The Working Catholic: Forgotten Organizer
by Bill Droel
Most grammar school and high school students encounter Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) in one or another textbook. He is heralded as a pioneer in organizing agricultural workers and as a champion of Mexican-Americans. So in September 1965 who were those farm workers who went on strike and whose action launched a boycott that brought Chavez to national attention? The workers were Filipino.
Today’s students and others probably assume that farm worker unions hardly existed until Chavez and others created the National Farm Workers Association in September 1962, writes David Bacon in Dollars & Sense (June/18). Not true. Larry Itliong (1913-1977), a Filipino-American, walked his first picket line in 1930, and even he did not invent farm worker organizing. The United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers, affiliated with the CIO, was long active in the State of Washington, Alaska and California. Itliong was involved with UCAPAW and in the late 1940s he led strikes among asparagus pickers, Bacon details. In 1959 an Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee was formed in the merged AFL-CIO. In the summer of 1965 Itliong led a successful AWOC strike in the Coachella Valley.
On September 8, 1965 Itliong gathered hundreds of workers into Filipino Community Hall in Delano, California for a vote to strike the area’s grape growers. It was a bold move and Itliong realized he needed help. As is common with ethnic groups, Filipino-Americans and Mexican-Americans did not easily mingle in the community. Plus the two ethnic groups competed for jobs. Yet Itliong approached Chavez to join in the strike. Until then, Chavez was spending his time building the base and lobbying; he had yet to launch any job action; only 200 workers were paying dues to his NFWA. But Chavez realized his opportunity and within two weeks joined forces with the Filipino-Americans. Thus began the now famous Delano Grape Strike and National Boycott. Four flags were prominent in the first demonstration: the U.S. flag of course plus the flag of the Philippines, of Mexico and the flag/banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In time the group’s named was changed to United Farm Workers Organizing Committee and then to United Farm Workers Union (www.ufw.org). Itliong served as an assistant to the new union, including as director of national boycotts.
The efficacy of organizing requires some oiled hinges. For example, on one side there is hyperbole and some boastfulness. On the other there is thoughtful compromise. On one side the organizer agitates hesitant people. On the other side the organizer affirms people, even as they belatedly take small steps. One side of the door the organizer fosters fierce loyalty within the group, enough to withstand external criticism. On the other side of this parochial bonding the organizer must create openness to wider society, a commitment to inclusiveness and dispel tribalism.
On one side the organizer must project confident charismatic qualities to attract busy and creative leaders. On the other side the organizer must nurture collective leadership, dampening personality factions. For Chavez, “loyalty to Chavez” often superseded the development of leaders and the external mission of the organization, as Mirian Pawel details in her sympathetic biography The Crusades of Cesar Chavez (Bloomsbury, 2014). His style was too often arbitrary. In fact, over time Chavez imported the cult-like techniques of Synanon into the UFW. Like all of us, Itliong had faults. But he spoke against Chavez’ authoritarianism. The problem, Chavez replied to Itliong, is that “you won’t obey my orders.” Thus in October 1971, Itliong resigned from UFW.
Organizing farm workers is still difficult. It is probably more difficult than in the mid-1960s. A new strategy, called worker centers, shows promise. These are not unions and cannot directly have labor contracts. This restriction is advantageous in some situations, though worker centers have shortcomings.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (www.ciw-online) is the best-known worker center. One-by-one CIW cajoles a major food outlet to join its Fair Food Program. The outlet agrees to purchase only from Fair Food certified vegetable growers. Those growers, in turn, have agreed to pay a couple pennies more to farm workers for each bushel of, let’s say, picked tomatoes. Burger King, Taco Bell and more are participating. The CIW cajoling, you already suspect, includes national boycotts, demonstrations and more.
There are also unions of farm workers. Farm Labor Organizing Committee (www.floc.com), based in Toledo, Ohio and affiliated with AFL-CIO, has a respectable history. Along the turf where Itliong once tread, is recently formed Familias Unidas por la Justicia (www.familiasunidasjusticia.org), an independent union. It recently brokered a positive relationship between berry pickers and Sakuma Farms. First though Familias Unidas had to wage a national boycott of Driscoll Berries and Haagen-Dazs ice cream—both of whom purchase from Sakuma Farms.
Our National Park Service has a Cesar Chavez Monument in Keene, California. Johnny Itliong, Larry’s son, and others want the Park Service to expand with perhaps a site in Delano, California and to honor Itliong, Filipino-American farm workers and all those who act for agricultural justice.
Droel’s booklet, What Is Social Justice, can be obtained from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)