Strikers Appeal to Old Ties With Mexico But Face Problems of Fatigue and Racism
Their leaders often shout "Por la raza Mexicana"--"For the Mexican Race."
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.
In March, Chavez led his huelgistos on a 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento to publicize the strike and enlist the aid of Governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown. Brown, of course, was non-commital, but the publicity broke Schenley. In April, Schenley signed a contract, the first ever signed between a major grower and a farm workers union. The contract insured an immediate raise to a minimum of $1.75 per hour with bonuses for rapid work. Bumper stickers were rear-ranged to read simply "Schenley's--Si!"
Immediately following the Schenley victory, the NFWA began to work on the DiGiorgio Company, traditionally one of the most voluble opponents of farm worker unionization in the Valley. Picketing began, and once again stores were asked to take Delano products off their shelves, this time S&W products and Treesweet Juices.
In a surprise move early this summer, DiGiorgio announced that it would agree to a representation election among its employees to decide the question of union representation fairly and finally. It was unclear why DiGiorgio management would agree to this, the first representation election ever held among farmworkers, when relatively little pressure had yet been put on them. At just this time, however, the Teamsters' newly formed agricultural union announced its intention of challenging the NFWA in the election for the right to represent the campesions. Four Teamster panelled trucks appeared outside Delano's single swanky hotel, and the Teamsters opened an office on Main Street.
NFWA officials thought that DiGiorgio, seeing unionization as inevitable, had invited the Teamsters into the fray in hopes that the tempting dues returns would induce the Teamsters into driving an easier bargain than the NFWA. In fact, while the NFWA demanded $1.75 per hour, the Teamsters were asking for only $1.40 per hour, and were offering a no-strike-in-harvest-time guarantee.
On June 24, DiGiorgio called in representatives from both unions. It was decided that the date and conditions of the election would be set at a later meeting. However, on the next day, DiGiorgio called a press conference and announced that the election would be held in four days, on DiGiorgio property, with DiGiorgio appointed observers, and with DiGiogrio determining who would be eligible to vote.
The town is tired of Huelga, and the huelgistos are getting tired of the endless succession of meetings.
Feeling that under such circumstances a fair election would be impossible, the NFWA boycotted the election. Only about 250 of the 800 workers DiGiorgio had deemed eligible bothered to vote. Of these, the Teamsters polled about 200 votes, the rest going for no union.
The NFWA demanded the election be annulled, and Governor Brown appointed a committee to investigate. The committee said that irregularities warranted a second election, which was set for August 30, to be supervised by the impartial American Arbitration Association.
The campaign lasted the rest of the summer. Each side put out reams of mimeographed pass-out sheets attacking the other, while DiGiorgio was resolutely ignored. One of the best NFWA organizers, a young Mexican-American, was offered $20,000 a year to organize for the Teamsters. He refused and was subsequently beaten, allegedly by Teamster supporters.
The Delano Record gave the Teamsters a big play, while continuing to ignore "that Chavez union." Often, NFWA news which hit the front page of the L.A Times did not even make the Record. DiGiorgio still claimed that most of the workers really wanted no union at all, but encouraged those who did to vote for the Teamsters. When it became clear that very few would vote for no union representation, DiGiorgio stood by the Teamsters, the last bulwark against the NFWA.
In mid-August the NFWA formally merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, a small allied union composed primarily of Filipino fieldworkers, and the two joined the AFL-CIO.
The voters were divided into packing shed workers and field workers. The Teamsters had a clear majority of support among the shed workers, most of whom were "Anglos," white Americans non-plussed by the NFWA's spirit of Mexican-American nationalism. Among the field-workers the NFWA counted on the support of most of the Mexican-Americans, but the large number of Japanese and Filipinos working for DiGiorgio were almost solidly for the Teamsters.
The American Arbirtation Association had decided that anyone who had worked for DiGiorgio for 15 days or more since the strike began would be eligible to vote. Naturally, many of the migrants were scattered all over the state. The NFWA made a concerted effort to find them and bring them back. They sent several cars around the state and picked up supporters who were eligible to vote. A busload of eligible voters was picked up in El Paso, and one man came from a town south of Mexico City just to cast his ballot.
On election day, the NFWA head-quarters kept cars running out to the polls to carry voters who had come into town for the election. The union posted groups of people at road intersections throughout the country to make sure that the Teamsters did not try to sneak a busload of ineligible voters into the ranch. The Teamsters had their soundtrucks running all day long from the ranch to the city.
The next morning NFWA supporters gathered in Filipino Hall to await the results of the election. Chavez came to the front of the hall early in the afternoon and announced that by unofficial count the NFWA had won. Among the fieldworkers, the voters had gone almost two to one for the NFWA. In the shed, the NFWA made a surprisingly strong showing by capturing one-third of the ballots. Of the 1100 votes cast, only 19 were for "no union."
The next day's Delano Record stressed that these results were still unofficial, but the Teamster trucks were conspicuously missing from their places at the motel, and the Teamsters office on Main Street was closed.
On Friday, September 3, DiGiorgio sent a letter to Chavez. Everyone had expected either the Teamsters or DiGiorgio to challenge the election results, but the letter offered, instead, congratulations and an agreement to start contract negotiations immediately.
The Teamsters will negoiate a contract for the shed workers and the NFWA will negotiate for the fieldworkers. DiGiorgio will probably try to make the Teamster contract the dominant one, but forcing its second field contract still constituted an enormous step forward for the NFWA.
As after the Schenley victory, Chavez began to concentrate his forces on another of the local growers, Goldberg and Sons. Though the other thirty growers in the Delano area will probably be easier to beat now that Schenley and DiGiorgio have fallen, they will have to be dealt with one by one. The process is painfully slow. Some of the strikers, with a year's experience now, have gotten quite good at organization, but they are getting tired. The town is tired of the Huelga, and the huelgistos are getting