This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the start of what is remembered as the Delano Grape Strike by the Agricultural Organizing Committee and the United Farm Workers. One of the keynote speakers at this year’s commemoration was Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. His father, then-New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Sr., was the first legislator to support the strikers. Senator Kennedy visited the community twice during the strike, meeting with Cesar Chavez.  He also held Senate hearings over illegal actions against the workers by the county sheriff and District Attorney. Senator Kennedy did not live to see the end of the strike, which continued for more than five years. However, the Kennedys remained strong supporters of the farmworkers’ union and their goals.

The Delano Grape Strike began on September 8, 1965, in protest to substandard wages being paid to predominantly Filipino farm workers of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. A week later, they were joined by the Mexican-American National Farmworkers Association, led by prominent labor leader Cesar Chavez, his elder brother Richard, and Dolores Huerta. Less than a year later, the two organizations merged to form the United Farm Workers – and more than 2,000 workers had joined the fight. Ultimately, the strike spread across North America and even Western Europe as consumers supported the workers by boycotting non-union grapes.

As would be expected, there was push-back from the corporate interests targeted by the strike. One of the companies targeted, M. Caratan Inc., went so far as to hire thugs in order to intimidate workers, break up union meetings, assault supporters, and vandalize ballot boxes and tables. As was the case in previous labor strikes in US history, those corporations targeted by the strike found ready allies in law enforcement.

When the strikers prepared to hold a peaceful march, Kern County sheriff LeRoy Galen told Senator Kennedy, “If I have reason to believe there’s going to be a riot…then it’s my duty to stop ’em” – in other words, arrest and jail the lot of them – for crimes they had not committed. When called out on his intentions by the brilliant lawyer and statesman, the sheriff was quickly made into a laughingstock. Senator Kennedy’s recommendation: “May I suggest that in the interim time…that the sheriff and the District Attorney read the Constitution of the United States?” You can watch original video footage of the exchange between Senator Kennedy and the sheriff here.

Fifty years later, the Senator’s son returned to the historic Forty Acres site in the small community of Delano, California, where the Grape Strike began. A brilliant attorney in his own right, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has dedicated much of his life to environmental activism. He has even gone so far as to put his own career on the line. RFK Jr. has been arrested for his participation with other activists in protests against Naval live-fire training exercises on the impoverished island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, as well as demonstrations against the Keystone Pipeline.

In his address at the recent commemoration, RFK Jr. spoke about what his father learned about farm workers’ conditions, and put the Delano Grape Strike in historical context. He began with a history lesson about the Progressive Movement from the early 1900s through Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, explaining how workers’ rights were expanded, unions strengthened, and the economy made to work better for all Americans – not just the 1%. He also pointed out the dark side of the New Deal and the compromises President Franklin Roosevelt was forced to make in order to advance his pro-labor legislation:

In order to do that, [Franklin Roosevelt] had to get that legislation through Congress…and Congress and his party were controlled by Southern Democrats. They made a deal with him. They did not want to see black people advance from slavery. So, they said, ‘We will tolerate all these rules about unions and make it easy for unions to organize – but we are not going to allow blacks to join unions. So…we’re going to exclude the two places where blacks are mainly employed: One, domestic help…secondly, farm workers.’ Because, the Southern Democrats were part of the Old Confederacy, the old slave states, and they wanted  make sure that they could continue to treat black people who work on farms as slaves….that’s what Cesar Chavez was dealing with when he began organizing…they were dealing with growers who felt they had a God-given right to treat their workers as if they were slaves.

The farm workers’ struggle and its accomplishments reverberate into the 21st Century. Today, as the capitalist system continues its relentless attacks on labor and our democracy is once again threatened by corporate and billionaire power, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. reminds us that we’ve fought this battle before and won – and we can win it again.

Just remember the Delano Grape Strike. You can see and hear RFK Jr.’s entire speech on YouTube, starting at the 2:00 mark.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.