By Conor Casey
The Roots of La Causa
A new social phenomenon grew out of California’s fields in the early 1960s when a group of largely migrant, immigrant Mexican and Filipino farm workers– perhaps the poorest and most exploited workers in the state– planted the seeds of what would come to be widely known as the Farm Workers’ Movement. This struggle, or La Causa, fronted by the organization that became the United Farmworkers of America (UFW), was a hybrid between civil rights movement, labor organizing drive, and moral campaign. Importantly, the farm workers’ struggle for improved labor and living conditions articulated an emerging rights-based consciousness, signaling a new vision of Chicano and Filipino-American identity.³
California’s farm workers had attempted to unionize long before the 1960s, but the UFW was the first to create a long-term, large scale, cohesive institution as their vehicle for change. In so doing, the union improved the labor and living conditions of farm workers in significant ways by gaining collective bargaining and lobbying for legal reform. Under the leadership of César Chávez, what began as a battle to organize agricultural workers broadened to encompass a rich popular culture by skillfully employing art, spectacle, and publicity to dramatize the farm workers’ struggle. By harnessing the symbolic and dramatic power of art and publicity, the UFW successfully focused the attention of national media on the “fight in the fields,” linking their struggle to a broader public. Thus, the UFW gained the support of journalists, activists, consumers, and religious, political, education, and labor organizations far beyond California’s agricultural districts. In turn, La Causa inspired artists to celebrate and commemorate the farm workers’ campaign and their articulation of new cultural and occupational identities.
Art, Symbols and Nationalism: Growing a Cohesive Movement
Using art and symbols to express complex ideas with simple eloquence, workers cemented a cohesive popular movement by linking La Causa to the ethnicity and nationalism of the UFW’s Mexican farm worker majority. From the early days of the Delano strike, workers marched behind powerful national and cultural symbols such as a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Similarly, the union’s eagle logo was composed of the eagle’s head from the Mexican flag with the wings and body that resembled an inverted Aztec temple, symbolically linking the farm workers’ struggle to Mexican national identity. In addition, the name of the farm workers’ paper, El Malcriado, was a reference to a popular newspaper from Mexican Revolution. Union leaders also consciously linked their purpose to the moral authority of Catholic religious iconography, providing an avenue of symbolic inclusion between the Mexican majority of the union and the significant minority of mostly Catholic Filipino farm workers. Finally, the symbolism, moral tone, and "David versus Goliath" nature of the struggle helped to draw supporters of various ethnic and religious backgrounds from labor, civic, educational, and religious organizations from across the nation.
Spectacle and art were important to the union’s efforts in another way; Teatro Campesino (Farmworker Theater), a grassroots theater company started by Luis Valdez with the endorsement of Chávez in 1965, performed short satires that dramatized the farm workers’ struggles in allegorical form. Valdez and his troupe staged their performances on the picket line, at the union’s gatherings, and along the march. Thus, Teatro Campesino proved a potent mix between art, propaganda, and social activism.
UFW campaigns also employed the power of symbolic spectacle: large-scale marches to Sacramento in 1966 and 1970 helped to dramatize the farmworkers’ struggle and gain media attention. Similarly, Chávez’ well-publicized fast for non-violence in 1968 was staged in a sincere symbolic attempt to get strikers to re-dedicate themselves to a pledge of non-violence during a difficult period of the strike. Subsequent fasts proved just as powerful.
Finally, the strong grassroots culture and activist zeal expressed in farm worker art and symbols helped La Causa maintain cohesion as it entered new organizing and activism campaigns in the 1970s. The union used its momentum from the gains of the 1960s and early 1970s as it moved into organizing new agricultural regions and new crops. Legal reform was another goal: In 1975, the UFW headed a coalition that successfully lobbied the California legislature and governor Jerry Brown for the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRB). The act, modeled on the Federal legislation that gave American workers a legal right to organize, was in important part of the UFW’s strategy for legal protection and legitimacy. Another tough contest occurred the between the UFW and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ western leadership. Between 1970 and 1977, Teamsters attempted to raid membership on farms organized by the UFW and broker “sweetheart” deals with agricultural employers desperate to avoid dealing with the union.
Despite these challenges, the UFW peaked in power, numbers, and momentum in the 1970s, surviving today as both a labor union and an important advocate for the rights of farm workers. The small organization planted by the nation’s poorest and most exploited workers in the early ‘60s grew into a long-term, large-scale institution. In so doing, the union improved the labor and living conditions of farm workers nationwide, gaining collective bargaining and winning legal reform. What began as a battle to organize agricultural workers broadened into a rich cultural movement that created its own artistic styles and symbols. Moreover, by focusing the attention of national media on the fight in the fields, the UFW successfully linked their struggle to a broader public and articulated new cultural and occupational identities.
A Brief History of Farm Workers in California
Poor Migrant Farm Laborers: Common Experiences
Workers of various ethnic groups had toiled for wages in California agriculture since the advent of commercial farming. Whatever their ethnicity, agricultural workers satisfied growers’ desire for cheap, dependable, and seasonal labor. By the 1920s, the largest segment of California’s farm labor population was composed of Mexican field hands. Driven north by the Mexican Revolution and attracted with the prospect of steady work, peace, and better pay, these workers comprised a large labor pool for California growers. Filipino workers voyaged across the Pacific in large numbers between 1910 and 1930 in search of work in California. Considered “American nationals” (but not citizens) in the wake of the U.S.’ conquest and occupation of their homeland, Filipinos were exempt from immigration restrictions barring other “non-white” workers.
Farm workers often endured terrible living and working conditions. Rental housing in migrant camps—when available—was often in poor repair, unfairly priced, and overcrowded. Housing often lacked basic facilities like running water, indoor toilets, heat, or electricity. Workers were commonly forced to buy overpriced goods in stores run and owned by growers, thus entering a cycle of debt that kept them tied to their employers. Moreover, most farm workers were forced to secure jobs through labor agents rather than directly from the grower; corrupt labor agents commonly demanded bribes and favors in return for access to employment. Performing grueling physical labor for low wages, workers faced dangerous and inhumane conditions in the fields: cool, clean water was not guaranteed and toilets were rare. Dehydration and poor sanitation were not the only dangers: laborers were also routinely exposed to dangerous pesticides as they worked.
In addition to these difficult living and working conditions, agricultural workers lacked the basic rights that most other American workers enjoyed by the 1960s: They had been omitted from Federal legislation that guaranteed other workers the right to organize labor unions, excluded from the Social Security system and its unemployment and disability insurance, and had no guaranteed minimum wage. Though child labor had long been outlawed by state and federal governments in most industries, agriculture was an exception; children routinely worked alongside their parents in the fields.
In addition, Mexican and Filipino field hands faced racial and class discrimination in rural districts where the politicians, police, and judges were often sympathetic to the well-organized, politically influential, and wealthy growers.
The Bracero Program 1942-1964: “Legalized Slavery”
The U.S. Government began the Bracero Program in 1942 to remedy a wartime farm labor shortage (the word bracero is derived from the Spanish word for “arm”). Though the U.S.-Mexican agreement that created the program guaranteed certain living and working conditions to Mexican workers, standards were rarely enforced. Amazingly, even the director of the program, Lee G. Williams, described the Bracero Program as a system of “legalized slavery.” The program gained a new lease on life in 1952, when a public law was passed extending the system. Pitted against the collective power of well-organized, politically connected, wealthy growers of California and the large pool of cheap, surplus bracero labor, domestic farm workers stood little chance of successfully organizing labor unions. Poverty, isolation, and the migratory life of most domestic farm workers also frustrated their organizing efforts throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Thus, opponents of the Bracero Program like organizer/academic Ernesto Galarza, César Chávez, and church, labor, and civic groups successfully fought to force the program’s end; its demise in 1964 opened the opportunity for a new effort to organize farm workers.
The Seeds Are Planted: The Big Grape Strike, La Peregrinacíon, and Union Victories
In 1965 Larry Itliong, a Filipino labor leader, forged an alliance with Mexican-American community organizer César Chávez. Itliong headed a Filipino and Mexican grape pickers’ strike in the town of Delano, but feared the strike would be undermined when growers attempted to recruit Mexican strikebreakers. He hoped cooperation with Chávez would cement an alliance with Mexican and Mexican American workers, promoting solidarity and the strike’s chance of success. Chávez’ background in community organizing and Itliong’s in the labor movement proved a potent mix when the “Great Delano Grape Strike” of 1966 grew to encompass wine and table grape growers in 1965 and 1966 and evolved into an all-out consumer boycott campaign on California table grapes in 1968.
When grower Schenley sprayed its vineyard workers with pesticides, Chávez and the union staged a massive march dubbed La Peregrinacíon (The Pilgrimage) to protest the hazardous working conditions of farm workers and to publicize their struggle for union recognition. As the 340 mile march threaded its way through the Central Valley from Delano to Sacramento in March and April of 1966, the marchers gained national headlines. Schenley Industries finally agreed to bargain with the farmworkers’ union just before the march reached Sacramento on Easter Sunday. Forcing Schenley to capitulate was the union’s first victory against a large grower; large growers like Schenley, Digiorgio, Gallo, Christian Brothers, Almaden, and Paul Masson soon followed suit.
Tactics, Tools, Publicity, and the Boycott
The farm workers’ movement and the UFW drew on a tradition of non-violent resistance that depended on publicity as a tool for gaining popular support and sympathy. Media attention was essential to the UFW’s chief means of pressuring growers to bargain with the union: the consumer boycott. UFW picket lines often had little chance of hampering the constant stream of imported strikebreakers or stopping the movement of goods in California’s open farm fields. Unprotected by a legal right to organize and facing often-hostile town police and judges, unionists had to use different tactics than striking urban industrial workers. Because of this, union pickets sought to link the struggle of producers to the buying behavior of consumers. Small teams of union activists fanned out to urban centers across the nation, organizing grassroots efforts to convince consumers to support the boycott. Strikers found that a boycott-induced dip in profits and bad publicity could convince recalcitrant growers to bargain. The moral nature of the UFW’s symbolic contest between poor workers against rich, powerful growers captured the imagination of allies like journalists, activists, consumers, and religious, political, education, and labor organizations. Using these tactics, the farm workers successfully forced big growers to sign contracts with their union. Many smaller growers followed their lead.
¹ Sabino Lopez, as quoted in Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval. The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement. (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1997), 165.
² César Chávez, as quoted in Cletus Daniel “César Chávez and the Unionization of California Farmworkers.” In Working People of California, ed. Daniel Cornford, 371-404. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 389.
³ There were also small numbers of African American, “white” American, Middle Eastern Arabs, East Indian Hindus, Armenians, and Central American Latinos among the strikers.
Art and Artifacts from the Collections of the Labor Archives and Research Center