The Grape Strike that Transformed a Nation- 50 Years Later
On Sept. 8, 1965, Lorraine Agtang, her family and other Filipino grape pickers walked out of their fields to protest a cut in their pay from $1.40 to $1.25 an hour. Twelve days later, labor organizer Cesar Chavez and more than 1,200 Mexican workers joined the strike that led to the first United Farm Workers contracts with growers in 1970.
Sacramento State professor emeritus Duane Campbell, who worked for the UFW from 1972 to 1980, said the strike “totally changed labor politics and Latino politics.” Inspired by the events of that September and the impact of the international table grape boycott that followed, thousands of people of different races and ethnicities devoted their lives to activism and nonviolent protest.
“It was a training ground for organizers who spread to hundreds of different fields – a large number of Latino legislators worked with the UFW,” Campbell said. “The strike and boycott awakened Latinos, ‘the sleeping giant of California politics,’ triggering the Chicano movement and the creation of the Sacramento State bilingual education department.”
UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said those who can trace their political activism to the grape strike include the late Joe Serna, who went on the become mayor of Sacramento, and the late artist and activist José Montoya, founder of the art collective the Royal Chicano Air Force. Alex Edillor, who helped organize the weekend’s commemorations, called the strike “one of the most significant social justice movements in American history” and praised the courage of the Filipino farmworkers, many in their 50s then, who were brave enough to launch the strike before Chavez and their Mexican colleagues were ready.
When Agtang saw Filipinos on the picket lines, she said, “that affected my life story – I knew the Filipinos were hard-working people not bent on civil disobedience, but it was pretty amazing when I learned they were standing up for what they wanted.”