Latino Studies United Farm Workers Union
by
Matt Garcia
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0050

Introduction

The formation of the United Farm Workers (UFW) in 1965 under the leadership of Cesar Chavez produced a new era in farm labor activism. The union developed after years of struggle and failed attempts to create a permanent union. In 1956, the National Farm Labor Union—renamed the National Agricultural Workers Union (NAWU)—made some attempts to organize farm workers. Scholar/activist Ernesto Galarza worked on strikes in the Imperial Valley and Central California but struggled to overcome differences in strategy among organizers. In 1962, two organizations, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), composed mainly of Filipinos, and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), composed mainly of Mexicans, formed in separate locations in rural California. In 1965, the two organizations merged to create the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. When the organization became affiliated with the AFL-CIO in 1972, the national executive board changed their name to the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA), while the press, the public, and advocates commonly referred to the organization as the “UFW.”

From Movement to Union

The struggle for farm worker justice that led to the establishment of the UFW began in the rural farming town of Coachella, California. In the spring of 1965, Filipino workers under the banner of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) struck grape farms in an effort to increase their hourly wages and improve their living conditions (Dunne 2008). By 16 September 1965, the movement spread to Delano, California, in the San Joaquin Valley, where it coalesced into a fierce battle between growers and workers, with Mexicans and Filipinos finally joining together. Although strikes initiated the movement, the execution of the most successful boycott in US history—against table grapes grown in California and Arizona—eventually wore down the growers. After years of heavy losses, in 1970 they signed the first industry-wide grape contracts with the UFW. By 1972, the AFL-CIO granted the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee an official charter, making it a union (Meister and Loftis 1977, Garza Elizondo 2009). The history of the founding of the union has been told in many forms over the years, usually by those who witnessed it firsthand or by journalists who covered events (Ferriss and Sandoval 1997). Most of these histories focused on the achievements of the union while avoiding criticism of the leadership. More recently, writers and scholars have offered a more balanced approach, such as in Garcia 2012. Levy 2007, Matthiessen 2000, Ross 1989, and Taylor 1975 all focus on Cesar Chavez’s life and leadership.

  • Dunne, John Gregory. Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

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    Originally published in 1967 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), this offers a firsthand account of the movement in its earliest years. Dunne focuses mainly on the grape strike in Delano in 1965, which led to the merger between AWOC and the National Agricultural Workers Union (NFWA).

  • Ferriss, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval. The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement. Edited by Diana Hembree. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997.

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    This useful history accompanied a film of the same name. The book is one of the few to cover the union after the historic contracts in 1970.

  • Garcia, Matt. From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

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    This book covers the events that led to the formation of the union and the creation of the boycott. The second half of the book is a critical assessment of Chavez’s leadership during the 1970s.

  • Garza Elizondo, Humberto. Organizing the Chicano Movement: The Story of CSO. San Jose, CA: Sun House, 2009.

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    Garza Elizondo offers the most thorough study of how the Community Service Organization cultivated a new generation of leaders who went on to form the United Farm Workers union.

  • Levy, Jacques E. Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

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    Levy was an eyewitness to the movement who documented all the actions and decisions of Chavez through the mid-1970s. This book, originally published in 1975 (New York: W. W. Norton), contributed significantly to the mystique of Chavez as a leader.

  • Matthiessen, Peter. Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

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    Matthiessen was among a small number of independent writers who strove to document Chavez’s life. He covered Chavez during the momentous years of the grape boycott in the late 1960s as well as during the realization of contracts for farm workers in 1970. Originally published in 1969 (New York: Random House), this is an intimate portrait of Chavez from 1968 to 1971, years that Matthiessen spent with him.

  • Meister, Dick, and Anne Loftis. A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America’s Farm Workers. New York: Macmillan, 1977.

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    This book is a celebratory study of the union’s formation.

  • Ross, Fred. Conquering Goliath: Cesar Chavez at the Beginning. Keene, CA: El Taller Gráfico, 1989.

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    Ross was Cesar Chavez’s mentor and, as such, provides unique insight into how Chavez developed as a leader.

  • Taylor, Ronald B. Chavez and the Farm Workers. Boston: Beacon, 1975.

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    Taylor was a journalist covering the movement for a local newspaper, the Fresno Bee. The book occasionally offers criticism of Chavez but is mostly a celebration of his leadership.

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