In this small town in the San Joaquin Valley — California’s fruit basket –, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta joined forces in 1962 to found, later known as the United Farm Workers (UFW). Delano is still the organization’s headquarters.
As Mexican-Americans born to parents who did manual labor, Chavez and Huerta were no strangers to hard work. Throughout their native Southwest, there was strong discrimination against Mexican Americans.
Migrant workers from Mexico, an abundant source of cheap labor, were key to grape growers’ profits.
These workers lived in pitiful worker camps and often had to work in the field without toilets or other facilities. They also made below minimum wage while doing hard stooping labor all day in the fields. These are the conditions the UFW fought to better. In turn, growers argued they needed cheap labor to turn a profit.
Major targets of the UFW were California growers of table and wine grapes. In 1965, the UFW with the AFL-CIO led a five-year boycott of table grapes, urging shoppers throughout the country not to buy or eat grapes.
In 1970, as a result of the boycott, many growers signed contracts with the UFW. However, vegetable growers signed contracts with the Teamsters to limit UFW power and, in 1973 when the grape contracts expired, grape growers also signed with the Teamsters. In protest, more than 10,000 farm workers walked out of the fields.
As a result of the strike and further boycotts against lettuce and Gallo wine, California Governor Jerry Brown established a collective bargaining law for farm workers in 1975.
In 1977, the UFW and the Teamsters reached an agreement regarding union control of farm areas.
The UFW’s success is partly due to advocating principles of nonviolence as expressed by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1968, Chavez fasted for 25 days to emphasize the farm workers’ nonviolent commitment.
Life for farm workers today is somewhat better, and the UFW continues to focus on new concerns, such as health hazards from pesticides used to spray crops, which are thought to cause cancer in the workers and their children.
Chavez died in his sleep in 1993. He was 66.