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Another America

In September, 1965, there began in Delano, California, a strike whose impact on the evolution of labor relations in this country, and on the quality of American democracy, is likely to be out of all proportion to the number of people, strategic importance of the industry, or bread-and-butter issues involved. This is the strike called against the local grape growers by the independent National Farm Workers Association, and the AFL-CIO Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Both are new organizations. Though the most active leaders of AWOC have grown old in the labor movement, AWOC itself was founded in 1959; NFWA was started in 1962 by Cesar Chavez, a native Californian from Brawley, in the Imperial Valley, whose childhood and youth were spent in a series of agricultural labor camps.

Agricultural workers are today the most helpless and deprived labor force in the country, and by a margin that readers accustomed to present-day industrial conditions can hardly imagine. These workers have never been effectively unionized. Partly for this reason, they have been excluded from nearly all legislation that guarantees the rights of workers and establishes collective bargaining machinery in industry. Agricultural workers are still treated under law as if they worked on family farms, under the genial supervision of the farmer and his bountiful wife. This is not justifiable in any part of America today; in California, where agriculture has been big business since long before Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath and Carey McWilliams reported on Factories in the Field, it is absurd.

Added to their legal disabilities are those imposed on agricultural labor by the way it is recruited, administered, and housed—limitations which, however, are less applicable to the grape industry than to the “stoop-labor” crops of truck gardens like melons or lettuce. In these crops, which are highly seasonal, workers are usually not employed directly by the grower at all, but by labor contractors who recruit them through publicly operated employment offices, or simply hire them off the streets of Skid Row at dawn and load them into trucks or old school buses for the trip to the fields. For longer or more remote jobs the workers are lodged in camps located on company property and inaccessible except by trespass or the owner’s permission.

The difficulties of organizing agricultural workers and getting them into a position to improve their lot are therefore enormous. They are usually disfranchised and virtually unschooled—Chavez, who got as far as the eighth grade by heroic efforts, attended forty schools to do it.1 Organizers cannot approach them either at work or afterwards, since the camp may be their only home. They are politically powerless and often apathetic; the growers have great political influence at all levels.

Administratively, too, the problems are overwhelming. As Henry Anderson, Chairman of Citizens for Farm Labor—an organization including labor and civil rights leaders, university professors, and other Californians—observed in a broadcast on KPFA last December 3rd:

…a strike presupposes the existence of some sort of framework, some sort of ground rules, for negotiation. It presupposes the existence of collective bargaining machinery. There is no such machinery in agriculture. Not more than one in a hundred California farm workers is represented by anyone, in any meaningful sense. There is no way to find by whom farm workers would like to be represented, if anyone. No one has a list of workers who are “attached” to the grape industry; where they live; or anything which needs to be known if there is to be any sort of contract covering them. These are some of the consequences of the fact that agriculture is excluded from the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947 (Taft-Hartley) and from the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board.

The grape industry, however, presents several features that make it a promising place to begin trying to organize agricultural workers. Grapes are not quite as seasonal as most truck garden crops. Like all crops, they have to be harvested; but they also have to be pruned, and sprayed, and sprayed, and sprayed throughout the growing season. Even the six vines I have in my back yard have become impossibly demanding, and I have about let them go to seed. This means that grape-production relies, in part, on a comparatively stable, less migratory labor force, with potential political power if the workers can be got to register. The grape industry makes little use of labor contractors; growers hire directly, which means that negotiations will be that much simpler if they can ever be got under way. Grape-tending, by and large, requires skill and dependability. It is not a job for casual laborers; “winos” may depend on the grape industry to keep them going, but the industry cannot depend on them to keep it going. This makes workers who strike more difficult to replace.

Striking under these conditions amounts primarily then to trying to persuade grape-workers not to work for the struck growers. This task has two main aspects. First, it is necessary to build esprit de corps among local groups of workers and potential workers; then, it is necessary to picket the fields in order to try to dissuade new recruits, or old employees who have decided to remain loyal to the employer, from scabbing. Building group spirit, however, requires great resourcefulness when dealing with a labor force as ethnically varied as grape-workers, who are primarily of Mexican and Filipino stock, but who also include more exotic elements, like one camp full of Yemenites I observed, whose quarters were festooned with highly decorative signs in Arabic.

Picketing is likewise difficult when the workers are brought directly to the employer’s property in his own trucks and lodged in its midst; and when the growers find it comparatively easy to obtain restraining orders from familiar and understanding local authorities, even though these orders may be vacated at the next level of appeal. I observed one such picket; and found it an extremely moving experience but not, I should judge, a particularly effective one in getting anybody to quit pruning grapes. Picketing begins at dawn, when workers move out into the fields; but the pickets move in motorcades from one operation to another. At the location I observed, two miles or so out of Delano, about a dozen picketers were drawn up on the far side of a narrow county road while workers’ and growers’ automobiles were parked on the field side. This picket had been dispatched from Chavez’s organization, and bore NFWA’S splendid barbaric device—a black eagle on a scarlet ground, with the single word HUELGA (strike). There were some banners, but most of these were circular, wooden signs on long rods which looked like the emblems carried in the grand procession in Aida. The young men who composed the picket marched slowly and with great dignity; while a stout and forceful young woman addressed the fields across the road in Spanish through a portable loud-hailer.

BUT ONLY three or four pruners were visible in the field—whether because the strike was succeeding there, or because the field-bosses had moved the pruners back onto the land and out of earshot, as they often do when a roving picket arrives, I do not know. The growers’ representative, a young man in a black sombrero, paced up and down the roadside opposite and tended his own public address system, which was being run from the battery of his car and played light music. The intent was to drown out the speech the young woman was giving; but the effect, I thought—since I couldn’t understand it, anyway—was rather to set it off, like the musical portion of the sound track of a foreign movie. But what contributed most to the emotional impact of the scene was its saturation by police. To protect the peace of Tulare County (Delano is in Kern County, but this was just over the line) from these ten or twelve people who glowed with composure, restraint, and determination, there was a deputy sheriff in his paddy wagon—which here, as is usual in California, is an ordinary station wagon made sinister by removing the inside handles of the rear doors and erecting a heavy metal screen above the front seat—and two cruising patrol cars that drove back and forth along this tiny stretch of road. They were accompanied by two little unmarked red trucks which the picket captain told me belonged to the grape corporation, whose function I cannot grasp unless it was to remind the police to do their duty impartially. The deputy sheriff, an unusually civil servant, did walk over and bid the pickets a genial good morning, observing that it was going to be a nice day, which it was, in many respects. (On other occasions, several of the pickets informed me, the day had been marred by considerably more aggressive behavior by some of the sheriff’s colleagues.)

To plan and conduct this complex enterprise, making the most of limited resources and avoiding the continual danger of internal conflict, requires leadership of a very high order, and self-discipline among a great many hard-pressed people. This is particularly true because of the severely contrasting styles of NFWA and AWOC. Both are chaired locally by impressive and able men. But Cesar Chavez designed and built his own organization, and its approach is something new to American labor. Larry Itliong, the courtly regional director of AWOC, bears the burden, and occasionally receives the support, of the entire structure of American organized labor. So far, organized labor has behaved rather ambiguously about the grape strike. Walter Reuther has delivered $10,000 to the Delano strike fund, and pledged to support it in future at the rate of $5,000 per month. Longshoremen have immensely heartened the Delano leaders by refusing to load grapes from struck vineyards on ships for export. But the Teamster’s Union would have given the strike far more decisive support if it had refused to truck the grapes out of Delano; and it hasn’t. Drivers sometimes observe the picket line pro forma, parking outside it and leaving the actual crossing of the line to be done by employees of the grower who bring the grapes out to the truck. And, indeed, there is a question whether such refusal by the Teamsters would be illegal under the Taft-Hartley Act, complicated by the fact that agricultural workers are excluded from it.

What the AFL-CIO has provided unstintingly is a procession of dignitaries giving speeches. AWOC’S headquarters are in the Filipino Hall, a shabby, battleship-clean building with an auditorium, a few offices, and a soup kitchen. During the day, idle workers sit around watching television or chatting; there are grave, curious children; and a crew of women preparing delicious and abundant food which they graciously invited a friend and myself to share. The atmosphere is precisely that of a church social; even the sign at the entrance to the chow line advising that “none will be turned away,” though active pickets have precedence, is written in gothic script. The hall fills for the evening meal, with gentle, dignified Filipino farm workers. Then, at six-thirty, the meeting begins, and goes on till nine o’clock—and, suddenly, the audience, though addressed by Mr. Itliong from the chairs as “Brother—“ or “Sister—“, finds itself at the equivalent atmospherically of a Democratic rally in the Bronx. Inspirational greetings are given by the heads of Ethnic-American Associations, down from San Francisco on a visit, along with an official from the SNCC office, or a young civil-rights lawyer, in blue-jeans. Mr. Itliong’s superior in AWOC, Al Green, also down from the city, comes on as the horny-handed veteran of the labor movement that he genuinely is, reminding one how times have changed. The favorite daughter of the Delano strike, Mrs. Anne Draper, Regional Director of the Union Label Department of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, AFL-CIO, speaks unabashedly to the workers as her children—“the best children any mother could have”—and they are utterly delighted. No one has worked more devotedly for La Huelga than Mrs. Draper, and she is both indefatigable and very bright. To an ex-Brooklynite like myself, her style suggests rich chicken-soup in an inexhaustible cauldron of tough, shiny, stainless steel. This sort of meeting goes on nearly every night, and most of the distinguished guests tell the workers they can’t lose. The effect is of watching a new play of Bertholt Brecht, more ironical than most.

  1. 1

    Truman E. Moore, The Slaves We Rent (Random House, 965), p. 130

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