Unsung Heroes of the Farm Labor Movement

Grape harvesting is very hard work and workers want to be treated fairly.

October is Filipino-American History Month. It is also the time that farm workers in America do the hard work of harvesting crops. Let’s look at the story of how Filipino-Americans worked to improve the lives of farm workers.

Larry Itliong stood at the front of a crowded room. It was time for a decision. Itliong was the leader of Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, a union of mainly Filipino immigrant farm workers. They demanded that grape growers in Delano, California pay them $1.40 an hour. The growers refused. They needed to decide if it was time to stop working, or strike.

“I want those in favor to stand up with your hand raised,” Itliong called out. Everybody in the room stood up and raised their hands. It was unanimous. The Delano grape strike had begun.

Cesar Chavez, the leader of the National Farm Workers Association learned of the strike. He decided his group of mostly Mexican immigrant workers should join the strike too. The unions joined together and became the United Farm Workers. They struggled for five years and made the grape growers agree to improve working conditions for their grape pickers.

Today, people rightly think of Cesar Chavez as the face of the farm labor movement. However, he was not its only leader. Many people think of the Filipino-American leader, Larry Itliong, as the heart and soul of the farm labor movement.

Many of the Filipino immigrants from Itliong’s Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee had important roles in United Farm Workers. Phillip Vera Cruz served as vice president of the United Farm Workers for many years. He also led a retirement home for retired farm workers with no savings. Pete Velasco organized food caravans during the Delano grape strike. He became an important fundraiser for United Farm Workers.

So the strike that resulted from Larry Itliong’s call for a vote in that crowded room united different groups the first time. As these groups of Mexican and Filipino immigrants came together, they were able to improve their working conditions.

Photo Credit: Isaac gil/Shutterstock