With Cesar Chavez Day being observed at the end of March, it is important to also recognize the efforts of Pilipinos in the history of the farmworker movement. Organizers such as Philip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong, who played a large role in the beginnings of the strikes in California as leaders in the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), often take a back seat in terms of recognition for their impact in shaping the future of labor rights.
In the 1960s, the primarily Pilipino AWOC was instrumental in leading walkouts on various grape farms in Coachella Valley to protest an attempt made by farm owners to pay local workers less than those who were imported from Mexico. The striking workers were able to get the farm owners to set their wages at $1.25 an hour after ten days of protest. As the grape harvest moved north to Delano, a larger movement developed with workers from nine farms going on strike after not receiving the same $1.25 an hour that the workers in Coachella Valley attained earlier.
After approaching the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), led by Cesar Chavez, AWOC was able to bring in more members to the organization’s movement, the majority of new allies coming from a Chicano background. AWOC and NFWA worked together to initiate pickets and boycotts throughout California, gaining attention of white buyers who became more sympathetic to the plight of the farm workers.
Many consumers stopped buying grapes from non-union farms, eventually leading to many grape farms making the decision to employ and make agreements with union workers. AWOC and NFWA came together to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) under the AFL-CIO, with the United Farm Workers continuing to organize for the labor community today.
The solidarity between the farm workers of various ethnic backgrounds was a driving factor in producing successful results, though tension eventually arose with Pilipinos like Itliong and Vera Cruz leaving the union due to a lack of cooperation in terms of the union’s leadership. Cesar Chavez’s trip to the Philippines to meet with President Ferdinand Marcos, who Vera Cruz detested, eventually led to Vera Cruz’s resignation from the UFWOC.
Though traces of the story of the Delano manongs are heard among many Pilipino-American college and community organizations, Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, Pete Velasco, and other Pilipino farm workers and labor organizers do not have the same national recognition as their Chicano counterparts. In learning about, sharing, and celebrating our collective Pilipino-American history, it is imperative to understand both how far we have progressed from the past and how much farther we still have yet to go in the future.
*Picture by mtarlock