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Rose Grafts and Table Grapes
Undeterred by these obstacles, Chavez took his $1,200 in savings and started the National Farm Workers' Association seven years ago, setting up its headquarters in the San Joaquin Valley agricultural town of Delano. He clicked off 300,000 miles in a battered 1953 Mercury station wagon, crisscrossing the San Joaquin and talking to more than 50,000 workers in the first six months. His money was soon gone, but he found people who were willing to give him food. The N.F.W.A. had its first formal meeting in Fresno in September 1962; 287 people showed up. Chavez soon started a death-benefits plan for his members, a curious echo of the burial societies organized decades ago by Eastern European immigrants on their arrival in the U.S. He also set up a credit union with $35 in assets (it now has more than $50,000). By August 1964, he had 1,000 members, each paying $3.50 a month in dues—no small sum for a farm worker's family. Soon he began publishing a union newspaper called El Malcriado (The Misfit), whose circulation is 18,000.
At last the union felt strong enough to tackle the growers on a substantive issue. In 1964, the N.F.W.A. took one employer to court for paying less than the then minimum wage of $1.25 per hour, and after months of wrangling, won the case. The amounts of money gained were small but the point was made: a boss could be beaten. Then the association sued the Tulare County housing authority over the rents and conditions at two labor camps, built in the late 1930s and intended to be used for only a few years. The camps were a hideous collection of 9-ft. by 11-ft. tin shacks, boiling in the summer sun and lacking both indoor plumbing and heat for the chill nights. Tulare officials subsequently built modern accommodations.
In May 1965, Chavez signed up a group of rose grafters and won a strike vote for higher wages. Everyone pledged not to go to work, but just to make sure that no one did, Chavez and Dolores Huerta, his tiny, tough assistant, made the rounds early on the strike's first morning. Mrs. Huerta saw a light in one house where four of the workers lived. She reminded them of their pledge, but they had changed their minds. Mrs. Huerta moved her truck so that it blocked their driveway and put the key in her purse. The incident illustrated the charge that Chavez and his aides sometimes coerce those who would rather work than strike. After only four days of the strike, the grower agreed to give the workers a 120% wage increase.
That same spring, in the Coachella Valley east of Los Angeles, the largely Filipino grape pickers of the A.F.L.-. C.I.O.'s fledgling Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee won a brief strike for pay equal to that given field hands imported from Mexico. When the workers moved north to Delano at the end of the summer, grape growers there refused to make a similar agreement, and A.W.O.C. once more went on strike. On Sept. 16, which just happened to be Mexican Independence Day, Chavez's group held a tumultuous meeting and voted unanimously to join the walkout. The hall of the Roman Catholic church