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Farm Workers in Washington State

Mexican-American Struggles to Organize


by Oscar Rosales Castañeda

After World War II, more former-braceros and ethnic Mexican migrants settled in Washington, eventually creating the community necessary to unite farm workers in a common cause. In the 1940s, the Latino population increased dramatically from less than 7,000 in 1940 to 17,600 in 1950. Half lived in the state’s rural areas, especially the Yakima Valley.1 After establishing themselves in communities such as Toppenish, Sunnyside, Yakima and Granger in the Yakima Valley, many also ventured to other places across the state. In addition to labor, other factors, such as social and familial networks and the armed forces contributed to their increasing numbers.2

In the southwest, the bracero program and agri-business abuses continued as extensions were added to Public Law 45 (PL-45).3Growers used the proximity to the border as a tool for repressing attempts by Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans to unionize by encouraging an influx of surplus labor to bust unions or by threatening to deport braceros asserting their bargaining rights. Out of such abuses came a renewed activist energy.

On October 1, 1947, the National Farm Labor Union (NFLU) commenced a strike against the DiGiorgio Corporation in California, with over 1,000 strikers.4 This union had originally formed with the name “Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union 1936” and was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Soon after the NFLU initiated the strike, over 130 braceros halted work as a show of solidarity with the strikers. This was one of many events that occurred from the late 1940s well into the late 1950s. Under the leadership of Ernesto Galarza, the NFLU undertook numerous strikes. Unfortunately, though Mexican laborers had a long history of resisting the bracero program, many of their attempts to resist never generated lasting results so long as the bracero program continued.

This would change by the late 1950s. Prominent groups to emerge during this period were the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) (1959) and the Community Service Organization (CSO), among others.5 Both of these organizations would contribute to future organizational work in California. Their programs served as a fertile training ground for various activists and organizers, one of whom was Cesar Chavez. At this time, many Mexican-Americans were impressed by the Black civil rights movement. No longer satisfied to consider themselves “ethnic whites,” they insisted racism was central to the struggle of their people and formed organizations to resist their second-class status.6

Cesar Chavez and the Genesis of the UFWOC and “La Causa”

Originally trained by the CSO in San Jose, Chavez resigned in 1962 when that organization refused to commit to organizing farm workers. He then relocated, along with his family, to the town of Delano, California where he would dedicate his time to the task of organizing them. Later that year, joined by Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla, among others, Chavez helped organize a 300 delegate convention at an abandoned movie theatre in Fresno, California, that formalized the organizational frame of the Farm Workers Association (FWA), later known as the UFW.7 It was at this convention that the organization’s emblem, a black indigenous Aztec eagle glyph within a white circle in a red field, was unveiled. It would become an enduring symbol of the Chicano Movement.

As a precursor to later activity, the FWA organized a $1,000 burial insurance program, as Padilla recalled because “[p]eople didn’t even have money for a decent burial.” This was soon followed by a credit union that provided low-interest loans to farm workers because biased banking institutions often denied farm workers loans. They also established a cooperative where it was possible to buy farming equipment at a more reasonable price. These initial programs were a reflection of the organization’s initial focus on alleviating the more immediate concerns within the farm worker community. By 1964, the group became the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with a membership of over 1,000 families in seven counties in California providing the group enough funds for it to become self-sufficient.8

As the NFWA built its organizational infrastructure, various events occurring at the national and international levels provided a fertile ground for labor organizing. By 1964, the end of the Bracero Program removed many impediments to organizing and brought the program’s abuses to public light. In the midst of larger struggles for civil rights at home and decolonization abroad, the NFWA fused labor and questions of racial equality. This pattern would soon evolve with the introduction of the NFWA’s El Malcriado in December 1964, a newspaper which articulated the NFWA’s stance on farm worker justice.9

Filipino-American farm workers were also mobilizing. The Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), led by Larry Itliong, was also active in California and to a lesser extent in Washington. Formed in 1958, this group’s membership consisted mostly of Filipinos, many of whom had belonged to earlier Filipino-led unions. By 1965, it had the organizational infrastructure to advocate effectively for labor rights on farms. On September 8, 1965, the AWOC called a strike against grape growers in the Delano area in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Realizing that Mexican-American workers faced the, Chavez’s NFWA followed suit, as members voted to go out in strike alongside AWOC on September 16, 1965.

In late November, the NFWA and the AWOC unions agreed to call for a national boycott of California-grown table grapes. This fusion of the AWOC’s and the NFWA’s efforts led to the creation of the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC or UFW). It also brought the struggle in Delano to a larger audience at the national and international stage. What differed this time around was the support the striking workers received not only from politicians (Robert F. Kennedy, among others) but also from other labor leaders.10 Evidence that this would not be the usual quickly abandoned farm strike came two months later when Walter Reuther of the Auto Workers Union marched through Delano at the head of a cheering column of strikers, Chavez, Itliong, and reporters from all over the country beside him.11

Widespread support for farm worker rights occurred during the student, civil rights, and peace movements. Strikers won active support from a remarkable variety of outsiders whom saw farm labor demands as similar to their demands for equal opportunity and civil rights.12 It was in this social atmosphere that farm labor organizing activity reemerged in the Pacific Northwest. Amidst war on poverty programs, the Cursillo Movement, student activism, and other such catalysts, the stage was set in Washington State for the emergence of the UFW, farm worker support or support of La Causa, and a new era in labor and civil rights struggles within the ethnic Mexican community.

Next: Ch. 6, El Movimiento and Farm Labor Organizing in the 1960s

“A History of Farm Labor Organizing, 1890-2009” includes the following chapters:

  1. Toward a History of Farm Workers in Washington State
  2. The IWW in the Fields,1905-1925
  3. The 1933 Battle at Congdon Orchards
  4. Asians and Latinos Enter the Fields
  5. Mexican-American Struggles to Organize, Post-WWII
  6. El Movimiento and Farm Labor Organizing in the 1960s
  7. UFW’s Yakima Hop Strikes, 1971
  8. Radio KDNA: The Voice of the Farm Worker
  9. Resurgence of the UFW of WA State in the 1980s
  10. The Struggle Continues, 1997-2006
  11. Bibliography

Copyright (©) Oscar Rosales Castañeda 2009

1 These population figures are calculated from the IPUMS samples of the federal census. Identifying Hispanics is complicated because of the wording of census questions. IPUMS Samples: Steven Ruggles, Matthew Sobek, Trent Alexander, Catherine A. Fitch, Ronald Goeken, Patricia Kelly Hall, Miriam King, and Chad Ronnander. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 4.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Population Center [producer and distributor], 2009.

2 Jerry Garcia, Mexicans in North Central Washington (San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, 2007); Josue Quesada Estrada, “Texas Mexican Diaspora to Washington State: Recruitment, Migration, and Community, 1940-1960,” Master’s Thesis, Washington State University, 2007, 51.

3 The Bracero Program, also referred to as the Mexican Farm Labor Supply Program and the Mexican Labor Agreement, was sanctioned by Congress through Public Law 45 of 1943. Extensions were added to PL-45, even though it was set to expire much earlier.

4 The NFLU was one of the key farm labor organizations that came to prominence in the 1930s. One of the strikes it was involved in was the California Cotton Strike of 1933 that erupted in the San Joaquin Valley. The event itself is one of the most violent strikes in farm labor history, as groups in opposition to the organization launched a wave of violent repression on striking workers.

5 The post-war period witnessed a shift in ethnic Mexican community organizing, as ethnic Mexican organizations moved beyond mutual aid societies into advocacy and political participation as a means of gaining access to larger U.S. society. This shift, though calling for Mexican-American civil rights was largely assimilationist in character. Prominent groups formed during the assimilationist period of the “Mexican-American Movement” included the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) founded in 1929, the American G.I. Forum founded in 1948, the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) founded in 1959, and the Community Service Organization (CSO) founded in 1948, among others.

6 Francisco Arturo Rosales, Chicano!: The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement (Arte Publico Press, 1997), 108.

7 During this convention, Chavez was elected the nascent organization’s director with Dolores Huerta, Julio Hernandez, and Gilbert Padilla as vice-presidents.

8 Dick Meister and Anne Loftis, A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America’s Farm Workers (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1977), 122.

9 El Malcriado, the underground UFW newspaper, was originally published in Spanish. It published editorials that called for living wages, lambasted indignities on the job, and took on growers for complaining about losing the Bracero labor force. Meister and Loftis, 80.

10 According to Meister and Loftis, “In early 1966, barely three months after the strike started, two dozen NFWA strikers and staff members were dispatched to thirteen major cities across the country. They lined up help from other unions simply by appearing at union offices, penniless and with no place to stay and asking for aid,” 141.

11 Ibid., 130.

12 Ibid., 130-134.