Epifanio Camacho: a Militant Farmworker Brushed Out of History

Image Source Pakal Hatuey’s Youtube Video: Complete Interview With Epifanio Camacho

Cesar Chavez is perhaps best known for his role in the 1965-1970 Delano grape strike and boycott and his nonviolent tactics in those protests.

Although Chavez insisted on nonviolence, there was dissent within the National Farmworkers Association as some workers believed more militant tactics were necessary. One of these workers was Epifanio Camacho.  With Cesar Chavez day approaching, it is important to remember the work and life of Epifanio Camacho, who recently published his memoir.

Epifanio Camacho: The Making of a Militant

Camacho’s life story is critical to understanding how and why he became militant.

Epifanio Camacho was born in San Agustín, a village of about 150 inhabitants, in the province of Tamaulipas, Mexico, on the eve of the Mexican Revolution. Camacho spent his formative years in Mexico and migrated to the United States in 1955 when he was in his thirties.

Camacho’s first job was in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he worked as a gravedigger. His employer consistently underpaid him and Camacho eventually tired of this and left. He went to Oklahoma to pick cotton and then to Arizona to do the same. From there, he went to the Coachella Valley in California, where he picked dates. Eventually, he got a job at Montebello Rose in McFarland, California grafting rose plants.

The Rose Grafting Strike in McFarland

In McFarland, Camacho realized that he could not run from one employer to the next in the hope of finding one who would pay him fairly. Thus, when his employer at Konklyn Nursery withheld his wages, Camacho went to the Labor Commission to complain. His boss showed up at his hearing and offered Camacho $30.00 in back pay, a fraction of what he was owed. Camacho refused the check and demanded his full pay. The judge was not sympathetic and closed the case. After the hearing, Camacho was blacklisted from rose grafting.

Camacho began to see that he was not going to win the battle against bosses alone. One of his co-workers, Manuel Rivera, told him about Cesar Chavez, who was organizing farm workers in Delano, just five miles north of McFarland. Camacho went to Delano and joined Chavez’s organization, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).

Cesar Chavez told Camacho that his strategy was to get as many members as possible to create a strong political force to get the laws changed. Camacho suggested that they organize a strike. Chavez was unwilling to do so as he did not think they were strong enough yet. Camacho insisted on a strike and Chavez told him to invite workers to a meeting where they could discuss it more. After a series of meetings, the rose grafters eventually agreed to strike in April 1965.

The principal demands of the strikers were recognition of the NFWA as the representative of the farm workers and an increase to $2.50 for every 1000 rose plants processed for grafters and binders.  At first, the strike was effective, as it was difficult for the bosses to replace the skilled workers.  The company responded by offering the workers a pay raise on condition that they returned to work on a specified day. Everyone showed up to work after four days, and the bosses kept their promise of higher wages. The other four rose companies raised their wages to stay competitive.

The rose strike gave workers a sense of their potential strength if they united and fought. Camacho played a key role in uniting the workers and instilling confidence in them.

The Vineyard Strike

The other major source of agricultural production in the area is vineyards. The vineyard workers were eager for change after hearing about the strike among the rose grafters. The Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) came to Delano in the summer of 1965 to organize a strike. Initially the AWOC strike only involved the Filipino workers. However, when the growers refused to negotiate with AWOC, the NFWA called a meeting of their workers, and they resolved to join the grape strike.

The principal NFWA demands were recognition of a union and collective bargaining contracts.  The AWOC was mainly interested in a pay raise, both an increase in the hourly wage and the piece rate. Thus, there were two strikes – one led by the Filipino AWOC and one led by the NFWA. The Filipinos often lived in the bosses’ fields, and the bosses cut off their water, electricity, and gas to pressure them during a strike.

To deal with this situation, AWOC had Filipino Hall provide free food and a place to stay for the striking Filipino workers. When Mexican workers came to the picket lines hungry, Filipino workers invited them to Filipino Hall to eat.

At the Jasmin Company, where Camacho was the picket captain, the strikers did not let scabs cross the line. After Camacho was arrested because of a confrontation with a scab, Chavez replaced him with Jim Drake, a local pastor, as picket captain. Drake practiced nonviolence and thus did not physically prevent scabs from crossing the picket line. Camacho explains, in his memoir, that Chavez used his arrests as an example to generate fear in other strikers so that they would also practice nonviolence. Ironically, once Camacho was no longer on the picket line, Chavez asked him to serve as his personal body guard.

The strike, which would last, more than three years, created 100 or so activists, some farmworkers and some volunteers, who would for the next five years provide leadership to the farmworkers’ movement.

The March from Delano to Sacramento

One of the strikers, Jorge Zaragoza, suggested they march to Sacramento about 250 miles to the north. The workers selected Camacho to lead the march. However, when he demanded that no religious symbols or nationalist flags be displayed in the march, Cesar Chavez and others in the leadership disagreed. They asked Manuel Camacho (unrelated), but he also demanded the same conditions. The same thing happened when they asked Jorge Zaragoza to lead the march. So, they chose another leader, who agreed without setting any conditions.

The march was set to begin March 15, 1966. Fifty strikers volunteered to make the trip. The police, believing that Camacho would lead the march, arrested him the night before. The march proceeded anyway. The police tried to stop the march, but eventually succumbed to pressure and let the workers exercise their right to freedom of assembly.Camacho was released from jail and caught up with the marchers in Ducor about 20 miles from the start. The size of the march increased with each town they passed. In April as the marched neared Sacramento, the Schendley Company agreed it would recognize the NFWA as the representative of the workers and would negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. On April 10, 1966, 25 days after the march began, they arrived in Sacramento. 57 had marched the whole way.  A crowd of over 5,000 greeted them.

The march to Sacramento generated publicity across the country and similar strikes broke out in Texas and Arizona. The DiGiorgio Corporation tried to sidestep the strikers by entering into an agreement with the Teamsters. But, when an election was held, the workers chose to be represented by the NFWA, and a collective bargaining agreement was signed on August 30, 1967.

After the victory at DiGiorgio, the NFWA decided to declare a boycott of Giumarra products. This strategy meant that the NFWA had to send workers across the country to spread the word about the boycott. As a result, they did not have many workers left on the picket line.

Camacho stayed behind on the picket line with about 15 other strikers. In February 1968, scabs arrived to work on pruning the vineyards. There was a thick fog in the vineyards so it was difficult for the scabs to see where they were going or what was happening. According to Camacho, the devil came and beat the scabs to scare them off the fields.

Both Camacho and Chavez faced charges for the violence against the scabs, although they both denied any wrongdoing. Chavez strongly denounced the people who had been on the picket line the day the scabs were beaten. Camacho insisted that the strikers were elderly men who were incapable of carrying out such a beating.

Chavez’s response was to go on a hunger strike in an effort to promote pacifism in response to the attacks on the scabs. Chavez’s view eventually prevailed. Chavez turned his efforts to promoting Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign. Camacho went along for a while, but became disillusioned because he believed the workers in the field were being neglected. He went back to Delano to continue his work with the grape boycott.

Camacho and the other strikers followed the grape shipments that left daily for stores and organized picket lines in front of the stores to aid the boycott. The boycott grew in strength nationally, and was helped by support from students who were also organizing against the Vietnam War.

It was during the Guimarra Vineyards strike that major political differences between Camacho and Chavez developed.

Chavez, Huerta, and Camacho: A Clash of Visions

Chavez contacted the INS and help facilitate attacks on undocumented workers. In one raid, 62 striking workers were arrested. The fast that occurred during the strike was in reality an attack on Camacho and other militant farmworkers who favored a strong strike movement over boycotts.  Instead of relying on farmworkers to lead the struggle, Chavez turned to politicians like Robert Kennedy and Jerry Brown for help.  Over the next five years, these political errors would undermine the UFW.

By June 1970, the bosses of the thirty-three agricultural companies were left with no other choice than to sign collective bargaining contracts with what was now the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). The NFWA had for some time been in the AFL-ClO, which was the group that created the name UFWOC. It was with this group that the ranchers signed three-year contracts.

The boycott, although initially effective, was a limited tactic, as Camacho explains:

After the victory over the ranch owners, Chavez idealized the boycott as a unique weapon, infallible, against any and all agricultural companies to gain collective bargaining contracts. Supposedly just the threat of a boycott of their products would be sufficient to sway the bosses without the necessity of a strike. He was so enamored of his magical weapon that he even named his dog Boycott. But he was wrong. Ironically he was never again able to win another collective bargaining contract through its use once the Vietnam War was over. The best weapon of struggle against the bosses, with exception of armed struggle by the workers, continues to be strikes at the point of production, the militancy of the workers on the picket lines and a take no prisoners war against the traitorous scabs. Everything else is totally secondary.

With the contracts, the workers received medical benefits and found themselves in a far better situation. However, the union excluded undocumented workers, putting an enormous sign above the window that said: “No workers without legal residency papers in the U.S. may work where there are contracts, and may not be members of this Union.” So these workers could not obtain the benefits or protections that they had hoped to achieve through the union. This was just the beginning of a ferocious campaign that Chavez let loose later against the “undocumented” workers. By 1973, Chavez had established what came to be known publicly as the “Wet Line” in the area of Yuma, Arizona. It consisted of a number of army tents along the border with a group of men in each tent. Chavez’s cousin, Manuel Chavez, was in charge of assisting the immigration agents in detaining anyone who tried to cross the border into the U.S. illegally.

It was difficult for Camacho to find work. The company had blacklisted him, even though the union was in charge of hiring. Camacho decided that he was not going to put up with this. The union had hired scabs and he had been at the forefront of the fight. He demanded that he be hired and eventually won and began working again at the Jasmin Company. Two days after beginning work, Camacho was elected to be the workers’ committee representative to the company.

Every time there was a violation of the contract, the workers responded with work stoppages. For example, if the water barrel was too far away or lacked ice, the workers stopped work until the problem was resolved. If the toilet was too far away or was dirty, again they stopped working. This strategy was effective, and they even were able to improve the contract.

For example, the contract stated, “Nine hours a day, six days a week”. However, in the winter the days have fewer hours of sun and there is too much fog in the mornings, making it dangerous for the workers on the roads. There were frequent accidents due to low visibility. They decided to negotiate with the boss to get eight hours a day. They pointed out that his accident insurance did not cover workers while they were on the road. He finally accepted the eight-hour day provision.

The contracts were set to expire in June 1973, so in April 1972, Camacho and a group of grape workers went to La Paz, the headquarters of the UFW, for a meeting with Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Camacho met privately with Chavez and Huerta and told them the growers were not going to renew the contracts and that the union needed to prepare for a big fight. They disagreed.

Camacho explains:

I discussed all of my concerns with Chavez and Huerta that we were going to have problems again. Chavez even dared say to me, “You’re crazy. Look, for example, when the contract ends at Inter Harvest (a lettuce producer in Salinas, CA), all I have to do is pick up the telephone, and from here I can make them renew the contract.” That is how incredibly stupid Chavez’s estimation of the situation was. But I did warn them what was coming. And it came about exactly like I said.

When the contracts were set to expire, Camacho was working at Robert Farms. He and the other workers received the news that Robert Farms as well as the other companies had signed contracts with the Teamsters Union. The union leadership called an emergency meeting and decided to strike again as they did not want to be represented by the Teamsters, who they viewed as the bosses’ union. Camacho explained what happened:

When the appointed day to declare the strike arrived, many had brought their union flags in their cars and others had them hidden in their clothes. At exactly 10 in the morning when the cry of “STRIKE!” went up, we all pulled out our flags and ran to our cars. We went around the entire area with other groups and ensured that nobody stayed at work. That is to say that none of the tractor drivers, irrigators, weeders, truckers had remained in the fields. We spent the whole day making sure that everyone in the area had left work. The next day we were all at the picket lines and each line had its captain. I was left as a private. The leadership did not want me in charge of any pickets because, according to them, I was very violent and the strike had to be very pacifist. But that didn’t affect me because in a strike such as ours there are many forms of militancy and I was not going to stay behind.

The workers organized themselves into clandestine groups in order to maintain the strike and to avoid spies. The clandestine groups damaged irrigation lines, burned water pumps, damaged the tires of scabs, and destroyed plantations. The Teamsters also sent thugs out – not to attack scabs, but to attack the picket lines. One day in Lamont, these Teamster thugs brutally attacked a picket line with sticks and baseball bats. Chavez told the workers to turn the other cheek. However, when the Delano workers heard that the thugs were coming to their town, they armed themselves with knives and the thugs never showed up. Chavez grew increasingly frustrated with the militancy of the strikers and their lack of commitment to pacifism.

Despite the strikes, the growers refused to renew most of the contracts. Chavez’s policies of attacking undocumented workers during the three previous years, his discriminatory policies toward Filipinos, and his unfair policies at union hiring halls alienated many farmworkers from the UFW and created a ready force of scabs. His fasts and alliances with Jerry Brown, the governor of California were useless in the fight against the growers.

Camacho and other rank and file workers fought several strikes, the scabs and the thugs, many from the Teamster union backed by the state and local police, carried the day, and the strikes were mostly lost. Chavez then began a purge of the left forces in the union.

In 1972, the UFW had mobilized to defeat Proposition 22, which would have limited the power of the union and the right to boycott. But by 1976, when the UFW union tried to pass Proposition 14 to strengthen the laws protecting farm workers, it lost overwhelmingly.

As the 1970s came to an end, the UFW was a shadow of its militant past. Liberal politicians continued to support Chavez and build a cult around him so as to sway the growing Chicano movement in the Southwest to support the Democratic Party.

But with Camacho expelled from the union and many rank and file militants demoralized, the UFW became a service organization supported by the foundations and the churches but devoid of any class struggle.

Camacho and Chavez constantly were in conflict because they had different visions of how change happens. Camacho believed in militancy and class struggle whereas Chavez prioritized non-violent action.

Camacho developed a revolutionary consciousness through his struggles. He eventually joined the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) and began to organize workers in McFarland and other towns in the Central Valley to join the PLP and to become communists. Chavez continued to work with politicians and to organize consumer boycotts to make changes to the existing system. Chavez and Huerta have become heroes, while Camacho and other militant workers have been airbrushed out of farmworker history.

Tanya Golash-Boza is a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her most recent book is: Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism, published by New York University Press. She tweets at @tanyaboza  Michael Golash is a former president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, the transit workers union in Washington, DC. He tweets at @mikeg1917