Revolt on Rio Grande
Farm Workers Strike
Published in The Southern Patriot (Southern Conference Educational Fund) June 1966
By JOHN SPRAGENS, JR.
RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas – Instead of “Freedom now,” the cry is “Viva la Huelga!”
Huelga is the Spanish word for strike, and in the Rio Grande valley of Texas hundreds of farm workers are on strike at the height of the melon season. They are holding a civil rights march. They explain, “Civil rights means equal opportunity, and we don’t have equal opportunity.”
The march is only part of this strike which has set the power structure of Starr County on its ear. They had not expected it. They probably had not realized that the workers had the spirit to carry out an effective protest. And so they try to shift the blame to outside “agitators.”
A local union leader explains that the groundwork for the strike, and the union which is its organizational framework, has been going on since 1961. This year the people were ready to strike.
The “outsiders” say, “It would have happened anyway. We may have speeded it up some.” Outside help has come from many sources. The one the power structure referred to was the National Farm Workers Association, the young union which recently won its first contract from the Schenley farms in Delano, California after a seven-month strike.
Now the word is out and help comes from many places. A major supporter is the Roman Catholic church. The Bishop’s Committee for the Spanish Speaking, in San Antonio, has sent food and clothing by the truckload.
The teamsters have sent 3,000 pounds of potatoes. Other individuals and groups have donated money, food and clothing.
As marchers gather in front of the courthouse a priest speaks to county officials inside. “If the church didn’t support these people in the past, we’ll support them now.”
Area newspapers referred to the strike as a revolution, and in a sense it is. The farm workers have never been organized before. But their demands should not have to seem revolutionary. They ere asking only “A decent wage for a decent day’s work.” They want $1.25 an hour instead of the wages as low as 40 cents an hour that are paid now.
As one priest points out to county officials, “A living wage is not revolutionary. By God, if they don’t get it I’ll be back again and again and again!”
In Starr County the rich alluvial soil of the valley farmlands begins to yield to the gravel of ranch country. The richness of the land and the warmth of the climate allow the farms to produce as many as three crops a year. Besides melons the irrigated fields produce cotton, tomatoes, lettuce, celery and other vegetables.
Most of the farm land in the area affected by the strike is controlled by fewer than a dozen large growers. The political reality of water control boards and the economic difficulty of finding markets make the survival of small farmers difficult, though not impossible.
The power structure, dominated by the large growers, has thrown up a legal wall to limit the effectiveness of the strike. An injunction, which the union is appealing, prohibits mass picketing at the entrances to the farms. Texas law requires pickets to be at least 50 feet apart, and under such conditions it is hard to explain the purpose of the strike to workers the growers bus in from Mexico.
So strikers gather at the international bridge to pass out literature in Spanish and to talk with the Mexicans. Still, the Mexicans come to work because the pay in Mexico is even worse. A day’s pay – five dollars in the U.S. – grows to sixty pesos on the other side of the river.
The Mexican workers cross the border with “green cards,” resident alien passports which are issued to persons who say they want to come to the U.S. to live and work, and who may want to become U.S. citizens. But border restrictions have been relaxed since World War II created a need for labor along with a shortage of housing.
A U.S Customs inspector, even though he does not like unions, says of the green card carriers: “They should live here and spend their money here, but they don’t.” If the Mexican workers had to pay U.S. prices they might be more sympathetic to the cause of the union.
One grower told newsmen that the work in the fields was not worth more than 85 cents an hour, the top wage paid to field workers in Starr. But the work is hard and hot and dry, and workers who do not bring their own water with them have only the water from the irrigation canals. And foremen, one to each five workers, drive them hard. Even conversation is not allowed.
The growers ignore these conditions of near-slavery as easily as they accept the idea that “what the work is worth” is more important than whether a man can live and support a family on the wages he takes home from a decent day’s work.
The strikers expect that after growers meet their demands, life will not be quite so hard. But, more than that, they have hope for their children. A striker who quit school after the sixth grade says proudly that he is sacrificing so that his children may have a better chance.
He is typical of the parents, whose median educational level is sixth grade. And he wants his children to complete high school even though he knows he’ll have to struggle to provide their clothes, food, and supplies on what he makes.
Other children will not be so fortunate, for their parents must follow the crops north. Percentages of migrants range from about 40 per cent in Rio Grande City to as many as 90 per cent in La Gruella. These families live in hot, dirty tin shacks when they are on the road. They sleep on the floor. And if their children go to school, they go irregularly.
The union is working for the day when families will not have to pull their children out of school, board up their homes, and hit the road. The hope of a stable community is behind their wage demands.
The children work, too. The growers pay little attention to age, except that the young children often get only half-rate pay. Other children have been able to get jobs in the Neighborhood Youth Corps, but the power structure has their finger in the management of this program.
One of the local leaders of the strike had a signed statement from a NYC worker who was told by his foreman that he would be fired from his NYC job if he joined the union. This teen-ager is not the only one who has been so threatened.
The union has given the workers a voice, and it has aroused their spirit and their political instincts. Both are evident in the march, and in the slow but effective area organizing meetings.
The union is growing because people hear the call of the loudspeakers on the car driving past their houses and they come to the meetings. They hear speakers from areas which are already part of the union and the strike, and they hear news of California where the strike has worked.
It is slow, but they join, they picket, they convince others.
The economic effects of the strike are hard to assess. The winter was too cold and the growing season too rainy for a good melon crop. Melons are rotting in the fields, but it is difficult to tell if this is the result of the strike or the bad season. Truckloads of melons continue to roll out of the fields, picked by Mexicans and some U.S. workers who have not joined the union.
Even if the strike has done no economic damage, its political impact is evident. The workers have organized to do something for themselves.
Because this has never happened before, and because they did not see it coming this time, the growers are surprised. Some inside reports indicate that they are even frightened by this unexpected turn of events. As a local union leader put it, “The sleeping giant has awakened!”
The union depends, and will depend more as the strike grows, on outside help for money, food, and clothes. And they especially need trained legal help; their one lawyer cannot possibly do as much work as the lawyers the big farms can hire in quantity.
But they have the spirit, the drive. They have a weapon. The children waiting in the car while their parents sign up after a meeting practice the new word: “Huelga!”
Copyright John Spragens, Jr.
Go to the Enigmaterial home page