Labor leader, civil rights activist, feminist, and living legend Dolores Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (which later become United Farm Workers) with Cesar Chavez in 1962.
In 1965, Huerta helped organize the United Farm Workers’ national grape boycott, which caused grape growers in California to sign a three-year collective bargaining agreement, raised the consciousness of the nation about deplorable working conditions for farm workers, and launched a movement to improve those conditions that continues to this day.
Huerta, eighty-six, has been engaged in the struggle for justice for most of her life. Besides leading the UFW, she has worked with the Feminist Majority Foundation to encourage Latinas to run for office, and created the Dolores Huerta Foundation to foster community organizing, leadership development, civic engagement, and policy advocacy.
In June, I interviewed her in California about the farm labor movement and her vision for the future.
Q: You’ve seen the long arc of history in the farm labor movement. How have things changed?
Dolores Huerta: In many ways, it is still the way it was before. You have to do organizing at the grassroots, talk to the workers directly. This past May, 500 blueberry workers in McFarland, California, had a success, with 82 percent of them voting for the UFW.
I am happy to see that, increasingly, people care about farm workers. There is tremendous interest in where and how our food is grown. As we’ve focused more on our food and where it comes from, people now have greater awareness of what’s being put onto our food, pesticides, labeling issues, and consumer health. I’m glad that the fact that people are still getting poisoned by pesticide drift is gaining attention.
Our society is connecting workers with the products people consume and recognizing workers for their contributions. It is important to do that, and to have organized labor—a middle class—to preserve our democracy. Twenty-six states now have so-called Right to Work laws. We need to keep ringing the bell, wake people up to get our democracy together. Farm workers are like a symbol, and it is good that people are paying attention.
Q: What good news is there lately?
Huerta: United Farm Workers negotiated significant increases in pay and benefits in contracts with some of the largest vegetable, strawberry, mushroom, wine grape, tomato, and dairy companies in the country. They have brought higher wages—from highs averaging $45,000 to $48,000 a year for unionized mushroom pickers and pay of $23.84 an hour for the average unionized fresh tomato picker.
The union has made progress, mostly for nonunion farm workers, through recent legislative, regulatory, and legal victories. Just one example: the many farm worker lives saved through first-in-the-nation state heat regulations the UFW won in 2005, after many heat deaths in the fields. More than one million California farm workers have been protected by those standards that serve as a model for other states.
Q: What’s on the horizon?
Huerta: Agriculture is being transformed by globalization, so the UFW is taking action in Mexico, Central, and South America against miserable farm worker pay and conditions and is working to produce safer, higher quality food while improving wages and other protections. The UFW co-founded the Equitable Food Initiative, a certification program for fresh produce. It requires growers to provide workplace protections and working conditions that are much better than current legal requirements. The EFI includes leading food safety and environmental stewardship organizations, farm worker advocates, growers, and Costco.
There is also a lot going on around the country. In Albany, New York, there was just recently a 200-mile march for farm workers to get disability insurance, overtime pay, an optional day of rest each week, and the right to bargain collectively. In Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have been organizing for ethical farm labor treatment and are advancing a certified “Fair Food” label for produce that is grown and packed there. In Oregon, the largest Latino group is Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, or Northwest Tree Planters and Farm Workers United, which is quite active, as is Farm Labor Organizing Committee, in Ohio. There is the current boycott against Driscoll’s to protest labor abuses on berry farms in Mexico that is gaining attention.
The racist rhetoric from politicians is inspiring people to organize, as more people see what happens by not getting active. Our recent UFW convention had a lot of youthful energy.
Q: What is your vision for a fair, just farm economy?
Huerta: I really like the example of the owner of yogurt company Chobani, run by Hamdi Ulukaya, who has opted for profit sharing for his 2,000 employees. That is an awesome example for all employees and companies. Employers able to work together with workers and sharing gains and profits will lead to a much better world, getting away from income inequality. It was worse when we started organizing in the 1960s, when workers received seventy cents an hour.
Q: Do you see some hope for overtime pay for agriculture workers in California?
Huerta: In the 1930s, the Department of Labor came out with the pronouncement that all American workers should get overtime after eight hours, but farm workers were left out of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The UFW-sponsored bill in the California Legislature would have provided overtime pay for farm workers. Unfortunately, in June, it did not pass on the Assembly floor because of heavy pressure from the growers community.
Q: What are some working examples of visionary, just economic development?
Huerta: [Nobel Peace Prize winner] Muhammad Yunus has been applying business approaches to social development, uniting social businesses and socially responsible lenders. He has created some incredible models serving communities in India and Bangladesh needing help with economic progress and infrastructure. I love his books Creating a World Without Poverty and Building Social Business. If we don’t follow his examples, the economic gap will continue to grow. In fact, the corporations are driving out the competition and it is not getting better, especially when they are not paying income taxes. Thank goodness for the social media out there, because we sure can’t count on the corporate media to get the word out.
David Kupfer has contributed to The Progressive since 1993. He is a Northern California writer whose work has appeared in The Sun, Bay Nature, Earth Island Journal, Whole Earth, and elsewhere.