"All We Want Is Justice"
Conditions in Starr County made a strike inevitable. In the spring of 1966, many workers were saying , "Now is the time." Then, in May, 1966, Eugene Nelson moved to Mission, into the Lower Rio Grande to help farm workers organize. Nelson had been a picket captain in the successful Delano, California, grape pickers strike.
Several workers from Rio Grande City suggested that Nelson come up Rio Grande and speak to the workers about the Union. Over 60 workers showed up for the first rally. Several hundred signed cards authorizing the Union to negotiate a contract for them. Demands where modest $1.25 an hour and the right to bargain collectively. "All we want is justice' became the workers' cry.
The Growers Answer "Never!"
The majority of the farm workers in Starr County work for five major growers. Through letters, phone calls and personal visits, the workers and their representatives called upon the growers to agree to the $1.25 wage and to recognize the Union. The growers were just beginning to harvest their multi-million dollar melon crop, where profits sometimes exceed $500 per acre. Wages ranged from 40 cents an hour to a high of 85 cents. But the growers were unanimous. "We will never recognize the Union," they replied. One grower bragged that he would rather see his crops rot and the workers starve, than recognize the Union.
Over 400 workers voted to go on strike against the melon growers of Starr County on June 1, 1966. Many workers immediately sought work outside the strike zone. Others began their yearly migrations to other states, leaving a month earlier than usual. The growers immediately began recruiting strikebreakers in Mexico. And wages began going up, as La Casita announced a new wage of $1 an hour and other growers began paying 70 cents or 80 cents an hour. Over 80% of the work force quit the first day, and every packing shed in the County was shut out.
"The Law" Against the Strike
The Starr County political machine ("New Party") Immediately sided with the growers. The County officials actively tried to break the strike. County employees sprayed union members with insecticide. County cops forcibly pushed workers into the fields, and made threats to keep them there, One District Judge outlawed all picketing.
United We Stand
The workers in Rio Grande voted to join their Independent Workers Association with the National Farm Workers Association, led by César Chavez. Then in August, 1966, the NFWA merged with the Agriculture Workers Organization Committee to form a new union, the United Farm Workers, AFL - CIO. Now all farm workers were united in one strong union, and the movement was gaining strength throughout the nation.
"We Must Let the Whole World Know"
The melon harvest ended in mid-June, with growers blaming their poor harvest on the weather and strikers claiming a partial victory. But no contracts were in sight. The workers decided to make a pilgrimage march, as had been done in California, to dramatize the state and nations the conditions and wages and suffering that farm workers must endure, and to rally support for the cause among other farm workers and sympathizers.
Friends Join Our Cause
As the March wound through South Texas, thousands of farm workers joined in for a mile, a day, a week. Mayors of Roma, Grulla. La Joya, and Edinburgh endorsed the demands of the strikers. Bishop Humberto Medeiros greeted the farm workers in San Juan and held a special mass for them in the shrine there. Then the marchers set out for Corpus Christie, San Antonio, and finally Austin. Joining the farm workers were members from almost every union in Texas, religious leaders from all major faiths, and thousands of sympathizers.
La Marcha Ends an Era
La Marcha ended in triumph on Labor Day, 1966. Over 15,000 people joined in the final day. The leaders of the farm workers, Domingo Arredondo, Eugene Nelson, and César Chavez; leaders of the AFL-CIO and unions throughout the state and nation; public servants; Mexican-American groups; and thousands of rank and file workers form every walk of life joined in that final glorious day.
The March did not win any contracts, or even state passage of a $1.25 minimum wage. But it ended forever the myth that Mexican- Americans were "happy, contented, satisfied" with second - class citizenship and a life of poverty. Political upsets that fall showed that Mexican-American would no longer blindly accept a corrupt political machine that opposed their interests. Thousands of workers began organizing and joining Unions throughout the State, and the whole labor movement was the beneficiary of this new spirit. La Marcha was symbolic of and contributed to the ever quickening awakening of the Mexicans- Americans in Texas. It was symbolic of the end of an era. But the hard task of organizing farm workers of building a democratic Union and a new social order of justice lay ahead.
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