U.S. farmworkers in California campaign for economic justice (Grape Strike), 1965-70

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Time Period:  
July 29,
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Delano, CA
Location Description: 
Centered in Delano, CA, but the grape boycott spread both nationally and internationally.
To get grape growers to sign union contracts, increase wages, and improve working conditions.

Before the grape strike in 1965, the average annual income of a California farmworker was less than $1,400. In addition, variations in weather or market patterns could lessen this amount. Working conditions were also poor, as many workers did not have access to a sufficient amount of food or sanitary facilities.

In 1965, the National Farmworkers Association in Delano, CA, was in its early stages with only 200 due-paying members. At the time, the organization, which was led by Cesar Chavez, did not intend to undertake any sort of mass action. Instead, the Farmworkers Association intended to increase membership and resources before beginning anything major.

Yet in September 1965, Filipino workers from a farm in the Coachella Valley of California went on strike because of a decrease in wages. The workers wanted their wages to be raised to equal the federal minimum wage, and asked the Farmworkers Association for help. Chavez and the Association felt they had no choice but to assist the protesters and soon strikes had begun at other major grape farms, along with picket lines, both of which lasted the length of the campaign. This was the beginning of the great grape strike or la huelga.

In the time that followed, the picket lines were routinely attacked. Picketers were roughed up, attacked by dogs, threatened by cars, and even sprayed with pesticides. Apart from being disrupted physically, picket lines were also halted by court-imposed injunctions. Judges routinely sided with the farm owners rather than the minority farmers.

Still, the picket lines were visited and joined by activist Dorothy Day (a friend of Chavez’s), Walter Reuther (the president of the United Auto Workers’ Union), and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Senator Kennedy mocked the local sheriff, who was illegally placing people he believed might picket in jail before they had committed any crime. Kennedy said, “I suggest that […] in the luncheon period […] the sheriff and the district attorney read the Constitution of the United States” (Cortright 80-81). Meanwhile, Chavez traveled across the nation giving speeches and raising support, particularly from members of the civil rights movement, free speech movement, other unions, and the AFL-CIO.

In November 1965, longshoremen in Oakland agreed to let a thousand ten-ton crates of grape rot rather than handle the delivery from Delano. This was the first of many boycotts. Next, the Farmworkers Association began consumer boycotts targeting specific major companies.

In March 1966, the Farmworkers Alliance went on a march to the capitol of California in Sacramento. Chavez called it a pilgrimage or peregrinación, and fashioned it after Gandhi’s march to the sea. The march, which was intended to publicize the boycott and remonstrate the spraying of pesticides on protesters, was also the longest march in U.S. history up to that point, totaling 250 miles from Delano to Sacramento. Nightly, rallies were held and the union’s declaration read. By the time the march reached Sacramento, it had transformed from a hundred people to thousands.

Following the march, Schenley and a few other grape companies signed a contract with the Farmworkers Association that included a wage increase of 35 cents an hour. Unfortunately, the contracts only covered 5000 workers, which was merely two percent of the total number of California’s farmworkers.

At that time, the boycotts were having trouble because the boycotted companies had only to switch their labels in order to confuse the consumers attempting to boycott their goods. Therefore, the Farmworkers Association began a total boycott of California table grapes in January 1968.

In February, 1968, Chavez mimicked Gandhi again when he went on a 25 day hunger fast due to intended violence on the part of protesting farmworkers. Chavez announced at a union meeting that he had begun to fast and would not eat again until everyone had pledged nonviolence. Thousands of supporters arrived in Delano to make the pledge. This was a significant moment for the campaign, as it marked the official adoption of a nonviolent ideology.

Meanwhile, the boycott began to spread across the nation. By this point, the National Farmworkers Association had transition into the United Farmworkers of America (UFWA), and UFWA offices were set up in a Detroit, Chicago, Boston and other cities across the nation. The campaign gained the support of student activists, clergy, and antiwar activists, and participation in the boycott became part of the counter culture of the 1960s and 70s.

As of 1969, 17 million Americans and many Canadians were participating in the boycott, not buying table grapes or Gallo wine. Grape shipments in North America decreased by a total of one third and grape owners suffered significant losses in sales.

At this point, UFWA began to see results. Initially, 40 companies in Coachella, CA signed contracts that increased wages and added benefits. Then in July 1970 Giurma, which was California’s largest grape company, also signed a contract with UFWA. After that, the rest of the grape companies signed contracts too and the campaign was won. The strikes, pickets and boycotts ended.

Yet almost immediately after the grape campaign ended, UFWA became involved in a new campaign in the lettuce fields of the Salinas Valley in California. The lettuce workers were angry because the lettuce growers had made “sweetheart deals” with the Teamster unions. New strikes and boycotts were launched with Chavez again leading the campaign.

Soon after, major grape growers reneged on their contracts and entered into similar sweetheart deals with the Teamster unions, so UFWA recommenced the grape boycott. Yet the novelty of the boycott tactic had worn off and lost its initial effectiveness. In 1980, after UFWA reached a membership of 100 thousand people, the organization began to decline in members, influence, and power.

Research Notes

Chavez was influenced by Gandhi’s march to the sea and hunger strikes. (1)

The grape strike campaign influenced the lettuce boycott that began in August 1970. (2)

Abrams, Susan. "The United Farm Workers Union." Nonviolent Action and Social Change. Ed. Severyn Bruyn and Paula Rayman. New York: Irvington, 1979.

Cortright, David. Gandhi and Beyond; Nonviolence for an Age of Terrorism. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2006.

Dunne, John G. Delano. New York: Noonday P, 1967.

Merriman, Hardy. "California Grape Workers' Strike and Boycott- 1965-1970." Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential, Gene Sharp. Boston: Extending Horizons Books, 2005.

Sharp, Gene. Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent Publisher, 1973.

Additional Notes: 
The campaign embodied a nonviolent ideology, had a strong leader, and was part of the United Farmworkers movement.

This case was originally written by Maurice Weeks (14/8/2008), then researched again and added by Lindsay Carpenter (3/8/2011).

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Lindsay Carpenter, 3/8/2011 and Maurice Weeks, 14/8/2008