Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of United Farm Workers has been fighting for labor rights for 53 years has no plans to stop now. Huerta is the founder and president of The Dolores Huerta Foundation which focuses on community organizing, policy advocacy, and training leaders in agricultural communities.
She coined the phrase “Si, se puede!” back in 1965 when she was organizing a farm workers strike and leading an international boycott of Delano grapes alongside Cesar Chavez, and deployed them to advance women’s rights with Gloria Steinem and on behalf of Bobby Kennedy during his presidential campaign in 1968, and continues to motivate marchers with those words to this very day.
On Wednesday, July 18th, Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA) signed into law a bill officially designating her birthday, April 10, as Dolores Huerta Day, to encourage schools to teach students about her civil rights work.
We talked to her about how she got her start organizing farm workers, why we need to elect feminists into office, and what she thought about Barack Obama campaigning with a slogan she wrote.
What originally led you to labor organizing and working with farm workers?
I had the very good fortune of meeting a gentleman named Fred Ross Sr. who was the one that showed me that if you organized folks and got people to work together, that you could actually change policy, especially discriminatory policies against farm workers and other people. That to me was a very great gift, so I dedicated myself to do that.
You were a teacher first. Do you remember the moment that inspired you to take action while being around your students?
When I was a teacher, I remember there was a conference and the topic was that somehow Latino parents didn’t want their children to go to school. I remember speaking up and saying that it wasn’t true—that sometimes children would miss school because they didn’t have the proper clothing or they’d miss school because they didn’t have enough food to eat or because they had to go translate at some office because there weren’t enough translators in public agencies, so to say that parents didn’t want their children to be educated was a misnomer. After I spoke up, everyone at that conference shunned me. People wouldn’t go near me, because I was going against the grain and at that point there were only 3 people in our whole school district who were bilingual, who spoke English and Spanish. That’s the kind of experience that I had. It makes you unpopular in the moment but you have to speak out—truth to power.
In 1965, you and Cesar Chavez organized the Delano grape strike and boycott. It lasted 5 years but the strike ended with union contracts, better pay, plus benefits and protections. How did you get people all across the country to stop eating grapes and pay attention to work conditions affecting people all the way in California?
Well it was the farm workers themselves who went out there. They went to the different cities of New York, Chicago, Florida, Texas, everywhere, Europe, and Canada to get people not to eat grapes. It was the boycott that made it possible for the farm workers to get their basic human rights, like getting toilets in the field, cold drinking water, unemployment insurance, the right to organize. These are all the benefits that we got through the grape boycott. It was the boycott—17 million Americans that didn’t eat grapes—that were able to get these basic human rights but it was the workers themselves that went out there to do the work. Initially, when Cesar Chavez and myself organized the workers, we did it through a series of house meetings and before that strike started in 1965, we had been organizing workers for 3 years before the strike took place. We had planned not to strike until 2 years later but the Filipino farm workers went out on strike ahead of time and we had to support them. Then it just changed everything. At the time, of course, we didn’t know that we could never win with just the strike because they could always bring in people to break the strike. So if it hadn’t been for the boycott and 17 million Americans and Canadians and people who didn’t eat grapes, we never would have won.
What were the most important issues when you were organizing in the 1960s and 1970s and how has the focus shifted more recently?
When we started organizing farm workers, they were only making 50 cents an hour. There were no bathrooms in the field for the workers, no cold drinking water, no rest periods. They didn’t have the right to organize. They didn’t have some of the benefits that other workers had like disability insurance or unemployment insurance and since these are seasonal workers, when the crops ended, they really had no money to sustain their families. They had to depend on surplus commodities or food banks as we call them now. It was interesting because there was even a law that we had to change and that law said that said if you didn’t live in a county for 12 months out of the year, you couldn’t even get the surplus food. Can you imagine that? Here are people who were picking the food to put on our tables and they didn’t even have access to the food. So we had to change that law, and we changed it to—if you lived anywhere in the state of California, no matter where, you had access to the food bank.
What do you think the most important labor issues are at the moment?
Well we’re under attack. Labor is under attack. Right now as we’re speaking, the supreme court is going to decide a law for the labor unions—the public unions like the teachers unions and people who work in hospitals, or anybody that works in a public arena like SEIU (Service Employees International Union) or AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), that they cannot deduct dues from their workers paychecks. If they cannot do this, it will be a big strain on the unions because they’ll have to go to every worker individually to pay their dues to the union so that will make it very difficult for unions to do that. We’ve seen this in Wisconsin. They passed a law prohibiting the public unions from deducting dues from workers’ paychecks and the percentage of union workers dropped by 60 percent—very drastic.
This year, ICE has done major raids in rural areas—for instance, 200 people in the Central Valley of California were detained in February and 97 people in Tennessee in April. What do you think the threat of ICE means for farm workers and for our day laborers?
Well that’s a great threat for the undocumented farm workers, not for farm workers that have residency here. But that is very devastating and the sad fact is that the growers are the ones that go into Mexico and Central America to recruit workers to come work here and now the people who they support, mostly the Republicans and Trump supporters, are the ones that are deporting the people. But they’re doing this for a reason because they want to bring workers back in from Mexico but without any rights. They won’t be covered by unemployment insurance. They won’t have the right to organize. They can’t become residents or become citizens of the United States. Really it’s a step above slavery to bring in workers which they call H2A workers, foreign workers. He announced that the other day. He said to the farmers, you’re going to have your guest workers. But he’s not inviting them to his home. They’re really low wage foreign workers.
Your contribution to the feminist movement has overlooked but you were there alongside Gloria Steinem and you worked with the Feminist Majority Foundation and other organizations and you’re getting the recognition now. What do you think the correlation between workers’ rights and women’s rights are?
I think they’re one and the same because, one, the majority of women are working women. Working women’s rights are the same as women’s rights. All women need to have the right to abortion, the right to equal pay, the right to be respected, the right to promotion, to be free from sexual harassment, to be free from misogyny, to be free from violence. All women should have these rights. In many ways, you might say they’re one and the same.
At the height of your activism and travel, you had several young children and people in your community often cared for them while you were away. Did being a mother and experiencing that separation firsthand give you any insight into how to advocate for others?
Well I believe this is an issue that every single woman has and every single family because men are also in the same position. We have to go to work and in this society you can’t survive without having a job, without working. But then we have the issue “who’s going to take care of my children?” If they’re going to school, fine but who’s going to take care of them before school and after school if people have to go to work early. I think this is a common issue, not particularly my issue so to speak so I think eventually we have to campaign to get early childhood education with care for our children. Not only so that we know they’re being taken care of and are safe but are also being educated.
When you were on site, you also had daycare for the women who were picketing.
It was very organized. We had full-time daycare for all of our children, the women that worked for the farm workers union and we had Montessori and we had very good people who were trained and it wasn’t babysitting because the kids were being educated while they were there. So all of the women who worked at the farm workers union at least at our headquarters had daycare. Some of the women who worked in some of our field offices had to find somebody to take care of their children.
President Obama started using the phrase “Yes, we can” / “Si, Se Puede” in his race and it was a slogan that brought a lot of people together. This is a slogan often credited to Cesar Chavez but one that you actually coined. When did you notice he first started using this line and how did you feel?
Actually, I was supporting Hillary Clinton at that time so I wasn’t happy with President Obama using that phrase (laughter), because I was supporting Hillary. I thought it was time that we had a woman as president of the United States of America but after Obama won the primary, then I was very fortunate to meet the president and to have him say to me “I stole your slogan” and I told him “yes you did!” (laughter) And of course I was very happy to work for him to become the president after that.
Since the election of Trump, we’ve seen a wave of people across the country come together for marches and political activism. What advice do you have for people who are frustrated and want to make lasting change?
The one thing I do want to stress over and over and over again is that the marches are wonderful. The protests are great but we’ve got to take the march to the ballot box. Nothing changes unless we change policy. The only way we can change policy is to elect feminists to office because they are the ones who make the decisions. Are we going to go for more jails or for more schools? This is very important so women have to be at the forefront in making sure that we make everybody vote. And take your kids with you! I took my children with me when I was going door to door knocking on doors to get people to vote. My kids were right there with me. They were out there doing human billboards to remind people to vote. I think this is the one thing on our agenda. There is nothing as important as this now in 2018. I love to say we’re going to build our own wall in the U.S. Congress of progressive congresspeople so we can stop all of the discriminatory policies coming out of the White House.
What gives you hope right now, in 2018?
When you see all of the activism that is happening right now, so many young people are engaged. Even elder people are saying “I can’t afford to retire right now, there’s too much work to do, we’ve got to become active” this is what gives me hope. I know that we went through this in the 60s and we came out stronger and I do believe that when we come out of this, we’re going to come out stronger. And I’d also like to say, in the 1960s and 1970s, we had a cultural revolution. This time it’s gotta be an economic revolution. We cannot tolerate that one percent of the population has 50 percent of the wealth in our country or that 10 percent of the population has 90 percent of the wealth. We cannot tolerate this. We cannot tolerate that we have so many homeless people right now or that people have to work 2 minimum wage jobs to live. We cannot tolerate that kind of society. We have to have a society where wealth is distributed equally among everyone. This is not one of those kingdoms like in the olden days where you had the king with all the wealth and everyone else was a peasant. We cannot tolerate that. But the one great thing is that conferences like this one, the United State of Women and other conferences that are going on right now that we are assembling and we are organizing and we’re getting ready to change it. And I’ve been quoting the poet Pablo Neruda who said, “they can cut all the flowers but they can’t hold back the spring.” And we know that women here today at this conference and people out there are sowing the seeds of justice out there to making sure that those flowers come out very very strong. Our spring will be a very big spring.