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5 Latino-Led Labor Strikes That Championed Rights for American Workers

September 16, 2020 in History

By Lakshmi Gandhi

They had a profound effect on the massive world of American food production.

When it comes to the fight for workers’ rights in the United States, Latino Americans have been critical players since the early 1900s. Their organizing and agitating have led to improved working conditions and wages in industries across the U.S.

“Latinos have been part of the long history of the construction of this country and this labor force,” especially in the American West, says Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, project director at UCLA’s Center for Labor Research and Education. “They were part of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. They were part of the early Los Angeles building boom.” And of course they have had a profound impact on the massive world of American food production, where they have been heavily represented both in the fields and in processing plants.

Latino workers’ fight for protections and living wages has been an uphill one, weighted with layers of discrimination. “The great expansion of labor rights in the 1930s during the [Franklin D. Roosevelt] administration, which led to the creation of the National Labor Board, specifically excluded farmworkers and domestic workers from the right to create unions,” says Rivera-Salgado. It’s an outcome he attributes to a legacy of racial subjugation against African Americans who had long labored in America’s fields.

The result: Even after the agricultural labor force shifted to largely Latino workers, they still lacked basic protections well into the 1970s. “The conditions were horrendous,” says Rivera-Salgado. “That’s why they wanted a union—to secure basic wages and also basic conditions in the fields,” like injury protections on the job and access to restrooms.

Here are five strikes either led or co-led by Hispanic and Latino Americans that helped make U.S. workplaces safer.

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The Oxnard Strike (1903)

Workers unloading beets from wagons at the American Beet Sugar Company in Oxnard, California, circa 1910.

One of the first agriculture strikes in the United States also represented an unprecedented moment in multi-racial coalition building, when Japanese and Mexican farm laborers banded together to defeat bosses who had long exploited their workers’ racial and cultural divisions.

The American sugar industry ground to a halt on February 11, 1903, when workers in the sugar boomtown of Oxnard, California joined to form the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association (JMLA) and organize a work stoppage at the height of sugar beet season. Their grievances? …read more


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