Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Movement Before El Movimiento: Farmworker Advocacy and Organization Programs in Ventura County, California, 1961-1967

This paper is a selection from a book manuscript tentatively titled, The Battle of San Buenaventura: The Chicana/o Movement in Ventura County, California, 1961-1975. In addition to the geographic examination of el movimiento from the perspective of the northern portion of Southern California and its linkages with larger currents of the time, the book will attempt complicate the generational organization in the historiography. In other words, I contend that el moviemiento entailed the activism of people from the Mexicanist, Mexican American, and Chicana/o generations.

In 1958, Saul Alinsky, founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation, and Ralph Helstein, president of the United Packinghouse Workers of America, recruited César Chávez to establish a Community Service Organization chapter in Ventura County. They envisioned Chávez’ organization of the Mexican community undergirding a unionization campaign in the area’s packinghouses. Despite his incredulous acceptance of the assignment, Chávez ultimately created a vibrant CSO that momentarily disrupted the agricultural industry’s exploitation of the Bracero Program.

During this campaign, Chávez experienced a conversion from a community organizer to one of agricultural labor. In the process, he also developed a network of true believers. Indeed, after he quit his dear CSO in 1962 to establish a union of his dreams, the National Farm Workers Association, he periodically returned to Ventura County to stump for Democratic candidates as well as to provide, largely, moral support to strikes that erupted in the industries of citrus, eggs, strawberries, and vegetables during the early 1970s. Chávez consulted leaders in several of these disputes, and in other instances became more directly involved.

These walkouts, however, counted upon a foundation of labor activism prior to Chávez’s return. After the completion of the CSO battle in 1959, for example, he remained in contact with people that supported him. In fact, John Soria, Chavez’s former CSO assistant in Oxnard, along with others, created the Farm Labor Service Center and futilely attempted to persuade Chávez in May of 1962 to return to Ventura County to realize his union hopes there instead of Delano.

Nevertheless, Katherine Peake, a Santa Barbara philanthropist and former wife of Clive Knowles (the director of the United Packing House Workers of America), financially backed the Farm Labor Service Center as it fought against the agricultural industry’s reversion to the employment of braceros at the expense of domestic workers. Peake also tapped into her Los Angeles network of activists, celebrities, and politicos such as Steve Allen, Max Mont, Dore Schary, John Anson Ford, and Rod Serling to fund the Service Center.

Eventually, in 1965, Peake and Soria obtained the sponsorship of the Emergency Committee to Aid Farm Workers in Los Angeles to establish the Farmworkers Opportunity Project. This enabled Peake and Soria to obtain War on Poverty grants to found Operation San Buenaventura to implement a curriculum of job training, labor organizing, English language, and civics for farmworker families.

To this end, Peake and Daniel Lund, who served as the executive director of the Emergency Committee, recruited Peter Lauwerys of Visalia to direct the Farmworkers Opportunity Project headquartered in the La Colonia barrio of Oxnard. This organization worked in partnership with the US Manpower Development and Training Agency, the California state Departments of Employment and Education as well as the Oxnard High School District to effect a $600,000 grant (adjusted for inflation equaling $4.5 million) to recruit and train 600 unemployed Ventura County farmworkers for year around jobs in the citrus industry. Student cohorts of 40 were trained in tree pruning, fumigation, and other technical skills. During this time, the program paid the students as part of their on-the-job training in the orchards of Ventura County. This addressed the demand of growers who continually sobbed that a shortage of labor existed within the industry after the end of the Bracero Program.

Under Lauwerys’ direction and with War on Poverty grant money, the Opportunity Project hired counselors (many former farmworkers or the children of such) and provided students recruited from the fields and orchards of the county with generous stipends. This not only liberated people from the grind of agricultural work but also created career opportunities for them outside of it. In addition, the Opportunity Project primed citizens and residents to be civically engaged. This served as a basis for the labor uprisings in Ventura County during the first half of the 1970s.

Consequently, in 1969 Lauwerys, a self-described “professional agitator,” defined the Opportunity Project’s mission to integrate the farmworker community into the greater polis of Ventura County. Like the CSO, the project also sought to endow disadvantaged groups, farmworker and non-farmworker alike, by informing them of their rights and guide them through a praxis to collectively solve problems that affected them. Furthermore, the Opportunity Project embarked on CSO-like house meetings to identify issues in the community, reflect upon them, and brainstorm solutions.

Toward this goal, Opportunity Project students, many of them citrus workers, spent half their paid time to complete the vocational component of the program; the remaining portion encompassed classroom instruction in civics, English, and other academic subjects. Hence, similar to the CSO, the Service Center of the Opportunity Project provided support to farmworkers not only in terms of the economic self-sufficiency but also community empowerment by the cultivation of civic leaders.

Under the umbrella of the Opportunity Project, Lauwerys created Operation Harvest Hand. This program employed counselors to advise farmworkers in not only the location of employment but also how to collectively bargain for improved work conditions. The leadership of the Emergency Committee, under which the Opportunity Project existed, contacted César Chávez to coordinate its efforts with his union. In this regard, Operation Harvest Hand laid the foundation for the development of a subsequent farmworkers movement in Ventura County.

The next year, in 1966, the Office of Economic Opportunity headed by Sergeant Shriver in Washington, DC, authorized $95,431 (adjusted for inflation nearly $700,000) to fund the work of Operation Buenaventura, an additional War on Poverty project focused on servicing the demands of migrants. Peake, as the program’s director, situated the program’s office at 506 Cooper Road in the heart of the segregated Mexican community of La Colonia. Like the Opportunity Project, Operation Buenaventura was a service center and leadership program for migrant agricultural workers and residents. It instructed non-English speaking heads of households (men and women) on how to navigate bureaucracies in relation to the filing of taxes, the attainment of driver’s licenses, and the location of employment. While providing a stipend, the program also educated agricultural immigrant families on how to locate public and private housing as well as improve their residency.

To guide Operation Buenaventura, Peake formed an advisory committee, half of which were farmworkers. The others were friends that consisted of a cross-cultural group of educators, community activists, and clergy. And while the leadership of Operation Buenaventura and the Opportunity Project consisted of people not originally from Ventura County, the paid counselors were largely, but not exclusively, area residents of Mexican origin. The counselors recruited farmworkers in the fields and orchards of Ventura County. From this pool of clients, the counselors then selected community aides to outreach additional farmworkers to provide guidance in relation to employment and social services. The counselors also accompanied clients to resolve problems with public and private agencies. From this, the counselors identified farmworkers to train in the “leadership of self-organization.”

But not all the students of the Opportunity Project were farmworkers. Non-farmworkers and the spouses and children of farmworkers were eligible to participate. Each student received $45 (approximately $331 adjusted for inflation) for 30 hours of weekly instruction plus mileage to attend the classes conducted at Oxnard High School. The pay increased by $10 after the completion of the first week of class. Students with a spouse and children were eligible to receive up to $75 ($551.00 adjusted for inflation) a week.

Offending Goliath
This program offended the bosses of the Oxnard Press-Courier and agricultural industry. In May of 1966, the newspaper ran a three part exposé on the work of Operation Buenaventura, the Opportunity Project, as well as Peake, Lund, and Lauwerys. The newspaper framed the lead story, “Farm worker programs- - -success or waste?” and characterized the attainment of the OEO grant as a con. Eerily, the newspaper listed the home addresses of Lauwerys, Lund, and Peake along with the marital status and amount and sources of income of each. The article written by John McCormick labeled the three as interlopers, do-gooders, and agitators.

The exposé also condemned the financial and educational enablement of the Mexican-origin community to be civically engaged and unfettered from the domination of agricultural employers. Indeed, the bias of the newspaper aligned with the sentiments of the larger complex of agriculture when it published:

Whether the operations have been successful during their first year with federal financing is something that is difficult to determine. In the eyes of the three heads, each is a success story.
Farmers and many laborers disagree violently. They claim the money has been poured down the tubes, a complete waste and a blot against government leadership in financial management.
Mrs. Katherine Peake, Dan Lund and Peter Lauwerys are the three who have guided and planned every move of the two ventures.
All three share the same desire to elevate the farm laborer in mentality, education, and social position. They have each been active in farm strikes in California before their respective programs were ever financed by the government.

Inversely read, by extension of the Oxnard Press-Courier, growers condemned the work of the Operation Buenaventura and the Opportunity Project because the satraps of the industry desired to preserve the complete subordination of farmworkers. The industry refused to tolerate the elevation of the farmworkers in all, or any, aspect, of their being. This was the sin of Peake, Lund, and Lauwerys. The unspecified criticism of the industry in relation to the alleged involvement of the three in strikes, if true, failed to contextualize their causation: i.e., prohibitively low wages that made it nearly impossible for workers to sustain families, inhuman conditions, no benefits of health insurance and pension, and the constant importation of competitors to depress the wage rate.

Beyond the services provided by the Opportunity Project, in 1965 the counselors documented the testimonies of farmworker families that voiced a counterhegemonic perspective of agricultural life suppressed by growers’ associations, ranch managers, and an industry-friendly press. Before the documentation of these testimonies, the systemic oppression experienced by farmworkers and their families, as told by them, remained largely confined within the lore of such communities. Hence, “The Lie of the Land, to borrow from historian Don Mitchell, dominated the popular gestalt: a symmetry and verdure of the fields and orchards of the county, dotted by faceless outsiders dawned with weathered clothing for protection against beating sun rays, biting cold, and the residue of pesticides.

A recurrent narrative documented by Opportunity Project counselors detailed how the industry slashed the wages of farmworkers and assigned their jobs to newly imported workers from Texas or Mexico after the coup de grace of the Bracero Program in 1964. Indeed, Ramon Magdalena of Santa Paula, who worked at the Burpee Seed Company, detailed his pay being cut from $1.40 (adjusted for inflation $10.20) to $1.25 (about $9) an hour. This sort of reduction occurred after employers successfully recruited additional workers from Texas or Mexico. After which, an employer ostensibly drove “locals” from job sites with the choice of working at the new wage rate or quit.

This permitted functionaries of the agricultural industry, spokespersons and often advisory board members on federal and state employment agencies, appointed by elected officials that enjoyed the campaign contributions of growers, to make the plausible argument that labor shortages plagued the production of food.

The testimonies also revealed that when workers lived in grower-owned labor camps they and their families lived under the constant and arbitrary threat of eviction when one or more workers in a family fell ill or missed a day to attend to personal matters in relation to medical treatment or their education. Even if three out of four members of a family lived and worked at a camp and one was absent for whatever reason (to attend to personal matters in relation to medical treatment or their education) the ranch manager or supervisor of an operation threatened the entire household with eviction. Indeed, company-housing agreements embedded an “ouster clause” that stipulated, according to one 1966 Oxnard Press- Courier report that, “the occupancy of the house ‘after cessation of employment,’ or ‘during any labor dispute,’ was at the discretion of the ranch.”

Justice for Farmworkers
In 1963, Al Rojas, originally from Tulare County, attended a community meeting organized by John Soria who worked for the Emergency Committee to Aid Farm Workers. The issue at hand was to mobilize the community to demand that the city desegregate it schools and provide safe railroad crossing technology for the children of La Colonia that traversed the tracks on Oxnard Boulevard to attend middle schools on the Westside. This was particularly urgent as the boulevard was an extension of the Pacific Coast Route 1 highway. It was at this meeting that Soria befriended Rojas. From this point, Rojas became involved with Operation Buenaventura and the Farm Worker Opportunity Project. In fact, he was one of 12 community aides of the Opportunity Project. Overtime, Lauwerys, who was a skilled grant writer, obtained War on Poverty funding for the creation of the Citizens Against Poverty (CAP) project. The leaders and employees of the three projects supported the larger interest of farmworkers throughout the state.

In January of 1966, Rojas and members of CAP picketed Oxnard and Santa Paula stores that carried Schenley table grapes, wine, and liquor stores in support of the Chavez’ farmworkers strike against the Schenley Company in Delano, California. In November, CAP also picketed grocery and liquor stores in Oxnard and Santa Paula to support the National Farm Workers Association’s Delano grape pickers strike. A wife of a farmer bought grapes at the Mayfair market in Oxnard to throw them at the picketers. CAP activists also appealed to stores to not carry agricultural products from Delano.

The UFW Before the UFW: Egg City, 1967
The next year, on Thursday morning July 13th 1967, 100 workers at one of the nation’s largest egg producers, Egg City. The plant, near the unincorporated community of Moorpark, housed one million hens and employed total of 250 people when the dispute erupted. The strikers demanded the recognition of the United Farm Workers (an organization created by Oscar Gonzalez and independent of Chavez’ outfit in Delano) as their bargaining agent. Julius Goldman, owner of the plant, held that only 20 workers walked out and outside agitators forced the other 80 to follow. Goldman also declared the strike illegal under the Taft-Hartley Act. Gonzalez in turn accused Goldman of employing undocumented (“wetback”) workers.

With the leadership training gained from the programs of Lauwerys, Rojas joined Gonzalez to lead the strike at Egg City. Support also came from the Santa Barbara Committee to Aid Farm Workers. It was from this organization that Gonzalez and Rojas raised $197 (approximately $1,400 adjusted for inflation) and food to support the striking workers. Carol Curiel and former Democratic congressional candidate Stanley Sheinbaum addressed the group. Sheinbaum stated, “These people get as little as $1.15 an hour [adjusted for inflation $8.15]. They are trying to do something for themselves. They are desperate. There is no such thing as a strike fund. You can't save much for a rainy day on $1.15.”

As the strike developed, Al Rojas, vice-president of Gonzalez’ UFW, established picket lines at Egg City and the State Employment Office in Oxnard. The nine-person picket line in Oxnard was to protest the agency’s delay to certify the strike. The picketers also delivered a petition with 65 signatures that formally declared the existence of a labor dispute at Egg City. Rojas also established picket lines at the Border Patrol office in Oxnard’s Wagon Wheel Junction and the Department of Immigration in Ventura to protest the employment of “wetbacks” at Egg City. On the sixth day of the strike, Rojas called the United States Department of Justice to complain about Egg City’s use of undocumented immigrant workers at the plant. Rojas stated to the Oxnard Press-Courier, “Wetbacks have been working here for over three weeks and are living in the town right now.” The protest was then taken to the office of Congressman Charles Teague. Twelve picketers were established there.

The publicity that the UFW in Ventura County raised regarding Egg City’s employment of undocumented workers succeeded. In a Wednesday July 19 Oxnard Press-Courier report titled, “5 ‘Wetbacks’ Arrested At Egg City,” assistant chief patrol inspector of the Border Patrol in Oxnard, Dale Swancutt, stated that on July 18 five undocumented workers were arrested as part of a “routine check.” The same report also detailed that on the same day of the arrest the State Employment office had certified the strike. This prohibited state employment offices from referring potential employees to Egg City.

As events developed, the Oxnard branch of the Superior Court of Ventura County granted an injunction against the UFW in relation to the strike at Egg City. The injunction, which actually was a temporary restraining order requested by Goldman, prohibited the UFW from entering the Egg City plant. The order, however, did not prohibit the union from picketing the facility.

With the injunction in place, Julius Goldman undercut the organizing efforts of Al Rojas and Oscar Gonzales, who he labeled as an “outside agitator,” by agreeing to raise the wages of his workers. Goldman faulted Rojas and Gonzales with not allowing the strikers to accept his offer. On Wednesday, July 26, 1967 the strikers and Goldman reached a settlement. Goldman agreed to raise the minimum wage at the plant to $1.45. The agreement between also entailed the establishment of a grievance committee and the workers refusal to be represented by the UFW. Local Moorpark merchants Ruben Castro and Ed Menashe mediated the discussion between Goldman and a seven member “grievance committee,” with Benny Garica as its spokesperson, who represented the seventy strikers.

In response to the settlement, Al Rojas and Oscar Gonzales organized a two day protest march from the streets of Oxnard, to the communities of Saticoy, Fillmore, and Santa Paula, and concluded in Moorpark. But for all intents and purposes, the labor dispute was over.

This was movement before el movimiento in Ventura County.