Farm Workers

Samuel R. Tyson


The people who bend, hoe, chop, prune, then pick, knock the farm products of California have been a politico-social problem for generations. Filipinos were brought in to work the fields but no women were allowed entry - Japanese families were brought in but could not buy land. Being quick to adjust, parents registered land in the name of children born in California and thereby legal citizens. True, the state had its revenge in 1942, when the Japanese were forced into internment camps whether alien or citizen, aided by a liberal Democratic governor and Democratic mayor of Los Angeles and a Republican attorney.

College years engendered a body of bias in favor of the small family farm and sympathy for farm workers. The basic approach was anti-big being by observation a low level interest in the people who produce goods. Certain corporations seemed particularly abusive in the exercise of power: Bank of America and the foreclosing of farms, Southern Pacific Railroad for its control of the state legislature, DiGiorgio, a fruit packer, California Packing Corporation (Del Monte), the dominant canner in the state and General Motors, the top dog in auto manufacturing as well as a large producer of military equipment. These companies were to be avoided as much as possible and blocked in their efforts on all occasions.

In 1941 the summer was spent doing farm work at Burpee Seed Co. in Lompoc, Ca. Pay was thirty cents an hour for college students, graduates got one hundred dollars a month. It was a fifty-four hour work week with Saturday afternoon and Sunday off. For we college types there was board and room for a reasonable amount. My work was roguing, removing the non true to type in the flowers. Most days that meant being wet half way up the thighs in the morning and drying off in the afternoon. All of this was more than satisfactory. The draft call terminated what had been a summer fulfilled.

If the above was not enough, John Steinbeck’s Grape’s of Wrath could have been a wake up call.

During at least part of the 1940’s the Migrant Ministry program of the Council of Churches out of Los Angeles ran a child care program for migrant families working the fields. Each summer in Modesto a training session was held. The trainees would go out to the farm labor camps for a week or two and follow the crops up and down the state. At that time the harvest season was prolonged. Labor was by hand on the farms and at the processing plants. Fruit was hauled in 45-60 pound boxes(fruit weight). There were no bins, fork-lifts nor mechanical knocking equipment. Boxes were hand trucked off at the canneries. Often men worked the fields and large numbers of women worked the cannery lines. As late as about 1946 there was a tent on platform living quarters at Turlock Coop Growers on Salida-Oakdale highway(now Kiernan).

Farm workers had been Filipino and Japanese. They were overwhelmed by the anglo dust bowl refugees from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas area. These families were blown from land, nature’s response to poor farming practices encouraged by W.W.I. Thousands of families made the trek to California looking for work. The Japanese were becoming land based registering land in the name of their children who were citizens by birth. The parents, being aliens, could not buy farm land, part of the anti-oriental bias in California. It went full circle in 1942 with the internment of Japanese when many lost homes, farms and businesses permanently.

Then there was the green card program which allowed entry to work the crops after which the workers were returned south. Of course, illegals came as well. When picked up they were jailed and eventually returned south. November, 1962 found me in Alameda County’s Santa Rita jail as a federal prisoner. My last cell mate in our 7’ x 7’ quarters was an illegal who spoke very little English. Since this was maximum custody most of the 24 hours a day we were cell bound. He spent all day lying on the upper bunk - no mail, no visitors, no reading material. Over time it was possible to learn that he was not unhappy being jailed. To be able to work six months and send money home was a reasonable trade off for a six month jail sentence before being taken to Mexico.

Sometime in the early days of the United Farm Workers Union(UFW) there was a meeting in the Empire Church of the Brethren featuring Dolores Huerta. In the question period things went on fine until it came out I was a farmer. At that point erupted the long held paranoia of farmer workers vs. growers. Dolores Huerta would not talk with me. Cesar Chavez never got over his early childhood experiences, so though an exceptional organizing leader, he was poor at the business end of things.

Sometime in the early 1960’s there was a migrant ministry committee out of the Modesto Council of Churches headed by Joe Dell. Someone came up with the idea of having a panel on farm workers and maybe about unions As I recall the committee had John Downing, Frank Muench and probably Howard TenBrink. We were joined by Joe Hart and Fred Thiemann(local Farm Bureau Secretary).The panel consisted of Allen Grant, Farm Bureau ; Chris Hartmire, Migrant Ministry Council of Churches in Los Angeles; Ray Codoni, Growers Harvesting Committee; Dave McCain, labor Union; Dave Mueller, Denair farmer and myself, Waterford farmer. It was the Farm Bureau people who encouraged me to be part of the panel for balance.

Well, there were speeches and speeches. All I could really say to my smiling sitting up front neighbors was that farmers should not try to put all their problems off on the farm workers.

What was most interesting about the whole evening was that the old MID auditorium was filled by farmers who arrived on time early. The local liberals came later and got to stand along the sides, in back in the foyer, in the kitchen and maybe even behind on the stage. Yes, it was indeed a standing room only crowd who listened to two sets of speeches directed to the two audiences. Not at all sure that anyone’s mind was changed but at least, whatever the issues it was all out in the open.

Somewhere along here came the AFOC-Agriculture Farm Organizing Committee. The manifestations of this effort were young anglos of both sexes coming from the Tracy area who were trying to organize in the Denair area. It did not last long, with no substantial base.

The early days of the UFW were no simple thing. There were not yet enough members and cash flow; this produced hardship. On one occasion, I picked up food in Tracy and hauled it to UFW headquarters in Delano, it was then my "privilege" to watch the Teatro Campesino lambaste the growers. With my minimal Spanish available, the attitude was clear enough.

Delano was to be the center so all traveled there. Included was a mausoleum of a gas station out back. Another time several years later, it was proclaimed from that platform that the UFW was a union not a movement. Its early impetus had been as a movement as shown by the George Ballis mid 1960’s photos in Power of the People but to get AFL-CIO support that aspect had to be submerged. This was the first major loss of anglo Protestant support which had been based in the SF-Bay area. The great Delano to Sacramento march in 1966 had been a superior energizer to farm organizing.

Another time of great loss of support was when Cesar Chavez went to the Philippine Islands to greet Ferdinand Marcos. To supporters that seemed the antithesis of what the UFW should stand for.

In 1967 there was great pressure on union organizers and farm workers. The War Resisters League(WRL) had their national gathering at Asilomar in Monterey. At its conclusion a number of attendees rushed off to the San Joaquin Valley because Dorothy Day of Catholic Worker was coming to support the farm workers. See classic Bob Fitch photo in Power of People, p.180. At the WRL conference I mentioned less than total enthusiasm for the UFW because of my experiences and what appeared to be sex bias in firing a local woman who was pushing non-violence. She was replaced by a Bay Area male who did not know local conditions. I talked of this to Jim Forrest. He suggested I write something for Fellowship magazine on the UFW. I did so in my time which did not suit the magazine’s time frame. Instead, they sent it off to WIN, the WRL magazine. A fraction of what was written was printed in Win, the more negative part. They did not bother to check with me so deleted most of the material, the framework.

The Teamsters Union decided to organize farmworkers on their own. The Teamsters were not noted for their non-violence so there were more than a few confrontations. This was the Teamster "goon" period and there was some reason to fear for the lives of people. The large farm growers were of course virulently anti-union.

About mid 1973 I wrote a letter to the Modesto Bee about farm workers. At the time it seemed as though the Modesto Bee would print nothing about the issue if the name Gallo was included. My letter contained much the same information as others had submitted but with no mention of Gallo, the demonized. This letter was worded on what I call general principles rather than personalities. The Modesto Bee did print the letter.

Come 1975 and the UFW was not making progress. It was decided to repeat the farm workers march of the 1960s. There was to be a march up from the south, the most dangerous because of deputy sheriffs. Another arm was to come south to Modesto from Sacramento. A third section was to car caravan down from the Bay Area. Chuck Gardinier, whom I had known when he was High School Secretary for American Friends Service Committee in San Francisco was the local coordinator, based in Modesto. There was a very small group locally; Sandy Sample and Diane Kuderna were among those who tried to help. Chuck decided that it would be a good idea to add a fourth arm from Stockton to Modesto, not that Delano was all that hot for it. Elizabeth and Anne Tyson walked the Manteca to Modesto section.

So why is everyone coming to Modesto? Gallo Winery! With all these people moving around in a maybe hostile environment, the forces of law and order are involved.The only people available to monitor seemed to be a veteran’s group. Since Chuck wanted it non-violent and so did I, we decided I would oversee. There was a meeting held in Modesto with California Highway Patrol, Deputy Sheriffs of Merced, Stanislaus, San Joaquin Counties and Modesto Police Department. Everyone had a chance to see each other. I, of course, was the oddity in the gathering.

The UFW was very leery of farmers. I was sitting in their small office on "H" street near Second Street when there was a discussion about where Cesar Chavez would stay overnight. I offered Waterford, but no, that would not do, there was a full scale effort not to let me know where he would stay. Of course, I knew he was at Sandy Sample’s house.

The night before the march there was to be a rally at the Armory at which Cesar Chavez would speak. The place was jammed, hot. Dan Pollock was there and asked how one non-violently could intervene in a crowd. My suggestion was just a quiet intervention of body. Lo and behold a while later Dan pointed out a character in this hot crowd complete with serape and sombrero working his way to the front. What was supposed to be the middle aisle was all people. In those paranoid times it did not look right. Eventually UFW security ushered him out. Not long after he was back so without saying anything Dan and I quietly blocked his forward progress and kept him from climbing up on a chair. UFW security managed to wake up and got him out again. I used this technique in jail when the head of maximum security was berating one of the Everyman crew in that facility. Everyman was a trimaren built to sail into the Pacific Ocean to protest nuclear testing. Moving between them meant he would have to go through me and we had been at cross purposes before. The march started at MJC west, went south on Ninth St. to "G" St., North to LaLoma, then to Las Flores to Yosemite Blvd., to Grand back towards town on 15th. The march passed the original Peace Center (15th & "G") coming and going,( see Power of the People, p. 181 for a march picture by Bob Fitch).

Here we are, March l, l975. Wow, people streaming into the day’s start at MJC west Campus full of CHP and local police. Dan Pollock was and could hear the count coming over the Altamont on CHP radio. Around mid-morning I went to see what went with the march and found none of the locals up front. Naturally, in jeans and jeans jacket with large red armband-UFW red, the uniform of the day, I belonged. The Modesto Police made sure of the march, past Gallo, to the old Jennie-Grand Bridge, here the march was to use the sidewalk, as this was State Highway 132. That was a laugh as the walk was 6 or 8 abreast, all 8,000 of them by Fred Moore’s count.

This was a different ball game as the march went straight up 15th to Graceada Park, no police in evidence. Each street had to be first blocked, then held. The head of the march did wait for a green light but after that the tramp of the feet was continuous. Modesto was immobilized from Gallo to Graceada. At the Park were more people to hear Cesar Chavez and Joan Baez. Since there were so many people the rally spilled out of the Park and blocked half of Needham. I told the police lieutenant we would give Needham back when we could and did so, though it took an hour. I was beat. The March was non-violent with no incidents; the UFW was a disciplined group. Litter was no more than a normal day.

It is difficult to realize that all this was dropped into the midst of the nuclear power war which officially began in 1975. Stanislaus Safe Energy already had a public meeting planned for February at Robert’s Ferry School.. Quickly followed Dr. John Gofman in old MID auditorium in April, an auction in Waterford in May and the first pancake breakfast in June.

Gallo did come to the bargaining table but this impetus did not last long. The doldrums set in for years. The UFW was not keeping up, Cesar Chavez suddenly died.

The Peace Centers gathered in LaPaz (UFW home) in April 1997. Cesar’s son and son-in-law spoke of the shock of the responsibilities devolving on them. Anyone long in a directive position seems to stifle growth by others.

Arturo Rodriguez has taken on the organizing end. New contracts are being negotiated. Interestingly, the old strike against the grower has been muted to adjust to the peculiarities of strawberry production.

The producer in effect is told what and how much to plant. If struck, the land can just be plowed up. The power in strawberries lies in the hands of a handful of processors who determine production and price. To make headway the processor must be the focal point for pressure. Thus the recent Strawberry March. Time will tell how well this approach will work. Even the Wall Street Journal admits the UFW seems to be on the move.

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from Roots and Fruits, a publication of the Stanislaus Peace-Life Center and the Stanislaus Safe Energy Committee

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