Jonathan Bernstein asks, “Who are your great American (political) heroes?” Outside of obvious choices such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr., his commenters choose some less well known names, like Ella Baker, or Walter Reuther. Matt Yglesias picks A. Phillip Randolph, Thaddeus Stevens, and Gouverneur Morris. They’re all great choices, I think, because they encourage us to read a bit deeper into parts of American History that we think we know well enough already. I’d never heard of Randolph before I read John Egerton’s Speak Now Against the Day in college, and before that my understanding of the Civil Rights Movement was limited to a narrow view of the period between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and King’s death in Memphis. One lesson I’ve learnt over the past few years is that successful political movements are always built on years (sometimes generations) of organising by people who end up being forgotten or purposefully ignored when the history of each movement is written.
With that in mind, my American political hero is Ernesto Galarza, a Mexican-American renaissance man and union leader in the middle third of the twentieth century. I stumbled across Galarza when I was researching my undergraduate thesis, digging through the archives of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Galarza led several attempts to organise farm workers in California’s Imperial and San Joaquin valleys in the late 1940s and 1950s, and laid a lot of the groundwork for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers to take advantage of in the 1960s. Galarza hasn’t been completely written out of this history, but it’s only when you look through the documents collected in the STFU archives that you realise how much of a role he played in the building of a movement among Californian farm workers.
In mid-1946, the STFU had diverted its attention from organising agricultural workers in the South to California, where lots of the Okies and Arkies who had left the Dustbowl in the 1930s had managed to build a presence in the vineyards and large-scale industrial farms around Kern County, what Carey McWilliams called “factories-in-the-fields”. The union estimated that there were 200,000 potential members working in Californian agriculture. Californian farmers held a powerful influence in state politics, and had successfully and violently resisted attempts to organise farm workers for many years. John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle is a great read on the clashes of the mid 1930s. Senator Rober M. LaFollete’s investigation in the late 1930s revealed some of the tactics used by groups such as the Associated Farmers, a collective of the largest Californian growers, to prevent farm workers from organising. Once these were out in the open, with the possibility of swinging the weight of public opinion behind agricultural labourers, the leadership of the STFU saw a chance to build a movement in California. In mid-1946, they changed the name of the union to the National Farm Labor Union, and joined the American Federation of Labor. NFLU President Harry L. Mitchell sent Hank Hasiwar, and later Ernesto Galarza, to Kern County to scout for a potential opening for the union in California. They settled on workers at the DiGiorgio Corporation’s 22,000 acre farm and packing plant, where workers were paid 80 cents an hour and lacked any control over their working conditions or hours.
I’ll write a separate post on the DiGiorgio strike of 1947-48, because it was really a key moment in the beginnings of a farm workers’ movement in California, and among other things, it was one of the first legal tests of the recently passed Taft-Hartley law, which the A.F.L. and especially the C.I.O. saw as a serious threat to the survival of the labour movement in America. Because of this challenge, the National Farm Labor Union was central to the political agenda of the A.F.L and the wider labour movement in 1947-48. Until Chavez’s Delano strike in the mid-1960s, the DiGiorgio strike was also the longest ever by agricultural workers. The NFLU also established the secondary boycott as a successful tool later utilised by Chavez against Delano, although the earlier union was prevented from using it to full effect in the DiGiorgio strike.
Here though, I want to concentrate on Ernesto Galarza, and his efforts to build the NFLU in California past the DiGiorgio strike. One side of this was an attempt to end the Bracero Program, an agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments to allow Mexican farm workers into the United States as guest workers, lobbied for by groups such as the Associated Farmers, who claimed that there was a labour shortage in border states. On arriving in California, Galarza found that there were several thousand American labourers out of work, and that those who did have jobs working for farmers like DiGiorgio had their wages severely depressed by the importation of Mexican workers who had no choice but to work for less than their American counterparts, sometimes as low as 25 or 30 cents an hour. Galarza was instrumental in challenging this agreement, and kept up his efforts to repeal it until the U.S. government finally agreed to end the program in 1964. His book, Merchants of Labor, describes his position and the struggle to end the Bracero program.
The second part of Galarza’s strategy in California was to go out into the tiny communities of Mexican-Americans all over the state to identify and educate what he called the “colonies” on the labour movement and wider political issues. These were off-the-grid communities, where residents often spoke no English and had no contact with the wider social and political infrastructure of the state, although they were American citizens who could literally say that “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” Galarza produced surveys and analytical studies of these communities and recognised the potential they held to swing elections in the coming years and to solidify into a movement of the poor and socially excluded. “These United States citizens are just now beginning to grope their way toward those forms of action which in the long run are the basic defences of civil liberty: (a) economic organization, (b) education, (c) political action and (d) community acceptance,” Galarza wrote in a November 1948 report on the Southwestern states. In the 1960s, Cesar Chavez, who went to NFLU organising meetings in 1948 and struck with the union in 1949, would use Galarza’s groundwork and connections to organise the same communities around the same issues his predecessor had identified.
The NFLU faded away quickly in the early 1950s, but ultimately led to the creation of the Filipino-led Agriculutural Workers Organizing Committee, and later the United Farm Workers. Without Galarza’s work in California in 1948-49, it’s fair to say that Cesar Chavez would have started from a much weaker position in organising farm workers in the state. Galarza’s name is not completely unknown, but many of the details of his work in California are not in any book on the subject, even the ones he wrote himself. He’s a real unsung hero to me.