They prayed, they sangthey filed petitions – and then they voted, many for the first time in their lives. An all-night vigil by farmworkers and supporters outside the new state office kicked off the experiment in democracy. Four days later, fifteen workers at an artichoke farm made history – the first to vote under the new law. They unanimously chose the UFW, and then celebrated after in the union office. In the weeks that followed, thousands of farmworkers cast ballots at ranches around the Salinas Valley, building what would become the UFW’s strongest base in California.

They prayed, they sang…

On Sept. 1, workers placed a shrine in front of the door to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) and held an overnight vigil in the parking lot.

Wrapped in blankets to stay warm, they greeted the sunrise with songs.

Guadalupe Garcia fingered her rosary beads as she waited for the office to open.

Singing during the vigil: [sc_embed_player_template1 fileurl=”http://demointhefields.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/deColores.mp3″]

They filed petitions…

At 8 AM when the office opened, the UFW’s rival, the Teamsters union, tried to sneak in to file the first petitions. But the workers who had waited all night in the cold swarmed in protest, determined to achieve this symbolic first. After the UFW prevailed, organizer Marshall Ganz and attorney Sandy Nathan addressed the waiting crowd:

“We have just filed 19 petitions, for Oxnard, Santa Maria, and Salinas, representing 5,500 to 6,000 workers,” Marshall said. 
“We filed the petitions today,” Sandy said. “We’re going to have elections at all those places within seven days from today. That’s a lot.” 
“A lot of work,” Marshall said. 
“Mucho,” agreed Sandy. “We’ve got one week to keep working on these ranches – and then all the other ranches in the valley, and we’re going to need everyone’s help to get the elections done in the next five, six, seven days.”

Jose Morales, leader of the Interharvest Ranch Committee, pointed to the office door as he briefed the crowd.

Inside, union lawyer Sandy Nathan (in hat) watched organizer Rosa Saucedo as she filed a petition for an election at the D’Arrigo company.

Marshall Ganz conferred with Jesus Villegas, a farmworker who had brought petitions from Oxnard, and Jose Morales, leader of the Interharvest workers.

They voted…

On Sept. 5, at Molera Farms, the very first elections took place.  One of the workers at the small artichoke farm, Vidal Oseguera, had organized his 14 coworkers and had each of them sign a card so they could petition for an election. By chance, their vote was scheduled first. The brand new state agency set up the polls in a shed on the farm. Back in the Salinas UFW office, workers packed the room, waiting to hear the results. But the votes had been sealed because of a court order obtained by the growers’ association, challenging the election process. The delay did not stop the workers and the union organizers from celebrating.

“You all want to know how the vote turned out, right?” Marshall Ganz asked the crowd. “The growers got a court order prohibiting us from counting the votes – but we have all the voters here! They entered, they voted, and when it was all over, we were outside in the street waiting, and they all marched out – all 15 of them – and said ‘Viva Chavez, viva la causa!’

Vidal Oseguera was close to tears as he explained how he organized his fellow workers:

There were few of us, and we knew that people in the union were working very hard at the larger companies. The workers at all the small companies should be able to organize themselves, because that way we will have greater strength, and that way we will win.

Vidal Oseguera Speaks: [sc_embed_player_template1 fileurl=”http://demointhefields.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Vidal-at-Molera.mp3″]

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Ahora es Cuando …

In the weeks that followed, the pace and competition intensified. During the first month alone, more than 30,000 farmworkers voted in 195 elections around California. Over the next few months, hundreds more elections took place – more in the Salinas Valley than any other region. Of the 423 elections the ALRB conducted during the first five months, 175 were in the Salinas area. More than 17,000 Salinas farmworkers cast ballots, the overwhelming majority opting for union representation. The UFW won the majority of the contests, but the Teamsters won their share. The vote count was far more lopsided: More than 9,000 votes cast for the UFW, 5,300 for the Teamsters, and 2,000 for No Union.

There would be major battles ahead over how the law was interpreted and enforced. But in those heady first few weeks, when Cesar Chavez visited Salinas to help campaign he repeated the same message over and over:

We fought for so long. People made so many sacrifices. We had faith that we could do something … The whole world is watching. The law is a good law — but a law is a law. The law recognizes for the first time the valor of each worker. You and only you can decide: You have your future, the future of your children, in your hands. The time is now.

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