Post author Andre Fernando Biehl is a junior at Princeton High School in Princeton, NJ. As part of an independent social science project, he has been working with the nonprofit Migrant Worker Outreach. He is the Youth Editor and Contributing Reporter of Latino Migrant Teen Journal and, over the summer, he interviewed blueberry pickers at several migrant camps in southern New Jersey. As he engaged these workers and learned about their lives, he reached out to the iconic civil rights and farmworker activist Dolores Huerta. In their conversation, Huerta talks about her organizing efforts, the Delano grape strike, as well as the social, political and environmental challenges that Hispanic migrant laborers face today.
Dolores Huerta has worked for decades as a civil rights activist and labor leader. In 1962, Huerta launched the National Farm Workers Association, which became the United Farm Workers, together with the legendary Cesar Chavez. In 1965, she was a lead organizer of the five-year long Delano grape strike, one of the most important commercial strikes in United States history. Huerta worked toward the achievement of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. Her efforts also helped establish disability insurance coverage for farmworkers in California. Huerta’s slogan “¡Sí se puede!”—translated as “Yes we can!”—inspired Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign slogan. In 2012, Huerta was awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. Today, she heads the Dolores Huerta Foundation, continuing her grassroots engagement by empowering a new generation of civic leaders and rights activists. The recently released documentary Dolores, by award winning filmmaker Peter Bratt, is an inspiring portrayal of the commitment and sacrifice of this fearless civil rights activist.
In late July 2018, at the time of my phone interview with her, Huerta had just returned to her home in California from Texas, where she had joined activists and concerned citizens to protest immigrant family separation. Both leader and comadre to fellow organizers, Huerta, who is now in her late eighties, speaks about the significance of engaging people on a personal level in mobilization efforts. Throughout the interview, she highlights the importance of political engagement and of spreading awareness of laws that protect the rights of farmworkers. Considering herself a ‘born-again feminist,’ she is deeply committed to ongoing struggles to protect vulnerable populations, particularly women and the undocumented. She mentions important historical details about how different movements can build on and learn from each other. Huerta also speaks about the impact of climate change on the welfare of farmworkers and about our country’s current anti-immigration political stance. For the unflinching Dolores Huerta, “the hope is in organizing.”
“I think that organizing people on a one-to-one basis is still very effective.”
Biehl: You have worked side by side with thousands of farmworkers around the country. Could you describe the connections you formed with the workers whom you helped mobilize?
Huerta: Well, you have to have a relationship with them when you’re organizing. If you’re trying to get them to respond and get motivated to make the sacrifices to get organized, have to have a relationship with them. You don’t talk to community leaders. You go directly to the people, and we do this by meeting them in their homes.
Biehl: Have you stayed in touch with any of the workers you organized?
Huerta: Some of them became very good friends. I’ll give you an example, Maria Saludado Magana. She was one of the first farmworker [organizers] and she was a volunteer. A lot of the farmworkers that we organized went out on strike; they went out on the boycott. And so we became very close to them, and Maria became –in Spanish I would say my comadre [good friend]—one of my daughters.
Biehl: And how have their lives turned out? How is Maria doing now?
Huerta: Oh, well they turned out very well. Maria got married, she had sons and they went to college.
“Some of the rights that we won for farmworkers are now covered throughout the country.”
Biehl: Historically, strikes and product boycotts have been used to draw attention to unfair labor practices and to push for reforms. Are these methods still as useful or powerful in affecting change today?
Huerta: Well, unfortunately, I think they have passed a lot of laws to make the types of boycotts that we did illegal. We were very successful because we got stores to remove certain products from their shelves like grapes, lettuce, and Gallo wines… I think that informational boycotts, when you give out information about a product, are still successful. In other words, you can say, “This particular company is doing X, Y, Z and it’s hurting workers or hurting the environment.” So you’re not saying, “Boycott the product,” but you’re giving people information so that they can decide. I think these initiatives are very, very successful.
Biehl: Are today’s farmworkers fighting for the same rights they fought for back in the 1960s and 1970s?
Huerta: Well, in California, they’re just fighting to get [union] contracts. Some of the rights that we won for farmworkers are now covered throughout the country. For instance, workers have toilets; they all have to have toilets in the fields. They all have to have drinking water in the fields. That is the mandate all over the United States. All farmworkers are covered by minimum wage laws, even if they are undocumented. Growers can’t have workers in conditions that might be a danger to their health or safety. That is the law all over the United States. If workers travel [a certain distance] they have to be provided with shelter and food. These are laws. Now, I’m not saying that they’re always enforced. Many times there is nobody around to enforce them. But these are laws that are in place.
In California and in Hawaii, farmworkers have the right to organize as a union. There, they’re covered with unemployment insurance, but not in the other states. In California, they’re also covered with disability insurance. California also has strong workers’ compensation laws for farmworkers. Growers have to pay their medical bills and pay the time lost from work when they’re injured on the job or traveling to and from the job site. Liability varies from state to state. In many states, agricultural employers are not mandated to provide workers compensation coverage for seasonal and migrant farmworkers. There is often a cap on workers’ comp, like they’ll only get $1,000 for their injuries. And so it’s very, very minimal.
Biehl: This must put a huge strain on the workers and their families. Not to mention the stress of working on under a punishing sun and having to work in fields full of pesticides. What has your foundation done to help workers deal with these issues?
Huerta: Actually, there have also been some laws passed in California that the growers have to provide shade. They can’t put workers to work where their safety or health is endangered. You are right that this it is still a big issue. But again, they don’t have [these] protections in any other states, only in California.
Biehl: So, is it really up to the grower to provide that?
Huerta: Yes, if they so please.
“There’s a lot of fear out there, and it’s very difficult to get women to report, because they fear for their lives.”
Biehl: How can undocumented workers get employment protection and overcome the many challenges they face today?
Huerta: In California, the undocumented have all of the same rights as the documented workers. But they cannot get unemployment insurance because it is partially funded by federal contributions. The employers [also] have to contribute, but I think that there is some federal money involved in that and that is why the undocumented can’t get unemployment insurance. But all of the other laws – the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act statutes, including the right to organize – protect both the undocumented workers [and those who are legally eligible to work.]
Biehl: So it is, in part, a matter of enforcement and of other states catching up. Turning to other, related, aspects of protection, is there a greater awareness and recognition these days of the hazards faced by female farmworkers?
Huerta: Well, I’m not sure exactly how to answer that. We know there’s a lot of sexual harassment… but there are laws [to protect] farmworkers from sexual harassment, both at the state level and at the national level. A big issue is that oftentimes the workers that the growers bring in don’t know what the laws are. And so they don’t know that they’re protected. That’s always a problem.
Biehl: Do you think that getting that information out could be helpful?
Huerta: Well, there’s a lot of fear out there, and it’s very difficult to get women to report because they fear for their lives. They fear for their families and always worry about retaliation. So it’s difficult for them. But there are laws, and [there is] a lot of publicity on Spanish radio and television, and there are people who go out and talk about it and let women know they have protections… Here in California – because we do have the Agricultural Labor Relations Board – they actually made it a point to go out there and to educate workers about the issues of sexual harassment, and also about what their rights are, so that they can form a union. The Agricultural Labor Relations Board took it upon itself to be able to talk about sexual harassment. It is crucial for women to know where they can access protections when there are violations.
“Farmworkers can die out there in those fields when it gets too hot, especially if there are no protections for them.”
Biehl: Let’s turn to another big issue, global warming, which is affecting weather patterns and crops. Can you comment on how this issue is affecting farmworkers?
Huerta: Well, in a number of ways. Of course, the heat is always an issue. Farmworkers can die out there in those fields when it gets too hot, especially if there are no protections for them. This obviously affects their health. It is happening all over the country because global warming is everywhere. Another way that [global warming] affects workers is that it is changing the planting patterns. This results in less work because there are some crops that can’t be planted or some [growing] seasons that don’t last as long as they used to. So there are direct effects as farmworkers have less income.
Biehl: Absolutely. And what other challenges do farmworkers still face?
Huerta: There are a lot of challenges, as you know. Poverty is a big factor among farmworkers. They don’t have adequate shelter. Often there’s no daycare for children, and mothers work out there in the fields. They don’t make enough money and so they can’t get decent, adequate housing. So yes, workers face a lot of challenges.
“It was shocking to see that power structure coming together to prevent farmworkers from getting their basic human rights.”
Biehl: In looking back to your early years as a farmworker organizer, were you surprised with your success, or what surprised you the most?
Huerta: I was not surprised with our success, because we assumed that we were going to be successful or we would never have started. Maybe I was surprised by the violence. We knew there had been a lot of violence in the past, but we did not expect the conspiracy of having the [then] president of the United States, the governor of California, and the Farm Bureau Federation, the most powerful grower organization, go as far as they did to prevent organizing. It was shocking to see that power structure coming together to prevent farmworkers from getting their basic human rights. I mean, we knew it was bad. But I never thought that they would go that far and that people would be getting killed. Five people were killed in the farmworker struggle just to get basic human rights. I think that would have been surprising. [Huerta herself was nearly beaten to death].
“People must vote so that we can get a decent immigration law passed…”
Biehl: Thank you, and two last questions to wrap up. If you were starting all over again, would you do everything the same way?
Huerta: I really don’t know of anything that we could have done differently. I mean, the way that it happened, it seems like everything just sort of evolved, even without our planning. So, I’m not sure that we could have changed anything. I think we were very fortunate that we were able to come across the tactic of the boycotts – otherwise we never would have won – because all of the previous struggles to organize farmworkers with strikes failed, and ours was obviously also going to fail. [Huerta mentioned that a San Francisco-based civil rights attorney, Stewart Weinberg, suggested a boycott in support of the Delano grape strike]. He said, “Why don’t you do a boycott like they’re doing down there in Selma and Montgomery?” And we said, “Okay, let’s try that.” Had it not been for that I think we would not have been successful.
Biehl: It’s amazing how movements build on each other. Given the challenging circumstances farmworkers face today, what hope is there to protect their welfare? Do you believe that things will change?
Huerta: I think the hope is in organizing, just to have people organize… I think [change] depends on elections – who gets elected and what laws are passed… People must vote so that we can get a decent immigration law passed and stop the deportations of the farmworkers who are undocumented… Get out there and vote… Campaign for progressive candidates and give your time. That would be really, really important.
Biehl: Thank you so much for talking to me. I really appreciate your time.
Huerta: Oh thank you so much, and good luck.
Dolores Huerta will deliver the opening keynote at the 117th AAA Annual Meeting in San Jose, CA on Wednesday, November 14.