Adapted from Little Manila Is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipino American Community in Stockton, Calif. (2013, Duke University Press)
By Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Ph.D. Associate Professor, History, San Francisco State University
The roots of the Delano Grape Strike – which launched one of the greatest social movements in American history, the farm workers’ movement – can be found in Stockton, amongst Filipina/o American labor leaders who had fought tirelessly for farm workers’ rights since the 1930s. The 1920s and 1930s witnessed dozens of farm labor strikes in Stockton and the surrounding area, and the rise of militant unions such as the Filipino Agricultural Laborers Association, which won a major strike in 1939 but fizzled during World War II. After World War II, Local 7, the Filipino salmon cannery workers union – began to organize workers in Stockton and launched major strikes in 1948 and 1949 in asparagus, winning minor concessions. Stocktonians Larry Itliong, Cipriano “Rudy” Delvo, Carlos Bulosan, Claro Candelario along with Seattle-based Chris Mensalvas, organized those strikes.
The vice president of Local 7 in 1953 was a Stockton organizer, Larry Itliong. Modesto “Larry” Itliong had been born into a poor Ilocana/o farming family in 1913 in San Nicolas, in the province of Pangasinan, and had arrived on the West Coast at the age of fifteen on April 6, 1929. He immediately went to work in the fields and then the Alaskan salmon canneries. He had only a sixth-grade education, but he had dreamed of being a lawyer and politician. He spoke nine Philippine dialects, a skill that made him a formidable organizer among Filipinas/os.
Known in Little Manila as “Seven Fingers,” a nickname based on an accident in an Alaskan salmon cannery that claimed three of his fingers, the cigar-chomping Itliong had spent decades working in the Filipino farm labor movement. He had helped found the Alaska Cannery Workers Union, which became Local 7 of ucapawa, then Local 37 of ILWU, and helped found the Cannery Workers in the sardine industry in San Pedro. In 1933 he was organizing lettuce workers during strikes in Salinas. During World War II, Itliong served as a messman on a U.S. Army transport ship out of San Francisco; he settled in Stockton after the war.
As soon as he settled in Stockton after the war, Itliong was elected secretary of the Filipino Community of Stockton, a post he held from 1946 to 1950. He was president from 1954 to 1956. He joined the Legionarios del Trabajo and was elected president of the Filipino Voters League in Stockton in 1957. Itliong married and raised a family in Stockton, where he lived on the South Side on Kohler Street, and joined Trinity Presbyterian Church. In 1957, be became Local 37 dispatcher.
In the late 1950s, academic and labor organizer Ernesto Galarza; Father Thomas McCullough, of St. Mary’s Church in Stockton; and the local teacher and organizer Dolores Huerta began to pressure the leadership of the national AFO-CIO to organize farmworkers. McCullough, Huerta, and Rudy Delvo organized the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA) in Stockton in the late 1950s. The AFL-CIO succumbed to the pressure and chartered the Agricultural Worker’s Organizing Committee (AWOC) in Stockton in 1959. A team of organizers, including the former awa organizers Dolores Huerta and Rudy Delvo, led the new AWOC.
To recruit union members, Delvo walked the Little Manila and West End districts daily, and he showed films on the labor movement every Thursday night at the El Verano Club in Little Manila at East Lafayette Street and El Dorado. At the time, Delvo lived in the Mariposa Hotel at 130 E. Lafayette St. At the end of 1959, an invigorated Delvo approached his old friend and Legionarios del Trabajo brother, Larry Itliong, and asked him to become an AWOC organizer. Itliong agreed. Delvo and Itliong were the only Filipino organizers in the first years of the AWOC, but as the union progressed, other Filipinos were added, including Ben Gines of Salinas and Philip Vera Cruz and Pete Velasco of Delano. The membership and leadership of the AWOC was heavily Filipino, but the union also included Puerto Ricans, whites, Arabs, blacks, and Mexicans. Many of the organizers, like Itliong and Delvo, were veterans of the strikes of the previous forty years.
By 1961, Itliong had been appointed the AWOC’s southern regional director and moved his family to the southern San Joaquin Valley to live in Delano, where he began organizing the mostly Filipino grape workers. In Delano was his former AWOC colleague, Dolores Huerta, who was organizing the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with Cesar Chavez. In May 1965, Itliong and Pete Velasco were organizing Filipino grape workers in Delano and won a wage increase to $1.40 per hour in the Coachella Valley. The workers then moved to the Delano grape harvest, where Delano growers offered $1 per hour and refused to budge.
On the night of September 7, 1965, Filipino grape workers, all rank and file members of the AWOC, gathered at the Filipino Community Hall and voted to go on strike the following day. Itliong warned the strikers that there were many Mexican workers who would provide scab labor and that the likelihood of success was slim. “We told them, you’re going to suffer a lot of hardship, maybe you’re going to get hungry, maybe you’re going to lose your car, maybe you’re going to lose your house,” he said. “They said, ‘We don’t care.’ They feel that they’re not being treated fairly by their employers so they took a strike vote.” As Itliong predicted, the strike was brutal and violent. Several days after the strike began, Itliong approached Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to convince the nfwa to join it. Itliong argued that if the Mexicans did not stand with the Filipinas/os, if they were scabs while the Filipinas/os struck, then when the Mexicans went on strike, the Filipinas/os would be scabs. Huerta said that the nfwa organizers were worried that the violence would force the Filipinas/os to abandon the strike. “Some of them were beaten up by the growers [who] would shut off the gas and the lights and the water in the labor camps,” she said.
Chavez and Huerta consulted the NFWA members, and on September 16 they joined the grape strike. The Delano grape strike and international boycott of grapes gave the plight of farmworkers a global audience. Letters and donations poured in. In 1966, the AWOC and the National United Farm Workers Union merged to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFW), with Chavez as director and Itliong as assistant director. Although the strike action was located mainly in Delano, the AWOC established a Stockton office at El Dorado and Lafayette streets. After the AWOC and the National Farm Workers Union merged, the UFW maintained an office in Little Manila through the 1970s. Pete Velasco coordinated the Stockton AWOC office in the 1970s.
Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Itliong, as the national coordinator of the grape boycott, traveled throughout the country, organizing cities and communities to support the boycott. In 1970 he went back to Stockton and organized the second-generation youth and old-timers to back the boycott and put pressure on the local Safeway stores. Passionate and articulate, Itliong brought in allies and thousands of dollars in donations.
But Filipinas/os felt squeezed out of the union almost immediately after the merger. The years of seniority that they had achieved in the AWOC were wiped out when the unions merged. Almost all of the Filipina/o veteran organizers of the Delano Grape Strike left, including Ben Gines, and only four Filipinos remained on the UFW board by 1967: assistant director Itliong and vice presidents Andy Imutan, Philip Vera Cruz, and Pete Velasco. Differences between the leadership and the rank and file in regard to organizing styles and priorities, philosophies of organizing, and strategy began to pull the coalition apart. Many of the civil rights activists who rushed to Delano were turned off by the approach of the AWOC Filipino organizers, who saw the grape strike as a traditional trade-union strike. The deeply religious approach of the Chicanas/os in the NFWA, with its social movement style and civil rights focus, attracted more media and activist attention.
For example, Filipina/o strikers, accustomed to the militancy that was the result of decades of shoot-outs, fascist police action, and violent confrontations with growers and scabs, felt that it made no sense to adhere to nonviolence and wanted to defend themselves against grower brutalities. Moreover, as Marissa Aroy has shown in her documentary The Delano Manongs and as Matt Garcia points out in his book on the grape strike, Filipino workers became increasingly disgruntled with the hiring hall system the UFW enforced, which disempowered Filipino contractors, who had been central to Filipina/o American farm work culture and militancy for decades. Many Filipinos, including Ben Gines and Pete Manuel, abandoned the UFW in favor of the Teamsters Union.
Because of these factors and others, the UFW was largely unsuccessful with Filipina/o workers in Stockton. By 1971, Larry Itliong was already in private disagreement with Chavez and the direction of the UFW. On October 15, 1971, Itliong resigned from the union. Itliong had been struggling with several issues within the union and with Chavez himself by 1971, including the situation with Filipino contractors and the hiring halls, the UFW’s refusal to reimburse his expenses, the lack of power of Filipinas/os in the union, what he saw as the undemocratic structure of the UFW bureaucracy, and the UFW leadership’s ambivalence towards the aging Filipino rank and file. “[But] my biggest disappointment is that the organization I participated in to fight for justice and dignity is not turning [out] as planned,” he told Bill Kircher, a fellow organizer. “So I had to go in order to save my reputation (insignificant as it may [be]) and my conscience…Many of the workers around here, Filipinos and Chicanos, are very unhappy on how the union is being operated.” Itliong’s departure, which followed the resignations of other organizers, such as Ben Gines, meant that the UFW lost its most seasoned labor organizer.
Filipina/o dissatisfaction with the new union notwithstanding, the AWOC and its merger with the UFW, grape strike, and boycott brought the struggle of the farmworkers to people around the globe. The farmworkers’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s—founded by Filipinas/os and Mexicans from Stockton such as Itliong, Delvo, and Huerta—was the culmination of more than four decades of struggle in the Filipina/o American labor movement of Stockton.