Filipinos—Forgotten Heroes of the UFW

Filipino labor leaders played pivotal roles in organizing labor unions and fighting for farm workers’ rights

Filipinas Magazine, NCM Award Winner, Alex S. Fabros, Jr. and Daniel P. Gonzales Posted: Jan 30, 2006

The truth of the Filipino farm worker experience stands as an open challenge to the egalitarian, heroic image of the United Farm Workers (UFW) that has been consistently presented to America and the world since their early successes nearly 40 years ago.

The leaders of the world-renowned UFW including, of course, César Chávez, certainly deserve the recognition that has been accorded them as historically important champions of oppressed and suppressed farm workers and working people in general. But Filipinos who had formed labor associations and unions in Hawaii before 1920 and in California by 1930 found themselves discarded and excluded by the leadership after having promoted the high democratic principles that enabled the creation of the UFW in 1966.

Future labor leaders Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz and Pete Velasco came to California from their native Philippines nearly three decades after it had become a territorial protectorate—a colony—of the United States. They were nurtured on American ideals of freedom and democracy proselytized in recently founded public schools designed and run by their colonial overlords. Like tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen of the 1920s and 30s, they crossed the Pacific filled with dreams of adventure, better-paying jobs, access to higher education and personal and social advancement. What most found on their arrival in America were economic oppression, brutal working conditions and racial exclusion.

Carlos Bulosan, in America Is In The Heart, wrote of these men heading north in the spring to Alaska to work in the salmon factories and riding in railroad cars to the Yakima Valley to pick fruit. He rode with the Filipinos as they migrated from labor camp to labor camp throughout the West and across the Southwest, harvesting everything from asparagus and lettuce to citrus, grapes and strawberries. In the winters they retreated to skid row hotels in the Manila Towns of the large cities.

Hardened and humbled but not humiliated by their experiences, they became a generation of labor organizers—men and women very conscious of their status as “unskilled” workers and immigrants at the bottom of American society. In response, they published newspapers, wrote books and led strikes. They were radicalized by the repressive actions taken against them by both business and government.

At the Bottom

Because they were the most recent of the Asian migrant workers to arrive in the United States, Filipinos were assigned the hardest tasks and paid the lowest wages in the farming industry. From an initial group of 15 sugarcane workers in Hawaii in 1907, they grew to a labor force of over 30,000 workers on the mainland by the 1930s. They comprised over 15 percent of the “salad bowl” labor force and dominated the lettuce crews in the coastal valleys and asparagus work force in the Central Valley. The Filipinos became the laborers of choice when large concentrations of workers were needed for back-breaking tasks like hoeing, thinning and harvesting crops.

During the 1920s, the Filipinos in Hawaii led by Pablo Manlapit learned how to organize labor unions, stage work slowdowns and hold strikes. After the bloody labor strikes of 1924, many of them fled from blacklisting and government and goon violence and headed on to the mainland, bringing leadership experience and skills with them. When they were confronted by the oppressive labor conditions they were quick to form unions to defend themselves.

A Crime

Bulosan wrote, “In many ways it was a crime to be a Filipino in California,” because both the growers and the racially prejudiced American Federation of Labor (AFL) were alarmed by their militant stance when they threatened farmers with strikes in order to earn a “living wage.”

Labor leaders Rufo Canete, D. L. Marcuelo, Tomas Lascetonia, Johnny Estigoy, Nick Losada, Alfonso Castillo and other Filipino activists in Salinas, California, created the Filipino Labor Union (FLU) in 1933. It had more than 2,000 members in seven chapters throughout the state. They soon formed multiracial labor unions, demanding a minimum wage of 35 cents an hour, an eight-hour workday, the elimination of labor contractors and the end to racial hierarchy in the assignment of farm jobs.

When their demands were rejected, some 7,000 men and women in the fields and packing sheds of the Salinas Valley joined the FLU strike. Within a few short weeks, their demands were met. Despite the violence in the fields against the Filipino laborers, progress was steadily made in their wages and working conditions as growers capitulated to their demands.

Labor leaders along the Pacific Coast formed the Filipino Agricultural Laborers Association (FALA) in 1938 and opened its membership to Mexicans and other ethnic groups. It was later renamed the Federated Agricultural Laborers Association (FALA). The power of FALA was demonstrated by a one-day strike in 1939 when 258 growers granted the union a contract that met all of their demands for higher wages and better working conditions. By the eve of World War II, FALA had more than 30,000 members.

More than 10,000 Filipinos left the fields to serve in the U.S. military and many more went to work in the defense industries. For the duration of the war, the union ceased its militancy. After the war was over, it resumed its zealous union activism. In the McCarthyistic anti-labor and anti-union 1950s, however, FALA suffered a long decline in effectiveness and membership.

In 1959, labor leaders Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz and Pete Velasco joined with the AFL-CIO to create the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) with Itliong as its vice-president.

The year 1965 was a turning point for the Filipino farm workers. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and in 1965 the Voting Rights Act became law.

Filipinos believed they could exercise freedoms promised but never before realized. Though many were already U.S. citizens they had not been allowed full exercise of their rights to the pursuit of happiness, to acquire property and to worship as they pleased. Many Americans of all racial, cultural and economic backgrounds decided that now was the time for real social change.

Hot Summer—1965

In the summer of 1965 many Californians went east to participate in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, and New York. They went to any place where racial and social injustice was a way of life. And here in September 1965 was another opportunity to fight injustice. With the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came protection from the goon enforcers of big business and police, supposed upholders of the law, who had often turned a blind eye to corporate and racist violence against organizers and strikers.

In 1965, growers openly ignored state-mandated working standards.

The average life expectancy of a farm worker was 49 years because of the unsafe working conditions in the fields. Workers’ housing was segregated by race and they each paid over $2 per day for mosquito-infested shacks with no indoor plumbing or cooking facilities. Children did not play in the camps; they worked alongside their parents under the 110-degree plus California sun.

In the spring of 1965, 85 Mexican farm workers at a McFarland rose farm asked the Farm Workers Association to help them get higher wages. Chávez and Dolores Huerta led the workers out on strike and after a few days, the growers agreed to the wage increase but did not recognize the union.

That summer AWOC led a walkout of hundreds of Filipino and Mexican grape pickers in the Coachella Valley in Southern California. Braceros—temporary workers imported from Mexico—were paid a base of $1.40 per hour. Filipino and local Mexican grape pickers, most of whom were members of AWOC, received less than $1.00 an hour. After ten days the growers agreed to pay them $1.25 an hour but no union contract was signed.

In September the grapes were ready to be harvested in Delano, California and once again, the growers were paying the field workers at a lower rate than braceros. Itliong and the AWOC walked out of the fields demanding $1.40 an hour and 25 cents for each box of grapes picked. The growers quickly raised wages to $1.25 per hour, but Filipinos refused the raise because they saw an opportunity to force growers to recognize their union.

At first, Chávez did not want the NFWA to join the strike. From his perspective, the strike began three years too soon. The union had little money to sustain its members’ need for food and shelter for the duration of any strike action. Still, his followers urged him to join the Filipinos. Several hundred Mexican Americans joined the Filipinos despite the NFWA’s reluctance, and they began to picket the fields chanting “Huelga!” (“Strike!”).

On the fifth day, the growers trucked in scab labor from all over the Valley. Knowing that the only way to avoid violence in the fields was for the NFWA to join the Filipinos in the strike, Itliong went to see Chavez and demanded that they join forces immediately because the NFWA would never be able to launch its own independent strike.

Chávez responded by calling a meeting on September 16, 1965, at the Filipino Hall on the West Side of Delano. He told hundreds of Mexican laborers, “Violence can only hurt us and our cause. The law is for us as well as the ranchers. The strike was begun by the Filipinos, but it is not exclusively for them. Tonight we must decide if we are to join our fellow workers.” They did. Having more members then AWOC, the NFWA members soon took the lead in directing the strike.
By September 20 several thousand workers were picketing more than 30 farms scattered over hundreds of square miles in the San Joaquin Valley. They used roving pickets to demonstrate at different fields each day. Carloads of strikers descended upon farms that employed scabs. Despite violent harassment by local law enforcement agencies and hired thugs, the AWOC and NFWA strike leaders successfully persuaded many strikebreakers to join the picket lines.


In 1966, when it was decided to create the United Farm Workers by combining the memberships of AWOC and NFWA, Chavez had to defuse an attempt to limit the new union to Mexicans only. He insisted that the Filipinos had to be represented at all levels of leadership and that they share equally in the services offered by the new union. Mexican membership continuously increased and the balance of power within the union shifted to Chavez and his cohort of Mexican labor leaders.

The courageous and vital role of Filipinos was completely ignored by national and international media coverage that portrayed the UFW and the larger farm labor movement as a Chicano, Mexican or Hispanic struggle. César Chávez was propelled into international fame and world history as a political hero and icon of all movements for social justice. Filipino men and women formerly of AWOC left the UFW in droves when they lost seniority rights. Chicano cultural nationalism had driven them out.

People of extraordinary courage and wisdom support all heroes in all great causes. The brave and profoundly principled Filipinos of the FLU, FALA and AWOC, who preceded the UFW, contributed to its growth and supported its triumphant leader, should be recognized and remembered too, along with Cesar Chávez.

Alex S. Fabros, Jr. is a Ph.D. in U.S. Labor History at U.C. Santa Barbara and an adjunct faculty of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University. When not writing and researching, he sails off the coast of California aboard his sloop.

Daniel P. Gonzales, J.D. is an Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University. When not teaching he is rendering constant repairs, at sea and in port, to Alex’s boat to ensure that it does not sink.

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