Grapes of wrath the great grape boycott.
The Great Delano Grape Strike, a touchstone event in agricultural labor history, took place on the American West Coast more than 50 years ago. Though it originated in California, the strike had significant ramifications for farm laborers and growers in another great agricultural state--Michigan.
The year was 1965. In an unprecedented show of unity, migrant farm workers in a small town just north of Bakersfield, California, went on strike against wine grape growers. Those workers, almost entirely Filipino or Latino, banded together to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) by combining two previous farm laborer unions--the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).
The workers' motto, "Viva La Huelga"--Long Live the Strike--embodied a protest against pitiful $1 per hour wages and deplorable living and working conditions, characterized by unsanitary camps, unclean drinking water, and no rest periods.
Led by an influential leader, Cesar Chavez, workers picketed fields, boycotted local stores that sold wine produced by the growers, and walked a 340-mile pilgrimage to the state capital of Sacramento in 1966 to raise awareness of their cause. Their actions often attracted police presence. The strike, called the Great Grape Boycott, eventually garnered national media attention and a personal visit from Senator Robert Kennedy.
A NATIONAL BOYCOTT
Ultimately, it was Chavez's call for a national boycott of grapes in 1967 that brought the workers' plight out of the California fields and into
American and Canadian cities, both large and small. Invested in nonviolent, coordinated efforts, the UFWOC sent out volunteers, largely made up of strikers, to set up local boycott offices.
What was at first a localized labor issue in rural California quickly became a national social justice issue--"La Causa." The era of the civil rights movement proved to be fertile ground for championing the rights of another underrepresented and exploited group in American society.
Outside support was vital to the success of the strike and related boycotts, which would last until 1970. From early on, church and civil rights activists, students, and the larger Latino community became involved in the workers' movement, standing beside them on the picket line or feeding strikers' families.
Organized labor played an important role by offering resources and experience. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), originally affiliated with AWOC, provided funding and food. Members of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), influenced by the social activism of their leader, Walter Reuther, made personal visits to farm worker union halls and picket lines and provided financial assistance. Politicians and prominent leaders--such as Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Gloria Steinem--publicly professed solidarity with the workers.
ORGANIZING IN MICHIGAN
During the late 1960s, agriculture was Michigan's second-leading industry that employed the second-largest migrant population in the country. Coming mostly from Texas and Mexico, nearly 50,000 migrant workers came to Michigan each growing season to harvest handpicked crops such as strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, sugar beets, beans, and cucumbers. Early in the boycott, it became clear that Michigan would be a significant battleground state.
The UFWOC had high hopes for Michigan, since its strong agricultural heritage, support of organized labor, and large Catholic population made it a seemingly natural supporter of the boycott. To the surprise of many, however, success would not come easily.
Boycott organizing got a very slow start in Michigan. Though a three-day tour of Lansing and Detroit by Cesar Chavez in April 1967 brought local attention to the boycott, organizing activity did not begin in earnest until the arrival of Lupe Anguiano in June 1968. The charismatic Anguiano, a former child agricultural worker and member of the UFWOC, quickly enlisted the support of Michigan's union, fraternal, church, and community organizations for the grape boycott.
Nearly six weeks later, a statewide boycott committee was founded and a plan of action was created by a number of Michigan organizations. Chief among them were the Interfaith Council of Churches, the Migrant Ministry of Michigan, the Michigan Catholic Conference, Lansing's Labor Council, the Christo Rey Community Center, and Michigan chapters of the NAACP and the Black Student Alliance.
Anguiano was soon joined by Hijinio Rangel, a 25-year veteran of the fields, who eventually oversaw the entire state effort. The two organizers, along with a broad, committed support system, would work tirelessly over the next two years to bring Michigan in line with the boycott.
Michigan's boycott planning was split between offices in Detroit, which managed the larger cities, and Lansing, which managed the smaller towns in the state's agricultural belt. Additional offices were set up throughout Michigan in regions with large concentrations of buying power, as well as areas located near agricultural industries.
Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Saginaw, Bay City, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Muskegon, and Benton Harbor became important centers for boycott activity. Boycott offices were typically housed in spaces borrowed from a sponsoring organization, such as a church or community center, or run from volunteers' homes.
UNIONS GET INVOLVED
While The Great Grape Boycott was a struggle for better wages and working conditions, it focused most heavily on the individual dignity of the worker and justice for a group of people who had been ill-used in American society. The message was deeply rooted in social activism, which was very much in tune with the spirit of the late 1960s and proved to inspire thousands of citizens throughout the state to join the movement.
The core of Michigan volunteers included a mixture of students, housewives, migrant workers, union members, and retirees. College students, too, were highly recruited, particularly out of the campuses of Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and Kalamazoo College.
Each different group had an important role to play. Young volunteers were ideally suited for the boycott, because they had plenty of energy, ample free time, and a yearning to do something that could make a meaningful change in the world around them. Housewives ran many of the smaller offices throughout the state and staffed picket lines. Retired union members, many of them veterans of the very early autoworker strikes, proved invaluable to the effort by working with population demographics that might be resistant to the younger, more outspoken volunteers.
Union support figured largely in Michigan's response to the boycott. With the UAW headquartered in Detroit and Southeast Michigan being an industrial epicenter, both the UAW and AFL-CIO offered generous financial support. Walter Reuther, Leonard Woodcock, and the UAW Executive Council gave thousands of dollars before it was all over. Other financial support came from smaller organizations such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; the Painter's District Council; and the Laundry, Dry Cleaning & Dye House Workers International Union.
The UFWOC was successful in reaching rank and file union members by speaking at local meetings, showing movies to members, handing out leaflets at plants, encouraging female members and wives to write to Walter Reuther, and assigning a designated union man to as many locals as possible.
Despite such a purposeful strategy, however, relationships between the UFWOC and other unions were not without tension. As frustrations over the slow pace of the strike and boycott grew, they invariably led to finger-pointing by some Michigan boycott leaders, who identified an unsuccessful power structure in Detroit by accusing organized labor as being a part of the establishment.
GAINING MORE SUPPORT IN MICHIGAN
Michigan businesses, community groups, civil rights organizations, and political activists also became involved in the boycott. Organizations, such as the Michigan Council of Churches and the Michigan Welfare League, as well as political leaders, like U.S. Congressman John Conyers, Michigan State Senator Coleman Young, and Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, lent their public support.
The most outspoken high-profile supporter was Roger Craig, a state senator from Michigan's 10th District and chairman of the Michigan Co-Coordinating Committee for the Boycott of California Grapes. A vocal activist for social justice causes, Craig served as a spokesman for La Causa and was affectionately known as "Huelgaman" for his ability to seemingly be everywhere at once in supporting the boycott.
In 1967, the Michigan Committee to Aid Farm Workers was created to include prominent groups such as the UAW, the Catholic Church, the Michigan Migrant Ministry, and the Jewish Labor Committee. One of the group's initiatives was a letter writing campaign to the U.S. Department of Justice about the effects of a new green card program on strike breaking. Another agricultural group, Friends of the Farm Workers in Detroit, also raised money for food for the boycott staff.
Along with direct financial support, fundraisers in Latino communities, rallies such as the 1968 all-night vigil staged by the Detroit Ad-Hoc Committee for the Delano Grape Strike, and resolutions of solidarity from union locals to city leadership helped raise awareness in Michigan.
Boycott activities varied throughout the two-year campaign but most generally involved informational events such as leafleting, letter writing, phone campaigns, and public meetings. Activists intended to raise awareness among the general public as well as target local grocery stores that sold products harvested by the growers. Although efforts to coordinate action against statewide chains were attempted, the majority of pickets were usually a local or regional affair.
When informational activities did not bring the desired results, direct action against noncompliant grocery stores was quickly established. Volunteers picketed stores during their busiest hours and met transport workers at the terminals in an attempt to talk them out of their delivery--a successful tactic, considering many were union members.
In addition to employing traditional boycott strategies Michigan volunteers oftentimes mimicked successful grape boycott events that occurred in California, such as long marches between cities to raise awareness, vigils, and fasts. Michigan organizers did that intentionally, since they wanted to keep the spiritual influence of La Causa in people's minds.
MAJOR RALLIES AND BIG VICTORIES
By the late summer of 1968, it appeared that the boycott was going fairly well in Michigan. A number of influential supermarket chains signed onto the boycott pledge relatively early, including Farmer Jack, Great Scott, and Chatham Market. According to information provided by city coordinators, activists in smaller towns had an easier time convincing stores to join the boycott than those in larger cities. Michigan's small towns offered fewer shopping options and had a higher number of independent groceries that were more likely to sign onto the pledge than larger grocery chains.
Detroit, Saginaw, Flint, Lansing, Bay City, and most small towns seemed nearly on target to participate in a September 9, 1968, stoppage of all grape orders from California to every major city in the United States. However, celebrations were premature. Boycott organizers struggled to maintain their progress while stores that initially signed the boycott pledge returned to stocking grapes after a short period. Activists in Detroit, in particular, had difficulty keeping the city's stores committed to the pledge and were never able to rise above a 31 percent compliance rate.
As the number of participating boycott stores began to dwindle, rallies of all sizes were organized throughout the state to bolster public interest. One of the most influential demonstrations was held on International Boycott Day, which fell on Saturday, May 10, 1969. Coordinated by the Detroit Boycott Office, the rally involved the participation of the Ann Arbor Boycott Committee; volunteers from Windsor, Ontario; UAW members from several locals; and hundreds of supporters.
The event kicked off with a three-day march from the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor to Detroit. It ended with a march by Canadian volunteers across the Ambassador Bridge into Detroit and a large march from the city's southwest neighborhoods toward downtown. The three groups converged in Kennedy Square. The Central Methodist Church hosted an impressive roster of speakers, which included state organizer Hijinio Rangel, Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, AFLCIO President August Scholle, and Michigan State Senator Sander Levin.
During the event, Rangel, State Senator Roger Craig, and Reverend Robert Baldwin, executive director of the Churches on the East Side for Social Action, began an 11-day hunger strike to influence A&P, one of the last major chain holdouts, to make the boycott pledge. A&P eventually signed the pledge after the fasts ended--and then a second time, after the company broke its pledge six months later and was targeted by outraged boycott supporters.
The last large grocery chain in Michigan to sign the pledge was Kroger, which was known for being one of the largest strikebreakers in the country. A statewide plan coordinated a 24-hour fast and silent vigil over Thanksgiving in 1969, where participants set up empty tables outside of stores to symbolize the empty tables of farm workers as they struggled to afford the food that they picked. The volunteers carried lit candles, fasted for 24 hours, and maintained silence to symbolize prayers. Over the following months, Kroger, as well as its subsidiaries, folded under the pressure in most parts of Michigan.
THE END AND LASTING RESULTS
By the spring of 1970, many of the smaller growers in California, lacking the resources of the larger agri-businesses, were forced to decide between either signing a contract or facing financial insolvency. Many of the larger growers were forced to sign contracts due to the availability of union-approved grapes on the market. As a result, the national boycott ended on July 29,1970, with California workers earning better wages, having access to health care, and enjoying safer working conditions.
In Michigan, most migrant workers received no direct benefit from the boycott effort. However, that is not to say that the movement was without influence. The national arena of the California migrant workers' plight helped illuminate the lives of Michigan's own migrant workforce among the state's permanent residents. Michigan farm workers suffered the same conditions as those in California.
When the boycott ended, more than half of Michigan's farm laborers were migrant workers. They were paid as little as 41 cents an hour and lived in unsanitary, overcrowded camps on the farmers' properties that had no showers or toilets. While farm camps had to be licensed by Michigan law, many loopholes existed.
Government agencies, local ministries, and grassroots groups worked to address Michigan-specific issues while contributing to the national boycott actions of the UFWOC. By 1970,26 pieces of legislation concerning minimum wages, collective bargaining agreements, decent living and working conditions, and education for migrant children were introduced in the Michigan legislature. Unfortunately, only one actually passed, which guaranteed stricter licensing of housing.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the boycott activities in Michigan was the establishment of a well-informed, well-connected, and well-managed activist organization. The boycott in Michigan had also created a sympathetic climate that would later foster the organization of agricultural workers, additional efforts of volunteers, and the accomplishments of local boycott offices. Those assets would prove critical over the next decade by organizing Michigan's farm workers and extending the benefits for which many state organizations fought so hard, both for California workers as well as workers in Michigan.
Deborah Joan Rice and Elizabeth Murray Clemens are audiovisual archivists at the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University. There, they manage still image materials documenting the national labor movement, including those of the United Farm Workers.
Caption: Previous page: Michigan activists pose for a photo before they leave for a demonstration in support of the grape boycott. This page, top: Children of migrant workers join their families in the fields. This page, bottom: Cesar Chavez looks over records with Dr. Philip P. Mason, director of the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University. (All photos courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University.)
Caption: Previous page: A snapshot taken during the Detroit Grape Boycott "Victory Celebration" in Detroit, 1968, where a cartoon drawing depicts Senator Craig as a boycott superhero called "Huelgaman." Standing from left to right are: Mrs. Roger Craig, Senator Roger Craig, and Lupe Anguiano. This page, top: A view of a picket line the front of a Detroit-area Wrigley's Supermarket during the grape boycott. This page, bottom: Supporters of the boycott march from the state capitol to Detroit to raise awareness of the plight of California's farm workers.
Caption: Supporters of the grape boycott rally in Pontiac, Michigan.
Caption: UAW President Leonard Woodcock stands beside Cesar Chavez during a 1970 UFW rally in Detroit's Kennedy Square.
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|Author:||Rice, Deborah Joan; Clemens, Elizabeth Murray|
|Publication:||Michigan History Magazine|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2016|
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