How Filipino Migrants Gave the Grape Strike Its Radical Politics

Honoring Larry Itliong and a generation of radicals whose political ideas are as relevant to workers now as they were in 1965.

Francisco and Maria Tapec are Filipino grape pickers in Coachella. Although Filipino workers were a large and important part of the farm labor workforce in the Coachella Valley from the 1920s to the 1970s, very few grape workers come from the Philippines today. Photo by David Bacon

Francisco and Maria Tapec are Filipino grape pickers in Coachella. Although Filipino workers were a large and important part of the farm labor workforce in the Coachella Valley from the 1920s to the 1970s, very few grape workers come from the Philippines today. Photo by David Bacon

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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.  Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries

Larry Itliong. Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries

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 Jose Rizal.

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 early 1930s.”

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.

Filipino immigrant workers at an organizing rally at the Forty Acres, the historic home of the United Farm Workers.  Photo by David Bacon

Filipino immigrant workers at an organizing rally at the Forty Acres, the historic home of the United Farm Workers. Photo by David Bacon

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 Joe Prudencio.

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 the floor.

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 Marcos.

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 strike.

Itliong and the Filipinos in the Delano Grape Strike

AWOC members picket during the grape strike in Delano.  Photo by Harvey Richards, used by permission.

AWOC members picket during the grape strike in Delano. Photo by Harvey Richards, used by permission.

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 housing.”

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.

Rufino Dominguez, Mixteco migrant leader, talks with men who worked in the U.S. as braceros in the 1950s.  Photo by David Bacon

Rufino Dominguez, Mixteco migrant leader, talks with men who worked in the U.S. as braceros in the 1950s. Photo by David Bacon

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 Filipino activists.

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.

is a journalist and photographer covering labor, immigration, and the impact of the global economy on workers.

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