Over two million farm workers serve as essential members of the agricultural sector, providing food to the tables of Americans. The United Farm Workers (UFW) became the first recognized farm workers union accepted into the AFL-CIO in August 1972.
The union started in 1965 when Filipino and Mexican migrant farm workers joined together to strike against the Delano-area grape growers, in order to pressure large agribusinesses to sign contracts guaranteeing better wages and working conditions. Previously, large-scale agricultural businesses had a history of relying on cheap, migrant labor that had no voice in issues such as workplace safety and wages, as well as work and living standards.
On September 8, 1965, the predominantly Filipino American migrant farm workers from the AFL-CIO-affiliated Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) initiated and led a series of strikes against Delano-area grape growers.1 A week later, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), co-founded by Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez in 1962 and whose membership was mostly migrant Mexican farm workers, joined the strike. This is how the five-year long Delano Grape Strike began, and it went on to become one of the most significant labor campaigns and associated social movements in U.S. history. The union worked to mobilize support from students, churches, politicians, and those involved with the civil rights movement under the charismatic leadership of union President Cesar Chavez. In 1965, Dolores Huerta, the Vice President of the UFW, directed a successful national consumer grape boycott aimed at the California table grape industry.2 The union was the first organized entity that advocated for environmental justice, as the farm workers fought for the regulation of the use of pesticides and fertilizers in the fields, due to documented cancer clusters, birth defects, and other health issues related to pesticide use.
At times, extreme measures were taken against the strikers at the picket lines, including mass arrests and intimidation of peaceful picketers, spraying picket lines with pesticides and shooting picket signs out of strikers' hands with rifles.3 A number of UFW members were killed on the picket line. Some impatient farm workers advocated taking violent measures. In February 1968, Cesar Chavez began a hunger strike to rededicate the movement to non-violence, and thousands made pilgrimages to see him at Forty Acres, the UFW headquarters which is now a National Historic Landmark. The fast ended with a mass in Delano, which thousands attended, including Senator Robert F. Kennedy.4
The UFW had a number of hard-fought victories in the 1960s and 1970s. On April 10, 1966, ten thousand farm workers and supporters gathered in Sacramento to celebrate the union’s victory in earning contracts for the grape workers.5 A three-year collective bargaining agreement was signed in 1970, giving farmworkers better pay, benefits and protections, including protections against pesticides. In 1976, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act became the first law recognizing the rights of California farmworkers to collective bargaining.6 Despite these victories, the union itself experienced considerable leadership conflicts and internal management problems.
At its peak, the UFW had approximately 80,000 members, but this has declined in recent years to under 30,000 members. Union membership has decreased in part to a shrinking labor pool of agricultural employees, and the work is increasingly contracted in a way that makes it more difficult to organize workers. The UFW continues to work for regulations related to overtime, heat exposure, pesticide safety regulations, immigration, and voting rights.
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