Larry Itliong, Leader of One of the Nation’s Most Successful Strikes
On September 8, 1965, about 1500 Filipino workers walked off the wine and table grape fields of Delano, California. The Delano grape strike, as it would become known, has been heralded as one of the nation’s most important labor struggles, thrusting the fight for Latino civil rights into the national spotlight—but the Filipinos who started the strike, especially leader Larry Itliong, have long been overlooked.
Larry Itliong was born in Pangasinan, the Philippines on October 25, 1913, one of six children of Artemio and Francesca Itliong. At the time, the archipelago was a territory of the United States, meaning Itliong didn’t have to go through immigration when he arrived in America in 1929. His timing, however, could scarcely have been worse—the United States was entering the Great Depression, and jobs were scarce.
Like many other Filipino-Americans, Itliong turned to seasonal farm work to survive. Filipinos traveled from salmon canneries in Alaska to farm fields in Washington, Oregon, and California, following the often difficult and low-paying jobs. Itliong learned quickly how dangerous the work could be—he earned the nickname "Seven Fingers" after losing three of his digits in an on-the-job accident (there are conflicting stories of whether the injury occurred while harvesting lettuce, canning salmon, or working on the railroad).
It was with the lettuce workers that he got his first taste of labor organizing, when he joined a strike in Washington state. In the salmon canneries of Alaska, he helped to organize the Alaska Cannery Workers Union. He was also involved in a failed asparagus strike in Stockton, California, in 1948, but by 1953 he was vice president of the Local 37 of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehouse Workers Union, which was based in Seattle.
Like other effective Filipino labor organizers, Itliong had a useful tool: a grasp of several languages. Filipino-Americans came from all over the Philippines, and spoke dozens of different languages and dialects. Itliong himself spoke Tagalog, Ilocano, and several Visayan dialects, for a total of nine Filipino languages, according to Dawn Bohulano Mabalon in her book Little Manila Is in the Heart; he also spoke Spanish, Japanese, and Cantonese, his son told The New York Times.
Itliong had other strengths, too: He was active in his community outside of the fields, as a member of a local Filipino Masonic organization, as an officer in the Filipino Community Organization of Stockton, and as the president of the Filipino Voters League in Stockton in 1957.
His experience as an organizer and his deep ties to the Filipino community may have been what led the newly formed Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to recruit him as a paid organizer in 1959. It was there that he met Dolores Huerta, AWOC’s secretary-treasurer and founder of the Stockton chapter of the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights organization. Though Huerta left AWOC shortly after its founding after to join Cesar Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), she and Itliong remained friendly—a link that would later prove key in Delano.
Itliong, along with other activists including Philip Vera Cruz and Ben Gines, quickly became key Filipino leaders in AWOC and in the San Joaquin Valley, Matt Garcia writes in his book From the Jaws of Victory. Just five years later, the largely Filipino AWOC and the primarily Hispanic NFWA would join together and become a force to be reckoned with during the Delano grape strike.
"I think Larry probably will always be remembered for his role in the Delano grape strike," Marc Grossman, a spokesman with the United Farm Workers, told mental_floss in a telephone interview. "Many people, when they think of the Delano grape strike, they only think of it as Latino farm workers, and that’s not true. One of the hallmarks that made it so successful, and led to the triumph in the grapes, was the solidarity between the races."
By the time of the Delano strike, Cesar Chavez had already made a name for himself in California as an advocate for Latino rights. The Delano strike thrust Chavez’s union and Latino farm workers into the spotlight, but it was Itliong and the other Delano manongs—an Ilocano term of respect for older male relatives—who actually started the strike.
In 1965, grape growers in the Coachella Valley pushed California legislators to revive the recently ended bracero program, citing fears of a labor shortage. The bracero program had been a series of diplomatic agreements between the U.S. and Mexico allowing U.S. growers to hire and "import" Mexican workers, with supposedly guaranteed rights and a minimum wage. The government complied and restarted the program, with braceros making $1.40 per hour—and Filipino laborers making $1.25 or less.
The Filipino laborers turned to AWOC, Itliong’s union, who permitted a strike; 10 days later, they were given equal wages. But the growers repeated the wage inequality farther north. By the time the fall harvest began in Delano, California, Filipino workers were earning only $1.00 per hour, and this time, the growers refused to reconsider. Workers turned to AWOC again.
"We told them, maybe you’re going to get hungry, maybe you’re going to lose your car, maybe you’re going to lose your house," Itliong recalled in The Fight in the Fields, by Susan Ferriss, Ricardo Sandoval, and Diana Hembree. "They said, 'We don’t care.'"
The Filipino workers voted to go on strike on September 8, 1965, and for a week, they were alone. There was no reason to believe other farm workers would join them. Growers had a history of pitting farm workers against each other on ethnic lines, Grossman says, hiring Latinos as scabs during Filipino strikes and vice versa. But both Itliong and Chavez were very aware of this history, according to Grossman.
Itliong and Dolores Huerta had also continued to communicate after she left AWOC for Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association, and their communication had created a bridge between the two groups. So when Mexican workers began crossing the lines, the Filipino strike leaders knew they needed to reach out to the NFWA.
"Larry Itliong and I decided to take action by seeing Cesar Chavez, the leader of the National Farm Workers Association. We met to come up with a plan that would be beneficial for everyone, including the Mexican workers," strike veteran Andy Imutan wrote on the 40th anniversary of the Delano strike.
At first, Chavez was reluctant; he didn’t think the NFWA was ready for a strike, Grossman says, but he knew that the invitation was a rare opportunity.
"When Larry Itliong and [activists] Pete Velasco and Philip Vera Cruz and Andy Imutan went to the NFWA and said 'Join our picket lines,' I don’t think there was much debate," he said.
By the time the growers began evicting farm workers from grower-owned housing, Chavez and his union’s board offered their support, and called a general meeting in Delano on September 16 to make it official.
Not everyone wanted the unions to work together, Grossman notes. Some of the Latino members of the NFWA didn’t want to share kitchen facilities or strike on the same lines, he says. And Andy Imutan wrote in later correspondence that some of the Filipino strike leaders quit and became scabs after the unions merged. But for others, such as Huerta and Chavez’s wife Helen, there was no question of joining the strike.
"Cesar Chavez, Larry Itliong, and the other Latino and Filipino leaders of the UFW brought together the two races and cultures that growers had historically [pitted] against each other to break strikes," Lorraine Agtang wrote in a column about her experiences as a strike veteran.
In 1966, after a 400-mile march to draw attention to the strike started with 70 farm workers in Delano and ended with more than 10,000 supporters on the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento, leaders decided to merge the two unions, creating the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC).
As assistant director of the UFWOC, Larry Itliong was Chavez’s second-in-command, and he proved an able right-hand man. He personally answered many of the letters and donations that poured in to support the strike, and traveled with other strikers all over the U.S. to spread the word and ask for support. He also took the lead on organizing a boycott of grapes—now considered one of the largest and most successful boycotts in U.S. history.
"The boycott was a way to transfer the battle from the fields, where the odds were stacked against the strikers, to the cities, where the strikers had a chance," Grossman says.
Itliong also sometimes served as a stand-in for Chavez at rallies and with the press. In this role, he rebutted growers’ claims that strikers were negotiating in bad faith, as well as their request for federal intervention. He and Chavez were also able to help secure an anti-poverty grant for the California Rural Legal Assistance Association to help picketers.
The strike even spread to college campuses. "If you were on a university campus in '60s or '70s, you were boycotting on behalf of farm workers," Grossman says. Car caravans traveled to Delano to join the picket lines on weekends. Itliong and other leaders helped to secure students’ support, speaking at Filipino and student conferences and teaching organizing tactics to the next generation.
The strike and grape boycott lasted five years. In June 1969, grape growers reached out to the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, indicating that they would consider negotiations, and in 1970, the strike finally ended. Itliong sat at the table beside Cesar Chavez as the union and growers signed the first contracts, according to Grossman.
In the wake of the victory, the United Farm Workers worked to ensure better conditions for farm laborers throughout California and beyond. The union created a standard contract that it presented to growers, with the threat of a strike or boycott should growers not accept it.
"We, as Filipinos, are not alone anymore," Itliong said at a rally in 1971. "We have brothers among the Mexicans and the Blacks and in the conscience of the American people."
But the solidarity that sustained the strike didn’t last for everyone once it was over.
According to Mabalon, the UFW focus on nonviolence ran against the Filipino farm workers’ pragmatic sense of self-preservation. They had faced violent racism in the fields and in beatings and bombings in Watsonville, Stockton, and elsewhere, and had no qualms about defending themselves. In other words, Itliong wasn’t shy about being militant when needed. "I have the ability to make that white man know I am just as mean as anybody in this world," Itliong once said. "... I feel we have the same rights as any of them. Because in that Constitution, it said that everybody has equal rights and justice. You've got to make that come about. They are not going to give it to you."
The UFW also did away with the labor contractor system the Filipino farm workers had used for decades, and with Latinos outnumbering Filipinos in the new union, many Filipinos worried they would be ignored. Many of the Filipino AWOC members eventually left for the Teamsters or other trade unions.
Itliong left the UFW in October 1971, when he began to question the direction of the union. "I left at my own accord for many reasons," Itliong told fellow organizer Bill Kircher [PDF]. "But my biggest disappointment is that the Organization I participated in to fight for Justice and Dignity is not turning [out] as planned."
Itliong used his new free time to found the Filipino American Political Association. He also focused on improving life for aging Filipinos. The law that gave the Philippines its independence in the early part of the 20th century also capped the number of Filipinos coming into the country, and most of those who immigrated were young, single men looking for work. A lack of Filipinas living in the U.S. might not necessarily have stopped these men from starting families, except that state anti-miscegenation laws barred whites (including Mexican-Americans) from marrying African-Americans or Asians. It wasn’t until 1967, mid-way through the Delano strike, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled all anti-miscegenation laws illegal in Loving v. Virginia.
According to Grossman, by the time the grape strike began, many of the farm workers were older men and childless. Many were also homeless by 1970, because they had lived in housing provided by the grape growers before the strike and were evicted. They were too old to go back into the fields.
"You don’t see a lot of older farm workers," Grossman says, pointing out the poor pay and hard work. "That was really the impetus for the Agbayani Village."
Itliong and others had dreamed of a home where these men could live comfortably in retirement. Before he left the UFW, Itliong had left behind plans for a retirement home. The union took these plans and turned them into Paolo Agbayani Village, named after a farm worker who suffered a heart attack and died on the picket line. When finished—construction was overseen by Cesar Chavez’s brother Richard and included 1000 volunteers from all walks of life—the Agbayani Village had 60 apartments, a communal kitchen serving Filipino meals three times a day, a garden, an arcade, and more.
"It was a godsend for the residents," Grossman says. Agbayani Village still stands today at the Forty Acres in Delano, the original headquarters of the UFW, though it no longer has residents. The Forty Acres, including Agbayani Village and other buildings at the site, is now a National Historic Landmark and can be visited year-round.
Larry Itliong died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 1977. He was 63.
In 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill declaring October 25 to be Larry Itliong Day in the state. It’s an honor the bill’s author, Assemblyman Rob Bonta, hopes will spread beyond the state’s borders.
"Larry Itliong deserves a national day in his honor," he said. "We're proud to have started with a California day in his honor and there will be celebrations up and down the state—not just this year, but for many years to come."