This summer will mark the fortieth anniversary of the historic signing of a binding contract between the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee–later the United Farm Workers–and most of the table grape growers in California. On July 29, 1970, after a grueling five-year struggle, farm labor leader Cesar Chavez and grower John Guimarra, Sr., sat down at a table and signed the contract in the Filipino farm workers’ union hall in Delano, California. Standing behind them were Catholic clergy who had served as mediators.
This arbitration team served as the last of three religious expressions playing pivotal roles in this victory. The other two were the pan-Protestant National Migrant Ministry and Chavez’s use of Mexican devotional piety. During various stages of the table grape strike, each religious entity provided support without which the farm workers could not have achieved their hard-won goal.
In September of 1965, Filipino farm laborers called a strike and were soon joined by Mexican-American workers. Immediately, the Migrant Ministry supported the workers’ demands for higher wages and better working conditions. It was an ecumenical ministry originally conceived, funded, and operated by middle-class women belonging to the moderate arm of the Social Gospel and had maintained a presence among farm workers from the 1920s. It provided traditional support, including food, clothing, health care, and religious education. Later, however, it undertook a more aggressive approach, advocating for legislation to improve the lives of farm laborers. In the 1960s, it adopted yet another tack, calling itself a servanthood ministry and thus operating at the beck and call of the farm worker union. Without the organization’s support in the early months of the strike, it would have failed.
Chavez himself was largely responsible for tapping into another religious expression to promote the movement, namely, Mexican devotional piety. More accurately, he creatively combined it with elements of the civil rights struggle, for example, the 1966 planning and execution of a march from the union headquarters in Delano to the state capitol in Sacramento. The very name of this event, “Pereginacion, Penitencia, Revolucion,” spoke to the intent to appeal to various segments of the general population. First, this event was likened to a Lenten pilgrimage. Second, it was a penitential act among farm workers, who were harboring feelings of resentment and hate toward the growers. Third, it was an act of self-determination, by which the union protested against the growers, the governor, and other interests. Another example of Chavez’s use of popular religion was his first public fast in 1968. Again, its ostensible purpose was to quell threats of worker violence and otherwise maintain the moral high ground. The union’s headquarters was converted into a virtual shrine, and the room in which Chavez held his fast became a monastic cell. Once again, witnesses identified with at least one of the meanings of the fast. For many Catholics, it espoused the ideals of Franciscan self-denial. For the Mexican faithful, it was a reminder of their own suffering. For the general public, it was regarded as a nonviolent means to effect social change, in which Chavez took a cue from the African-American civil rights movement.
Finally, the Bishops Ad Hoc Committee laid the groundwork for final negotiations. Representing the prolabor wing of the Catholic Church, it was able to approach the growers, who were primarily second-generation Catholics from Italy and Yugoslavia and who, in spite of strained relations, were still on speaking terms with California bishops.
Thus, all three of the aforementioned religious expressions aided the union to reach a binding contract with growers. They were by no means sufficient factors in the success of this event, but were certainly necessary factors.