On the eve of Cesar Chavez Day on March 31, Angelus News spoke with UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta about the unity and perseverance epitomized by the union for decades to help improve working conditions for farmworkers, and about her experiences and suggestions for confronting current and future challenges.
With the hum of the train she was riding clearly audible in the background — as legendary labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta shuttled between yet another speaking engagement or community outreach effort — the seemingly tireless 86-year-old dynamo spoke via cell phone with Angelus News about some of the most impactful achievements of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, and reflected on lessons that can be embraced by today’s social justice proponents.
“I think the only way you can take on the challenges and be successful is just to continue to organize — to organize the people, let them know that they have the power to change things, to learn and then take direct action ... in a [determined] way,” said Huerta, whose entire life has exemplified dogged determination.
Huerta’s lifelong devotion to standing in solidarity with the voiceless has its roots in both her faith and her family. Huerta was born in Dawson, New Mexico, in 1930. She and her family later relocated to the agricultural community of Stockton, California, where her mother — whom she described as her “greatest influence” — eventually owned a restaurant and 70-room hotel, which often provided low-cost (or even free) room and board for struggling local farmworkers and their families.
After going to college and earning a teaching degree, Huerta became a grammar-school teacher, but later decided she could “do more by organizing the farmworkers than by teaching their hungry children.” In 1955, she became a founding member of the Stockton chapter of the Community Service Organization (CSO), which led voter registration drives, pushed for improved public services, battled segregation and police brutality and fought to enact new legislation.
Huerta met Cesar Chavez through her work with CSO. In an effort to directly address the specific needs of farmworkers, they launched the National Farm Workers Association (predecessor to the UFW) in 1962, and went on to organize and make history over the years and multiple accomplishments that followed.
Looking back on the union’s many achievements, “it’s kind of hard to say which is the most important,” said Huerta. But, she added, focusing solely on the sheer number of people affected, their single most impactful success may have been securing the right for farmworkers “to organize,” specifically “the right to have [labor] unions” guaranteed under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown.
In addition, Huerta continued, “farmworkers — even if they’re undocumented — are covered by the minimum wage laws of the nation.”
“They’re also covered by worker safety laws, [so they] can’t be forced to work in places that might endanger their health or their safety,” she added. “And the amnesty bill was a big one” the UFW supported, too, which allowed about 1 million farmworkers to become legal residents. Altogether, about 3 million people became legal residents under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
Other major UFW accomplishments that endure included:
› The first genuine collective bargaining agreements between farmworkers and growers in American history;
› Extending state unemployment insurance, disability benefits and workers’ compensation to farmworkers for the first time;
› The first comprehensive medical benefits for farmworkers and their families;
› Abolishing the short-handled hoe that crippled generations of farmworkers;
› The first union contracts requiring rest periods, toilets in the fields, cold drinking water, hand-washing facilities, banning discrimination in employment and sexual harassment of female workers, prohibiting pesticide spraying while farmworkers are in the fields, outlawing DDT and other pesticides and much more.
Looking back, Huerta said she believes they succeeded despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles because they had the people and God on their side. This was rarely more evident than during the UFW’s 340-mile trek from Delano to Sacramento in early 1966, about six months after farmworkers had walked out on the Delano grape growers to protest years of poor pay and working conditions.
That famous strike — which they eventually won in 1970 — lasted more than five years and grew to include an international boycott by consumers of nonunion grapes. But in 1966, it was just getting started. The march began on March 17 with 75 grape workers led by Chavez, Huerta and other union leaders. By the time they arrived at the state capital in Sacramento 25 days later, that number had swelled enormously, totaling about 10,000 marchers and supporters.
“All of the odds were against us,” she recalled, but having faith — in God, in the support of others, in reaching their myriad goals to ensure humane working conditions for farmworkers — “absolutely” helped them keep moving forward.
Regarding current difficulties facing today’s farmworkers, Huerta believes one of the biggest issues is the expected ramping up of deportations of undocumented workers, which has been promised by the current administration.
“I think their plan is to deport as many undocumented workers as they can and then bring them back [into the U.S.] under the Bracero program for contract workers, which would really depress wages for all workers,” she said, also noting that “braceros” don’t benefit from the existing labor protection laws safeguarding farmworkers.
Another issue that persists across all industries in 2017 is the need for reliable and affordable early childhood education and child care, said Huerta, who, as the mother of 11 grown children, still vividly recalls the difficulties posed by being a busy working mother juggling work and parenting responsibilities.
“One of the challenges that most [working] women [face] is always having to worry about how their children are going to be taken care of,” she said. “The fact that we do not have [universal access to] early childhood education and care for our children always presents a big challenge for women and for families.”
Huerta said she hopes we’ll see early education and child care become a reality someday, not only to provide more flexibility and financial gain for working moms, but also “because we need to have more women involved,” to have their voices heard in the workplace, in civic engagement — in all aspects of society.
Huerta, who stepped down from active duty with the union years ago and became the first vice president emeritus of the UFW, currently devotes herself to “creating networks of healthy organized communities pursuing social justice” via the Dolores Huerta Foundation, always seeking to support the most marginalized.
“I think the time we’re going through right now [is] very difficult for everyone,” noted Huerta. She said it reminds her of the biggest obstacles they faced during the UFW movement, “when we had the most powerful people in the nation against us” — including “the growers, the judges, the California Gov. [Ronald] Reagan and even the president of the United States, [Richard] Nixon.”
“Yet we persevered — we persevered in spite of having the most powerful people in the country against us,” she said. “I think that’s something that people can remember and think about right now. … I think that’s an important lesson.”
Huerta said she has felt buoyed by witnessing the many recent protests and marches that have taken place in support of human rights and social justice issues.
“I think they’re very important, because I think that when people participate in collective protests or marches … when people come together like that, they feel a sense of their power by everyone being together,” explained Huerta. “I think it makes people know that they are not alone, that there are other people with them in the same struggle and it gives people a lot of energy and courage to keep going.”