Dolores Huerta grew up in Stockton, California, which was in the San Joaquin Valley, an area filled with farms. In the early 1950s, she completed a degree at Delta Community College, part of the University of the Pacific. She briefly worked as an elementary school teacher. Huerta saw that her students, many of them children of farm workers, were living in poverty without enough food to eat or other basic necessities. To help, she became one of the founders of the Stockton chapter of the Community Service Organization (CSO). The CSO worked to improve social and economic conditions for farm workers and to fight discrimination.
By 1959, César Chávez had already established professional relationships with local community organizations that aimed to empower the working class population by encouraging them to become more politically active. In 1952, Chávez met Fred Ross who was a community organizer working on behalf of the Community Service Organization. This was a group which was affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation which was headed by Saul Alinsky.
To further her cause, Huerta created the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA) in 1960. Through the AWA, she lobbied politicians on many issues, including allowing migrant workers without U.S. citizenship to receive public assistance and pensions and creating Spanish-language voting ballots and driver's tests. In 1962, she co-founded a workers' union with César Chávez, which was later known as the United Farm Workers (UFW). The two made a great team. Chávez was the dynamic leader and speaker and Huerta was a skilled organizer and tough negotiator. Huerta was instrumental in the union's many successes, including the strikes against California grape growers in the 1960s and 1970s.
During Chávez’s participation in the Community Service Organization, Fred Ross trained César Chávez in the grassroots, door-to-door, house meeting tactic of organization, a tactic which was crucial to the UFW’s recruiting methods. The house meeting tactic successfully established a broad base of local Community Service Organization chapters during Ross's era, and Chávez used this technique to extend the UFW's reach as well as to find up and coming organizers. During the 1950s, César Chávez and Fred Ross developed twenty-two new Community Service Organization chapters in the Mexican American neighborhoods of San Jose. In 1959, Chávez would claim the rank of executive director in the Community Service Organization. During this time, Chávez observed and adopted the notion of having the community become more politically involved in order to bring about the social changes that the community sought. This would be a vital tactic in Chávez’s future struggles in fighting for immigrant rights.
César Chávez’s ultimate goal in his participation with the Community Service Organization and the Industrial Areas Foundation was to eventually organize a union for the farm workers. Saul Alinsky did not share Chávez’s sympathy for the farm workers struggle, claiming that organizing farm workers, "was like fighting on a constantly disintegrating bed of sand." (Alinsky, 1967)
In March 1962 at the Community Service Organization convention, Chávez proposed a pilot project for organizing farm workers which was rejected by the organization’s members. Chávez’s reaction to this led him to resign from the organization in order to pursue his goal of creating a farm workers union which would later come to be known as the National Farm Workers Association.
By 1965 the National Farm Workers Association had acquired twelve hundred members through Chávez’s person-to-person recruitment efforts which he learned from Fred Ross just a decade earlier. Out of those twelve hundred, only about two hundred paid dues. Also in 1962, Richard Chavez, the brother of César Chávez, designed the black Aztec eagle insignia that would become the symbol of the NFW and the UFW. César Chávez chose the red and black colors used by the organization.
Although still in its infant stages, the organization lent its support to a strike by workers in the rose industry in 1965. This initial protest by the young organization resulted in a failed attempt to strike against the rose industry. That same year the farm workers who worked in the Delano fields of California wanted to strike against the growers in response to the grower’s refusal to raise wages from $1.20 to $1.40 an hour, and they sought out Chávez and the National Farm Workers Association for support. The Delano agricultural workers were mostly Filipino workers affiliated with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, a charter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. The unification of these two organizations, in an attempt to boycott table grapes which were grown in the Delano fields, resulted in the creation of the United Farm Workers of America. The AFL-CIO chartered the United Farm Workers, officially combining the AWOC and the NFWA, in August 1966.
In the early history of American agriculture, farm workers experienced many failed attempts to organize agricultural laborers. In 1903, Japanese and Mexican farm workers attempted to come together to fight for better wages and better working conditions. This attempt to organize agricultural laborers was ignored and disbanded when organizations, such as the American Federation of Labor, neglected to support their efforts, often withholding assistance on the basis of race.
In 1913, the Industrial Workers of the World organized a rally at a large ranch in the rural area of Northern California which involved two thousand farm workers. This resulted in an attack against the participants of the rally by national guardsmen. As a result of the violence the two lead organizers for the Industrial Workers of the World were arrested, convicted of murder, and were sentenced to life imprisonment. It is believed that the two people arrested were wrongly convicted of the murder charges.
In the later teens and 1920s in the United States, further attempts to organize farm laborers were undertaken by spontaneous local efforts, and some which were led by communist unions. These attempts also resulted in failure because during that time employers were not required by law to involve themselves with negotiations with their workers. During this time period, Employers could also legally fire their employees if they chose to join a union.
In 1936, the National Labor Relations Act was put into effect. This legislation provided most American workers the right to join unions and bargain collectively. Agricultural workers were exempt from the protection of this law. Some believe that this labor category was excluded as a result of a political tactic to gain the support of Southern politicians in the passing of this law.
In 1941, the United States Government and the Mexican Government enacted the Bracero Program. Initially, this joint project between the United States and Mexico was established during the Second World War in order to address labor shortages by allowing "guest workers" from Mexico to work in the American agricultural industry until the end of the crop harvest. Thousands of Mexican Nationals were brought north to work in the fields in the United States and growers used this opportunity to undercut domestic wages, and the Braceros were also utilized in breaking strikes from resident farm workers. This program was extended until 1964.
In May 1966, California farm worker activist Eugene Nelson traveled to Texas to rally support for the Schenley Farms boycott. While in Houston, AFL-CIO state representatives suggested that he visit Rio Grande City on the Texas-Mexico border in the lower Rio Grande Valley. Seeing the possibilities for organizing workers in the impoverished region, he quickly set about recruiting volunteers for the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) as both strikers and assistants. Other UFWOC activists joined Nelson in Rio Grande City, including Gilbert Padilla, Antonio Orendain, and Bill Chandler.
On June 1, Nelson led workers to strike demanding $1.25 as a minimum hourly wage, protesting La Casita Farms and others packing sheds. The activists also protested the hiring of "scab" labor, mostly those with green card visas from Mexico, who were allowed to cross the border as day workers. In the dispute, reports and allegations of vandalism to equipment, produce, and public property caused Starr County officials, along with the support of the growers, to call for additional law enforcement, which arrived in the form of the Texas Rangers. Both county officials and rangers arrested protestors for secondary picketing, standing within 50 feet of one another, a practice illegal at the time. Allegations of brutality and questions of jurisdictional limits created national headlines in what came to be known as "La Huelga."
On July 4, members of UFWOC, strikers, and members of the clergy set out on a march to Austin to demand the $1.25 minimum wage and other improvements for farm workers. Press coverage intensified as the marchers made their way north in the summer heat. Politicians, members of the AFL-CIO, and the Texas Council of Churches accompanied the protestors. Gov. John Connally, who had refused to meet them in Austin, traveled to New Braunfels with then House Speaker Ben Barnes, and Attorney General Waggoner Carr to intercept the march and inform strikers that their efforts would have no effect.
Protestors arrived in Austin in time for a Labor Day rally, but no changes in law resulted. Strikes and arrests continued in Rio Grande City through 1966 into 1967. Violence increased as the spring melon crop ripened and time neared for the May harvest. In June, when beatings of two UFWOC supporters by Texas rangers surfaced, tempers flared.
At the end of June as the harvest was ending, members of the Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor, including Senators Harrison Williams and Edward Kennedy, arrived in the lower Rio Grande Valley to hold hearings in Rio Grande City and Edinburg, Texas. The senators took their findings back to Washington as a report on pending legislation. Subsequently, the rangers left the area and the picketing ended. On September 20, Hurricane Beulah's devastations ruined the farming industry in the Valley for the following year. One major outcome of the strikes came in the form of a 1974 Supreme Court victory in Medrano v. Allee, limiting jurisdiction of Texas Rangers in labor disputes. Farm workers continued to organize through the 1970s on a smaller scale, under new leadership in San Juan, Texas, independent of César Chávez.
By mid-1971 the Texas campaign was well underway. In Sept. 1971, Thomas John Wakely, recent discharge from the United States Air Force joined the San Antonio office of the Texas campaign. His pay was room and board, $5.00 a week plus all of the menudo he could eat. The menudo was provided to the UFOC staff by the families of migrant workers working the Texas fields.
TJ worked for UFOC for about 2 years and his responsibilities included organizing the Grape Boycott in San Antonio. His primary target was the H.E.B grocery store chain. In addition, he attempted to organize Hispanic farm workers working the farmers market in San Antonio — an institution at that time controlled by the corporate farms. Among his many organizing activities included an early 1972 episode where he and several other UFOC staff members who were attempting to organize warehouse workers in San Antonio were fired upon by security agents of the corporate farm owners.
In mid-1973 the San Antonio office of the UFOC was taken over by the Brown Berets. This radicalization of the San Antonio UFOC office led to the eventual collapse of the San Antonio UFOC organizing campaign.
In 1970, Chavez decided to move the union's headquarters from Delano to La Paz, California into a former sanatorium in the Tehachapi Mountains. Whereas Chavez thought this change would aid the creation of "a national union of the poor ... serving the needs of all who suffer," other union members objected to this distancing of the leadership away from the farmworkers.
The union was poised to launch its next major campaign in the lettuce fields in 1970 when a deal between the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the growers nearly destroyed it. Initially the Teamsters signed contracts with lettuce growers in the Salinas Valley, who wanted to avoid recognizing the UFW. Then in 1973, when the three-year UFW grape contracts expired, the grape growers signed contracts giving the Teamsters the right to represent the workers who had been members of the UFW.
The UFW responded with strikes, lawsuits and boycotts, including secondary boycotts in the retail grocery industry. The union struggled to regain the members it had lost in the lettuce fields; it never fully recovered its strength in grapes, due in some part to incompetent management of the hiring halls it had established that seemed to favor some workers over others.
The battles in the fields became violent, with a number of UFW members killed on the picket line. The violence led the state in 1975 to enact the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, creating an administrative agency, the ALRB, that oversaw secret ballot elections and resolved charges of unfair labor practices, like failing to bargain in good faith, or discrimination against activists. The UFW won the majority of secret ballot elections in which it participated.
In the late 1970s, the leadership of the UFW was wracked by a series of conflicts, as differences emerged between Chavez and some of his former colleagues. In 1977, the Teamsters signed an agreement with the UFW promising to end their efforts to represent farm workers. 
In the 1980s, the membership of the UFW shrank, as did its national prominence. After taking office in the 1980s, California Governor George Deukmejian stopped enforcement of the state's farm labor laws, resulting in farm workers losing their UFW contracts, being fired, and blacklisted. Due to internal squabbles, most of the union's original leadership left or were forced out, except for Chavez and Huerta. By 1986, the union had been reduced to 75 contracts and had stopped organizing.
In the 1980s, the UFW joined with the AFL-CIO and other organizations for the national Wrath of Grapes campaign, re-instituting the grape boycott.
In July 2008 the farm worker Ramiro Carrillo Rodriguez, 48, died of a heat stroke. According to United Farm Workers, he was the "13th farm worker heat death since CA Governor Schwarzenegger took office" in 2003. In 2006 California's first permanent heat regulations were enacted but these regulations were not strictly enforced, the union contended.
César Chávez is a film released in March, 2014, directed by Diego Luna about the life of the Mexican-American labor leader who co-founded the United Farm Workers. The film stars Michael Peña as Chávez. Co-producer John Malkovich also co-stars in the role of an owner of a large industrial grape farm who leads the sometimes violent opposition to Chávez's organizing efforts.
The grape strike officially began in Delano in September 1965. In December, union representatives traveled from California to New York, Washington, D.C., Pittsburg, Detroit, and other large cities to encourage a boycott of grapes grown at ranches without UFW contracts.
In the summer of 1966, unions and religious groups from Seattle and Portland endorsed the boycott. Supporters formed a boycott committee in Vancouver, prompting an outpouring of support from Canadians that would continue throughout the following years.
In 1967, UFW supporters in Oregon began picketing stores in Eugene, Salem, and Portland. After melon workers went on strike in Texas, growers held the first union representation elections in the region, and the UFW became the first union to ever sign a contract with a grower in Texas.
National support for the UFW continued to grow in 1968, and hundreds of UFW members and supporters were arrested. Picketing continued throughout the country, including in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Florida. The mayors of New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Detroit, and other cities pledged their support, and many of them altered their cities’ grape purchases to support the boycott.
In 1969, support for farm workers increased throughout North America. The grape boycott spread into the South as civil rights groups pressured grocery stores in Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, Nashville, and Louisville to remove non-union grapes. Student groups in New York protested the Department of Defense and accused them of deliberately purchasing boycotted grapes. On May 10, UFW supporters picketed Safeway stores throughout the U.S. and Canada in celebration of International Grape Boycott Day. Cesar Chavez also went on a speaking tour along the East Coast to ask for support from labor groups, religious groups, and universities.
Mapping UFW Strikes, Boycotts, and Farm Worker Actions 1965-1975 shows over 1,000 farm worker strikes, boycotts, and other actions.
The United Farm Workers, a working class movement, had received substantial support from the middle class, causing problems of power and control within the union. The UFW gave no structural power to farm workers, as there were no locals elected as staff. The survival of the staff wasn't linked directly to membership, since they made more money from outside sources than union dues. Today, the UFW only consists of five thousand members who work in very similar low conditions as they did 40 years ago.
The role of Cesar Chavez, the founder of UFW, was to frame his campaigns in terms of consumer safety and involving social justice, bringing benefits to the farmworker unions. One of UFW’s, along with Cesar Chavez’s, important aspects that has been overlooked is building coalitions.
The United Farm Workers allows farmworkers to help improve their working conditions and wages. The UFW embraces nonviolence in its attempt to cultivate members on political and social issues.
The union publicly adopted the principles of non-violence championed by Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On July 22, 2005, the UFW announced that it was joining the Change to Win Federation, a coalition of labor unions functioning as an alternative to the AFL-CIO. On January 13, 2006, the union officially disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO. In contrast to other Change to Win-affiliated unions, the AFL-CIO neglected to offer the right of affiliation to regional bodies to the UFW.The Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University is the official repository of the United Farm Workers Union. Collections include the papers of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta as well as numerous administrative records and personal papers. Visit the United Farm Workers Collections at the Reuther Library.
Jerry Cohen Papers in the Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College. Cohen was General Counsel of the United Farm Workers of America and personal attorney of César Chávez from 1967-1979.
United Farm Workers Records. 1968-1976. circa 0.1 Cubic Ft. At the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.
King County Labor Council of Washington Records. 1889-2008. 41.26 cubic ft. (61 boxes). At the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.
Guide to the United Farm Workers Information Fair Collection. Special Collections and Archives, The UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, California.
Rosalinda Guillen and Joseph Moore Papers. - Court Case Documents, Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery Picket, Joseph Moore Speeding Ticket