[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.