Forty years ago this month, 1,500 Filipino farm workers went out on strike in Delano, California, and made history by inspiring the formation of the United Farm Workers Union and causing sweeping changes in U.S. farm labor laws. The strike also led to the formation of the first national political Filipino organization.
In 1965, Filipino farm workers were led by Larry Itliong, Philip Vera-Cruz and Pete Velasco. The workers voted to launch a strike against the gross disparity in salaries between their pay of $1.10 per hour and the higher $1.40 per hour paid to the braceros, temporary workers brought in from Mexico.
The Delano growers took a hard line against the strikers and called in scab Mexican labor as replacements.
“That’s when I went to see Cesar [Chavez] and asked him to help me,” Itliong told a reporter.
Chavez, the head of the mostly Mexican National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), had been organizing Mexican farm workers in California and throughout the southwest. When Chavez heard about the Filipino-led strike, he had initial misgivings.
“Our worry was that the Filipinos would abandon the strike,” explained NFWA Co-founder Dolores Huerta. “Some of them were beaten up by the growers [who] would shut off the gas and the lights and the water in the labor camps.”
A united front between the Filipinos and the Mexicans would not be easy. Growers had historically used Filipinos to break Mexican-led strikes and vice versa.
“Larry and Cesar’s great contribution was they crossed racial barriers,” observed Marc Grossman, a Sacramento political consultant.
Just eight days after the Filipino strike vote, the Mexican workers met at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and voted unanimously to join the strike.
News of the Filipino farm workers’ strike reached San Francisco, and spurred Filipino community leaders in the Bay Area, led by Emile Heredia and Alex Esclamado, to set up food caravans to bring canned goods to Delano to support their kababayans in the picket lines.
This new alliance between Filipino farm workers and Filipino professionals soon developed into the Filipino American Political Association (FAPA). In 1970, when Itliong was national president, FAPA had active chapters in 30 cities throughout the U.S.
Meanwhile, the Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) of Itliong and the NFWA of Chavez merged to form the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), AFL-CIO with Chavez as Executive Director and Itliong second in command. First Vice President was Dolores Huerta, Second Vice President was Philip Vera-Cruz and Third Vice President was Andy Imutan with Pete Velasco as Secretary-Treasurer of the union.
The alliance mobilized a nationwide boycott of Delano grapes, which in 1970 finally forced the growers to give in.
“We got wage increases, a medical plan for farm workers, we set up five clinics, a day care center and a school,” Huerta announced.
The UFW also set up the Pablo Agbayani Village in Delano for retired farm workers. It was named after a Filipino farm worker who died while picketing during the strike.
Alex Fabros, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Santa Barbara, believes the merger between the AWOC and the NFWA was “devastating for the Filipinos who participated in the UFW.”
“Filipinos were marginalized and never given true power within the union. Filipinos lost seniority, lost jobs, lost money,” Fabros observed.
Itliong died in 1977, at age 63, leaving a wife and 7 kids. At his funeral, Chavez eulogized him as “a true pioneer in the farm workers movement.”
But Fred Cordova, a past president of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), believes Itliong should be considered more than just a pioneer.
“I’d like to see his grave site included as a national shrine and the name Larry Itliong mentioned in the same breath as Cesar Chavez in ethnic studies courses. His impact on the Filipino American experience is unsurpassed,” Cordova said.
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