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Labor’s unsung hero, Larry Itliong, inducted into hall of fame

The late Larry Itliong, a driving force in the West Coast farmworkers union movement and a co-founder of the United Farm Workers, was inducted this week into Labor’s International Hall of Fame.
The induction took Thursday in Union City at Itliong-Vera Cruz Middle Schoo, which in 2015 became what’s believed to be the first school in the nation named after two Filipino-Americans — Itliong and fellow labor leader Philip Vera Cruz.
“This is huge,” Johnny Itliong, 52, said of the induction of his father, who died in 1977 at the age of 63.
“He’s an American hero. He stood up for people who weren’t being heard,” Itliong said.
The induction helps to restore Larry Itliong’s role in history, which has been overshadowed by iconic Mexican-American labor leader Cesar Chavez, according to the hall of fame.
Larry Itliong emigrated to the United States in 1929 and began working as a field hand and in fishing canneries up and down the West Coast. He also lived for periods in the Central Valley cities of Stockton and Delano.
The squalid conditions migrant workers were forced to endure, along with low and at times unequal pay, drew him to the labor union movement, according to the hall of fame.
In May 1965 he organized the largely-Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to strike in the Coachella Valley against grape growers, and in September of that year he did the same thing against dozens of growers in Delano.
Itliong tried unsuccessfully multiple times to bring the National Farm Workers Association, led by Chavez, into the movement. He knew unity would be key to making changes, as growers for decades had beaten unions by using one ethnic group of workers to break strikes of another, according to the hall of fame.
With the help of ally Dolores Huerta, Itliong convinced Chavez to have his union vote to join the Delano Grape Strike, which it did, leading to the formation of the United Farm Workers and wide consumer support for laborers over the next several years.
“What he did is Filipino-American history, and it’s American history. It’s important to our community, and our community’s history, but what he did was even bigger than that,” Dawn Mabalon, a professor of history at San Francisco State University, said in an interview at the ceremony.
“They changed how this nation understands their food and the labor that goes into producing that food,” she said, noting that media at the time largely focused on Chavez as the movement’s figurehead.
“It’s so important that he’s getting the recognition now,” Mabalon said of Itliong. “Nothing ever gets done by one person, that’s the reality. And movements are about people.”
Tracie Noriega, a school district employee and leader of its Filipino American Society for Education, said holding the induction at the school bearing Itliong’s name — in a city that is comprised of roughly 20 percent Filipinos and 20 percent Hispanics — helps engage kids with their interconnected history.
“How does each student, especially students of color, attach to what’s in front of them? Why does it become relevant?,” she said. “We’re looking to ensure that kids learn about multiple histories, multiple perspectives.”
The hall of fame — a virtual hall with its headquarters in Detroit — has been honoring men and women who played a role in supporting workers and their families since 1973.
“It’s not just about putting a name on the website,” Erik Nordberg, the academic co-chair of the hall, said at the ceremony.
“It’s about celebrating the legacy of these people, the work that they did, not just for themselves but their service to everyone else,” he said.
Mabalon said she spoke to students Thursday, telling them there are lessons to be learned by studying the history of the United Farm Workers.
“The farm workers movement is one of the greatest social movements of the 20th century,” she said.
The accurate history of the movement is a diverse one involving many leaders and people of multiple ethnicities and generations, Mabalon said. By lifting up the roles that figures such as Itliong played, people can learn what it takes to fight injustice in a meaningful way.
“How do you build a coalition that is lasting and powerful? How do you create solidarity? How do you learn how to give and take with people that are different from you towards common goals? And what were the mistakes that they made, and what were their challenges and their victories?” Mabalon said.
“There’s no better time to learn these lessons of how to come together than right now,” she said.

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