In 1965, Mexican-American farmers brought the grape industry to a standstill. It was a turning point in both Mexican-American civil rights and the rights of agricultural workers in the United States.
Back then, migrant farm workers in the fields might only earn $2 for a full day’s work. Today, that would be the equivalent of working 8 or more hours for $15.11. Life expectancy was 49 years; and because children had to work in the fields, they would rarely learn to read well. Two to three years of schooling was the norm, and these workers would have to constantly move from one job to the next. This also meant a lack of housing; workers and their families would often sleep in the open air.
There was no justice. Ranchers could treat migrant workers as they pleased with no fear of recourse. In 1964, the Bracero program was halted, in part by the work of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. This allowed the legal importation of temporary workers from Mexico. Past efforts to unionize had failed, but with a sudden limitation in the number of workers, the balance of power began to shift between workers and growers.
Filipino workers had called a strike in the Coachella Valley in the Summer of 1965. The nature of the grapes grown there was such that a day lost would mean a significant portion of the harvest was irredeemable. Growers gave in to the demands of wages of $1.40 an hour. Further north, growers played Filipino workers and Mexican workers against each other.
Chavez and Huerta’s NFWA (National Farm Workers Association) had been organizing quietly for years. They hadn’t wanted to move until they had all the migrant workers in California unionized, but when Filipino strikers came to them, Mexican-American workers had a difficult choice to make. Most families had no savings, were under threat by growers, and could not financially sustain any elongated strike. The NFWA, which would later become UFW (United Farm Workers) itself had only $87 in its coffers. Despite these potential difficulties, workers decided to strike.
Most growers were themselves European immigrants from the 1920s and 30s. They had pushed west into the San Joaquin Valley, where land was cheap because it was a desert. This allowed the growing of hardy crops like grapes, and it wasn’t until the federal government irrigated the region in 1951 that agriculture boomed in the area.
Growers brought in strikebreakers and served injunctions against the picket lines. They could no longer effectively picket the fields themselves. What Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta did next is the stuff of protest legend. They instead picketed the stores that sold grapes. They put the burden on consumers, and called for a national boycott of many growers’ products.
Chavez himself started growing as a civil-rights icon, someone who could communicate the need for economic and human rights both within the movement and to those outside of it.
Sen. Robert Kennedy, operating as part of a Senate subcommittee investigating the civil rights treatment of migrant workers, came to California. He interrogated sheriffs and police offices who had unlawfully jailed and, in some cases, beaten peaceful protesters. The subcommittee did this in large, town-hall-styled assembly meetings. These helped legitimize the farm workers’ strike in the minds of many Americans.
Chavez had also decided on a 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, Cal. During this march, Chavez made two key decisions that continued to shape the Hispanic civil rights movement in the eyes of the nation.
Firstly, Chavez incorporated religion in the march. At its head was a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Every morning would begin with mass. A key value in Mexican Catholic culture communicated to the nation that this wasn’t a Socialist uprising at hand, it was a civil rights plight made by hardworking, religious families just trying to do their best.
Secondly, a theater traveled with and entertained the marchers during their long journey. Seeing how they both captured the emotions of their audience and boiled down the complex struggle at hand into accessible skits, Chavez began recruiting leaders in the movement directly from this theater. Other art was similarly prized within the movement. With no real access to television, radio, or newspapers, banners, posters, and especially murals became key to communicating full, complex stories to onlookers.
The march eventually numbered more than 10,000. It’s important to note that while the strike and march were identified with and led by Mexican-American farm workers, Filipino-American farm workers were also crucial to the heart of the movement.
A few growers began giving in one by one, negotiating individual contracts with the union. It was a two-steps-forward, one-step-back process. By continuing to put pressure on the retail end of selling, and sending representatives out to cities across the United States to expand the boycott, the farm workers started earning more widespread support. Local and regional religious leaders from nearly every denomination became key in supporting the plight of the farm workers and helping them grow effective operations in multiple major cities.
This, in turn, put pressure on the mayors and councilmen in these cities to support the strike, which put pressure on other unions to support the farm workers’ attempts to unionize. The AFL-CIO would later join in support. Across Europe, dock workers began refusing to unload California grapes. In response, Mexicans across the country felt a call to go to California and support their brothers and sisters there.
Even as violence by law enforcement escalated, Chavez preached non-violence. Now in its third year, a portion of the striking workers were becoming fed up and restless. They had been arrested, beaten, and still didn’t have work. They began to seek confrontation. Chavez knew that the support of the American people was dependent on non-violence. There was only one thing left for him to do, one way for him to serve as an example to the families he had led to this point. He fasted, refusing to eat food and only drinking water.
This interfered with his day-to-day operation of the union, which made many members upset. Dolores Huerta was irreplaceable during this period, having already managed the boycott and coordination with other unions while Chavez managed operations in California. Continuing in her role, she reassured and defused allies who were nervous and sometimes even angry about the religious connotations of Chavez’s fast. Cesar Chavez mattered. Dolores Huerta mattered just as much. It’s a shame history doesn’t remember one so well as the other.
Two weeks into his fast, Chavez was called into court to determine if strikers had violated an injunction by trespassing on a grower’s land. 3,000 farm workers attended that day. When the court room filled up, the other farm workers knelt outside and politely waited. Chavez’s fast had communicated a determination and solidarity, something that could not be spoken in the language of protest, but only in the language of collaboration and faith. After 25 days, Chavez would finally break his fast at a morning mass. 4,000 supporters attended, including Sen. Robert Kennedy.
When Kennedy was shot 3 months later, the union lost its strongest ally. Soon after, it would find its strongest enemy. With the election of California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1969, they would find the resources of the state itself directed against them. Reagan gave speeches that argued farm workers weren’t even on strike, ignoring the thousands who had marched or attended other rallies and protests. The strike was four years old by then, and it was too late for Reagan to make a difference.
By 1970, the boycott was having an effect. Sales in certain cities had dropped by 22%. Chain stores in Chicago announced that they would stop selling grapes and grape products entirely. The first grower to sign a contract with the union enjoyed an immediate advantage, being the only grapes that would even be accepted in some cities.
Growers began to climb aboard more and more quickly. When one of the most obstinate growers, Giumarra, finally asked Chavez to sit down and work out a contract, it was a tremendous opportunity. Giumarra owned 12,000 acres of growing land. That meant hundreds of jobs that could be available that much sooner. Nonetheless, Chavez refused. He would only sit down with them on one condition: Giumarra bring every other grower to the table as well. It was a gambit, but Giumarra knew their leverage dwindled by the day. They managed to get the 25 other growers to the table the very next morning. Chavez asked his toughest negotiator to work out the contracts. Dolores Huerta did just that, and the contracts were signed on July 29, 1970.
This wouldn’t be the end of Cesar Chavez’s work. The UFW continued to support migrant workers across the United States. By 1975, California had granted all farm workers in the state the ability to collectively bargain, and Chavez would also fight for various crops to abandon the use of pesticides, which could hurt workers via prolonged exposure in the fields. After passing away in 1993, Chavez was posthumously granted the Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.
Huerta continued as president of the UFW. While protesting the policies of George H.W. Bush during his successful 1988 run for president, she was among protesters who were beaten by the San Francisco police. She would take them to court, donating all proceeds to farm workers’ benefit programs, and used the incident to fight for more sensible crowd control policies on the part of police. She aided the campaigns of Latinas running for office around the country. She was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2012, and is still active in civil rights and workers’ rights campaigns today.
Who is your hero? Who do you think doesn’t get enough credit in the civil rights movements that continue even today?