When decorating the Oval Office after the inauguration of President Biden, a bust of César Estrada Chávez was placed in a prominent position, dislodging Winston Churchill’s traditional place. Chavez was the head of the United Farm Workers Union and a bold and effective promoter of the rights of farmworkers in their struggle for economic democracy.
Throughout U.S. history the rights of farmworkers have stood outside the normal evolving protections of the rights of American workers and their unions to organise, bargain and represent workers. The main piece of enabling legislation by the U.S. Government regulating minimum national standards of employment and representation was the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the ‘Wagner Act’) which granted labour rights to private-sector employees. However, the NLRA specifically excluded two classes of private-sector employees: farm and domestic workers. To this day, farm and domestic workers are excluded from the NLRA.
Farming, despite the advances in the machinery and techniques of planting is still, especially at harvest time, an endeavour that requires manual labour; often back-breaking toil in hot fields gathering grapes, melons, tomatoes and plucking precious fruit from the vines and orchards. For the most part, such harvesting required large numbers of seasonal labourers moving around the U.S., harvesting what crop was then ready for harvest and moving on to the next crop when harvest ended.
The bulk of the workforce who toiled in these fields and orchards were immigrant workers and temporary workers (‘braceros’) allowed into the U.S. for the harvests. They were mostly Mexicans and moved as family units. The linchpin of their solidarity was the activist ‘Chicana’ women who formed the bedrock of the new labour organisations. The men took on the official posts and titles but, in the early 1960s it was the women of the movement who formed the activist groups which sought to protect the farmworkers and worked at the grassroots levels to create local organisations of labour representation. One of the most important of these activist women was Dolores Huerta (a sister-in-law of Cesar Chavez) who co-founded the National Farmworkers Association (NFWA) which, later became the United Farm Workers (UFW).
The NFWA was both a nascent trade union as well as a Mexican-American solidarity group. It marched under the banners of NFWA solidarity and the banners of the Virgin of Guadalupe; a sainted apparition on earth of Blessed Mary. The Virgin purportedly appeared to an Aztec peasant, Juan Diego, for the first time on a hill called Tepeyac on Dec. 9, 1531. She appeared as simple women with brown skin (Virgin Moreno) and became the patroness of Mexico. Quite often, during strikes and protest marches, the farmworkers would kneel and make a prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The movement began to take off when a strike broke out in the Delano grape fields. The Delano grape strike was organized by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), a predominantly Filipino and AFL-CIO-sponsored labour organization, against table grape growers in Delano, California to fight against the exploitation of farm workers. The strike began on September 8, 1965 and attracted the support of the Mexicans in the new NFWA which joined in the strike in August 1966. In August 1966, the AWOC and the NFWA merged to create the United Farm Workers (UFW) Organizing Committee.
The strike was met by violence by the growers, but the farmworkers remained non-violent. What was discovered to be the most effective tool of the union was the call for a nationwide boycott of table grapes and a picket line at the docks where grapes were being loaded on vessels. By 1968, the UFW had signed contracts with 10 different table grape growers, which included Schenley Industries and the DiGiorgio Corporation. Strikes and boycotts did not cease until 1970, when 26 table grape growers signed contracts with the UFW. Contracts between the UFW and grape growers were the first of their kind in agricultural history, and alongside the immediate effects of these initial contracts such as the increase in wages and improved working conditions, some contracts included provisions regarding unemployment insurance, paid vacation days, and the creation of a special benefits fund. The motto of the union became “Si se puede!” (Yes, we can!)
However, amid these successes the tragic weakness of the farmworkers ’unionisation became clear. The contracts signed after the grape strike and the melon strike in Starr County, Texas provoked a reaction from the Teamsters Union. The UFW farmworkers could only guarantee workers’ right during their employment, which was seasonal, depending on the harvest. The contracts signed by the Teamsters were for the canning and processing jobs; the transport of the harvest and offered year-around protection to the members. The Teamsters began to move in on the UFW and offered jobs to the pickers if they left the UFW.
I remember visiting a grape field in Napa county with Lupe who complained that in order to get a majority of the workers in the Schenley field the union had to post mobile pickets to keep out scab pickers (also mainly Mexicans) supported by the growers and the Teamsters. This came to a head in the Salad Bowl Strike in Salinas. The Salad Bowl strike was a series of strikes, mass pickets, boycotts and secondary boycotts that began on August 23, 1970 and led to the largest farm worker strike in U.S. history. The strike was led by the United Farm Workers against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
In June 1969, about 25 small growers in Delano broke ranks with the rest of the industry, and by the end of July 1970 the strike had ended. The UFW believed that success over the Delano grape growers would lead hundreds of growers to recognize the union and negotiate contracts with the union. That success in Delano spurred on the Teamsters to oust the UFW from the fields. Six thousand drivers and packing workers in the Salinas Valley in California, represented by the Teamsters, struck on July 17, 1970 effectively preventing most of the nation's summer lettuce crop from reaching consumers. The price of iceberg lettuce tripled overnight, and thousands of acres of lettuce were ploughed under as crops spoiled on the ground. The strike ended on July 23, but the contract included a special agreement by the growers to give the Teamsters, not the UFW, access to farms and the right to organize workers into unions.
The UFW continued its boycott of the lettuce fields and open battles began with the Teamsters and their corporate sponsors. On November 4, 1970, a UFW regional office was bombed. By this time, the U.S. national trade union and political establishments stepped in and put pressure on both sides and on March 26, 1971 the Teamsters and UFW signed a new jurisdictional agreement reaffirming the UFW's right to organize field workers. In 1977, the Teamsters signed an agreement with the UFW promising to end their efforts to represent farm workers
The U.S. labour movement, supported the UFW with lukewarm support. The AFL-CIO did not like the violence, boycotts, and confrontation by the UFW. On the other hand, they actively disliked the Teamsters which had exposed deep layers of corruption and Mob ties in the Teamsters under Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa (the Maclellan Commission hearings) and had expelled the Teamsters from the AFL-CIO in 1958.The UAW and many of the unions of the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO (the remnants of the CIO after the merger with the AFL), actively supported the UFW. It became clear that it would take a major legislative push in Washington
They key was provided by the work of the Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor, including Senators Harrison (‘Soapy’) Williams and Edward (‘Teddy’) Kennedy. Some of us from the labour movement met informally with the commission. The UAW actively supported the UFW and Roy Reuther and Bill Dodds maintained close links to Soapy Williams and Teddy Kennedy in preparing the legislation that would bring U.S. farmworkers under the umbrella of the NLRA and its protections. I remember the great wave of disappointment of the Senators and the union legislative representatives when a meeting was fixed for all the parties at Soapy Williams office. Cesar Chavez was offered the opportunity to shelter the UFW within the NLRA but, after about forty minutes of heated debate, Cesar decided that he could not afford to put the UFW under the aegis of the NLRA because that would mean the UFW would be subject to the Taft-Hartley provisions on strikes; a provision which called for an 80 day ‘cooling-off’ period in strike action while negotiations took place. Cesar pointed out that the harvest of most of the crops took less than 80 days and, if the UFW, had to work during the cooling off period, the harvest would be completed, and the strike and boycott vitiated. He opted to stay out of the NLRA and take his chances with producing an effective strike instead.
So, the farmworkers are outside the NLRA by choice, a terrible and costly choice, but with a rationale for the decision.