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50th anniversary of the Delano grape strike

By staff

Farmworker strike led to formation of the United Farm Workers union

Milwaukee, WI – Sept. 8, 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the grape strike in Delano, California. On that day in 1965 the farmworkers in the Delano area went on strike to demand a raise to $1.25 per hour (the minimum wage at the time, which did not apply to farmworkers), an improvement in working conditions and for union recognition.

Leaders of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), which helped organize the Delano farmworkers, included Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz. The AWOC was affiliated with the AFL-CIO and was mostly composed of Filipino American workers.

The AWOC approached the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) to join the strike in Delano. The NFWA was an association of mainly Chicano and Mexicano farmworkers that was founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who came out of the Community Services Organization (CSO). The NFWA and AWOC formed an alliance of Filipino and Mexican farmworkers to struggle against the grape growers in Delano. They were able to quickly convince the grape growers to increase the wages of the workers but growers refused to recognize their union.

Soon after, the strikers called for a boycott of all grapes that did not have a union label. The boycott hurt the pockets of giant agribusiness corporations like Schenley Industries and DiGiorgio Corporation. In addition to the boycott, the historic 340 mile march from Delano to Sacramento was another action that NFWA and AWOC organized. The march gave the struggle of the farmworkers national attention and added more pressure on the grape growers.

NFWA and AWOC merged to become United Farm Workers Organizing Committee – UFWOC – in 1966, and then later became the United Farm Workers (UFW). The striking farmworkers raised their historic flag of a black eagle on a red background, with the eagle representing both the struggle of Chicano and Mexicano people in the U.S. and the red flag the historic strike symbol of workers in struggle.

After five years of struggle, both Schenley and DiGiorgio conceded to the demands of the farmworkers and gave the Delano farmworkers union recognition with decent contracts. The UFW gained 50,000 members in the 1970s and became the first union to successfully organize the agriculture industry in California, after more than 60 years of strikes and other labor struggles in the fields.

The UFW struggle also inspired the Chicano movement of the late 1960s and attracted many urban youth to support the boycott and mass rallies. In East Los Angeles, the Brown Berets picketed large supermarkets to support the grape boycott and protested at the Los Angeles Central Market. The farmworkers’ struggle also attracted broad support from other oppressed nationality communities in California and across the U.S., especially among Asian Americans. There was also support from the trade unions, many Catholics and other Christian churches and students.

Masao Suzuki, who was a student organizer at U.C. Berkeley in the early 1970s, told Fight Back! of the impact of his visit to Delano in 1972 to help build Agbayani Village, a retirement home for older union members. “My trip was very intense, from doing construction work in the heat which would reach 100 degrees during the day, to seeing the violence that the growers’ thugs and the local sheriffs inflicted on the striking workers, killing two of them. The farmworkers’ stories of their lifetime of toil and struggle inspired me to commit myself to the liberation of the working class and oppressed peoples.”

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