By Michael Cox
I was there. Right in the middle of it. I will never forget.
“There” was the Imperial Valley in far southeastern California. “Middle of it” was the violent emergence of the United Farm Workers Union. What I will never forget was the confusion, the violence, the farm families wondering, “Why them.”
If the Colorado Senate Bill 21-087 gets passed, I could see the same thing again. I would rather not. Does that sound alarmist? Maybe. But the open threats to agriculture that have surfaced from this bill will cost not only producers and consumers, but those who think that they will benefit from it.
In the winter of 1961-62 a farm worker named Cesar Chavez, from Yuma, Arizona, 60 miles east of El Centro, California, and his cohort, Delores Huerta, became the headlights for a movement claiming to be the savior of all farm workers. It was called the United Farm Workers of America. Higher wages, better conditions were the promise. Viva La Huelga, (Long Live the Strike) and Si Se Puede (Yes, We Can) were the mottos and watchwords. Huerta, from Stockton, California, was the original lobbyist for providing aid to migrant workers, including non-citizens. She was an organizer in Saul Alinsky’s Community Service Organization (CSO).
The target was a few hundred growers and farm families tilling the 80,000 acres of produce in the Imperial Valley (IV). To Chavez and Huerta, the ag workers were mistreated, underpaid, and under-appreciated. While there were exceptions, those charges were generally not true.
To understand the situation, you have to first understand that it was complicated. There were two work forces harvesting the 1961-62 winter lettuce crop. One was a contingent of Californians and Arizonans, who followed the crops. They migrated in caravans, following the crops from Arizona to Southern California and eventually mid and northern California for the grapes and fruit. That group was simply not enough people to get the work done. The other workforce was by virtue of the Guest Worker Program, known as the Bracero Program, which welcomed workers from Mexico on a temporary basis. It has been said to be one of the successful labor import programs. It also cut illegal immigration during its lifetime.
The Bracero (Spanish for “strong arms”) program was where Chavez and Huerta first ran aground. The Braceros, hard working family folks from south of the border that edges the Imperial Valley, wanted no part of the UFW game. They were doing fine, feeding their families and carving out a living in places like Mexicali, Baja California, a city of a quarter million even then.
The American citizen workers, mostly Hispanic, signed onto the UFW roster and went on strike. Millions of dollars’ worth of lettuce was going to rot in the fields if they didn’t have their demands met. But the Braceros were willing to work. Also, willing to work were the high school kids of El Centro, Brawley, Calexico, Holtville and Imperial. They were let out of classes and they cut lettuce. Growers like Danny Dannenberg, Andy Andreotti, and others started sending some salad greens to market.
The UFW retaliated. Around four in the morning, the border crossing point, the international gate at Calexico, became a threatening scene. Braceros, who were day workers, would cross the border and hook up with labor contractors who would ferry them to the fields, sometimes an hour’s bus ride away. The UFW tried to get the Braceros to join them, often times with threatening language and gestures. Sometimes scuffles broke out.
I was a radio news reporter for KXO, the primary radio news source in the Valley. The news director and I covered the Calexico scene several times.
About half of the Braceros, and until the strike, many of the U.S. workers were housed in permanent camps around the valley. Most of them shunned the UFW and continued to work at their own risk and exposure to UFW proponents’ hatred.
The first violence occurred in the night when a Bracero, tending to irrigation in a sugar beet field, was attacked. The thugs attempted to castrate him and left him to bleed to death. He did. Then another laborer went missing for several days. I was on the canal bank when they pulled his putrid, bloated body from the water. He had been beaten to death.
Then came the standoff.
A couple of dozen workers who had been living in one of Dannenberg’s camps awoke to find themselves locked in the compound. The UFW had chained the gate to keep them from going to work. Anyone who attempted to remove the chain was threatened by the union.
Sheriff Herbert Hughes put out an alert for his Special Deputy Posse to respond to the scene. Within an hour, I watched more than a hundred local businessmen and other farmers show up on the ditch bank. Most were armed. They all remained calm but determined to help resolve the situation. After three hours or so the union enforcers, seriously outgunned, gave up the scene and left. Gene McDaniel, legal counsel for the growers, took a bolt cutter to the chain.
So, what was the UFW after 60 years ago? Read the text of the new Colorado Senate bill. It is stunningly the same in tone and language — wages, living conditions, right to strike, transportation, meals when they work, health care.
I was a radio personality, supposedly one of the rich white overlords. My salary at the time of the Salad Wars was $3,840 a year. The Consumer Price Index sets the 1962 farm workers’ income at $4,260. The growers provided transportation and meals. The growers made money on volume, because the wholesale price of iceberg lettuce was less than a dime a head. IV lettuce went mostly to the East Coast where it sold retail for 15 to 25 cents. Oh, and I didn’t get any meals from the radio station.
Were there some growers who mistreated workers? Absolutely. Were there radio station owners who were jerks? Yes. But if you talk to both workers and farmers nowadays, there are still good and bad in both. The solution is not a ham-fisted law like SB 21-087. The market will solve the problem.
The UFW peaked out in Delano, California, during the grape harvest of ‘63, perhaps the most noteworthy of their efforts. Currently, they have a little over 10,000 members. California farm labor stats put union membership at about 1% of the workforce. In all, UFW did little that the market was not in the process of handling itself, although some historians write glowing reports of their history-changing successes.
I was talking with an old timer here on the Western Slope recently, who was telling me about the meals and psychological support one producer provided his crew. My friend was bragging on the great meals the man’s wife took to the workers. He also told me about how workers from another farm would come and want to work for that farmer because he treated his crew so well.
Then came the day when our good guy farmer got a call for help from the neighbor who had lost his crew. The neighbor needed help with his harvest. Of course, my friend’s friend answered the call. That is what good neighbors do, without the insistence and interference from the agenda-driven Colorado lawmakers.
Michael A. Cox is a Montrose-based content provider. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org!