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IFPTE Celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

On September 7, 1965, Filipino American farm workers of Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO, voted to to reject the wages proposed by Delano, California grape growers. The Filipino workers were being paid less than their Mexican counterparts in the area and had demanded equal wages; when the growers refused, the AWOC voted to strike, sparking the Delano grape strike that eventually resulted in the birth of the United Farm Workers, brought worldwide recognition to Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement, and helped connect the labor movement with the broader civil rights movement.

Following the September 8, 1965 walkout, Filipino American farmworkers and union organizers Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz approached the National Farm Workers Association (NWFA), a largely Mexican American farmworkers union co-founded by Cesar Chavez, asking them to stand in solidarity with the striking Filipino workers. On September 16, 1965, the NWFA voted to join the strike. Eventually, AWOC and NWFA joined to form the United Farm Workers of America, a result of the two immigrant groups recognizing that the growers had historically pitted them against each other. The strike spread across California and continued into 1970, bringing national attention to the plight of the mostly immigrant workforce, and led to improvement in working conditions for farmworkers nationwide.

Born in the Philippines in 1904, Vera Cruz emigrated to the U.S. in 1926, where he worked in jobs including an Alaskan cannery, a restaurant, and a box factory. In August of 1942 during World War II, he was drafted and sent to San Luis Obispo, California, for basic training. Because he was in his late thirties, he was discharged and assigned to work on the farms in the San Joaquin Valley to assist the war effort with food production. There, he joined the National Farm Labor Union. His union local, based in Delano, California, helped form the AWOC, which was formed to recruit farmworkers and was composed mainly of Filipino American farmworker organizers but also hired Dolores Huerta. Vera Cruz was eventually elected Second Vice President of the UFW. After leaving the UFW in 1977 in protest for Chavez visiting and accepting an award from dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Vera Cruz continued to work with unions and fight for social justice for the rest of his life. He died in California in 1994.

Larry Itliong was born in the Philippines in 1913 and emigrated to the U.S. in 1929. Like Vera Cruz, he worked at an Alaskan cannery; there, he lost three of his fingers, earning him the lifelong nickname "Seven Fingers." While he had only a sixth grade education, he spoke several languages and studied law on his own. He became involved in the 1948 asparagus strike with Vera Cruz, eventually settled in Delano and joined the AWOC. A militant unionist, Itliong called for the strike vote on September 7, 1965. After leaving the UFW in 1971, he continued to work in the labor movement. He died at age 63 of Lou Gehrig's disease.

For more information on Philip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong: