The First Grape Strike 1965-1970
The Great Delano Strike and Grape Boycott
On September 20, 1965 Mexican farmworkers joined Filipinos in the largest form labor strike in recent memory. More than two thousand workers had walked out of vineyards in California's Kern and Tulare counties. The little town of Delano soon became the focus as picket lines were set up and farmworkers and their families were joined by students, trade unionists, and members of the clergy. Soon reporters from around the country arrived. The Great Delano Grape Strike had begun.
At the heart of the strike were workers demands to improve appalling working conditions in the fields and to raise wages to a level where the workers could feed their families. The stakes were high; most were migrants who constantly followed the crops across the southwest with their families in tow. As the grapes began to ripen, tension between the growers and strikers increased. Armed security guards at first taunted the workers; then the insults turned to violence. Cesar Chaves, a young Mexican-American labor leader who had observed the success of Martin Luther King's non-violent civil rights movement in the South, took the lead in convincing the strikers not to fight with strikebreakers or ranchers. If they did, the police would descent on them with clubs and guns, the strike would be lost, and people might die.
In March 1966 workers and their supporters began a pilgrimage that would take them from Delano to Sacramento to draw attention to their cause. When they started out they numbered a few hundred men, women and children. When they arrived at California's state capitol there were more than ten thousand.
By July the strike had reached a new level. Strikebreakers were being brought in by growers from Texas and Mexico and were making deals with the Teamsters Union. The level of violence against the workers was increasing. The strikers and their supporters came up with a tactic that soon captured the imagination of consumers and well as activists around the country; they called for an international boycott of table grapes.
The strikes and the boycott dragged on for the next two years. Concerned that the workers were growing impatient, Chavez decided he would begin a fast to renew a sense of hope and reinforce the power of nonviolence. The fast would become a turning point. On March 11, 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy celebrated his victory in the California primary at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Delores Huerta accompanied him to the stage where he gave a speech thanking her, Chavez and the union for their help. Moments later he was gunned down. The farm workers , volunteers and supporters were devastated. Their inspirational ally, Martin Luther King had been assassinated in April; now another tragedy. They they decided to redouble their efforts; they would send farm workers across the nation to tell their personal stories and win the hears of consumers. In July 1970, twenty eight of the major grape growers signed contracts with the union. The boycott had paid off; the Delano Grape strike was over and the farm workers had their first major victory.