U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor Hearing in Delano

U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor Hearing in Delano

Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Harrison Williams Jr. attending a labor hearing, Delano, 1966. Photo by John Kouns.

In March 1966, three US senators—Harrison Williams Jr. (D-NJ), chair of the Subcommittee on Migratory Labor; Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY); and George Murphy (R-CA)—went to California’s Central Valley to investigate the condition of migrant workers and to consider possible federal legislation to protect the rights and improve the labor conditions of farmworkers, much to the chagrin of the growers, who swore that farmworkers wanted nothing to do with a union. From March 14 to 16, 1966, the subcommittee heard testimony in Sacramento, Visalia, and finally Delano, where they met in the Delano High School auditorium before 1,000 people.

Kern County authorities attending a labor hearing, Delano, 1966. Photo by John Kouns.

The hearing was contentious. At one point, Senator Kennedy denounced Kern County Sheriff Leroy Galyen’s unconstitutional arrest of 20 picketers and exhorting him and the district attorney to read the Constitution. Their arrival proved fortuitous, for it provided César Chávez and the National Farm Workers Association a platform from which to denounce and address the plight of the farmworkers. It also provided the Farmworker Movement national exposure, something it sorely needed as it took on the powerful growers of California in the grape strike. Of equal importance, the presence of Senator Kennedy, especially in Delano, where he spoke of the importance of collective bargaining and compared the growers to Southern segregationists; in Delano he also met Chávez, and their chemistry was instant; his steadfast support proved important to the Union’s early success.
César Chávez (left) and Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY, right) speak as they arrive at Delano High School ahead of the day's scheduled U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor hearing, which took place inside the auditorium. César Chávez (derecha) y el senador Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY, derecha) hablan mientras llegan a la preparatoria Delano antes de la audiencia programada del Subcomité del Senado estadounidense sobre el trabajo migratorio, la cual fue convocada dentro del auditorio.

César Chávez and Senator Robert F. Kennedy talking together before a labor hearing, Delano, 1966

Senator Robert Kennedy first met César Chávez in Delano in 1966 during the Senate Subcommittee hearings. They immediately hit it off and became close friends up until Senator Kennedy’s assassination in 1968. Kennedy became Chávez’s leading advocate in Washington DC and their associates were in frequent contact. When Chávez held an event to signify the end of his 23 day fast for nonviolence in 1968, Senator Kennedy visited Delano again and gave him the piece of bread that ended his fast.

Upon the completion of the Subcommittee’s hearings, Chávez declared the beginning of the march and pilgrimage to Sacramento on March 17, 1966, where after a short police-related delay, over 200 people, including children, marched 300 miles to clamor for better wages and for improved working conditions, stopping for rallies at 25 communities before arriving in Sacramento on Easter Sunday and celebrating mass. By April 1966, DiGiorgio Corporation and Schenley Corporation, the two largest growers in the region, had agreed to hold elections and negotiate with the farmworkers.

Young man seated next to Dolores Huerta testifies during the labor Senate subcommittee hearing, Delano, 1966. Photo by John Kouns.


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