The Filipino American labor organizer built the foundation for today’s farm labor movement.
October 25, 2022
By Austin Price, BFI Communications Coordinator
On September 8, 1965, hundreds of Filipino American farmworkers walked off the table grape vineyards of Delano, California. The demands of their strike were clear – the workers wanted federal minimum wage and the right to form a union. Yet these demands were bold at the time. California’s ag industry had an aptitude for union busting and exploiting immigrant labor. In previous strikes, grape growers had hired Mexican migrant workers to break Filipino workers’ strikes.
But the Delano Grape Strike not only succeeded – after five years of picketing, marching, and contract negotiations with dozens of grape growers – it also revolutionized the farm labor movement, signifying, according to the California Museum, “one of the most important social justice and labor movements in American history.”
At the helm of this strike was Larry Itliong.
In the 1920s and 30s, when the Philippines was a US territory, tens of thousands of Filipino men immigrated to the United States to find work in farms and fisheries up and down the West Coast. Like many of the farmworkers in Delano, Itliong was a part of this migration lured by economic opportunity. In 1929, at 15 years old, he found work in the salmon canneries of Alaska. But he soon recognized the thin line between economic opportunity and exploitation of migrant laborers. He helped found the Alaska Cannery Workers Union in 1930 and helped ensure an eight-hour workday with overtime. This early activism kickstarted his legacy as one of the “fathers of the West Coast labor movement.” He also earned another nickname in Alaska. When he lost three fingers in a cannery accident, he became “Seven Fingers.”
After serving in the US Army during World War II, Larry Itliong brought his labor activism to the farms of the Central Valley. He settled in Stockton, home to the largest Filipino community in the US at the time. He founded the Filipino Farm Labor Union in Stockton, and later led the AFL-CIO union called the Agriculture Workers Organizing Committee.
As leader of the AWOC, Itliong sparked the Delano Grape Strike, eventually earning the Filipino American grape workers provisions like medical insurance and paid vacation along with the pay increase. Of course, Itliong didn’t work alone. To beat previous grape growers’ union busting tactics, Itliong approached Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, leaders of the National Farm Workers Association, which represented mostly Mexican American workers. A week into the Delano Grape Strike, the NFWA joined the Filipinos on strike. In March 1966, the two groups captured attention by marching from Delano to the capitol in Sacramento. Later that year, the groups officially merged into the United Farm Workers.
Cesar Chavez deserves his status as a household name in California agriculture history. Lesser known is Larry Itliong – providing more reason to share and celebrate his history. In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed October 25 as “Larry Itliong Day” in the state of California. As we near the end of Filipino American History Month, it’s important to recognize the history of the farm labor movement and acknowledge the foundation built by leaders like Itliong, particularly as groups like UFW continue to build on his legacy by fighting for fair jobs and better working conditions in the American food system.
For further reading on Larry Itliong, the UFW, and the farm labor movement, see:
- Gayle Romasanta, “Why Every Filipino American Should Know about Larry Itliong,” Smithsonian Magazine, July 2019.
- Inga Kim, “The 1965-1970 Delano Grape Strike and Boycott,” United Farm Workers blog, March 2017.
- “The Road to Sacramento: Marching for Justice in the Fields,” National Park Service.
- Nathalie A. Muñoz, “Marching to Sacramento for Equal Voting Rights,” Berkely Food Institute blog, August 2022.