Money  /  Book Review

How Unions Are Made

A new history of labor organizing in Coachella tells us the story of the United Farm Workers and how its rank-and-file members drove the union to success.

The United Farm Workers has been one of the most recognizable Mexican American–led labor organizations in the United States, and yet it was always more than just that: It represented a variety of different visions of self-determination and liberation. Throughout Strikers of Coachella, Paiz seeks to explain the social and political roots of these visions, reflecting on the movement’s members and their differences in ethnicity, gender, age, ideology, and activist experience. Emblematic of the union’s diversity were members like Peter Velasco and Amalia Uribe Deaztlan. Velasco migrated from the Philippines to the United States in 1930 and served in World War II before he settled in the San Joaquin Valley. After suffering years of marginalization and arduous working conditions alongside other Filipinos in the grape and vegetable fields of white ranchers, Velasco helped lead the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee’s 1965 Delano Grape Strike. By that time, he was in his mid-50s, an adept organizer with decades of farm labor experience, but he was only, it seems, getting started. Following the merger of AWOC and the National Farm Workers Association, Velasco embraced an even larger role organizing the UFW’s Coachella Grape Strike in 1969.

Deatzlan also demonstrated the heterogeneity of the UFW. Her mother, Amalia Becerra, was an indigenous Purépecha ejidataria who gained land through Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas’s agrarian reform program. After migrating from Michoacán to Mexicali, Baja California, in the 1950s, Deatzlan’s family eventually settled in the Coachella Valley in 1960, where her parents worked on local farms. Following years of racially segregated education, Deatzlan left school at the age of 14 and joined her parents in the fields. For the next five years, she worked with other Mexican and Mexican American farmworkers and drew inspiration from the blossoming Chicano Movement. Soon, Deatzlan became politically active herself and joined the 1969 Coachella Grape Strike that Velasco had helped organize. As the UFW movement spread throughout California in the 1960s and ’70s, it brought in a variety of members: Filipino and Mexican, old and young, men and women, residents and migrants, committed and hesitant, seasoned and newer farmworkers. The union, like many others forming at the time, could not represent just one issue or group; it had to draw new lines of solidarity that reflected the diverse backgrounds of the marginalized workers found in the Coachella Valley’s fields.