Blog post

"Little Switzerlands": Farmworker Power, Ethnic Solidarities and the Birth of the UFW

Audrea Lim20 January 2012

This conversation came out of an email exchange between myself and Frank Bardacke in December 2011. Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers is the dramatic new history of the rise and fall of the UFW.

The Economist's only real complaint about Trampling Out the Vintage (apart from you being a leftist!) was that you "insufficiently acknowledged" Cesar Chavez's "significant legacy." What is your response?

It's not true. I fully acknowledge Cesar's role in founding the UFW, organizing the grape boycott, and inspiring Chicanos. What I don't do is reduce the history of the UFW to an aspect of Cesar's biography. That's what people have always done before. Instead, I write about the lives, working skills, and politics of the farm workers who were responsible for so much of what the UFW won in the fields. I don't think the folks at The Economist were much interested in that. They dismiss it as Leftism.

In fact, you describe in Trampling Out the Vintage how farmworker power actually predates the UFW.

Yes, that's right. Farm worker power is built into the very nature of agricultural production. Before you can reap, you must sow. Before growers can make a profit they have to pay land rent, cultivate and prepare the soil, irrigate, weed, thin, and often weed again. During that time, the grower has no product to sell. The only time the grower can make a profit is during the harvest, and if the harvest is lost or interrupted for any reason, the grower loses everything. Unlike in industry, if there is a strike, the grower can't warehouse the raw materials, and then put people on triple shifts after the strike and make back some of what was lost. If the harvest is lost, it is lost forever. And in some fruits and vegetables, the harvest lasts a very short time.

Head lettuce, to give an example of one of the most important crops in UFW history, has to be harvested within three days of when it is ready. All of this gives farm workers considerable power during a harvest. And within farm worker culture there is a tradition of using that power through harvest strikes, slowdowns, and forms of minor sabotage, like damaging the crop when picking it or barn burning. Farm workers taught these tactics to the UFW staff, not the reverse.

So what did the UFW (or more accurately, its precursor, the National Farm Worker Association (NFWA)) have to offer the farmworkers when they first started out?

The periodic power of the crews during the harvest was considerable, but it was not enough to build a successful union. People had to organize on a wider basis. The NFWA was an attempt to do that. They set out to be a community organization that would also sign union contracts, trying to organize farm workers around issues on and off the job. When the 1965 strike was forced upon them, they were in a position to keep the strike symbolically alive after it was defeated, and to link farm workers to their supporters-unionists, consumers, religious folks, and students-through the boycott. They couldn't have done that without the NFWA, and without the strategic genius of Cesar Chavez.

What about Larry Itliong and the AWOC, the largely Filipino farmworkers organization that merged with the NFWA to form the UFW in 1965?

In 1965, as the grape strike began, about 30 percent of the people working in the Delano table grapes were Filipinos. They were mostly "Manong" who had come to California as young men between 1923 and 1934. In 1965, they were they were the true bearers of trade union militancy and success in the California fields. As a result of their intense internal solidarity and their monopoly of specific skills (they were the very best asparagus pickers in the US) they had built two unions, the Filipino Labor Union (FLU) in Santa Maria, and the Filipino Agricultural Labor Association in Stockton. These unions had collective bargaining agreements, union halls, and joint labor-management grievance boards. Their unions fell apart only at the beginning of the World War II when so many of the Filipino workers went into the Army to earn full US citizenship.

The Filipinos grape pickers were the first workers to strike the Delano grape fields in 1965. A group of rank and file workers forced the strike on the formal leadership of AWOC, and their lead organizer, Larry Itliong. He had been involved in labor struggles since he first got off the boat from the Philippines in 1929, and once he was convinced that the workers could not be talked out of their strike (they were sitting in the vineyards) he brought the whole weight of the AFL-CIO-sponsored AWOC into the strike. The NFWA, which would become the UFW, had to decide what it would do about the Filipino strike. The leadership of the NFWA, especially Chavez, thought that the strike would be defeated fairly quickly (as it was) but didn't think the the NFWA could stay out of it. If if did abstain, the Filipinos would surely lose, he reasoned, and would blame the Mexican NFWA for their loss. For the foreseeable future it would be impossible to unite Filipinos and Mexicans and therefore impossible to win in the grape vineyards. So the NFWA joined what they knew would be a losing strike. And, thus, the UFW was born in act of solidarity between Mexicans and Filipinos, quite unusual in California history where more typically national and ethnic groups scab on each others' strikes.

But this is just the beginning of the long story of Filipino-Mexican relations inside the UFW.

So the UFW really was a multicultural and multi-ethnic movement: in addition to its largely Mexican and Filipino membership, the organizers were largely a mixture of Mexican Americans, like Cesar and Dolores Huerta, and white radicals from the student movement, like Marshall Ganz. How did this contribute to the UFW's success, and to its eventual fall?

Yes. The birth of the UFW in the fields depends on an act of inter-ethnic solidarity: A Mexican-American organization supports a Filipino union's strike. And the successful grape boycott that follows depends on a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, mixed-class alliance of progressives, liberals and radicals that was organized by the UFW's proudly diverse staff. And remember: this alliance was built in the late 1960s when liberals and radicals were sharply divided over the question of the war in Vietnam. Also, when the Black Power movement had replaced the Civil Rights movement, and black activists were no longer supported by Democratic Party liberals. The grand alliance of the early sixties had fallen apart everywhere except on the UFW boycott. The boycott committees were like little Switzerlands, where people who otherwise weren't talking to each other were working together. All of that was crucial to the UFW's early success.

Thus during the grape boycott, the union developed into what I call a "two-souled" organization: A boycott-advocacy soul made up of the diverse union staff, and its supporters and a farm worker soul made up of Mexican farm workers covered by UFW contracts. When these two souls worked together, the UFW was able to win a significant measure of power both in the fields and in the rest of society. But, eventually, those two souls were in conflict, and the resulting battle debilitated the union, setting it up for the grower offensive in the early 1980s that robbed it of its contracts and its power.

How that came to happen is one of the major themes of the book. It is sad, no doubt, but also instructive. And, in my humble opinion, fascinating in its particulars.

Thank you Frank!