Asking an archivist to pick their favorite item in their exhibit may be the most challenging question you could ever ask them. After spending the past year assisting in all aspects of the exhibit For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America, I noticed that one of the most popular items I selected for the exhibit was the United Farm Workers flag. The flag, signed by famous figures Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, commemorates the historic Delano grape strike. The five-year strike started on September 8, 1965 and changed the face of the American labor movement and its attitude towards immigrant workers.
Starting in Delano Valley, California, immigrant workers of Filipino and Mexican descent waged a massive strike that transformed working conditions for farm workers. Using nonviolent tactics, the five-year struggle spread from the grape fields of California to boycotts of non-union farm produce in major American urban centers such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, New Orleans, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York, and Washington, DC. Under the leadership of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, the strikers appealed to students, religious leaders, and urban union members and generated national support for farm workers. The Delano grape strike also opened the national labor movement’s eyes to the power of immigrant labor in the United States because of the magnitude and power of the nonviolent strikes the UFW was able to organize.
I chose this commemorative flag not only because of its bold red coloring and distinctive signatures, but also because I particularly enjoyed telling this story of this crucial moment for immigrant workers in the United States.
One of the most recognizable signatures on the upper-left corner of the flag is that of Cesar Chavez. As leader of the National Farm Workers Association and later the UFW, Chavez was a leading figure in the Delano grape strike. Filipino members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee started the strike by walking out of vineyards in Delano valley, and Cesar Chavez led the Mexican members of the National Farm Workers Association (a precursor of the UFW) in joining the strike. Chavez had spent years persuading Mexicans to join his union, and now he asked them to join a larger movement demanding fair wages and improved working conditions. Following in Chavez’s lead, farm laborers sacrificed their livelihoods for the greater union cause. During the five-year strike, Chavez rose from near anonymity to national prominence and led a nationwide crusade for recognizing the value of migrant labor.
Another signature on the left side of the flag is that of civil rights icon and influential labor activist Dolores Huerta. Often overshadowed by her National Farm Workers Association co-founder Cesar Chavez, she was a leading organizer of the Delano grape strike and served as the UFW’s first vice president. During the Delano grape strike, she confronted violence from grape growers and overcame sexism within her own organization. Huerta was the lead negotiator in the successful contract negotiations that followed the Delano grape strike, which won safer working conditions, unemployment benefits, and better healthcare benefits for agricultural workers.
The AFL-CIO collection holds a number of items documenting the historic Delano grape strike beyond the commemorative flag. For example, a 1969 editorial and cartoon in the AFL-CIO News demonstrates how the Delano grape strike transformed unions’ attitudes towards immigrant labor. “Viva La Causa!” (“Long Live the Cause!”), refers to the cause adopted by thousands of people across the United States to end exploitation of farm workers.
To learn more about the Delano grape strike, visit the exhibit For Liberty: Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America in person at Hornbake Library or online, and be sure to explore the section on Immigrants’ Rights! For general information about the Labor History Archives, check out our labor history subject guide! This post is one of a series of Curator’s Choices, so be on the lookout for posts by other members of the Labor History Archives team at Special Collections and University Archives.
 “Dolores Huerta.” National Women’s History Museum. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/dolores-huerta (accessed 25 October 2017).
Jen Wachtel is a graduate student at the University of Maryland pursuing an M.A. in History (Modern Europe), a Master of Library and Information Science (Archives and Digital Curation), and a graduate certificate in Museum Scholarship and Material Culture. She is a Coordinator for Labor History Collections and Mass Media and Culture Processing Archivist at Special Collections and University Archives. Jen expects to graduate in December 2018 to pursue a career in museum archives.