The unions involved include some of the lowest paid and most vulnerable workers in the agriculture, fast-food and service industries and thus represent a large percentage of the black and Latinx working class. Accordingly, the organizers of the Strike for Black Lives are drawing attention to the extent to which racial discrimination and economic inequality are intertwined for black and brown people.
This alliance has deep roots. In fact, one of the participating unions is the United Farm Workers. Founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta as the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, the UFW has long worked to cultivate cross-racial alliances, including with the Black Panther Party, in its efforts to gain union representation, equitable pay and safer working conditions for agricultural workers. During the 1960s, as the UFW organized strikes and boycotts in the grape and lettuce fields of California, the union worked to advance the interests of all people fighting for equality. It is this spirit that drives the Strike for Black Lives.
On the surface, the Black Panther Party and the UFW might have appeared to be at odds. Chavez, a devout Catholic and admirer of Mohandas Gandhi, was committed to infusing the philosophy of nonviolent resistance into all of the union’s efforts. In contrast, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party in Oakland, Calif., in 1966 in response to rampant police brutality in that city and advocated for armed self-defense and monitoring of arrests as solutions.
And yet, despite differences in their guiding principles and tactics, the leaders of both groups made a conscientious effort to identify and act upon their commonalities. When the UFW launched a nationwide boycott of California table grapes in 1968, the Black Panther Party became one of the union’s most ardent and loyal supporters. Party leaders called on members and allies to boycott grapes in their speeches and in the pages of their weekly newspaper, and Panthers attended rallies in the Bay Area in support of the UFW. The Panthers and the farmworkers saw one another as similarly exploited victims of the white ruling class and viewed camaraderie across racial lines as imperative in their pursuit of justice and equality.
The alliance between the Black Panther Party and the UFW was strengthened when both groups launched simultaneous boycotts of Safeway grocery stores, the largest grocery store chain in the West, in 1969. The UFW targeted Safeway because it continued to sell California grapes despite the union’s nationwide boycott. The Panthers boycotted for its refusal to donate to the Free Breakfast for Children Program that they had launched across the country to serve hot breakfast to 20,000 underprivileged children daily.
By joining together, they increased attention to the boycotts and coordinated and shared resources on picket lines at Safeway stores, which the Panthers and farmworkers walked together. UFW organizer Gilbert Padilla recalled that when he organized the grape boycott in Los Angeles, Panthers on the picket line deterred police harassment because the Panthers “scared the hell out of them.” Other UFW organizers stated that the mere possibility of Panthers on the picket lines persuaded some store owners to stop selling California grapes. In Oakland, the farmworker-Panther picket line was so effective that together they succeeded in forcing a Safeway store there to close.
This collaboration also brought benefits for the Black Panther Party. The UFW aided and supported the Black Panther Party when it became the prime target of COINTELPRO, an FBI counterintelligence program aimed at destroying African American organizations and their leaders. Through COINTELPRO, FBI agents infiltrated the party, many Panthers were murdered and even more were imprisoned.
Following the deaths of Chicago Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in a predawn attack by Chicago police on Dec. 4, 1969, and violent police raids on party offices in Los Angeles four days later, UFW organizers met with party leaders to discuss how the farmworkers could help defend the Panthers from such state-sanctioned violence. A UFW spokesman explained: “We felt it was not just enough to pass a resolution saying that what happened in Chicago and Los Angeles was not right. We discussed ways and means of making our bodies available to place between the police and the Panthers.”
Farmworkers in Seattle two months later participated in a huge rally in support of the local party office, which was to have been the target of an aborted raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. A UFW representative in attendance proclaimed, “We will not wait in silence while the enormous fire power of government is used in attempt to annihilate a group of Black People who have felt the same sting of racism, job discrimination, and exclusion that we have felt.”
Some farmworkers and members of other unions criticized the UFW leadership for their vocal support of the Black Panther Party and questioned allying with an organization that favored self-defense over nonviolent resistance. Nevertheless, Chavez reasserted the solidarity between the farmworkers and the Panthers: “We may not agree with the philosophy of the Black Panther Party, but they are our brothers, and nonviolence extends for whomever is being persecuted.” For Chavez, the true spirit of nonviolent resistance meant fighting for justice for all, including those who did not subscribe to the philosophy. He therefore saw nothing paradoxical about his and the UFW’s support for the Black Panthers.
The Black Panther Party and the UFW continued to work together into the 1970s. In 1973, when Seale, the party co-founder, ran for mayor of Oakland, Chavez and the UFW endorsed him. Chavez also appeared with Seale at one of his campaign news conferences and walked the Spanish-speaking neighborhoods in Oakland on his behalf. Pictures taken of them that day were used in campaign materials directed to the Latinx community. These actions helped to legitimize Seale and the Black Panther Party in the eyes of older Mexican Americans. Although Seale did not win, he forced the white incumbent into a close runoff election and paved the way for the election of the first African American mayor of Oakland just a few years later.
In short, the alliance between the UFW and the Black Panther Party showed that progressive labor unions and the Black Power movement were united in their pursuit of economic justice, racial equality and political power. Their determination to work together despite their differences resulted in important achievements, such as the UFW’s victorious California grape boycott.
The Strike for Black Lives is carrying on this legacy of collaborative political action. The strike’s first demand declares, “Justice for Black communities, with an unequivocal declaration that Black Lives Matter, is a necessary first step to winning justice for all workers.” Moreover, the strike is drawing attention to the workers who, due to the nature of their jobs and the policies of their employers, are most at risk of contracting and/or suffering economic consequences from the coronavirus. The alliance between the UFW and the Black Panther Party demonstrates the combined power of the Latinx and black communities and the real possibilities for change through collective action like the Strike for Black Lives.