In 1965, Marshall Ganz joined Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, where he worked for 16 years and ultimately became Director of Organizing. Most recently, he advised Barack Obama’s campaign on organizing, training, and leadership development. He is now Lecturer in Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His most recent book, Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement, tells the story of the UFW’s groundbreaking victory, drawing out larger lessons from this dramatic tale. In the excerpt below we learn quickly about the UFW’s victory. Pick up a copy of Why David Sometimes Wins to find how this miraculous feat was accomplished.
On Easter Sunday morning, April 10, 1966, Roberto Roman, walking barefoot, bore his heavy wooden cross triumphantly over the Sacramento River Bridge, down the Capitol Mall, and up the steps of the state capitol of California. Roman, an immigrant Mexican farm worker, was accompanied by 51 other originales- striking grape workers who had walked 300 miles in their perigrinación, or pilgrimage, from Delano to Sacramento. They were met by a crowd of 10,000 people who had come from throughout the state to share in their unexpected victory.
For seven months, striking grape workers organized by the fledgling National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) had endured picket lines, strike breakers, arrests, economic uncertainty, and, at times, despair. But they had also been buoyed by the support of religious leaders, students, civil rights groups, and trade unionists. Many supporters had traveled to Delano to bring food, clothing, money, and messages of solidarity, and they had begun to respond to the farm workers’ call for a nationwide consumer boycott of Schenley Industries, a national liquor distributor and major Delano grape grower. In this winter of 1966, as the new grape season approached, NFWA leaders decided to conduct the 300-mile perigrinación from Delano to Sacramento in order to mobilize fresh support for the strike among farm workers, to call attention to the boycott among the public, and to observe Lent.
The farm workers began the perigrinación on March 17, carrying banners of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico, portraits of the Mexican campesino leader Emiliano Zapata, and placards proclaiming peregrinación, penitencia, revolución- pilgrimage, penance, revolution. They also carried signs calling on supporters to boycott Schenley. Roberto Roman carried his six-foot-tall wooden cross, constructed with two-by-fours and draped in black cloth. Of the strikers selected to march the full distance, William King, the oldest, was 63, and Augustine Hernandex, the youngest, was 17. Nearly one-quarter were women.
Launched the day after Senator Robert Kennedy had visited Delano to take part in hearings being conducted by the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor, the march attracted wide public attention from the start. Televised images of a line of helmeted police blocking the marchers’ departure-calling it a “parade without a permit”- evoked images of police lines in Selma, Alabama, just the year before. As the marchers progressed up the valley from town to town, public interest grew. A crowd of more than 1,000 welcomed the marchers to Fresno at the end of the first week. Daily bulletins began to appear in the San Francisco Bay Area press, chronicling the progress of the march. Reporters profiled the strikers, discussed why they would walk 300 miles, and analyzed what the strike was all about. Roman Catholic and Episcopal bishops urged the faithful to join the pilgrimage, and the Northern California Board of Rabbis came to share Passover matzo. The march powerfully expressed not only the farm workers’ call for justice, but also the Mexican-American community’s claims for a voice in public life. As Cesar Chavez, the NFWA’s leader, later described it, the march was also a way, at an individual level, of “training ourselves to endure the long, long struggle, which by this time had become evident..would be required. We wanted to be fit not only physically but also spiritually.”
On the afternoon of April 3, as the marchers arrived in Stockton, still a week’s march south of Sacramento, Schenley’s lawyer reached Chavez on the phone. Schenley had little interest in remaining the object of a boycott, especially as the marchers’ arrival in Sacramento promised to become a national anti-Schenley rally. Schenley wanted to settle. Three days of hurried negotiations followed. The result was the first real union contract in California farm labor history- a multi-year agreement providing immediate improvements in wages, hours, and working conditions and, perhaps most important, formal recognition of the NFWA. Chavez announced the breakthrough on the Thursday. By Saturday afternoon, some 2,000 marchers had gathered on the grounds of Our Lady of Grace School in West Sacramento, which was on a hill looking across the Sacramento River to the capital city that they would enter the next morning. During the prayer service that evening, more than one speaker compared them to the ancient Israelites camped across the River Jordan from the Promised Land. That night, Roberto Roman carefully redraped his cross in white and decorated it with spring flowers. The next morning, barefoot, he carried it triumphantly into the city.
How did California farm workers achieve this remarkable breakthrough? And why did a fledgling association of farm workers achieve it rather than the AFL-CIO or the Teamsters, its far more powerful rivals?
Since 1900, repeated attempts to organize a farm workers’ union in California had failed because the farm owners-or “growers”-had vigorously resisted farm labor organizing, often violently. Their large-scale, specialized, and integrated agricultural enterprises required large numbers of seasonal workers to be available whenever and wherever they were needed. At harvest time, these workers held the economic well-being of these enterprises literally in their hands. So the growers protected themselves-and held labor costs down-by recruiting a particularly powerless workforce of impoverished new immigrants who lacked the political rights of other Americans and who, as people of color, faced racial barriers in all spheres of life. For farm workers, the result was low wages, poor living and working conditions, and a lack of security for themselves and their families…