by Diane Solomon
- USA -
Like Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before them, when Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez organized California’s exploited and marginalized farm workers into the United Farmworkers of America (UFW) in the 1960s they built a nonviolent movement that empowered poor and disenfranchised people to help themselves.
Since the 1900s, organizers had tried and failed to help California’s farmworkers get fair pay and safe working conditions. The UFW’s successful 1965 Delano grape strike was lead by and for farmworkers, winning them industry-wide contracts for the first time in history. These contracts provided decent pay, restrooms in the fields, clean drinking water, and an end to the crippling short-handled hoe.
During her career with the UFW, Huerta organized field strikes, directed boycotts, and negotiated and administered agreements. Huerta also was one of the first to speak out against pesticides that harm farm workers, consumers, and the environment. Five years ago she left the UFW and started the Dolores Huerta Foundation to teach community organizing. She still works as an advocate for farmworkers, whose pay and working conditions have worsened in recent years.
I spoke with Huerta at Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose, California.
What concerns you most about society today?
Our educational system. If we look at the San Joaquin Valley where we did so much community work with the UFW, what do we see? Since 1965 there’s been one university built, the University of California Merced, and 17 prisons. And we know who are in those prisons; it’s the African American youth, Latino youth and poor white kids. I think this is something that everybody has got to get involved in. We cannot let Governor Schwarzenegger get away with saying he’s going to cut $4 billion from the education budget.
California is the fifth largest economy in the world. How can we be leaders if we do not educate our young? It might be a little paranoid on my part but all of a sudden Latinos are the majority minority and there’s no money for education? This to me, is almost conspiratorial.
The great Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Garcia’s whole premise was that if you do not have an educated citizenry, you have mob rule. If you do not have an educated citizenry, the greedy and the corrupt will control our politics and our country. We really have to get on top of our legislators, and senators and assembly people and say ‘no you can’t do this. You can’t cut the education budget; if you have to raise taxes, do it!’
One of the most high profile issues of the presidential campaign is immigration. A high percentage of the US’ agricultural workers are undocumented. Has anything changed since your UFW organizing days?
All those bigots are against undocumented people, right? This big immigration fight we have, this is one thing that Cesar was committed to. Cesar and I worked to legalize many people when we started the union. Entire little towns in the valley, we fixed immigration papers so people there could become legalized. We fought the Bracero program. The whole immigration struggle was always a part and a parcel of what we did.
I think we have to really get busy in the next election and get more democrats elected to Congress and to the Senate. A lot of people think we’re going to win this by just doing the marches and the boycotts. We’ve got to do the political work, the intellectual work.
Do you think employers are part of the problem because they benefit when they use undocumented workers?
I think employers are on the side of legalization. They could have had a louder voice, maybe, and could have put more pressure on the republicans, because that’s where republicans get their money from.
I can understand their reluctance because if you ask someone who’s breaking the law to say, ‘Yeah, I’m breaking the law,’ they aren’t going to do that. This is probably why their voices aren’t as loud as they should be.
I work in the San Joaquin Valley. I live in Bakersfield. A lot of agricultural employers don’t want to hire legal residents. They prefer to hired undocumented [workers] because they don’t have to pay them as much or at all. So they’re bringing people in from southern Mexico and Guatemala that have never seen a grape in their life. But the kids who grew up in Bakersfield, both African American and Latino, who could work in the fields during the summertime, like their parents did to get their school clothes, are not hired.
So there’s some measure of blame there. I think if we just keep blaming people, [we’re not going to] solve the problem. What we’ve got to do is come to the root of the problem. The root of the problem is that people in Mexico do not have jobs or opportunities, right? This is why they migrate. So the only way we’re going to solve the problem is to have Mexico and Central America develop their own resources so their people will have employment, like what Hugo Chavez is doing in Venezuela.
Our policy toward Latin America is one of economic colonization. Mexico and Latin America have always been our friends. They’ve never been our enemies yet we always want to take out their resources and take out the profits and leave nothing behind for the people. We’ve got to change our foreign policy toward Latin America and help them develop their resources.
When I was in Guatemala last year I saw banana trucks driving down the highway, the Dole and Chiquita trucks. With all of the bananas we’ve eaten in this country, shouldn’t Guatemala be one of the richest countries right now? Just for the money we’ve spent on bananas? Yet the poverty in Guatemala is severe. It’s bigger now both in Mexico and in Central America, it’s worse than before NAFTA was passed.
If we can’t do it through governments, than we can do it through NGOs, and maybe we have companies doing business in Mexico start reforming their policies.
Right now immigrants send their money home to support their families. The income Mexico receives from this is next to their oil money. That’s how big it is. But it’s not on a formal basis. It’s just helping people to subsist. It’s not the same as really investing in social capital or economies or helping those people develop their own economy. There’s so much work to do in Mexico and Central America.
Hundreds of newspaper articles reported that you were campaigning for Hillary Clinton but none said why.
I’ve supported Hillary because when you compare her record on labor, on the environment, on civil rights, the record is extensive. When Hillary talks about her 35 years of experience, many of those years were as a community worker and a public servant. She was out there registering voters in South Texas when she was in her 20’s. When she was the first lady she flew many of us out to the White House to see what our needs were so she could communicate them to the President.
She has either sponsored or co-sponsored over 30 pieces of labor legislation and she’s personally intervened in eleven major labor disputes between employers and workers all over the country. Nobody knows about it and what Hillary was saying during her presidential campaign they wouldn’t quote. The corporate media wanted to knock her off because they knew they could get Obama in November and they’re gonna slice him and dice him.
What about Obama?
I’ve done a lot of work in Chicago and I’ve yet to meet the man in any kind of campaign for the Latino community. The one time I did meet him at UCLA, he kind of looked over my head and turned away. He didn’t know who I was. Obviously he doesn’t know who I am because he’s never been involved with the Latino community. When we did a campaign to help two young Latinos who were in prison for a murder they did not commit, I went to Chicago to help. When the community went to Obama, who was a state senator at that time, he refused to help. The person that got them out of prison was Hillary Clinton. The senator from Illinois didn’t help but the senator from New York did. She brought in the Justice Department to get them out of prison.
Then there was Elvira Arellano, the woman who took sanctuary at the Methodist church in Chicago for a whole year. And again, they went to Obama many times to ask him to come and lend his support and he never did. So, he’s never been involved, at least in Chicago or where I’ve been, with the Latino community. So I have personal reasons to endorse Hillary but I also believe she has the best experience and is the best qualified to be the president.
What was it like being a Latina in a male dominated movement?
Because I started with Cesar and we organized together, I had a lot of respect from the workers. They knew me. I negotiated the contracts. I ran the hiring hall. I never had problems with the workers. The other leaders, yes! Lots of problems. They were always challenging me or going behind my back, trying to diminish my leadership. That was a constant battle, you know?
[But] Cesar was conscious. We had a lot of women leadership. Cesar put women in leadership, he said, because women get the job done. I don’t think he thought about it as a gender thing. He chose people who could do the job.
Lots of young people work long hours at franchises but don’t earn enough to make ends meet. Can they organize the way you and the UFW did?
Labor laws are so bad now that even when workers organize a company, they may not get their union because the National Labor Relations Board manages to find a way to not certify their election. One of the advantages we had when we were organizing the farm workers was that the laws actually helped us because we were not a part of the NLR Act. We could do secondary boycotts and boycott Safeway.
So you can’t organize a boycott against a fast food place or retail store?
You could, but it would take a big effort. These kids out of Pitzer College who are helping organize L.A. car washers had a big demonstration at a car wash and the owner just shut it down and fired all of the workers. They can do that very easily with a Starbucks or any of these stores. That’s why all of the unions are having a really hard time.
Is the problem that we don’t have leaders now like Cesar Chavez?
You don’t wait for one person to come. Everybody has to take it upon themselves. Cesar was our leader and inspiration but there were many people who did the work. The leader inspires the people, does the work and gets other people involved. There’s no magic. It’s called work. A lot of organizations can’t grow because someone takes the leadership and it just implodes. So definitely in organizing you have to get everyone who wants to join come and help. You get the people to work together and that’s how you make things happen.
What about disagreements?
A big danger when you organize is you don’t have the economic glue that keeps the organization together when you have all volunteers. So what we’ve started in our organizations is conflict resolution. People have jealousies or misunderstandings, so we get them together and we resolve it. We don’t let things get out of hand. The minute there’s a disagreement between people we have them sit down and resolve it.
A lot of people don’t want conflict at meetings but if you don’t have conflict then you don’t get anything resolved. If everybody keeps it inside and hides it, then nothing ever gets settled. So put it on the table. What happens after conflict resolution is the group gets stronger.
Do you have any advice for The WIP’s young readers?
This election is very crucial. Examine the qualifications of the candidates and get out there and knock on doors and help register voters. A lot of young people seem detached, but when they think about what the government is doing to our educational system, that’s enough to get everyone angry. Kids have to understand that their future is being taken away from them by the people that were elected to office. This has got to change. They need to get involved and we’ve got to get busy and elect people that are really going to support us.
When the United Farmworkers organizing committee in 1969 switched strategies from striking grape growers in California's Central Valley to a nationwide boycott, filmmaker William Daniels and his colleagues prepared this film to promote the boycott in American cities. In that year a full length version of this film was delivered to the United Farmworkers organizing committee for its use in organizing the boycott. - Ed.
About the Author
Diane Solomon is a life-long resident of San Jose, California. She produces and hosts a weekly public affairs program on Radio KKUP and writes regularly for Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper. Her work has also appeared in The Progressive Magazine and on Making Contact, a syndicated radio program.