Last updated: December 19, 2022
In 1966, "The Forty Acres," a parcel of land in Delano, California, became the headquarters for the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), the first permanent agricultural labor union in the United States. The Forty Acres and the UFW played a crucial role in the Farmworker Movement, a labor movement which fundamentally altered the ways in which agricultural workers in the U.S. were treated. At The Forty Acres the UFW first successfully bargained for and signed contracts protecting the rights of farm workers in California and eventually across the U.S.
In May of 1965, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) went on strike against the Coachella Valley grape growers in California. The organization, made up primarily of Filipinos, was seeking higher wages and better living and working conditions for farm workers. Although the organization was unable to negotiate a contract with the growers, it did win a wage increase for the workers.
Following this success, the AWOC moved on to the grape farms in Delano, California. On September 8, 1965, the AWOC held a meeting with Filipino grape farm workers at the Filipino Community Hall in Delano. At the meeting the farm workers voted to go on strike against the Delano table grape growers and 1,500 Filipino farm workers walked off the grape fields. Led by AWOC leaders Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, Benjamin Gines, and Pete Velasco, the strikers demanded pay equal to the federal minimum wage of $1.25 an hour.
For eight days Filipino farm workers struck alone, facing violence from the growers' hired strike breakers and the local sheriff's department and getting evicted from their homes in the labor camps. The growers began to bring in Mexican American farm workers from the surrounding area to work the fields. Realizing they needed support, AWOC asked the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), a predominately Hispanic farm workers union formed in 1962, by César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and others, to join their strike.
Chávez and the other NFWA leaders had believed it would be years before their organization was ready to support a strike, but they knew from experience that growers pitted one race of farm workers against another to break field walkouts. They saw the AWOC strike as an opportunity to fight for the rights of all farm workers regardless of race and voted to join the walkout.
The NFWA expanded the strikers' demands to include union contracts signed by the growers and laws allowing farm workers the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining. In addition, Chávez asked that Mexican American and Filipino strikers take a pledge of nonviolence and work together, sharing picket lines, strike kitchens, and union halls. This marked the first time Mexican American farm workers did not break a Filipino farm workers strike, choosing instead to join them on the picket lines.
Recognizing their common goals, the AWOC and NFWA merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), eventually becoming the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) in 1972. The Delano grape strike quickly spread to other agricultural areas in California and the UFWOC began to boycott the State's entire table grape industry. This eventually led to a nation–wide boycott of California-grown table grapes. By 1970, after strikes, boycotts, a 300 mile march to highlight the ongoing labor struggle, and a 25-day fast by Chávez, the UFWOC succeeded in reaching a collective bargaining agreement with California grape growers, affecting over 70,000 farm workers.
The union contracts signed at the UFWOC headquarters "The Forty Acres," raised wages, replaced a labor contracting system with union-run hiring halls, protected farm workers from dangerous pesticides, funded health care plans, established grievances procedures, mandated that growers provide fresh water and toilets in the fields, and established a fund for community service projects.
With the Delano grape strike, Filipino farm workers played a significant role in changing the way agricultural workers were treated in the U.S. Filipinos were considered a "docile" and "hard-working" immigrant group, and were denied the ability to vote or own land. Without these rights farm workers were completely dependent on growers for their health and well-being, creating a relationship particularly susceptible to abuse. A strike against the growers could mean the loss of not only the farm worker's jobs, but also their temporary housing and means of sustenance. The initial decision to walk off the farm fields and the continued efforts and courage of the Filipino farm workers during the five-year strike and subsequent boycott were later referred to by UFW Vice-President Philip Vera Cruz as "one of the most significant and famous decisions ever made in the entire history of the farmworkers' labor struggles in California."
The Forty Acres preserves the legacy of the farmworkers movement and helps tell its story. In 1966, the NFWA purchased 40 acres of land in Delano, California to develop into a farm workers' service center. The site was intended to serve as a headquarters and be a place where farm workers could find assistance, goods, and services that would positively affect their lives. With the help of farm workers, volunteer labor, and other unions the site grew to include a cooperative gas station, health clinic, administrative buildings, offices, a services and utilities area, hiring hall, boycott organizing space, a day care center, and the Paolo Agbayani Retirement Village for Filipino farm workers.
The Paolo Agbayani Retirement Village, named in honor of a Filipino union member who had died of a heart attack while on a picket line in 1967, was the UFW's response to the plight of elderly Filipino farm workers. Most Filipino farm workers had immigrated to the U.S. as young men during the 1920s and 1930s and stayed through the 1950s and 1960s. Strict immigration laws prevented Filipino women from immigrating to the U.S., and California law prohibited Filipino male immigrants from marrying women outside of their own race. This meant that Filipino farm workers lived as single men in the labor camps and had no family in the U.S. and no financial and public resources that would have enabled them to leave their physically demanding jobs. With no place to go and no one to care for them, Filipino farm workers continued to work beyond the age of retirement to avoid destitution.
The Paolo Agbayani Retirement Village was constructed in the early 1970s in the Mission style and consisted of 59 single room units, bathrooms, telephone lines, central air conditioning, a lounge and dining area that provided daily meals, garden plots, and a courtyard landscaped with eucalyptus, Chinese pistache, blackwood acacia, carob, and camphor trees. The Filipino farm workers who retired to the Village had come full circle; they now lived in a place that provided them with a high quality of life, human dignity, and respect.
Although the UFW relocated its national headquarters to a newly–acquired property in the Tehachapi Mountains in 1971, The Forty Acres remained its model service center. The services offered at The Forty Acres were ultimately refined and then offered throughout other regional service centers. Today, the buildings, park, roads, and landscaping features at The Forty Acres are all intact. This National Historic Landmark provides visitors with the opportunity to see the buildings and grounds that developed as the UFW grew in importance and became a major force for civil and labor rights in the United States.
The Forty Acres, a National Historic Landmark, is located at 30168 Garces Highway in Delano, CA.