When it comes to the fight for workers’ rights in the United States, Latino Americans have been critical players since the early 1900s. Their organizing and agitating have led to improved working conditions and wages in industries across the U.S.
“Latinos have been part of the long history of the construction of this country and this labor force,” especially in the American West, says Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, project director at UCLA’s Center for Labor Research and Education. “They were part of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. They were part of the early Los Angeles building boom.” And of course they have had a profound impact on the massive world of American food production, where they have been heavily represented both in the fields and in processing plants.
Latino workers’ fight for protections and living wages has been an uphill one, weighted with layers of discrimination. “The great expansion of labor rights in the 1930s during the [Franklin D. Roosevelt] administration, which led to the creation of the National Labor Board, specifically excluded farmworkers and domestic workers from the right to create unions,” says Rivera-Salgado. It’s an outcome he attributes to a legacy of racial subjugation against African Americans who had long labored in America’s fields.
The result: Even after the agricultural labor force shifted to largely Latino workers, they still lacked basic protections well into the 1970s. “The conditions were horrendous,” says Rivera-Salgado. “That’s why they wanted a union—to secure basic wages and also basic conditions in the fields,” like injury protections on the job and access to restrooms.
Here are five strikes either led or co-led by Hispanic and Latino Americans that helped make U.S. workplaces safer.
The Oxnard Strike (1903)
One of the first agriculture strikes in the United States also represented an unprecedented moment in multi-racial coalition building, when Japanese and Mexican farm laborers banded together to defeat bosses who had long exploited their workers’ racial and cultural divisions.
The American sugar industry ground to a halt on February 11, 1903, when workers in the sugar boomtown of Oxnard, California joined to form the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association (JMLA) and organize a work stoppage at the height of sugar beet season. Their grievances? The region’s white farmers had colluded with the American Beet Sugar Company—Oxnard’s main employer—to drastically cut wages, already diminished by a parasitic labor subcontracting system. The sugar firm also required workers to buy all their goods in overpriced company-owned stores.
“They lowered the wages for clearing an acre from $5 to $2.50, and they lowered the basic base wage,” says Tomás Almaguer, professor emeritus of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University, who has written about the 1903 Oxnard strike.
In reaction to this sharp pay cut, a coalition of about 500 Japanese and 200 Mexican workers demanded that their original pay scale be restored. JMLA’s membership eventually grew to some 1,200 workers, or about 90 percent of Oxnard’s labor force, according to a history of the strike by the United Food & Commercial Workers Union.
“It was the first time in both California and United States history that agriculture workers were not only successful in organizing—but in winning—a strike,” says Almaguer. One reason: The Japanese laborers, heavily recruited after the Chinese Exclusion Act diminished the Chinese workforce in America, tended to be well educated, “so they were not as vulnerable to taking labor abuse,” says Almaguer. Another reason: Workers from the different ethnic groups refused to be divided, even using translators to coordinate their efforts and demands. After a violent confrontation during the strike left one Mexican worker dead, management conceded to union demands for better pay and axing the subcontracting system. The strike “really foreshadowed 30, 60 years of labor organizing by farmworkers in California,” says Almaguer. “It is…foundational in terms of that history.”
The El Monte Berry Strike (1933)
On June 1, 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, 1,500 workers in El Monte, California’s berry fields walked out to demand higher wages and better working conditions. While the work stoppage was part of a larger series of strikes organized by the Cannery and Agricultural Workers’ Industrial Union (CAWIU) that summer, the El Monte labor action gained widespread attention because it was instantly seen as a threat to Southern California’s booming agricultural industry.
The strike also shed sharp light on long-simmering racial tensions between the town’s Mexican, Japanese and white residents, all segregated by local laws. After the Depression caused El Monte’s white landowners to struggle, they began subleasing small plots of land to Japanese farmers who would grow berries, melons and vegetables as cash crops—tended to primarily by members of El Monte’s Mexican migrant worker community, which comprised about 20 percent of the region’s population. Class divides and resentment arose between the Mexican workers, who lived in temporary worker camps, and the Japanese American population, which primarily lived on small family farms.
When wages for berry pickers continued to drop—to as little as nine cents an hour, some claimed—desperate workers began demanding a minimum wage of 35 cents an hour. Berry picker Jesusita Torres was quoted in the book From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-century America about how she sometimes earned less than one penny per basket of berries during this period.
Assisted by a handful of organizers from the national CAWIU, a coalition of El Monte workers called a walkout at the height of the already short berry season—with immediate impact. The Japanese community rallied around its tenant farmers by helping tend the fields themselves. Local political leaders denounced the involvement of the CAWIU, whose communist philosophies and aggressive anti-scab tactics also increasingly unnerved local El Monte laborers. The Mexican consulate even got involved, threatening strikers connected to communist activity with deportation.
The El Monte strikers eventually broke from CAWIU, facilitating negotiations between them, the farm owners and the town. The parties eventually agreed to end the strike after establishing a base daily wage of $1.50 and guaranteeing that workers would be rehired without repercussions. But while the farmworkers declared victory, poor working conditions in El Monte remained pervasive.
Pecan Shellers’ Strike (1938)
Some strikes were led by women, for women. One such action occurred at San Antonio’s Southern Pecan Shelling Company’s factories, where 21-year-old Emma Tenayuca, a Mexican American labor activist, began organizing the predominantly Latina work force. An activist since she was a 16-year-old picketing in support of the city’s cigar factory workers, Tenayuca became known as “La Pasionaria” for her efforts on behalf of Latina women working low-wage jobs.
On January 31, 1938, nearly 12,000 San Antonio pecan shellers launched a three-month strike—in a state responsible for 50 percent of America’s pecan production. The women were protesting dangerous working conditions that included breathing in pecan dust in badly lit factories with poor ventilation, being forced to work in facilities without indoor restrooms or sinks, and low pay being slashed from seven to six cents per pound of nuts. And according to the Texas State Historical Association, San Antonio’s high tuberculosis rate—almost triple the national average—came, in part, from the city’s pecan shellers constantly breathing in dust at work.
Strikers met immediate hostility from San Antonio’s local officials. The city’s police chief and Catholic archbishop attributed the strike to a “red plot” by communists, while the Department of Health blocked strikers from receiving food-bank assistance. Aggressive police treatment of the strikers drew national and international attention, prompting the Mexican government to protest reports of a 60-year-old Mexican woman being clubbed by police while walking past a shelling factory with her toddler grandchild. When several picketers were subjected to mass arrest, the Texas governor called on the state industrial commission to investigate whether the workers’ civil rights were violated.
“What started out as an organization for equal wages turned into a mass movement against starvation, for civil rights, for a minimum-wage law,” Tenayuca said in a 1987 interview.
But while the San Antonio establishment virulently opposed the strikers, national sentiment skewed positive. National Labor Secretary Frances Perkins expressed support for the shellers’ plight, asking “Do you in San Antonio call that wages?” after hearing about how their already low rates were being cut. Attention to the shellers’ working conditions became part of the national conversation shifting in favor of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which created the 40-hour work week, established the minimum wage and guaranteed overtime for many workers.
The pecan shellers’ strike ended in March 1938, after both sides agreed to set a minimum wage of seven to eight cents per pound of nuts. But despite their broader gains, the shellers’ workplace benefits proved short-lived. After the passage of the Fair Labor Act, the Southern Pecan Shelling Company’s owner converted the factory to mechanized pecan shelling to avoid paying the minimum wage.
The Delano Grape Strike (1965)
César Chávez, one of the best-known labor organizers in U.S. history, earned renown in 1965, after working to unionize largely Latino grape pickers in Delano, California. First begun by Filipino American organizer Larry Itliong to protest the poor pay and hazardous working conditions faced by grape pickers, the Delano strike lasted five years and led to the creation of the United Farm Workers of America. Just as significantly, the highly visible campaigns by Chavez, Dolores Huerta and other organizers changed for the better how many Americans viewed the migrant workers who harvested the fruits and vegetables they ate.
“César Chávez was known for being very charismatic, but he was also very astute,” says Rivera-Salgado. To spotlight to the isolated farming community of Delano, California, Chavez organized a series of events designed to draw widespread media attention. One was a 340-mile march, in which 75 Mexican and Filipino farmworkers trekked from Delano to Sacramento. After 25 days, Chávez and the others were greeted in the state capital by 10,000 supporters.
A student of the nonviolent methods used by Mahatma Gandhi and others, Chávez urged strikers to resist violence, even when deliberately provoked by growers and police. In late 1968, he went on a water-only fast lasting 25 days to draw attention to police brutality against strikers.
Chávez also solicited support from prominent labor and civil rights activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), whose members saw parallels between Latino farmworkers’ struggle for labor rights and Black Americans’ struggle for civil rights. They related to how the striking workers faced violence, overpolicing and, in Chavez’s case, secret FBI investigations.
Both SNCC and CORE proved instrumental in rallying Americans to boycott grapes from Delano until the strike succeeded. Chávez also managed to convince the initially skeptical Senator Robert Kennedy to support the Delano strike. “One of the great achievements of César Chávez was to link the plight of farmworkers with a basic sense of justice and the expansion of civil rights,” says Rivera-Salgado. “He viewed the fight of farmworkers as not only a fight for better working conditions, but as a fight for dignity.”
The strike ended July 29, 1970, when California grape growers signed a union contract with the newly formed United Farm Workers guaranteeing Delano’s farmworkers better pay, worker protections and benefits. The Delano strike also led to the passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, which further guaranteed safer workplaces for the state’s farmworkers. Rivera-Salgado notes that the UFW’s achievements in Delano were all the more remarkable because there were no federal protections for farmworkers when the strike started. “These changes were made possible because of activism,” he says.
Immokalee Workers’ Hunger Strike (2003)
While a century's worth of farmworker activism improved the world of American agriculture, laborers have continued to battle well into the 21 century—for healthcare, fair wages and protections against the effects of harmful pesticides. “Despite the successes of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, this population remains to this day among the most vulnerable and the most highly exploited,” says Almaguer.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida formed in the 1990s to address continuing exploitation in Florida, the nation’s largest tomato producing state. In the late ’90s, they organized a series of work stoppages designed to draw attention to a decades-long stagnation in workers' wages—still calculated by the weight of produce picked. But after initially focusing on lobbying Florida’s tomato growers, the Coalition in 2001 pivoted to top tomato buyers, to leverage their market power. Targeting U.S. fast-food chains—specifically Taco Bell, which purchased 10 million pounds of tomatoes from Florida annually—the Coalition pressured chains to support raising wages for migrant farmworkers by one cent per pound of tomatoes. They did this, in part, by organizing a “Boot the Bell” campaign encouraging high schools and colleges to boycott the fast-food purveyor.
To spotlight their demands, Coalition members staged one of the largest hunger strikes in U.S. labor history in 2003 outside Taco Bell’s California headquarters, where more than 75 farmworkers and students fasted over 10 days. Media attention from the hunger strike and other actions intensified pressure on Taco Bell owner Yum! Brands to address wages for tomato farmworkers. Two years later, in 2005, Yum! and CIW leaders came to an agreement to improve farmworker wages. “We recognize that Florida tomato workers do not enjoy the same rights and conditions as employees in other industries,” said Taco Bell’s then-president Emil Brolick, “and there is a need for reform.”