Chants of “si, se puede” and red flags emblazoned with a square-tipped Aztec eagle flew Saturday across the United Farm Workers Forty Acres complex in Delano, where the nation’s first farmworkers’ union celebrated the 50th anniversary of a labor protest that eventually led to better pay and working conditions.
“It’s amazing that we’re here again,” said Roberto Bustos of Tulare, who was captain of the UFW’s 400-mile march from Delano to Sacramento in 1966 to bring attention to the plight of farmworkers everywhere. “We met, everyone, every day here. I’d like to see another 50 years.”
About 1,000 people turned up at the UFW’s original home office to remember the union’s birth, its accomplishments and current battles. They also honored Bustos and other Filipino and Hispanic grape strikers, marchers and boycotters who protested years of poor pay and working conditions.
It all began Sept. 8, 1965, when Filipino-American farmworkers walked out on Delano grape growers. A week later, Mexican-American workers, led by Cesar Chavez, joined them.
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The strike led to a five-year international boycott by consumers of nonunion grapes and the creation of the UFW.
“What the grape strikers achieved went far beyond themselves,” said Arturo Rodriguez, UFW president. “They inspired succeeding generations of Americans to social and political activism. And they created a revolution in empowerment and self-determination among Latinos that is felt in every corner of America today.”
The daylong event included a morning ceremony with speeches from Rodriguez, Chavez’s son, Paul Chavez, UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who returned to the site where his father greeted Chavez during the UFW chief’s fast for nonviolence. The union also unveiled a memorial plaque in honor of Chavez’s younger brother, Richard.
It took plenty of courage and even more sacrifice for the grape strikers to triumph, but they did.
Arturo Rodriguez, UFW president
Huerta, who posed for pictures with children and gave autographs throughout the celebration, recognized the early strikers and spoke about the impact of the grape strikes.
Many strikers lost their homes to make sure “we got the win,” Huerta said. She also made sure to remind everyone Saturday to continue the cause, “La Causa.”
“Our work is not finished,” Huerta said.
Rodriguez invited a group of today’s labor leaders onto the stage to recognize their success at negotiating contracts and renewals and their current challenges.
Two Gerawan Farming Co. employees were in attendance, and Rodriguez spoke about the ongoing case between the tree fruit grower and the union over representation. The UFW won a labor wage hike from $9 to $11 an hour, but continues a fight over farmworkers’ rights to representation by a union, Rodriguez said.
In a court decision Sept. 19, an administrative law judge found the Reedley-based company guilty of trying to get rid of the union. Gerawan plans to appeal the ruling.
In one of the most anticipated speeches and appearances of the day, Kennedy reflected on his father’s relationship with Chavez. The U.S. senator from New York was the first national politician to embrace the farmworker cause, his namesake son said.
Robert F. Kennedy traveled to Delano twice to meet with Chavez. In 1966, he was invited to hearings on the Delano Grape Strike and ended up jumping in a picket line. Two years later, he met with Chavez when Chavez ended his 25-day fast.
The two men were similar and would have been friends under any circumstance, Kennedy said. They were short in stature, both deeply pious Catholics, both had a lot of children and neither was a smooth politician. They weren’t backstabbers and were not good at small talk, he said.
“They both had intensity and fierce adherence and courage at standing up for principle,” Kennedy said.
Bustos, the marcher from Tulare, started working in the Arizona cotton fields at age 10. He joined the movement after hearing Chavez speak at a farmworker meeting. He was handpicked by Chavez to figure out the logistics – the route, where marchers would eat and sleep – on the march to Sacramento. Most of the marchers slept in parks, union halls and church halls, Bustos said.
“It was an honor for me to be appointed,” Bustos said. “We did our job. We made history.”
Lupe Wong of Visalia brought her family to the celebration to remember the historic work of the UFW. Her three children, who range in age from 6 to 12, snapped pictures with Kennedy and Huerta.
“I’m here because my father taught me about Cesar and the struggle,” Wong said. “My grandmother had to go to the bathroom in the fields in front of the men.”
Wong’s great-grandparents and grandparents were farmworkers. Her father on Saturday was working in the fields, she said. Wong became involved in the labor movement at age 14 when she marched alongside Huerta during the 1994 march to Sacramento. Wong later worked as Huerta’s assistant.
“It’s amazing to see where we have come from,” Wong said. “I wanted my children to share that (history).”