The Grape Strike

Participatory democracy at work
Cesar Chavez speaking at the United Farm Workers rally in Delano, CA, June 1972 (Image courtesy of Creative Commons).

 

[This article was first published in the December 24, 1965 issue of Commonweal.]

Some thirty years ago the vineyards and orchards of California were the setting of a moving novel by John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath. In 1965, a new kind of story was being written in those hot, dusty valleys, but the story is not ended yet and the outcome is still in doubt. 

The bare bones of the story are that the powerful financial and political interests whose strength rests upon the landowners and growers of California agriculture are being challenged for the first time by an indigenous, dignified, courageous group of domestic laborers. These local workers are staking their income and their lives on a strike they do not intend to end without success. 

There have been many strikes in California since 1929. Almost all of them were very short, and none were effective. In agriculture, there are no factory gates to picket; there are hundreds of square miles of land (the present pickets must cover 400 square miles). Workers whose annual wage does not often reach $8000, and is usually less than $2000, in a state whose median income is $6,726, have slender resources. Great national unions which from time to time have sent in organizers and funds have always faced a double problem: (1) to call for a strike; and (2) to organize the scattered, poorly-educated, often skeptical and abject workers. For the first time, in 1965, there are in central California small but highly motivated cadres of local domestic laborers who have been organizing themselves for more than a year; who place their faith and their trust in one another and in the ultimate good sense of the growers; and who, when the moment came, had the discipline and the courage to sponsor a strike under their own auspices. Never has a strike lasted this long–at the present writing, nine weeks. Never has hope of success been so possible. 

The dollar and cents issue of the strike, moreover, is far from being the fundamental issue. Wages for the workers vary from farm to farm, but before the strike they often did not reach $1.25 an hour, plus ten cents per basket (a fast worker might fill four baskets in an hour). Most workers have to have cars, and drive usually more than sixty miles round trip to the fields that are being worked on any given day. Only during harvest time are they paid at the above rate; during the trimming season, the rate goes down; part of the year there is no work at all. The strikers are currently demanding $1.40 an hour and twenty-five cents per piece. Under the pressure of the strike, a few growers have taken steps toward meeting this demand. But the fundamental issue has not yet been met by even one single grower, not even by so much as a letter and a five-cent stamp. 

That issue is the right of collective bargaining. Under the leadership of their soft-spoken, impressive and thoughtful spokesman, Cesar Chavez, the local laborers are asking for the dignity of being included in discussions concerning their own fate and that of the industry to which they are committed. They are even prepared to write a “no-strike clause” into their contracts, recognizing the perishability of the goods with which they deal. They are not prepared to allow the growers to go on paternalistically deciding what is good for the workers, or what the workers really want, or really need. They are asking to be treated as human beings–and to be granted at least the recognition that is granted to fertilizers, machinery and other factors in agribusiness. For the cost to the growers of all these items has risen in the last decade, but the cost of labor has remained almost stationary. The workers–and their traditional passivity and lack of organization–have been taken for granted.

Under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, the local laborers are asking for the dignity of being included in discussions concerning their own fate

Undoubtedly, the growers would like to continue running things the good old way–the way it was done, for many of them, in the old country of their fathers or grandfathers: Italy, Portugal, Yugoslavia, etc. The growers are willing to spend vast sums of money for political lobbying to keep things the good old way, and still further sums to bring in busloads of strikebreakers from as far away as Texas, and still further sums repacking fruit that the new, inexperienced workers mishandle. They have not yet come to the conclusion that a satisfied, skilled, local labor force is in the long run cheaper than their herculean efforts to avoid learning the lessons all other industries have learned. Every industry has special problems. Few industries have been blessed with strikers committed to nonviolence as the present strikers in the vineyards are. Few have been blessed with strikers who are unwilling to single out any one grower for their efforts, knowing that they could bring him to his knees. As Cesar Chavez has said: “It is a problem in which all the growers are involved, no single one; we do not wish to crucify one for the problem of all.” 

 

Will the Churches Help? 

Chavez himself was born in Arizona, where his father worked a small farm. Like many other southwestern families, they lost their farm in the Depression and joined the caravans westward for work in California fields. Chavez spent his boyhood near Delano, and his wife’s family is from Delano. It is largely because he is of the people there that, since his return in 1962 to begin his preparation for the present effort, they trust him implicitly as they would trust no outsider. He is a charismatic figure, who speaks quietly and warmly, simply and resolutely. Of medium stature, dressed in the heavy clothes of the worker, his shoes dusty, he stands calmly at a speaker’s rostrum slowly choosing words of scrupulous honesty and sympathy. 

Chavez worked for a time with Saul Alinsky. It is not surprising, then, that the churches of central California have from the beginning been invited to hear the cause of the workers. On a recent Sunday, Chavez spoke to six different gatherings, most of them church people. The reactions are mixed. Local ministers in the Delano area, in Kern county just south of San Francisco, have issued a statement attempting to dissociate themselves from the strike; they wish to separate such temporal matters from the purely spiritual concerns of their version of Christianity. Local political groups–city council, school board, and sheriff’s office–have likewise tried to make the strike go away by denying that it exists, attributing it to outside agitation, or disclaiming its disturbances. A few growers are said to have reacted to sermons which seemed to support the strikers by stopping their financial contributions to the offending parishes; and some parishes rely heavily on the wealthy. 

But throughout central California more and more congregations, or individual Christians, are sending food, clothing and money to the strikers and their families, who otherwise are totally without income. Some strikers have already lost their automobiles; others are beginning to forfeit their mortgages on their poor dwellings. The strike lives by charity. Without persevering gifts, it cannot succeed. If it is broken, a great hope will die.

Two main groups of workers are involved in the strike. One is a union of Filipino-Americans (affiliated with the AFL-CIO), the other a group of Mexican-Americans. It is the latter that is led by Chavez and attracts the most attention. In the very first days of the strike, Chavez contacted CORE and SNCC, asking them for trained leaders to come and instruct his men in the difficult art of nonviolence. The union members had for months been contributing dues of $8.50 a month to a fund which enabled Chavez to represent them. Before calling the strike–a decision made by a unanimous vote of the membership, together with the commitment of nonviolence–Chavez tried to contact each of the growers, personally, by registered letter, and by wire. Not a single one responded. The tactic of the growers is to avoid recognizing the workers. Neither the growers nor appointed representatives heed the invitations of Chavez, or of interested audiences, to debate the issues publicly. Chavez accepts all invitations, even from hostile audiences. From the other side, silence. And that is the fundamental issue. 

The strike lives by charity. Without persevering gifts, it cannot succeed. If it is broken, a great hope will die.

Chavez says he cannot estimate the number of strikers, because the growers keep bringing in waves of strikebreakers. When the latter come to understand that there is a strike (in one ease, a California priest with a flyer’s license flew over the fields with a loudspeaker and helped to inform them), many of them leave the work. Many who do not stay to join the picketers move off to other areas of California for the sake of their family income. When some among these return to Delano after the harvest season, there may well be a crisis of food, clothing and income as the strike store dwindles.

Recently, the longshoremen in San Francisco refused to load a ship with grapes from a grower that the strikers were picketing. The growers have also taken to loading boxcars at night or in the wee hours of the morning, when the pickets are not yet in evidence. A new wave of pride seems to be reaching workers in the valley, and “Huelga” (strike) and “La Causa” are words that are also beginning to stir the middle-class Spanish communities that have moved on to better things in the surrounding cities. At a recent meeting of an interfaith social justice forum in Palo Alto (which overflowed the school auditorium of St. Albert the Great parochial school), a member of the Redwood City Guadalupe Society who obviously had come for that purpose sprang to his feet during the question period and announced with choking voice the support and prayers of his society for the courage of Chavez and his men. 

 

The Newest Wine Yet

There is something new, then, in the central valleys this year. At the same meeting, a distinguished-looking lawyer rose to his full height at the rear of the hall and identified himself as a negotiator for management in labor disputes over the last thirty years. He said that the growers ought to learn from the mistakes of other industries. In the long run and even in the short run, it is cheaper and also better business to treat laborers as men, to give them security and take care of their medical insurance and the rest, than to try to pay for all the trouble one man like that–he nodded toward Chavez–could cause them. In the end, he said, they’ll only have to pay both expenses anyway. 

There also seems to be a general sentiment in the California air that the end of the bracero program, which the Labor Department enforced over heavy local opposition, has redounded, all fearful myths to the contrary, to the greater prosperity of California agriculture. Experienced workers do better work, and where the pay is decent, workers are even attracted from other jobs. Moreover, one local bureau (Salinas County) reports a drop in the number of families on welfare from 818 to 77, once domestic labor began to find steady work. Money earned by domestic laborers is spent in the locality. The growers do not have to pay to ship workers back and forth out of the country. 

But perhaps this picture is too optimistic. Coverage by press and television is not extensive. The growers have not yet shown signs of grappling with reality, even though some moral prestige is shifting toward the strikers. They will meet the workers paternalistically, but not man-to-man. The strike is not seriously hurting the harvesting, though the work is not going smoothly. It is a bumper year for grapes. The growers are needled; the workers are hoping with a desperate but calm hope that the needle is sharp enough to puncture paternalism. And everything depends upon the charity of the larger Christian, Jewish and liberal community. 

But what constitutes the newest wine in the central valley is not a longer strike than any before, but the new type of democracy which it represents. This is not the democracy of the 1930’s, not the socialistic theory and the techniques of power and interest. Cesar Chavez was convinced that this movement had to come from the sentiments, intelligence and resolution of the community, without the benefit of national unions, their organizers and their funds. Moreover, each decision had to be participated in by the membership. The men have not committed themselves to a technique of power, for a clearly defined pragmatic goal. They have committed themselves to a way of life, to a sense of personal dignity, restraint and trust in one another and the organism of free societies. There is a humanism here which exceeds anything found in the literature of the thirties, a sense of community which is different from mere comradeship, a conviction that growers and workers alike are organically related and not merely separate centers of power to be brought into balance. If this is liberalism, it is liberalism in a more human and more Christian dimension. If it is democracy, it is more “participatory” than bureaucratic or structural. 

There is, in short, a streak of what the British call “conservatism” in this new liberalism of the California fields. Its intellectual source is not the Enlightenment. Men are not atomic particles, but members of a community. There seem to be accents here of what the students across the bay at Berkeley are saying, in their own inimitable style: the birth of something new in American democracy, new wine about to rupture old skins.

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