The Radical Labor Roots of the Great Delano Grape Strike

David Bacon
September 20, 2015

This is an expanded version of an article in the Insight section of the San Francisco Chronicle:

LarryLarry Itliong.  Photo:  Bob Fitch Photo Archive © Stanford University Libraries

Fifty years ago the great grape strike started in Delano, when Filipino pickers walked out of the fields on September 8, 1965.  Mexican workers joined them two weeks later.  The strike went on for five years, until all California table grape growers were forced to sign contracts in 1970.

The strike was a watershed struggle for civil and labor rights, supported by millions of people across the country.  It helped breathe new life into the labor movement, opening doors for immigrants and people of color.  Beyond the fields, Chicano and Asian American communities were inspired to demand rights, and many activists in those communities became organizers and leaders themselves.

California’s politics have changed profoundly in 50 years.  Delano’s mayor today is a Filipino.  That would have been unthinkable in 1965, when growers treated the town as a plantation.

But a mythology has hidden the true history of how and why the strike started, especially its connection to some of the most radical movements in the country’s labor history.  Writer Peter Matthiessen, for instance, claimed in his famous two-part 1969 profile of Cesar Chavez in The New Yorker: “Until Chavez appeared, union leaders had considered it impossible to organize seasonal farm labor, which is in large part illiterate and indigent…” Continue reading

The Grape Strike That Transformed a Nation- 50 Years Later

The Grape Strike that Transformed a Nation- 50 Years Later

Steve Magagnini,

Cesar Chavez and Duane Campbell -1972

Cesar Chavez and Duane Campbell -1972

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.

Read more here:

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. Continue reading

A Happy Labor Day—Really


(Photo: AP/Lynne Sladky)
Protesters, part of the national Fight for 15 movement, applaud in support of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour at a church in Miami in April.

Harold Meyerson. The American Prospect

Labor Day is upon us, marking an end to summertime, when the livin’ is easy and Americans take their well-earned vacations. Well, some Americans. About 56 percent of American workers took weeklong vacations last summer—a new low-point in a steady decline that began in early 1980s, when more than 80 percent took weeklong vacations.

That depressing bit of news is of a piece, alas, with everything else we know about the declining fortunes of American workers. As the Economic Policy Institute documented in report released Wednesday, productivity rose by 72.2 percent and median hourly compensation (that’s wages plus benefits) by just 8.7 percent between 1973 and 2014. As the National Employment Law Project reported in a study released the following day, real median hourly wages declined by 4 percent from 2009 to 2014. Continue reading

Sanders: The Economy is Rigged by Corporate America

Clocking In for Equality

by Seth Sandronsky

Clocking In is a new online tool from Race Forward, a New York-based group whose self-described goal “is to build awareness, solutions and leadership for racial justice.” Its analysis finds disturbing trends for people of color and women employed in the U.S. service industry. This virtual resource allows service employees to share their real-life job experiences with other workers, consumers, employers and policymakers 24/7.
90% of female tipped workers have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Continue reading

Immigrant workers and Justice for Janitors

We posted a fine piece on Justice for Janitors (below) by Peter Olney and Rand Wilson with suggested lessons for organizing.  Here is a well informed supplement by labor journalist and activist David Bacon.

David Bacon,

jforjr-1This article makes some excellent points, and shows the importance of the way the existing base of membership was used to reorganize building services and start Justice for Janitors. Its point about the market triggers was very interesting – I hadn’t really heard this discussed before, and it does show that putting this in the contract gave workers a concrete reason to support reorganizing the non-union buildings. As it says, ” it was not a ‘blank slate’ campaign disconnected from the sources of SEIU’s membership and contract power.”

Many of the janitors and leaders who fought in Century City were the Central American immigrants coming into LA from the wars. Their experience in their home countries was very important in their willingness to fight, and the use of the tactics of mass demonstrations and even CD in the street. They’re one of the best examples of the way migration, for all the pain it causes migrants, has benefited our labor movement enormously and given us leaders from Rocio Saenz to Ana Martinez to Yanira Merino. This is a big reason why there was an upsurge of organizing in general in LA in the 90s. Without this wave of migration I don’t think the best of strategies would have produced the results we saw. The article credits Gus Bevona with a role in getting the contract in Century City, but by comparison, this seems less important to me, and more like the mechanism than what actually forced the contractors to settle. Continue reading

Desperate Chinese are turning to mass suicide to get their government’s attention

by Robert Foyle Hunwick

BEIJING, China — The location was chosen for maximum impact: a downtown boulevard, famous for Beijing’s swankiest shops and its plushest hotels. Studded with these symbols of Western capitalist chic, Wangfujing Shopping Street could hardly be further from the more desperate concerns of rural China.

It was here that a group of about 30 men gathered on a warm spring morning and, in front of hundreds of shoppers, swallowed a quantity of pesticide. They fell to the ground en masse and, according to several eyewitnesses, foamed at the mouth.

As the men were rushed to hospital, startled crowds spread the news on social media, while the scene quickly returned to normal. Police issued a statement later that day that none had died; local reports explained they were taxi drivers from the northeast, who’d traveled to the capital to stage the protest. And there the official narrative ended.

But the fate of the men, and the extreme means of airing their grievance, reflects a tactic of last resort that’s far from uncommon. For some in China, suicide is the ultimate form of protest.

In Tibet, a cycle of clampdowns and radicalization, which began with a widespread uprising that embarrassed the government in 2008, has led to nearly 140 self-immolations in the last six years. These acts are prompted by fury at the repressive tactics of Chinese officials, according to Tibetan exile groups. The government says such acts are examples of “the Dalai Lama clique” exploiting vulnerable youths, blaming “forces abroad” that are “all aimed at separating Tibet from China.” Among the most recent was Yeshi Khando, a nun in her 40s, who set herself ablaze near a monastery in Sichuan province in early April. She is reported to have died. The fate of those who survive such protests is thought to be equally grim.

On the surface, Tibetan monks and disgruntled cabbies may not have much in common. Yet both groups were driven to abandon rational means, inflicting agonizing acts of self-harm to bring attention to their cause. The anthropologist Margery Wolf once observed of suicidal women in Mao’s era that, “In the West, we ask of suicide, ‘Why?’ In China, the question is more commonly ‘Who?’”

Tibetans-in-exile take part in a candlelight vigil following the self-immolation attempt by a monk to protest against Chinese rule in Tibet on Feb. 13, 2013.
Getty Images

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