Advocacy & Activism, Cesar Chavez, History, UFW, Unions & Organized Labor

Remembering the Unsung Heroes of the Labor Movement

From Blog.AFLCIO.org, “Remembering the Unsung Heroes of the Labor Movement” by Greg Cendana and Katrina Dizon, 1 Apr 2011.

Greg Cendana, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), and Katrina Dizon, membership and social co-chairwoman for the APALA-DC Chapter, sent us this reflection on the meaning of workers’ rights.

In recent months, the attack on workers’ rights has heightened as right-wing corporate lobbyists and legislators have gone beyond public will to strip teachers, nurses, firefighters and others of their right to collectively bargain. We also aren’t fooled that these same people are launching full on attacks on immigrant, women, student and LGBTQ communities. With no clear path to put our economy back on track and unemployment looming at a constant high, the political environment has pushed many to point their fingers at some of the most vulnerable people.

As we approach the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, we are reminded of the heroes in the past that have devoted their lives to helping those in most need. We are reminded of their struggles, and we celebrate the victories that have paved the way for the very freedoms we continue to enjoy today. It is because of these heroes and their courage to fight for workplace protections and basic human dignity that the labor movement continues to thrive.

As everyone knows, Martin Luther King Jr. was an iconic, civil rights leader, remembered for his leadership in the fight for equality for African Americans suffering racial segregation in the workplace. In fact, it was because of his vocal support for sanitation workers on strike for the right to join a labor union that ultimately led to his passing

To the same degree, Cesar Chavez, a notable Latino labor leader is remembered by many for his leadership in the California Delano grape strike in the 1960’s. His charismatic demeanor and belief in non-violent demonstration emulated the values of Martin Luther King himself.  He believed in what labor stood for and just like Dr. King who fought for the marginalized black workers of his time, Cesar Chavez fought for hundreds of Mexican migrant workers, suffering from inequality during his time.

While King and Chavez’s contributions to the labor movement are known by many and published in most history books, people are unaware of, another community of labor leaders that played a very pivotal role in the success of the Delano grape strike, establishment of the United Farm Workers and the overall fight for racial equality during the 1960s: the Manong generation.

In Filipino, “manong” is a term of respect that means “older brother”. This generation honors the wave of Filipino immigrants that moved to the United States during the US occupation of their country, to pursue the American dream.  Upon arriving here however, they were quickly faced with the harsh reality of racism and discrimination in the workplace. Most of these new immigrants took jobs as busboys, laborers and farmers, often times being paid much less than even their Mexican counterparts.

Among the notable figures of the Manong generation were Philip Vera Cruz, Pete Velasco, Larry Itliong and Andy Imutan (who recently passed away and will forever be remembered for his leadership in the labor movement). What most people do not know is that the idea for the Delano grape first came from a group of Filipino farmworkers, led primarily by Larry Itliong, head of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (which some say was the most organized and effective farm labor union at that time). Filipino farmworkers had had enough of the grueling work conditions, long hours and extremely low pay (The idea to organize a strike finally emerged and they reached out to Cesar Chavez and the rest of the National Farmworkers Association They refused to join them  at first, but Chavez and the rest of the NFWA quickly realized that that the Filipinos were fighting for the same rights the Mexicans valued and that strength in numbers was crucial to victory.  The collaboration of Filipino and Mexican workers culminated in the formation of United Farmworkers of America and it was due to this union that ultimately led to their overall success in winning fare wages, medical benefits and safer working conditions.

Cesar Chavez spoke at Larry Itliong’s funeral and called him “a true pioneer in the farm workers movement.” It is important to remember what he and the rest of the Manong generation did to uplift workers’ rights early on in the APA community. They gave our people a voice during a time when mass discrimination toward Asian immigrants was common place. We look at society today however, and sadly, a lot of the same forms of racism and injustice still face Asian workers and immigrants, alike. It’s a continuing uphill battle—a battle that we continue to face, and thanks to Larry Itliong and the rest of our “manongs” we have the voice, the courage, and the tools to continue fighting.

Si, se puede! Kaya natin! Yes, we can!

Read at: Blog.AFLCIO.org, “Remembering the Unsung Heroes of the Labor Movement” by Greg Cendana and Katrina Dizon, 1 Apr 2011.

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