Advocacy & Activism, Cesar Chavez, Employers & Employment, History, Labor, Legislation, Pesticides, UFW, Unions & Organized Labor, Wages, Working Conditions

40 Years Later: Salinas Valley Labor Clashes Still Resonate

From, “40 years later: Salinas Valley labor clashes still resonate” by Niko Kyriakou, The Salinas Californian, 26 Mar 2011.

Chavez’s UFW, Teamsters battled in early ’70s

Newspaper clippings from The Salinas Californian document key moments during the so-called "Salad Bowl" strikes of the early 1970s. / Photo illustration by Scott MacDonald

Newspaper clippings from The Salinas Californian document key moments during the so-called "Salad Bowl" strikes of the early 1970s. / Photo illustration by Scott MacDonald

Forty years ago today, the Salinas Valley emerged from one of the nation’s most memorable and violent labor storms — one that pitted the powerful Teamsters against the nascent United Farm Workers union.

The resulting struggle between the UFW and the grower-backed International Brotherhood of Teamsters was bloody and intense. But, in the end, it forged state and federal laws that guaranteed field laborers the right to organize and bargain with farm owners and shippers.

Agricultural historians recall that the boycotts, work stoppages and marches, later dubbed the “Salad Bowl” strike, took place in waves between Aug. 23, 1970, and March 25, 1971.

The strike consisted of repeated pickets, protests, and walk-outs and ultimately involved nearly 10,000 farm laborers — making it one of the largest labor actions in the country’s history up to that point.

At its crux, the unrest pitted the UFW, led by the charismatic farmworker-turned-activist Cesar Chavez, against the Teamsters in a contest to see which group would organize and represent farmhands in the Salinas Valley, and indeed, across the vast agricultural breadbasket that is California.

Three people were shot in the confrontation, the UFW’s Watsonville office was bombed, and hundreds of people were hurt or arrested. A delegation of religious leaders from around the country, including the recently retired Bishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahoney, was dispatched to mediate between the Teamsters and the UFW.

At one point, Coretta Scott King and Ethyl Kennedy, wives of slain activist Martin Luther King Jr. and New York Sen. Robert Kennedy, even traveled to Salinas to visit Chavez in jail. The widows had to wade through a spitting, jeering, anti-UFW mob to reach the county lockup on West Alisal Street, where Chavez was held for disobeying a court order to stop a boycott against major lettuce-grower Bud Antle, now Tanimura & Antle.

Bud Antle became the first area grower to sign a contract with Teamsters local 890.

“A lot of good came about because of those strikes,” said Mike Antle, vice president of Tanimura & Antle, and Bud Antle’s grandson.

“Wages were very depressed; there wasn’t sanitation facilities in the fields and the people were being treated very poorly,” Antle said, adding that his “granddad operated through the strike unscathed.”

Several other growers were not immediately available for comment for this story.

The strike finally ended March 26, 1971 — exactly 40 years ago — when the Teamsters gave up their contracts with growers and signed a three-year pact with the UFW, agreeing to stop organizing farmworkers and honor the UFW’s right to do so.

Before the strike and resulting legal reforms, field laborers often lived in spartan labor camps and worked under “primitive” conditions, said Marc Grossman, current day UFW spokesman and longtime aid and speechwriter for Chavez.

“They received low pay, few if any benefits, and there were discrimination and favoritism. People had to pay bribes to get jobs, sexual harassment and pesticide poisoning were common issues and the pace of work was so fast that you didn’t see a lot of older farmworkers picking lettuce, and you still don’t. Workers would burn out by the time they were in their 40s. It’s changed somewhat over the years,” Grossman said.

Strikes helped drive legislation

According to Jerry Cohen, chief legal counsel for the UFW in the 1970s, the strikes were the “most important” factor in the passage of the June 5, 1975, California Agricultural Labor Relations Act — a landmark law that revolutionized how farm laborers are treated by their employers. Immediately after taking office in June, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the legislation as an urgency statute — meaning it took effect in September, rather than January of the next year. Brown went on to pass laws outlawing the use of the back-breaking short-handled hoe and guaranteeing unemployment insurance for farmworkers.

Dolores Huerta, now 81, cofounded the UFW and served as the union’s lead negotiator during the strikes. This week, Huerta said these series of laws, along with UFW contracts establishing seniority for workers, ultimately changed the ethnic makeup of the Salinas Valley and surrounding areas.

“Employment insurance for farmworkers means people can stay around because they can draw a check when they’re unemployed,” she said. “Once farmworkers settled, it not only changed the demographics of the city. What does the City Council and Board of Supervisors look like? There’s a lot of Latinos now; that was not the picture back in 1970.”

For its part, the ALRA gave collective-bargaining rights to labor in the ag industry — from truck drivers to irrigators to harvesters — and allowed them to vote as one voice in secret-ballot elections to select the union of their choice.

Challenging the power of choice

Prior to the law’s passage, growers had the power to choose which unions would represent their workers — the very situation that sparked the Salad Bowl strikes.

The issue was that many Salinas Valley growers preferred to sign contracts with the Teamsters, while fieldworkers overwhelmingly favored the UFW. As proof, in the first vote following ALRA’s passage, the UFW won the majority of every election in which it participated.

Starting in 1967, the UFW had waged a multi-year, international boycott against the grape industry.

The boycott was an unprecedented success in farm-labor-organizing history, with the scrappy young union bringing powerful multinational companies to heel. By July 1970, the UFW had signed contracts with 150 grape ranches, representing about 20,000 jobs.

The new contracts often brought better benefits, more job security, and wage increases of up to 40 percent.

“Vegetable growers figured they were going to be next, so, in order to avoid that, they brought in the Teamsters,” Grossman recalled.

Hurried, ‘sweetheart contracts’

In 1970, a little fewer than half of the vegetable growers in the Salinas and Santa Maria valleys hurried to sign so-called “sweetheart contracts” with the Teamsters — five-year agreements that excluded limits on exposure to pesticides, certain hiring policies or grievance procedures.

Workers were told they had to sign the contracts in 10 days or risk being fired. Moreover, Cohen said, the contracts increased wages by a meager 5 cents a year on the piece rate — based on the volume picked rather than the time it took to pick. By 1970, the Teamsters had signed 50,000 of California’s 250,000 agricultural workers.

UFW representatives were furious.

Not only had the Teamsters — traditionally the union for truck drivers, canneries, and processing sheds — stepped onto UFW turf by organizing the farmworkers, but they had negotiated just the kind of deals the UFW sought to end, according to Grossman.

Some four decades later, however, a historian for the Teamsters counters that it was Chavez who launched the turf war.

“We Teamsters stepped in and told Cesar we wanted packing houses and the sheds, and Cesar said, ‘No, I want the packing houses, sheds and the fields,’ ” said Don Thornsburg, historian for the Teamster Joint Council 42, which covers parts of California, Arizona, Hawaii, Guam and Saipan. “Two good labor unions fighting with one another, and the fat growers and multi-millionaires sitting back laughing and enjoying the fight is not what labor is about.”

Said Grossman, “What they [the Teamsters] ended up doing is giving the UFW a real boost because it forced us to go to Salinas and organize farmworkers.”

Setting up shop in Salinas, the UFW demanded growers void their Teamster contracts. When they did not, the union declared a general strike in Salinas, Pajaro and Santa Maria valleys. By Aug. 24, 1970 — just a day into the strike — The Salinas Californian reported that agriculture in the area was “virtually shut down.”

“The strike was very contentious and very painful for both farmers and farmworkers,” Jim Bogart, president and general counsel of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, said this week. “But it certainly was a watershed moment in the history of California agriculture labor relations.”

10,000 workers marched

At the climax of the strikes, some 10,000 workers converged on Salinas, marching all the way from Bradley, Hollister and Aptos.

“I remember standing there in the athletic fields and seeing these three massive marches coming together and UFW’s black eagle symbol on a red flag,” Grossman recalled. “It looked like the Red Army entering Moscow.” Teamster “guards” were sent to disperse pickets with chains, and shotguns, and UFW attorney Cohen said he received a blow to the head that sent him to the hospital.

In the end, the Teamsters capitulated and gave up their contracts. And in the 1972 case, Englund v. Chavez, a California Superior Court injunction that had declared the UFW’s picketing illegal, inter-union competition, was overturned by the California Supreme Court.

Healing the scars between unions

“The battle was intense,” Thornsburg said. “A line was drawn in the sand. Looking back on it, I think that it could have been handled differently. It left a scar between us, but as the years have gone by, we were able to heal those scars.”

In 1977, the two unions reached an agreement that gave the canners, packers and farm-truck drivers to the Teamsters and the field hands to the UFW, a pact that still stands today.

“The strike convinced many growers, and much of the public, that ‘something’ had to be done by the state to take farmworker labor battles out of the fields and off of the streets,” said Philip Martin, a University of California, Davis, professor in the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics.

The passage of the ALRA gave farmworkers rights that the rest of the nation’s workers already enjoyed.

Most labor protection laws, including those which provided for disability, retirement, minimum wage and overtime pay, were granted in the 1930s as part of the Roosevelt Administration’s New Deal plan — a comprehensive federal effort to help revive a flagging national economy and improve worker conditions. The New Deal, however, left farmworkers exempt from the protections largely due to grower lobbying efforts, according to “Strawberry Fields,” a book by Miriam Wells, professor emeritus at UC Davis.

Decades later, problems persist

In 1963, California set a minimum wage for farmworkers; and in 1975 — thanks in part to the Salad Bowl strikes — they won collective bargaining rights. A year later, they also secured workers compensation insurance and overtime pay. Although the passage of the ALRA remains an important moment in California farmworker labor relations, subsequent funding cuts to the state board that is charged with administering and enforcing the law minimized its impact.

Further weakening the UFW’s position has been the inflow of illegal immigrant workers.

“The influx of [undocumented workers] makes it hard for any union to win wage increases,” Martin writes in an email.

In some cases, workers who had overwhelmingly voted for UFW representation have turned around and decertified their union locals because the wage increases of 2 percent to 3 percent were barely enough to cover union dues, Martin said.

By the end of 2009, the UFW had just 50 contracts and 5,000 members, nationwide.

It’s not that field worker’s problems have gone away, rather that the farmworker labor movement has largely moved out of the fields and into politics.

The EPA estimated in 1992 that farmworkers suffer up to 300,000 acute illnesses and injuries from pesticide exposure each year, and working conditions are notoriously dangerous due to prolonged heat exposure and large machinery.

A painful, ‘watershed moment’ for all

But union organizers say negotiating contracts that solve these and other issues has become extremely difficult, and not just because of the increase in illegal workers.

Already in the late 1970s, many of the multinationals the UFW were bargaining with began to sell their fresh vegetable subsidiaries, according to author Wells, leaving UFW-represented workers out of work and making bargaining impossible.

Today, in California’s agricultural valleys, a third of farmworkers are employed by farm labor contractors instead of growers, according to the University of California’s Agricultural Personnel Management Program. Farm labor contractors are harder to unionize and difficult to monitor.

Although the violent storm of labor activism in the 1970s seems to have passed over Salinas, it is not forgotten — and negotiations between growers and unions continue to this day. Tensions over collective bargaining and its role in both the private and public sectors remains a divisive political issue from the fields around Salinas to the steps of state government.

“Labor in general is under attack, and farmworkers are no exception to that,” said Cohen, general counsel for the UFW four decades ago. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Read at:, “40 years later: Salinas Valley labor clashes still resonate” by Niko Kyriakou, The Salinas Californian, 26 Mar 2011.


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