Our Farm Workers Labor Organizing Legacy*

  Today, we celebrate the proclamation of independence of June 12, 1898 as the “Day of Freedom.” It represents the courageous spirit and moral intellect of leadership that brings forth a united social force.

  To Dr. José Rizal, his quest for equality in time transformed to an advocacy for nationhood as a justification to restore the dignity of his people. On 10 October 1889, at the Paris Exposition Universelle, in the letter, “To Our Dear Mother Country Spain,” Rizal and a group of illustrados declared their uniqueness as a people when they signed themselves as “The Filipinos.” More than a geographical origin it pronounced a national loyalty. To Andrés Bonifacio, the dream for independence became a possibility. The “soul of the revolution” established the revolutionary government that was democratic in its constituency. To Emilio Aguinaldo, the collage of the 42 documented rebellions which led to the Cavite Mutiny and national identity required the Filipino people to transcend oppression and formally proclaim Acta de la Proclamation de la Independencia del Pueblo Filipino.

  To the children of the generation of Rizal, Bonifacio, and Aguinaldo, the legacies of humanism, the enlightenment, and classical liberalism had been bestowed upon them. Those who went abroad invested themselves with the same zeal in the plantations of Hawaii, the canneries of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and the agricultural fields of America. As with their parents they understood well the meaning of liberty and the dignity of each individual. Denied under Section 2(3) of the National Labor Relations Act (5 July 1935), they would strive undaunted against all odds for the legal protection to organize, engage in collective bargain, and elect representatives of their choosing.

  In the bastion of agriculture, then the fifth largest economy in the world, it would take four decades to overcome the institutional subordination barrier, culminating in the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (5 June 1975). In no small measure the Filipino American agriculture labor movement had played a significant role. Organizing had been in a state of moribund for years when the multi-ethnic Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) of the AFL-CIO, led by its Filipino American members was victorious on 14 May 1965 in the Coachella Valley.

   The ending was quick and stunning. The action taken was heard and felt up north in the fields, towns and hamlets of the Central Valley. It was as if a bolt of hope, a harbinger of things to come, had been hurled across the sky and planted itself at the workers’ feet. The swift, dramatic, successful strike was the major source of inspiration at that point in time. It resounded throughout the farm belt, so loud and clear it raised to great heights the buoyed hope of farm workers everywhere.

   On 7 September 1965, at the Filipino Community Hall in Delano, AWOC, led by its de facto union representative leader, Larry Itliong, voted to strike, and strike they did next day. The National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) of Cesar Chavez voted to strike on September 16, followed suit on the twentieth. Together, on 22 August 1966 they joined as one into the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) of the AFL-CIO. On 29 July 1970, 26 growers, representing 42% of the California table grapes signed contracts with UFWOC at Forty Acres. The first signature to appear was that of Larry Itliong, followed by Cesar Chavez, and John Guimarra, Sr. of the growers. UFWOC was succeeded on 19 February 1972, by the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA, technically on 17 October 1973), chartered by the AFL-CIO, with it the vision of agricultural workers finally became a reality.

 

   Philip Vera Cruz, the philosopher, in his writings and many speeches, more than anyone else among the farmworkers, articulated and related the plight and strivings of the agricultural field workers as part and parcel of the same struggle of all people to live as people should live. To Larry Itliong much is owed. At the time when all of AWOC’s dozen and a half union representatives—Caucasians, Mexican Americans, and Filipino Americans—left the union in protest of what they perceived as Chavez and his group’s takeover, only Itliong stayed. Larry Itliong, the national & international director of the UFWOC boycott and President of the state and national Filipino American Political Association was a man for all seasons. Always among the workers, the endless rounds in the fields, dealing with their everyday problems, leading the charge in battle, Itliong, the warrior, epitomizes the legacy of that generation we commemorate.

   In the scheme and drama of history, the shape of the country has been chiseled by the pioneers in whose hearts beat the undying belief and faith in the truthfulness of their dreams. As with the masters of destiny on whose historic shoulders they stand, Philip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong, in the righteousness of their cause, their actions have inspired others and spawn new energies elsewhere. Lost in the fog of history were the bold actions of Larry Itliong that touched, inspired, and added to the self-esteem of individuals. The oration of Philip Vera Cruz that raised the hopes of the listeners and quickened the rhythm of their hearts, lifted the burden of despair from their chests, and brought joy and rejuvenation to them can no longer be heard. But, we have not forgotten. They will be heard, for we will always remember.

                                                                                    ---Sid A. Valledor

                                                                                        May 30 & 31, 2015

 

*Presented at the Filipino American Community of Cerritos’ Second Annual Celebration of Philippine Independence in commemoration of the 117th Anniversary of Philippine Independence: “The Fighting Legacy of Philippine Independence in America,” hosted by the Honorable & Mrs. Mark E. Pulido at the Heritage Park, Cerritos, California.

           

 

Images (from left to right)

.           Library of Congress: José Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda

.           Ilustración Española y Americana (1897): Andrés Bonifacio y de Castro

.           Library of Congress: Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy

.           The Filipino American Community of Cerritos