The Salad Bowl Strike 

U.S. #3781 was issued on the 10th anniversary of Chavez’s death.

On August 23, 1970, the largest farm worker strike in U.S. history began.

In 1933, President Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) gave most hourly workers legal protection for collective bargaining. While the act didn’t specifically exclude agricultural workers, Roosevelt’s administration essentially argued that it didn’t apply to them. This was a move to please farm-state members in Congress. Two years later, the National Labor Relations Act was passed, this time specifically stating that farm workers were exempt from these rights.

U.S. #732 – National Recovery Act stamp pictures FDR with three workers.

Since before these laws were passed in the coming years, there were several attempts to organize farm workers, but all achieved minimal success. The first to make significant strides were the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), founded in 1959, and the National Farmworkers Association (NFA), founded in 1962 by Cesar Chavez.

In 1965, farm workers had one of their first major victories as a result of the Delano grape strike. The strike began on September 8, 1965, when a group of migrant farm workers refused to harvest grapes. The workers demanded an increase in wages in accordance with the federal minimum wage. One week later, Chavez and his National Farmworkers Association joined the strike. More than 2,000 workers eventually joined in the strike.

U.S. #3781 FDC – First Day Cover picturing a UFW protest.

In March of 1966, Chavez led 75 protesters on a 340-mile march from Delano, California, to Sacramento to focus attention on the plight of agricultural workers. The movement gained national media attention through its use of boycotts and nonviolent resistance.

Then in August 1966, the National Farmworkers Association joined forces with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to create the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW). They adopted pacifist tactics including hunger strikes, boycotts, marches, rallies, and public relations campaigns. They soon began organizing agricultural labor unions and even negotiated contracts.

U.S. #5038 pictures pinot noir grapes.

Despite these efforts, the Delano grape strike continued. Then in June 1969, about 25 growers gave up their fight and the strike ended the following month. While many expected this to lead other growers to recognize the UFW, other groups were watching the events unfold. On July 17, 1970, some 6,000 drivers and packers, represented by the powerful union known as Teamsters, refused to work. Lettuce prices tripled over night and crops spoiled on the ground. The strike ended after just 6 days, with the Teamsters, not the UFW, getting access to the farms and the right to organize unions.

This infuriated Chavez and the UFW, which had spent years working toward a similar goal. Chavez went on a hunger strike and the UFW eventually met with the Teamsters to work out an agreement. They reached an agreement on August 12, but it quickly disintegrated.

U.S. #3781 FDC – First Day Cover picturing workers and a lettuce field.

As a result, between 5,000 and 7,000 UFW workers went on strike on August 23 – the largest in U.S. history. In the coming weeks, many more workers went on strike. The price of lettuce doubled and lettuce growers lost an estimated $500,000 a day. In September, the UFW asked Americans to boycott lettuce not picked by the United Farm Workers. Soon violence broke out, including a bombing at a UFW regional office.

U.S. #1082 – the UFW joined the AFL-CIO in 1972.

Then in December, Chavez was arrested for ignoring a court order to stop boycotting the lettuce industry. During his two-week incarceration, Chavez was visited by Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson and Ethel Kennedy (widow of Robert F. Kennedy). The two visitors were attacked by an anti-union mob outside the jail, but were protected by the police. When he was released, Chavez called for strikes against six more lettuce growers.

The strike continued until March 26, 1971, when the UFW and Teamsters signed a new agreement giving the UFW the right to organize field workers. However, the two forces would continue to clash for several years before reaching a long-lasting agreement in March 1977.

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  1. A couple of quotes by Frederick Douglass are apt here. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.”

    1. Another Anti-Labor, Anti-Union voice heard from. Remember one of the First things Hitler did for Germany was to get rid of the Unions. The United States is said to be For The People but in reality it is all about the Golden Rule; He Who Has The Gold Rules! The Unions just provide an equal voice for the labor force.

    2. I guess that allowing farm workers to earn a living wage is too much to ask of you. Better to be represented by the UFW than the crooked Teamsters who tried to horn in on the former’s territory.

    3. If that’s all you see in the UFW struggles, then you deserve what you get (rotten lettuce) and low wages.

  2. I supported that lettuce boycott by looking for lettuce boxes with the Aztec symbol at the grocery store. I was young then but would do the same now. No one ever needs to work under inhumane conditions. But then we condoned slavery also.

  3. It’s too bad that the only powerful unions left are civil servants in the public sector. Very few industrial or trades unions have any clout. Even FDR had reservations about civil service unions.

  4. Excellent article. Union organizing for living wages still sparks contentious debate with friends and foes. Interesting rating of 4.5 whereas most feel good articles published in Mystic’s This Day in History receive 4.8 or 4.9.

  5. If workers are paid a living wage and work under decent conditions, “American citizens are the victim?” Come on Wade. Read what Mike and Roger had to say. I saw a bumper sticker recently that I liked: “Unions, the folks who brought you the weekend.”

  6. Great write-up I had never heard of this even though I graduated high school in 1980 I don’t remember this happening keep up the good work

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