By the early 21st century the State of California was ranked the 12th largest economy on earth, and California’s agriculture industry was ranked among the top five suppliers of agricultural commodities and food to the entire world.
Indispensable to the century-long development of this huge industry has been its reliance on lowly paid manual laborers, typically people of color. Throughout most of the 20th century such workers were stereotypically characterized as people of Mexican ancestry, whether Mexican-Americans or Mexican nationals, although from the 1920’s to the 1950’s a large percentage of this workforce also comprised Filipinos who had initially migrated to America in large numbers in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Among these farm workers of Filipino ancestry was Larry Itliong, who had immigrated to America at the age of 15 in 1928. Beginning in the 1920’s approximately 30,000 Filipino immigrant men of Itliong’s generation labored as farm workers throughout the next few decades in the American West. After years of hard toil, constantly moving from one seasonal crop to the next or following the salmon canning seasons, Itliong developed a deep compassion for the social, economic and political struggles of his fellow Filipino migrant laborers. In the 1930’s he became involved with the labor unions forming across Alaska and California that sought social equality and greater labor rights for their members. During the 1950’s he had founded the Filipino Farm Labor Union, was elected president of the Filipino Voters League, and he served as secretary in the Filipino Community of Stockton.
By 1965 Itliong became president of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), a quasi-union originally founded by fellow Filipino farm worker Philip Vera Cruz. Itliong led a successful AWOC strike that year against grape growers in Coachella Valley in Southern California to increase Filipino farm workers’ barely supportable salary of $1.10 an hour. After just ten days of the strike, the Coachella Valley grape growers gave in to the workers’ demands by increasing their pay by thirty cents an hour. The dramatic success of this strike gave hope and inspiration to other downtrodden farm workers throughout California.
Later that year Itliong and AWOC voted to strike against grape growers in Delano (in Kern County, California), also to fight for higher wages. It wasn’t just the Filipinos in Delano who were fighting the local grape growers, however. A quasi-union there called the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) was also fighting for increased wages, under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, for a group of Mexican farm workers that was younger and far greater in number than the older, all-Filipino AWOC membership. Would the two sides join hands? In the past, growers had used Mexicans laborers to break strikes of Filipino farm workers. Due to the historic isolation of Filipino-American and Mexican-American workers, growers did not anticipate the two forces working together to seek better labor conditions.
On the eve of the strike – an historic moment in which Filipino-American and Mexican-American farm laborers might link forces for the first time – Cesar Chavez told his fellow NFWA laborers: “The strike was begun by Filipinos, but it is not exclusively for them. Tonight we must decide if we are to join our fellow workers in this great labor struggle.” In the end, they did vote to merge, and the United Farm Workers (UFW) union was born.
Due to union members voting along racial lines, Chavez became the first UFW president. He soon gained fame as a charismatic labor and civil rights leader in the process, with Itliong and Vera Cruz as his first two consecutive vice-presidents, and with U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy as a high-profile supporter. Under the auspices of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” social programs, Chavez, Itliong and Dolores Huerta in 1966 formed California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc., an influential group advocating for the rights of migrant workers and the rural poor. And by 1970, the UFW’s determined, protracted and high-profile Delano grape strike eventually succeeded in gaining not only higher wages for the strikers but also a collective bargaining agreement that covered over 10,000 farm workers across California.
History books have yet to give Larry Itliong, as well as Philip Vera Cruz, their due. In retrospect, however, the initial work and ambition of both men triggered a series of significant actions and events that improved the quality of life and work for thousands of California farm laborers, led to the formation of an historic and influential labor union that successfully fought for workers’ civil rights as well as their labor rights, and which, to this day, has instilled a sense of dignity among farm laborers amidst their continued exploitation in the workplace.