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This Day in Labor History: March 17, 1966

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On March 17, 1966, farmworkers organizing in the United Farm Workers marched from Delano to Sacramento to bring attention to their plight, one of the most important early moments in what soon became the United Farm Workers.

Farm workers lived pretty tough lives. The itinerant nature and physical stress of the work gave employers tremendous power over their labor. They housed workers in shacks and sometimes not at all, forcing them to sleep under bridges. They paid workers almost nothing. The extreme heat of California farming regions caused heat stroke and deaths. The short-handled hoe workers had to use in order to weed the fields caused severe back problems. Workers were routinely sprayed with pesticides. Institutionalized racism made everything worse with local citizens and police more than happy to unite with owners to keep the Mexicans in their place.

There was a long history of farmworkers organizing to push back against this exploitation. But that organizing was often met with violence, which racial strife often undermined worker solidarity. On September 8, 1965, the modern history of farmworker organizing began when Filipino grape pickers walked out of the fields in Delano after growers refused a raise of 20 cents per hour. They were members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, founded a few years earlier when the AFL-CIO decided to get semi-serious about organizing the fields. When the Mexican workers, led by Cesar Chavez, joined them, a new era of crossracial solidarity was born. In the long term, that would fade as the organization which later became United Farm Workers eventually became as much a Chicano power organization as a labor union and the aging Filipinos began leaving the fields, but this was a really significant moment.

Chavez was an excellent figure to lead such a movement, at least in its early days. With Black Power driving white allies from the civil rights struggle, Chavez was more than happy to use white liberals to his advantage. Soon, this would manifest itself in the grape boycott that he so effectively masterminded. After a great harvest in the fall of 1965, the workers went on strike. In the early days of the Delano strike, that meant cultivating sympathetic white figures such as John Gregory Dunne, whose account of the strike’s early days in Delano remains one of the most important books of the movement, and one in which I am drawing some details for the remainder of this post.

In the winter of 1966, the two big grape farms Chavez was targeting–Schenley and DiGiorgio–were getting worried about the impact of the boycott as it developed. Hearings had taken place that had brought Robert F. Kennedy to California to investigate. Chavez had informants in each company sending him information, so he knew he was making an impact. Playing up to the Catholic world in which he was born and was organizing, Chavez decided to raise the heat on the companies through a peregrinaci√≥n, or pilgrimage, from Delano to Sacramento. The idea, building on the march from Selma to Montgomery as well, was to gain media attention through the personal sacrifice of the marchers. The idea did not come from Chavez though. Early in the strike, Schenley ranch crews spayed insecticide on picketers. Furious, some recommended a walk across the nation to corporate headquarters in New York. That wasn’t going to happen, but it did spark the plan for the march to Sacramento.

Up to this point, California governor Pat Brown had stayed out of the strike. Chavez and the other organizers wanted to pressure Brown to take a stand, which he had steadfastly refused so far. It was not to be a particularly large number of people. Chavez knew the strike needed to continue at the farms and the march was also going to need a significant support staff. Chavez culled the ranks to 100 and then dismissed anyone doctors didn’t approve, reducing the number to 67. From the moment the strike took off, it challenged power directly. Already receiving coverage in major magazines, Chavez decided to start the march in the center of Delano, which he did not have a permit for. He was daring the police to go Selma on them. But surrounded by priests and cameras, the police let them move on. They didn’t want that bad publicity.

It was 300 miles to Sacramento. This was a real physical hardship. It took them 25 days to get there. Each day was an ordeal of blisters, aches, and dust. But as they marched, workers in other towns came out to meet them and signed on. They held rallies with entertainment. This was part of the support staff. El Teatro Campesino put on a play about the treatment workers received from DiGiorgio and how workers could stand up to them and other farmers. It was very effective.

Even better, the marchers walked into Sacramento on Easter Sunday. Thousands of people joined them at the march that day in front of the state capitol. Pat Brown had announced he would not meet with the strikers, so he became the target of the protest at that point. Moreover, they found out that Brown was spending the holiday with Frank Sinatra in Palm Springs, an effective piece of information. The day of the march in fact wasn’t that exciting. The weather turned rainy. Momentum after a long march like this is hard to maintain. But a few days earlier, Schenley had agreed to talk to the workers after Teamsters refused to cross a picket line outside its main distributor in San Francisco. The company’s board chairman agreed to a deal on April 6 and that left DiGiorgio as the main villain for the farmworkers. This was still a very real victory.

This is just one moment in the long farmworker struggle. Many more battles would be ahead, including getting California to extend collective bargaining to workers, winning contracts, the violent attempt by the Teamsters to take control over the strike, and Chavez’s own megalomania that overwhelmed the UFW by the 1970s.

This is the 303rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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