AAPI Heritage Month: Larry Dulay Itliong
May 14, 2021
Larry Itliong was a native of San Nicolas, Philippines and as one of six children he received only a sixth-grade education. In 1929, at only 15 years old, he immigrated to the United States. His heart was set on becoming an attorney and seeking justice for the poor. But the poverty he lived through and violent racism he and other Filipinos encountered all but barred him from getting the education he initially sought. He never became an attorney, but he became a storied Filipino-American labor leader and organizer, leading labor organizations in Alaska and throughout the West Coast.
He began by recruiting more than a thousand new members to join the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). His success was so remarkable, that Union leaders asked him to help organize Filipino grape workers where, on September 7, 1965, he convinced those workers at Filipino Hall to vote to go on strike. The strike began the next day and more than 2,000 Filipino farmworkers, members of AWOC, abandoned the vineyards, demanding $1.40 an hour, 25 cents a box and the right to form a Union.
Itliong’s passion motivated him to contact the Mexican farmworkers, and advocated for their two groups to work together. In a unanimous vote the Mexicans joined the Filipinos. A year later, AWOC and NFWA merged to become the United Farm Workers (UFW).
The Delano Grape Strike lasted for five years, but instead of sharing the recognition of the Mexican co-founder, Cesar Chavez, Itliong faded into the shadows of history. Many historians agree that this strike was one of the most important social justice and economic movements in American history.
Itliong’s passion for organizing took him to Alaska where he worked to organize cannery and agricultural Unions helping to establish the Alaska Cannery Workers Unions. During his time there, in a cannery accident, he lost three fingers earning him the nickname “Seven Fingers”. Regrettably, many in the labor industry as well as many in the Filipino-American community, are unaware of Itliong’s crucial efforts in organizing the strike and supporting the workers.
Itliong was known for his signature cigar smoking, his gift for language which bridged trust with many workers from all backgrounds and his distinguished service in the U.S. Army during WWII. His path eventually took him towards politics, where he continued to leave an indelible and valuable mark on our history.
He was a delegate at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, led the AFL-CIO Union Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and in retirement served as the President of the Filipino American Political Association
The contribution of the Filipino laborers and Itliong was not properly recognized until 1995 in a memorial honoring Filipino American farmworkers. As we continue the month honoring the contributions of our AAPI Sisters and Brothers we remind everyone that Unions were built and fortified by immigrants from all walks of life. Without the hard work of people like Itliong, we would not have the influence, strength and unity we have today.