“Being involved with the Farm Worker Ministry has been like a continuous going to school, you know, always learning.”
Olgha Sierra Sandman discusses her involvement with NFWM’s early support of the UFW during the grape boycott and their campaign with Coca Cola.
Olgha Sierra Sandman: The focus of the ministry, and it still is, was to be as close physically as we could to where the workers were doing something. And it was California, of course, and some in Florida because the United Farm Workers were in those years organizing the workers in the citrus, that would harvest the oranges that were processed into juice and it belonged to Coca Cola. So they were looking for a contract with Coca Cola, and they got it. They got it. And so we would go to Florida, too, in the 70s. But most of the meetings were in California. And so going to the meetings where the workers were doing something, we had the opportunity, and since I am talking for myself, I had the opportunity to be in some of the marches that they would have, to be at their conventions, you know, the conventions and to be at meetings they had, the workers with Cesar. And it was very impressive to see the way that they communicated with each other.
Cesar would give priority to talking to the workers that wanted to talk to him than to talk to visitors that were representing denominations or government people or anything like that. To me, one time I heard him say that hard times were our best times. The hard times when the opposition was so strong. The public was being fed the image of a man who was a Communist, and he used to say, “But I don’t know why they want to give the Communists the credit for doing all the good that we are doing.” It was a revelation to see as he built that union and the way that the workers would come into the union, to him and to the union because there was a board, a national board of the union, asking, “We want to be organized, too!”
And of course, this work began with the grapes. With the strike with the grapes in Delano, California. In the valley there are many different crops and different groups of workers that were anxious to be organized. And for many years the emphasis was on the grape workers, but they also had contracts in some other crops. And after his death, I think, there was more openness to go in different directions and organize because they went through three boycotts of grapes. And to us that went out in the different parts of the country you know, not only Ohio, where I worked so hard to build support and to gather support to boycotting in front of the stores. We were boycotting grapes and then lettuce and Gallo wine, you know. We would do it. I was a recruiter for much of it in Dayton, Ohio, where we lived at that time, of seminary students, church people, to go in front of the stores and leaflet, and to get reassigned. And I remember the first time I did it. I didn’t want anybody to see me. I stood in front of a grocery store in my neighborhood, hoping that none of my neighbors would come by. Or that nobody from the church would come by and see me being in the picket line. That didn’t last too long. That didn’t last too long.
One of the good lessons I learned, and being involved with the Farm Worker Ministry has been like a continuous going to school, you know, always learning. One of the good lessons I learned is that the public at large were very supportive. That nine out of ten people were very open to say, “Tell me more about it. And yes, I won’t buy grapes.” And we would ask them to go to second step and tell the manager that they would not buy grapes and why. And occasionally somebody would come out and tell us to go back where you came from and so forth.
Interviewer Ryan Nilsen: Do you think that has changed over the years?
Olgha Sierra Sandman: It has changed to the point that, many of the causes surge in American society. And, for instance, we worked so hard with the first boycott. And Cesar had sent people to the cities around the country to work on it, and they did tremendous work. We would be helpers of what they were doing because they were farm workers themselves and they had come from the areas where they were organizing to convince people of what was happening us. And it was very successful. One time there were 17 million Americans boycotting the grapes. And things marched good because in that area where they got contracts, the pension plans were instituted, the health plan was instituted, and seniority was functioning. There were ranch committees that oversaw the contracts and so forth.
But then there came a time when the Teamsters intervened. And I don’t think they intervened because they wanted to, but they were called by the growers to come and what’s called, I forgot the term they used, but they “went to bed together” and they signed the contracts behind the workers. The workers did not vote to be represented by the Teamsters, but they gave the contracts to the teamsters. And of course, Cesar and the union would not strike again.
The second boycott of grapes and people like me that were in Ohio at that time found it a little harder to recruit people for the boycotts for the second time. It was like, “Well we already worked on that and it was won, and how come we are back into it?” And when it happened for the third time then at that time there was the Vietnam war, and there was the anti-nuclear movement, and a lot of the young people that put time and effort into working on the boycott were not to be seen. On these other issues, mainly peace, they were very busy, and it was very hard to get the troops into it.
I think also the laws that were passed to counter the boycott were that they could not do secondary boycotts. They were boycotting the product. They could not go in front in of a store that was not the owner of the product and boycott in front of it, you know. They had many restrictions. That we could be outside the door of the story now was not allowed. You had to be on a public way like a sidewalk. And sometimes the sidewalk was far removed from a store that was in a shopping area. So some things and people, you could not hope for society to be 100 percent all the time. Things change through the years and all of that.