United Farm Workers of America, also known as UFWA was a result of the coming together of two lesser labor unions. These labor unions were led by two people, Cesar Chavez and Larry Itilong. Larry Itilong was the founder and organizer of Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, also known as AWOC whilst Cesar Chavez was the founder and organizer of National Farm Workers Association, also known as NFWA.
The grand labor union was formed on the 22nd of August 1966 after the NFWA joined AWOC’s protest in Delano, California. Even though there had been a previous strike on the 8th of September 1965 whereby the AWOC workers (mostly Filipino) were joined by NFWA workers, the grand formation of the labor union occurred on the said date. The AWOC and the NFWA came together and reorganized their methods and goals concerning the addressing their grievances. They came to realize that they had more strength after forming this coalition. They changed their name to United Farmworkers Union after accepting the AFL-CIO which occurred in 1972.
Dolores Huerta was a woman that grew up in San Joaquin California where farm workers lived with their families. She got her education as an elementary school teacher and immediately she began to notice the kind of suffering that farmworkers and their families faced in their daily lives the farmworkers lived in sheer poverty and suffering. This pricked her conscience. That is why she became one of the founders of the Community Service Organization, also known as CSO which was created to address the issues of the farm workers in Stockton, California where she lived. It was also meant to improve the economic and social conditions of these workers, as well as fight the discrimination they faced. She was nicknamed the “Dragon Lady” because of her spirited fight for the farm workers. She was courageous and a no nonsense lady that set her mind to change the lives of farmworkers in her neighborhood.
In an attempt to further her cause, Huerta went ahead to form the Agricultural Workers Association, also known as AWA. This happened in 1960. Through this organization, she lobbied leaders and politicians to allow public assistance and pensions to migrant workers who did not have United States’ citizenship. She also lobbied the government to put Spanish driving tests and voting ballots since most of the farmworkers did not understand English.
The reason for Filipino and Mexican workers coming together was because they had a common goal. Both the groups were living in squalid conditions. They were poor and the government of the United States, together with politicians and leaders denied them some basic rights like the ones discussed above. Poverty, lack of proper education and denial of basic rights such as right of free speech and expression, as well as association were denied. Migrant farmworkers had their children going to schools that lacked equipment and well trained teachers.
The Delano Strike occurred on 8th September 1965. The grape farmworkers were the ones that led the strike. Originally, it belonged to the National Farm Workers Association but was later joined by Filipinos. Cesar insisted that Filipino and Latino workers were supposed to join together to fight for a common cause. This was because they shared the same union wall, kitchens and picket lines. He also insisted that their grievances had to be addressed in a non-violent way. The man Cesar then led a march that covered three hundred miles. This put the plight of the farmworkers on the conscience of Americans. It drew unexpected support from students, churches, activists and other unions which were outside the Central Valley.
The strike went across North America after turning to boycotts, lawsuits besides the nonviolent protests that they were doing. Cesar led the striking farmworkers to avoid giving up. He himself knew that the strength of the union was perseverance. If it gave up midway, then their grievances would never be addressed. The strike lasted for over two and a half years and in 1967 to 1968 during winter, impatience grew in the union since there was no sign of their grievances ever being addressed. The younger members of the union began talking about striking back to the authorities with violent tactics. Through this, they though that they would prove their manliness and machismo. Nonetheless, the leader of the union, Cesar, rejected this.
There was dissatisfaction in the union because of the non-violent tactics orchestrated by the leaders of the union. Some union members in fact equated this tactic to cowardice and some members began walking out. Cesar allowed democracy to prevail and thus did not shut the dissenting voices. He believed that the non-violence way was the right way to go and thought that it was a very creative way to achieve the union’s goals. Cesar quoted Mahatma Gandhi in his reasons not to use violence as the way to address their grievances.
The history of organizing farm workers had not always been rosy in the United States. For instance Mexican and Japanese farmworkers came together to attempt lobbying and fighting for working conditions that are better and higher wages. Nevertheless, they were ignored and later disbanded. Another attempt by farm workers came in 1913 when Industrial Workers Union came to protest in the northern part of California. This union had two thousand members. Nevertheless, violence occurred and more than two leaders of the union were arrested. Therefore, when United Farm Workers of America was formed, it was a subject of great debate as to whether the organization would succeed in its quest of addressing the issues faced by these farm workers.
The reason why Filipino and Mexican workers came together was because they had a common goal. Both the groups were living in squalid conditions. They were poor and the government of the United States, together with politicians and leaders denied them some basic rights like the ones discussed above. Poverty, lack of proper education and denial of basic rights such as right of free speech and expression, as well as association were denied. Migrant farmworkers had their children going to schools that lacked equipment and well trained teachers. They also lacked uniforms and money to support their needs. This greatly affected the migrant community which included Filipino and Mexicans. They had solidarity with each other since they faced most issues together.
The achievements of the grand union were obvious. First, the union had vegetables and lettuce workers brought in their thousands. The workers were brought to work in Imperial Valley and Salina in Florida and Coca-Cola. Another achievement includes the use of non-violence in addressing their grievances. Non-violence tactics were championed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. The next achievement attributed to UFW is the improvement of their members’ lives by responding with boycotts, lawsuits and strikes in the industry of groceries. All the goals and aims that the union set to achieve cannot be said to have been achieved in full. However, it achieved a lot. The social and economic welfare of some of its members improved. Though the union lost some members along the way, the ones that stood by it had their lives improved. The protests were difficult but they managed at the end. The Union faced a crisis when it distanced its affiliation from AFL-CIO on the 13th of January 2006. They were consequently denied affiliation rights to any other change oriented union.
Dunne, John Gregory. Delano, the Story of the California Grape Strike. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967.
Jeffs, William George. The Roots of the Delano Grape Strike. Thesis (M.A.)--California State College, Fullerton, 1969, 1984.
Kallen, Stuart A. We Are Not Beasts of Burden: Cesar Chavez and the Delano Grape Strike, California, 1965-1970. Minneapolis, Minn: Twenty-First Century Books, 2011.
National Advisory Committee on Farm Labor (U.S.). The Grape Strike. New York, N.Y.: National Advisory Committee on Farm Labor, 1966.
Nelson, Eugene. Huelga: The First Hundred Days of the Great Delano Grape Strike. Delano, Calif: Farm Worker Press, 1966.