UNITED FARM WORKERS UNION. The United Farm Workers Union was organized in Texas in 1966 as the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, a union of the National Farm Workers Association and the Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. The committee set out to organize farmworkers in Texas in 1966 during the Starr County Strike. In 1972 the committee received an independent charter from the AFL-CIO and became the United Farm Workers, AFL-CIO. Although the UFW did not establish a bona fide farmworkers union affiliate in Texas during the 1960s, it drew attention to the conditions under which agricultural laborers worked. After the melon strike in Starr County, the UFW was involved in the march of 1966 that sought to raise the hourly pay of workers to $1.25. The union also drew the attention of a congressional sub-committee on migratory labor that held hearings in the Rio Grande valley in 1967. In the early 1970s the UFW challenged for the right to engage in secondary boycotts in the state in Medrano v. Allee. Not until the late 1980s was this right upheld, in Olvera v. State of Texas. The union set up offices in Corpus Christi, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio to run its statewide lettuce boycott, which was supported at the 1972 state Democratic convention. It also established its state headquarters in San Juan, where it has since maintained a staff. By the mid-1970s the leadership of the UFW in Texas changed. Originally, Eugene Nelson and Gilbert Padilla had organized the first union members in the state and run the melon strike. In 1975, Rebecca Flores Harrington took over the directorship of the Texas UFW, a post she continued to hold at the union’s Austin office. In 1975, the same year that Harrington assumed the leadership in Texas, the union split when Antonio Ordendain, who had worked for the UFW in California and Texas, left to form a separate association, the Texas Farm Workers Union. The groups clashed over tactics.
UFW involvement in Texas has never been as extensive as in California, where the union has won contracts and gained other benefits for its members. The Texas UFW has had to look hard for help. To support the state office, it has acquired financial backing from minority organizations, the Democratic party, environmental groups, church organizations, and unions. To assist its constituents, the union has sought protective legislation and organized boycotts of specific products, chiefly grapes. Due to the difficulties in organizing farm laborers in the fields, the UFW has sent its staff to the colonias to recruit them. The grape boycott in the late 1980s and early 1990s, designed to persuade H-E-B and Whole Foods to discontinue selling non-union grapes, was not especially successful. Although the UFW has never signed any contracts with growers in Texas, it has won some important legislative guarantees for agricultural workers, including workers’ compensation, minimum-wage increases, toilets in the fields, and unemployment compensation. At its San Juan headquarters the union has instituted a child-care program, established a very modest construction program to replace some farm workers’ dilapidated housing, and started its own organic farm cooperative.
The following is taken from the United Farm Workers main website:
The following piece, titled “Sons of Zapata,” is about the farmworker strike in Rio Grande City in 1966. We present this document as part of our contribution to help rebuild the important history of the struggle of the Texas farmworkers.
In order to appreciate the sacrifices made by the Sons of Zapata in their struggle for dignity and justice, it is necessary to know something of the land in which they live and manner in which they have been ignored by their fellow Americans.
The average tourist, whose destination is Old Mexico and who passes through south Texas only incidentally, does not enter Starr County for it is not on the usual tourist routes. Starr County is an isolated backwater, outside the mainstream of whom are of Mexican descent, are among the least well educated and the most unspeakably impoverished of any in the entire United States.
Except for a few oil and natural gas wells, industry is non- existent in Starr County. The only important means of livelihood available to the people is farm work, ( prior to June, 1966, agricultural labor in Starr County drew $.40 to a maximum of $.85 cents an hour) and offers year-round jobs to but a few. The scarcity of jobs and the meagerness of the pay accounts for the large number of residents who migrate to other parts of the country in search of farm work during the summer of each year. From the valley of the Rio Grande, Mexican-American farm workers travel in their, rickety old cars and heavily laden pick-ups to gather in the harvests of Arizona, California, Oregon, Colorado, and other states. They return to Texas in the fall, and try to get through the winter on the strength of their summer earnings.
The single most important reason for the disparity between the several dollars an hour paid to industrial workers in American and the $.40-$.85 an hour paid to farm workers is that industrial workers are organized into labor unions. The National Labor Relations Act, which is regarded as a bill of rights for industrial worker organizations, specifically excludes agricultural workers from its provisions. This means that employers are under no obligation to bargain collectively with their employees, even if every one of them has signed an authorization card. There is no way in which an employer of farm workers can be forced to hold a representation election. In addition to the the exclusions of farm laborers from the NLRA, the organization of agricultural employees in Texas is made even more difficult by the failure of state law to protect workers who sign authorization cards from being discharged or discriminated against their employers. Organizing any union in Texas has always been difficult; organizing a farm workers union has been thought impossible heretofore.
Portrait of Starr County
According to the U.S. census of 1960, almost one-third of the 3,339 families residing in Starr County had annual incomes of under $1,000. About 70% earned less than $3,000, which was the cut-off level for defining the poverty-stricken when the “War on Poverty” was launched in 1964. The average per capita income in 1960, $534, was so small as to rank the county as seventeenth poorest in the United States and as the most impoverished in Texas.
An estimated 22% of adult Starr County residents are illiterate in both Spanish and English. The average number of years of school completed by Starr County citizens is considerably less that the 6.7 years attained by adult male Texans of Mexican descent as a whole. By comparison, Californians of Mexican descent have an average of 10.8 years of schooling.
“All We Want Is Justice”
Conditions in Starr County made a strike inevitable. In the spring of 1966, many workers were saying , “Now is the time.” Then, in May, 1966, Eugene Nelson moved to Mission, into the Lower Rio Grande to help farm workers organize. Nelson had been a picket captain in the successful Delano, California, grape pickers strike.
Several workers from Rio Grande City suggested that Nelson come up Rio Grande and speak to the workers about the Union. Over 60 workers showed up for the first rally. Several hundred signed cards authorizing the Union to negotiate a contract for them. Demands where modest $1.25 an hour and the right to bargain collectively. “All we want is justice’ became the workers’ cry.
The Growers Answer “Never!”
The majority of the farm workers in Starr County work for five major growers. Through letters, phone calls and personal visits, the workers and their representatives called upon the growers to agree to the $1.25 wage and to recognize the Union. The growers were just beginning to harvest their multi-million dollar melon crop, where profits sometimes exceed $500 per acre. Wages ranged from 40 cents an hour to a high of 85 cents. But the growers were unanimous. “We will never recognize the Union,” they replied. One grower bragged that he would rather see his crops rot and the workers starve, than recognize the Union.
Over 400 workers voted to go on strike against the melon growers of Starr County on June 1, 1966. Many workers immediately sought work outside the strike zone. Others began their yearly migrations to other states, leaving a month earlier than usual. The growers immediately began recruiting strikebreakers in Mexico. And wages began going up, as La Casita announced a new wage of $1 an hour and other growers began paying 70 cents or 80 cents an hour. Over 80% of the work force quit the first day, and every packing shed in the County was shut out.
“The Law” Against the Strike
The Starr County political machine (“New Party”) Immediately sided with the growers. The County officials actively tried to break the strike. County employees sprayed union members with insecticide. County cops forcibly pushed workers into the fields, and made threats to keep them there, One District Judge outlawed all picketing.
United We Stand
The workers in Rio Grande voted to join their Independent Workers Association with the National Farm Workers Association, led by César Chavez. Then in August, 1966, the NFWA merged with the Agriculture Workers Organization Committee to form a new union, the United Farm Workers, AFL – CIO. Now all farm workers were united in one strong union, and the movement was gaining strength throughout the nation.
“We Must Let the Whole World Know”
The melon harvest ended in mid-June, with growers blaming their poor harvest on the weather and strikers claiming a partial victory. But no contracts were in sight. The workers decided to make a pilgrimage march, as had been done in California, to dramatize the state and nations the conditions and wages and suffering that farm workers must endure, and to rally support for the cause among other farm workers and sympathizers.
Friends Join Our Cause
As the March wound through South Texas, thousands of farm workers joined in for a mile, a day, a week. Mayors of Roma, Grulla. La Joya, and Edinburgh endorsed the demands of the strikers. Bishop Humberto Medeiros greeted the farm workers in San Juan and held a special mass for them in the shrine there. Then the marchers set out for Corpus Christie, San Antonio, and finally Austin. Joining the farm workers were members from almost every union in Texas, religious leaders from all major faiths, and thousands of sympathizers.
La Marcha Ends an Era
La Marcha ended in triumph on Labor Day, 1966. Over 15,000 people joined in the final day. The leaders of the farm workers, Domingo Arredondo, Eugene Nelson, and César Chavez; leaders of the AFL-CIO and unions throughout the state and nation; public servants; Mexican-American groups; and thousands of rank and file workers form every walk of life joined in that final glorious day.
The March did not win any contracts, or even state passage of a $1.25 minimum wage. But it ended forever the myth that Mexican- Americans were “happy, contented, satisfied” with second – class citizenship and a life of poverty. Political upsets that fall showed that Mexican-American would no longer blindly accept a corrupt political machine that opposed their interests. Thousands of workers began organizing and joining Unions throughout the State, and the whole labor movement was the beneficiary of this new spirit. La Marcha was symbolic of and contributed to the ever quickening awakening of the Mexicans- Americans in Texas. It was symbolic of the end of an era. But the hard task of organizing farm workers of building a democratic Union and a new social order of justice lay ahead.