávez and Huerta, the NFWA brought years of community organizing experience to bear on the problems of farmworkers. These problems included economic hardship, general powerlessness against employers, and the lack of adequate facilities in the fields. The NFWA was established as an independent, service-oriented, Chicano farmworkers’ labor organization that provided credit, burial, and other family services. It sought to organize farmworkers one by one.

Prior to the 1960’s one important factor hindering the unionization of farmworkers was the bracero program, which was established under the Emergency Labor Program of 1942 to ease the labor shortage brought on by World War II. The bracero program supervised the recruitment of Mexican nationals to meet U.S. growers’ demands for labor. It was continued by Public Law 78 after the end of World War II and was maintained until 1963, when the law expired.

During the 1950’s, Mexican braceros greatly influenced the unionization of U.S. farmworkers. By serving as alternate sources of cheap labor, they often were used as strikebreakers by growers. In 1947, the newly founded National Farm Labor Union National Farm Labor Union (NFLU) led a strike against the powerful Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation[Digiorgio Fruit Corporation] in Arvin, California. The union demanded an increase in wages, seniority rights, grievance procedures, and recognition of the union as sole bargaining agent. Robert Di Giorgio Di Giorgio, Robert refused the demands and launched an assault on the NFLU. He used braceros as strikebreakers and manipulated both the press and politicians in his favor. The U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities House Committee on Un-American Activities[House Committee on UnAmerican Activities] HUAC began investigating the union. In 1949, a special subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and Labor House Committee on Education and Labor held hearings on the Di Giorgio strike. The committee supported the growers and Di Giorgio won the strike.

This particular strike taught Ernesto Galarza, one of the strike leaders, an important lesson in the struggle between farmworkers and growers. In his view, farmworkers could not be organized until growers’ access to exploitable immigrant labor groups was halted. Braceros, as international migrant workers, were more exploitable than American workers. If they tried to organize, they were labeled as communists and deported. Those braceros seen by growers as causing unrest among farmworkers were often reported to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Justice, each of which would investigate the “leaders” for violations of U.S. laws. Consequently, during the 1950’s, there was not a single strike by braceros, although the NFLU continued to organize strikes among other farmworkers.

By 1962, the year the NFWA was founded, economic conditions for farmworkers had worsened because of increased mechanization on farms and the continued negative impact of the bracero program on unionization efforts. In 1965, farmworkers in Tulare County, California, lived in dilapidated labor camps condemned by the Tulare Housing Authority. The labor camps had been built by the U.S. Farm Security Administration near the end of the Great Depression to provide temporary shelters for Dust Bowl migrants. Condemnation led to rent increases meant to yield the necessary revenue to build new housing. Late in the summer of 1965, the NFWA led rent strikes among farmworkers. The rent strike at Woodville, one of the labor camps, evolved into an employment strike at the nearby J. D. Martin Ranch J. D. Martin Ranch . Strikers complained about low pay, the lack of toilets in the fields, and a peeping crew boss. The strike failed. Within two weeks, however, the NFWA became involved in a strike for higher wages initiated by the Filipino membership of the AWOC local at Delano.

On September 16, 1965, the NFWA formally joined the Delano grape strike. Four days later NFWA picket leaders asked farmworkers to walk off the fields. The AWOC-NFWA strike spread throughout the Delano-Earlimart-McFarland area, affecting approximately thirty ranches and involving several hundred farmworkers. Hundreds of college students, civil rights workers, and religious groups joined the farmworkers within days of the onset of the strike. Civil rights organizations quickly sent members of their staff to help with the strike. In October, under the charismatic leadership of Chávez, the NFWA launched a grape boycott.

Supporters quickly started picketing stores and piers throughout California. In response, growers began to bully picketers, often in the presence of law enforcement officials who did nothing to stop them. Growers also resorted to spraying sulfur near the picket lines. The strike continued to gain momentum, and within two weeks nearly four thousand farmworkers were out of the fields. Many growers were not economically hurt because they were able to import workers from neighboring cities who were willing to cross picket lines to work. Strike leaders began to spread word of the strike to farmworkers in neighboring areas.

In March, 1966, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor conducted public hearings in Delano and other nearby cities. At the Delano hearings, Senator Robert F. Kennedy Kennedy, Robert F. [p]Kennedy, Robert F.;and organized labor[organized labor] , a member of the subcommittee, reminded the local sheriff to brush up on the rights of all people, including farmworkers. In 1966, some growers slowly began to settle with the strikers; others continued to hold out, turning instead to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Teamsters Union Labor unions;Teamsters for “sweetheart contracts.” The strike continued through the years 1966 and 1967. In 1968, the union, now called the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), extended its boycott to include every California grower of table grapes. Slowly, more individual growers agreed to recognize the union, but many powerful others continued to hold out. Finally, in July of 1970, UFWOC scored the largest victory in the history of farm-labor organizing when several of the most powerful growers agreed to the union’s demands, thereby officially ending the strike.

Significance

The major consequences stemming from the founding of the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 were the eventual establishment of a permanent farmworkers’ labor union and passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) in California in 1975. The farmworkers forced growers to recognize their union and to agree to collective bargaining. This meant improvements in wages and working conditions for farmworkers.

Mexican immigrants, Chicanos, and other poor groups have provided a steady supply of cheap labor to agribusiness, especially in the Southwest. In order to maintain access to cheap labor and to thwart unionization efforts, growers have generally been highly supportive of unrestricted immigration from Mexico. Efforts by farmworkers to organize unions and bargain collectively have been brutally suppressed by growers, who often have had local criminal justice systems and federal immigration agencies on their side during periods of labor disputes. Growers’ use of sheriffs, police officers, judges, strikebreakers, and private armies against farmworkers were common. Indeed, the U.S. government itself, through the bracero program, was a “labor contractor” for growers.

The NFWA, which changed its name to the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), brought the plight of the farmworkers to the forefront of America’s conscience and highlighted the suffering and indignities farmworkers were forced to endure. It also marked the inception of the farmworkers’ first permanent, broad-based organization. Chicano and Filipino farmworkers, long neglected by labor legislation and traditional trade unions, organized their own independent labor union and assumed their rights to organize and bargain collectively with their employers.

The Delano Grape Strike, begun in September of 1965, propelled César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and the NFWA to the front of the civil and labor rights struggles. Chávez turned the strike into a crusade by promoting the view that farmworkers are human beings who deserve respect and a living wage. In 1968, he fasted for twenty-five days to gain support for the farmworkers’ struggle. He ended the fast by “breaking bread” with Senator Robert Kennedy, then a candidate for the U.S. presidency.

Through use of the consumer boycott, farmworkers were able to involve the American public in their struggle for human and union recognition. As a result, Americans “discovered” the farmworkers, who through their own efforts affirmed and reclaimed their humanity, though their struggle for justice continues. United Farm Workers Labor unions;National Farm Workers Association Strikes National Farm Workers Association Delano grape strike (1965) Labor unions;grape boycott

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Acuña, Rodolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. A general history of Chicanos, now a classic. Detailed sections on Chicano agricultural labor organizing, tracing Chicano labor struggles to the turn of the century. Also details labor struggles in other sectors of the economy. Well referenced, with an excellent index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dolores Huerta Foundation. http://www.doloreshuerta .org. This nonprofit organization, based in Bakersfield, California, focuses on community activism and education, especially concerning women and children. Includes a lengthy biography of Huerta.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunne, John Gregory. Delano. Rev. ed. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Provides an extensively detailed description of the events leading up to the formation of the United Farm Workers of America. It also describes the union’s organizing efforts during the 1960’s. The book includes a section of photographs of the strike but no index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Galarza, Ernesto. Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story. Charlotte, N.C.: McNally & Loftin, 1964. Provides an excellent historical analysis of the bracero program from its inception up to 1960. Examines the structure of control affecting the lives of Mexican nationals and American agricultural workers in the fields. Contains some photographs, references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gonzalez, Gilbert G. Guest Workers or Colonized Labor? Mexican Labor Migration to the United States. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2006. Comprehensive discussion of Mexican labor in the United States. A critical analysis of immigrant workers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kushner, Sam. Long Road to Delano. New York: International, 1975. A class analysis of the development of agribusiness in California. Describes farmworkers’ working conditions and their struggles against exploitation. Foreword by Bert Corona, a major Chicano community leader. No index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">La Botz, Dan. César Chávez and La Causa. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006. A biography of Chávez, covering his early life as well as his political activism. Includes discussion of the Delano grape strike and the formation of the UFW. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nelson, Eugene. Huelga: The First Hundred Days of the Great Delano Grape Strike. Delano, Calif.: Farm Worker Press, 1966. This short book provides an account of the events that led up to the Delano Grape Strike and details activities up to December, 1965. Written by one of the organizers of the strike, the book captures the mood and views of the farmworkers. Contains several photographs, including some of law enforcement officials and strikebreakers. No index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Ronald B. Chávez and the Farm Workers: A Study in the Acquisition and Use of Power. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975. Provides a sympathetic description of the Chávez-led farmworkers’ struggles during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. In particular, the book details some of the struggles the farmworkers had with the Teamsters Union. Contains some photographs, including one of Chávez and Kennedy. Includes an excellent index.

United States Begins the Bracero Program

U.S. Government Program Begins Deporting Mexican Workers

AFL and CIO Merge

AFL-CIO Expels the Teamsters Union

Hoffa Negotiates a National Trucking Agreement

U.S. and Mexican Companies Form Maquiladoras

Chávez Is Jailed for Organizing a National Lettuce Boycott

Categories: History Content