Americans who know anything about the farm workers movement know it was started by César Chávez (or maybe by Chávez and Dolores Huerta). In reality, Arab, Chicano/a, Mexican, Filipino/a, black, and white farm workers founded it too. In fact, the movement to unionize farm workers is multinational and generations old. It has peaked and waned throughout the twentieth century. In the 1960s, it took the confluence of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, international liberation movements, and the end of the U.S. Bracero Act in 1964 to create an environment that made it possible for a small union led by people of color to win against conservative local governments, the Teamsters (one of the largest unions in the U.S.), and the wide-reaching political influence of international agricultural corporations (which extended to the President of the United States).
The rise of this movement—and its subsequent decline—is the subject of ongoing scholarly work. Miriam Pawel, a Harvard-educated reporter for the Los Angeles Times, weaves a series of eight interviews (with most of the emphasis given to three United Farm Workers staffers: Eliseo Medina, Chris Hartmire, and Jerry Cohen) into a multi-perspective revisionist history of the United Farm Workers Movement. Frank Bardacke, a Berkeley-educated political activist and former farm worker, creates a complex mosaic which centers on the same movement from the perspective of farm workers and volunteers. Each author—one a reporter, the other a social movement activist— offers a critical analysis of the movement.
As a Chicano/a and labor activist, I was greatly influenced by the farm workers movement. In September 1965 I sat in the mud in Vietnam, reading a letter from my father telling me about the farm workers' Delano sit-down strike: "In Delano, the manongs (older Filipino men) sat down in the grapes and brought dignity to the fields," he wrote. The Filipinos had been organized by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) of the AFL-CIO, with Larry Itliong as the lead organizer. On September 16, [End Page 114] Mexican Independence Day, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA)—led by César Chávez—joined the strike. Years later, NFWA co-founder Dolores Huerta told me that, at the time, NFWA might have had no more than $76.00 in its treasury. AWOC and NFWA merged into the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), before later becoming the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). The expressions "Huelga!" and "Si Se Puede," the huelga eagle, the Virgen de Guadalupe, and Chávez's face became integral parts of the Chicano/a movement's identity. Chávez continues to be the most important role model for labor activists and Latino/a youth.
Because of the international success of the farm workers movement—and its capacity to have created multiracial, multiclass coalitions across the U.S. during the Great Grape Boycott of the late 1960s, and its perceived appeal to liberal America—in 1996 the AFL-CIO chose the UFW's strawberry organizing campaign in Watsonville, CA as the coming out party for the organizing orientation of John Sweeney's AFL-CIO. With the help of the AFL-CIO, national and regional food chains such as Kroger, Lucky, and Ralphs signed the union's pledge demanding that the growers take five cents from the sale of each basket of berries to raise the wages of workers. The stage was set for success and, in April 1997, more than thirty thousand people marched in the small town of Watsonville, including unionists from all over the U.S. But the loyalties of the farm workers were split between the UFW and the company union, the Coastal Berry Farm Workers Committee. In time, after having initially lost, the UFW won representation for about one thousand strawberry workers. The UFW and the AFL-CIO tried to invoke victory...