Larry Dane Brimner
Shining Light into History's Cupboards
The grape strike began when a union of mostly Filipino American farm workers led by Larry Itliong laid down their tools on September 8, 1965, and refused to harvest vines that were hanging with ripe fruit. In the southern part of California several months earlier, their union, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, or AWOC, had won a wage of $1.40 per hour. It was the same amount the federal government required vineyard owners to pay guest workers, or braceros, from Mexico. The owners had been caught in a bind. If they had not agreed to the Filipino’s wage demand, they would have lost their entire crop. Now, in central California, the vineyard owners decided it was time to show AWOC just who the bosses were. They offered the workers only $1.00 per hour, almost daring them to stop work. They knew that if the Filipino workers refused to harvest the grapes, they could hire Mexican American workers to replace them. The owners routinely played one group of workers against the other to keep wages low and profits high. It resulted in workers not trusting each other.
Even so, Itliong knew that AWOC’s strike would fail unless all field hands stuck together. He asked Cesar Chavez to join in their strike. Chavez was trying to organize Mexican American field hands into a union of their own, the National Farm Workers Association, but he didn’t think it was ready to support a strike. While the Chavez union had twelve hundred members, only two hundred were paying membership dues. It had no money to give workers for food and housing if they left the fields. But he finally agreed to let his union’s members decide for themselves. They voted unanimously to go out on strike with the Filipinos.
The grape strike and boycott was one of the longest in American history, taking five years for vineyard owners to agree to farm workers’ demands. It also brought Cesar Chavez to center stage as he and his union eclipsed Larry Itliong and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee.
In Strike!, award-winning author Larry Dane Brimner dramatically captures the story of the farm worker's fight for their rights. Brimner, a master researcher, fills this riveting account of the strike and its aftermath with the words of migrant workers, union organizers, and grape growers, as well as archival images that capture that first strike in 1965 and the ones that subsequently followed. Includes an author’s note, bibliography, and source notes. To find out more, click here.
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