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Activist Dolores Huerta: 50 years of fighting for human rights

The woman who co-founded the United Farm Workers union 50 years ago with Cesar Chavez has harried, prodded, hectored, rallied and protested.

May 23, 2012|Patt Morrison
  • Labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta addresses the audience during the final "Crossing Borders Building Bridges" event series at Yuba College in Linda, Calif. President Obama named Huerta one of thirteen recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta addresses the audience… (Chris Kaufman / Appeal-Democrat,…)

Dolores Huerta runs on righteous ferocity the way cars run on gasoline. The woman who co-founded the United Farm Workers union 50 years ago with Cesar Chavez has harried, prodded, hectored, rallied and protested. She's been arrested more than a score of times, and once, picketing in San Francisco, she was beaten so badly by a police officer that her spleen was ruptured. You'd be hard-pressed to tell, the way she bounces around the Central Valley, a woman on many missions. So, can she stand still next week in Washington long enough for President Obama to present her with the Medal of Freedom, along with honorees such as Toni Morrison, John Glenn and Bob Dylan? Sí, se puede.

What does getting the Medal of Freedom mean to you?

To me it means organizing is recognized. During the campaign there was a lot of fun made of President Obama: Oh, well, he's just a community organizer. When you talk about organizing, you're talking about people power. When people are organized, they have a voice.

What does the Dolores Huerta Foundation do?

Organize! We raise money and hire organizers and train them and go into communities primarily with low-income people and teach them how to organize. They are able to do marvelous deeds. A little town called Weedpatch — it's in "The Grapes of Wrath" — the residents got together, they passed petitions, passed a bond issue and got a brand new gymnasium for their middle school. Another little town in southern Kern County — we passed a 1-cent sales tax increase and raised almost $1 million for police and fire protection.

How do you think Gov. Jerry Brown is doing?

He's got a lot of problems because the state is in such a financial crisis. We've partnered with the governor on this big [tax] initiative to raise money for the state.

Why is union membership across the country diminishing?

It's been very hard for the unions. Under Republican administrations, the National Labor Relations Board was very hostile to unions. Many manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas, so you have a lot of service jobs.

There's been so much propaganda against unions. A labor union is an organization of workers. That's all it is, the way employers have the Chamber of Commerce or manufacturer associations they pay dues to. [Critics] refer to unions as a special interest. They are not a special interest.

It was labor that fought for the eight-hour day, for workers' compensation, for safety standards — we don't have that [taught] in our schools. So many things we take for granted, people fought and died to get these rights.

Does the country need a rewrite of its guest-worker programs to address labor needs?

Oh no, guest-worker programs are bad because people are so exploited. [Successive waves of immigrants solve labor needs.] Every single immigrant group that came to the United States was legalized at one time or another.

You're second-generation American, and you were a teacher in the Central Valley. What made you commit to community organizing?

I was teaching school and seeing these farmworker kids coming to class: These weren't Mexican kids; they were the Dust Bowl children, what they called Okies and Arkies, and so undernourished. I argued with my principal to get school food vouchers for them. He'd say, "Oh, all these people do is drink up all their money." I had already seen how hard they worked and how little money they earned. I thought, this is wrong; farmworkers have to have a union. So I quit teaching to [help]. It was more fulfilling.

You left the UFW about 12 years ago. Why?

Several reasons. The culture of the organization changed a lot after Cesar passed away [in 1993]. There are reasons; I understand why.

Early on, we would organize the community first, then organize the company. Now the union goes straight to the company and not the community.

People in our immigrant communities have so many needs that are not being met, and I thought we could make more of a contribution helping people get organized as a community. If you organize the community first, then afterward it's so much easier to get those union contracts.

Also, I felt that I was being kind of recycled, doing everything I'd done before.

The UFW just celebrated its 50th anniversary, but its membership has fallen along with other unions, and contracts are fewer and sometimes less advantageous. Where is the UFW now?

Looking at it from a positive point of view, the political climate has been difficult for them. They have needed to hang on to contracts they have even though they may not be the best ones. You need to focus on the United Farm Workers [as] the only union that was successful in organizing farmworkers.

Sometimes the workers want to decertify too.

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