Grape Boycott in Iowa
By Janet Weaver
The boycott of California table grapes, led by Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, started in 1967. Its purpose was to put economic pressure on growers to recognize the United Farm Workers as the sole bargaining agent for grape pickers in Delano, California, who had been on strike since 1965 to improve their wages and working conditions. By 1969, the farm workers’ struggle for justice had stimulated a national movement for La Causa that would have repercussions throughout the Midwest, including Iowa.
In 1968, state director of Iowa LULAC, John Terronez, pressed for opportunities inherent in the civil rights legislation of the day and stressed the need for "working" LULACs rather than "social" organizations. He attended a regional LULAC conference in Gary, Indiana, where national president Robert Ornelas encouraged Midwest LULAC councils to become more active in the California grape boycott. LULAC Council 10 responded by forming the Quad City Grape Boycott Committee and urging residents to stop buying California table grapes.
The local campaign drew support from a broad coalition of organizations and activists. Representatives from the Iowa Council of Churches, local civil rights groups, labor unions, and students gathered to plan a boycott rally in Davenport for January 1969. They invited UFWOC secretary Antonio Orendain to officially launch the campaign. At the rally, John Terronez addressed the crowd remarking, “If we have to go all the way, we’ll have pickets and sit-ins . . . . And the pickets won’t be all one color. They’ll be black and white and brown picketers . . . . When we bring the races together like that we’re accomplishing something.”
At a Midwest strategy meeting in Colfax, Iowa, grape boycott supporters laid plans for International Grape Boycott Day, designed to coincide with the beginning of the grape harvest in May. UFWOC boycott coordinator Eliseo Medina explained their internationally coordinated plan to picket supermarkets and refuse to unload grape shipments at European docks to Ernest Rodriguez, co-chair of the Quad City Grape Boycott Committee, and Don Q. Lewis, vice-president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, who were at the Colfax meeting. On International Grape Boycott Day - May 10, 1969 – LULAC members picketed supermarkets in the Quad Cities. They carried signs that read, “Viva la Causa” and “Justice and Dignity for the Farm Worker.”
Iowa supporters of Cesar Chavez understood UFWOC's unionization and boycott strategy. They upheld their right to picket and put up a banner in front of a store to protest its handling of an unfair labor product. They could negotiate effectively around complex issues of informational picketing and secondary boycotts and understand the labor logic of UFWOC lawyers who argued that, if farm workers were excluded from the protective provisions of the National Labor Relations Act, they must also be exempt from the Taft-Hartley amendments to the NLRA that prohibited secondary boycotts.
The September 1969 issue of El Malcriado, the Delano, California, newsletter of the UFWOC, reported on the grape boycott campaign in Iowa:
Terronez and the Quad City Boycott Committee had been concentrating on National Food Stores this summer and picketing had become so effective that in mid-August National sought an injunction to stop the picketing. In court, National admitted that their business was down 20% because of the picketing and grape boycott. When the injunction came to court, it was quickly tossed out by the judge.
But as John Terronez explained, “Had National [Food Stores] been successful in obtaining such an injunction, or scaring the local people with threats of court action, the boycott might have been crippled. This is an important victory for us. We are all very pleased.”
When John Terronez attended the national LULAC convention in California in October 1969, he met with Cesar Chavez and invited him to a rally in Iowa to support the grape boycott. At the November 18 rally, Chavez addressed an enthusiastic gathering of some 500 supporters in Davenport. He spoke of the “miserable wages, working, and living conditions” of California grape pickers, and urged local activists to join him in a three-day fast over Thanksgiving to support “the hundreds of farm workers who cultivate the food for us, but who do not enjoy it themselves.”
In July 1970, the Delano grape strike drew to a successful conclusion when Delano growers signed contracts and recognized the United Farm Workers as the official bargaining agent for Delano pickers. In Iowa, LULAC leaders and their allies used the momentum of the grape boycott campaign to press for permanent changes in their state. John Terronez was appointed to the Iowa State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; the first Mexican American to serve on the committee. He acted swiftly to bring the needs of Iowa Mexican Americans to the committee’s attention, calling for an investigation into the needs of Spanish-speaking Iowans. The Iowa State Advisory Committee responded by announcing an open meeting of the committee to be held in Davenport. The ensuing report, “¿Adonde Vamos Ahora?” [Where are we Going Now?] called for an investigation into the numbers of Spanish-Speaking residents in Iowa, both permanent and migratory, and addressed the need for bilingual pre-schools and Spanish-speaking teachers in Iowa schools. It also demanded stricter enforcement of affirmative action regulations and legislation to uphold the rights of migrant workers and the poor in Iowa.
Note ~ This page includes excerpts from the following article: Janet Weaver, "From Barrio to 'Boicoteo!': The Emergence of Mexican American Activism in Davenport, 1917-1970," Annals of Iowa, Vol. 68 (2009).