By: Daniel Sheehan, AFOP Executive Director
I remember the first time I met Dolores Huerta. It was four and a half years ago, at a Farmworker Justice awards reception held in her honor. I can imagine the event it like it was yesterday: although small in stature, she commanded the room when she spoke, and her message was compelling: “Farm work is hard work, but it’s honest work, and farmworkers – those who pick the very food we eat – deserve respect. Respecting other people’s rights is peace, and that’s just what I do.”
And still does. Having turned 87 years old April 10th, Dolores Huerta continues to work tirelessly developing leaders and advocating for the working poor, women, and children. As founder and president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, she travels across the country engaging in campaigns and influencing legislation that supports equality and defends civil rights. She often speaks to students and organizations about issues of social justice and public policy.
Born in New Mexico and moved to Stockton, California, she grew up as most Mexican-Americans did at that time facing down racial intolerance and bigotry. After high school, she earned her certificate and became school teacher. As a teacher, she soon could no longer bear to see her students come to school with empty stomachs and bare feet, and thus began her lifelong journey of working to correct economic injustice.
Ms. Huerta found her calling as an organizer while serving in the leadership of the Stockton Community Service Organization (CSO). During this time, she founded the Agricultural Workers Association, set up voter registration drives and pressed local governments for barrio improvements. It was in 1955 through CSO founder Fred Ross, Sr. that she met a likeminded colleague, CSO Executive Director César E. Chávez. The two soon discovered that they shared a common vision of organizing farmworkers, so they resigned from the CSO and launched the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. Their immediate goal was the unionization of the predominantly undocumented non-English speaking Mexican field laborers in California, who had long endured extremely long hours, low pay, no bathroom breaks plus verbal and physical assault. Huerta and Chávez saw this as a modern form of slavery.
On September 8, 1965, the world for America’s farmworkers changed. Fed up with terrible treatment, Filipino-American grape workers decided to strike against the Delano, California, growers, protesting years of poor work conditions. Latino farmworkers, led by Chávez and Huerta, joined their Filipino-American brothers in solidarity, helping to forge the present-day United Farm Workers of America. A 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, California, grabbed the attention of the American people. Once they got wind of the disenfranchised workers, a nationwide grape strike began. By 1970, the grape boycott succeeded in convincing table-grape growers to sign their first union contracts, granting workers better pay, benefits and protections.
Ms. Huerta did not stop there. Through her organizing and negotiating skills, she helped grow the organization and secure important legislative advances, such as Aid for Dependent Families and disability insurance for farmworkers in the State of California – an unparalleled feat for those times – and the enactment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. This was the first law of its kind in the United States, granting farmworkers in California the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions.
Through grassroots campaigning, she also helped farmworkers wield increased political power at the ballot box. As the organization’s principal legislative advocate, Ms. Huerta became one of its most visible spokespersons. Then-United States Senator Robert F. Kennedy acknowledged her help in winning the 1968 California Democratic Presidential Primary just moments before he was shot in Los Angeles. She has also helped many others win elected office, lawmakers who would carry the farmworker’s cause forward.
Ms. Huerta’s impact on the betterment of farmworker work and lives cannot be overstated. Because of her work, her commitment, her staring down threats, attacks, and adversity, she has empowered farmworkers to stand up for their rights and take responsibility for organizing and securing the advances they seek. In recognition of that tremendous effort, in 2012, then-President Obama bestowed upon Ms. Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. Upon receiving this award Ms. Huerta said, “The freedom of association means that people can come together in organization to fight for solutions to the problems they confront in their communities.
The great social justice changes in our country have happened when people came together, organized, and took direct action. It is this right that sustains and nurtures our democracy today. The civil rights movement, the labor movement, the women’s movement, and the equality movement for our LGBT brothers and sisters are all manifestations of these rights. I thank President Obama for raising the importance of organizing to the highest level of merit and honor.” A statement and a cause we all should continue to embrace today.
At that awards reception, Ms. Huerta pulled me aside to say that she wanted to help AFOP continue to efforts in behalf of farmworkers, writing down for me on a small piece of notepad paper her email address and telephone. Should I ever need her help. That’s all. I cherish that note, and will keep it always to remind me of that great leader who has done so much for our farmworker brothers and sisters, Ms. Dolores Huerta.
Happy birthday, Ms. Huerta, and best wishes for your ongoing inspirational work and continuing achievements.