Delano, California, is 30 miles and 30 years away from the run-down migrant labor camp described in John Steinbeck's novel, "The Grapes of Wrath." It seems a lot closer.
There is still a wave of migrants, mostly Mexican-Americans, who invade Delano every summer for the grape harvest. Two years ago, they received from $1.10 to $1.20 per hour. Since the labor problems began, growers have raised wages to $1.30 or $1.40.
Besides the summer work, large numbers of workers spend the winter and spring pruning and "pulling leaves." This last job involves plucking the leaves from the grape clusters early in the summer so that the grapes will be able to develop fully. Pluckers travel about two miles a day on their knees, and return home with burning sulfur insecticide spray all over their bodies and in their eyes.
Because the grapes offer this "year-round" source of jobs, Delano has developed a stable Mexican-American community which makes up about half of the city's 12,000 population. Almost all of the Mexican-Americans live on the west side of town where the neighborhoods are only saved from being typical urban slums by the wide streets, low buildings, and invariably bright sun.
On the east side of town live Delano's growers and merchants. Most of the growers are sons of Yugoslav and Czech immigrants who bought the land forty to fifty years ago, and soon became wealthy.
Delano is not among the larger valley towns, but it has long prided itself on being the unofficial grape capital of the world. The three counties grouped around the city grow 90% of America's table grapes and a fair percentage of the wine grapes as well, With a steady stream of migrant harvesters and a reliable supply of Mexican and Filipino resident labor, there was nothing in Delano to threaten good harvests and good profits but the occasional summer rains.
Nothing, that is, until last year.
Last September the National Farm Workers Association, newest in a long string of weak, consistently unsuccessful farm unions, called a strike against several Delano grape growers, among them the giant companies Schenley and DiGiorgio. There was nothing new in that. Strikes had been called before in the Central Valley, several in the thirties, and more recently in Borrego Springs and nearby Bakersfield. But none of these previous strikes had been long-lived. Some had been violent, but all had ended with the farm worker in at least as bad shape as before.
The grape strike, however, caught on. It picked up a name, La Huelga, the Spanish word for strike which came to mean much more. And it captured and focused the mood of rising expectations among Californias Mexican-Americans. Supported by contributions, the NFWA gave each of the strikers free meals, $5 a week for expenses and, if necessary, a place to stay.
Pickets were put out, and a boycott was begun against all of the Delano growers. Through the winter, however, the strikers began to concentrate on Schenley Industries, one of the nation's largest wine-producers (Roma, Schenley's).
The picketing was never wholly successful. There is always an available supply of unskilled agricultural labor and most of the Mexican-Americans, knowing nothing of American labor history, felt no compunction about crossing the picket lines. The Delano Record, the town's conservative bi-weekly newspaper, and the California Farmer, the grower's newspaper, referred to the union as Communist-dominated. Berkeley students who came down to Delano to help in the Huelga were quickly labelled "outside agitators." The Catholic bishop in Fresno, at first a Huelga sympathizer, turned against the strike and claimed that the people were not being honestly represented.
Most of the growers, with a "we know our Mexicans" attitude, insisted that the vast majority of the laborers wanted no union at all. But the Huelga had already become a nationalistic cause for the Mexican-Americans. They had songs in Spanish, Mexican revolutionary figures as heroes, and an impressive, magnetic leader--Cesar Chavez.
The only place I'll ever be able to grow grapes," one striker said, "is under my fingernails."
The strike against Schenley was just holding its own until the boycott began to take effect during the winter and early spring. Help was enlisted all over the country to urge supermarkets and liquor stores to stop carrying Schenley products. The NFWA circulated bumper stickers reading "Kool-Aid Sil, Schenley's No."
Longshoremen in San Francisco, refusing to handle scab products, let a $300,000 shipment of Schenley's grapes rot on the docks. During the winter the California growers began a counter-boycott against those merchants who refused to carry Schenley products, a good indication that the boycott was beginning to squeeze.