The Unsung Heroine of the United Farm Workers Union
(This "Look Back" feature first appeared in the March/April 2003 issue of The American Postal Work Magazine.)
While almost everyone is familiar with Cesar Chavez, relatively few know the name of Dolores Huerta, the cofounder of the United Farm Workers Union.
During the UFW’s earliest days, however, she was the one who ran the business of the fledgling organization and served as its main contract negotiator. And she’s never let up: For more than 40 years she never has been far from the union’s front lines or its back rooms.
Now in her 70s, the UFW’s first vice president emeritus maintains an active schedule of speech-making, lobbying, and community organizing. This year marks the 10th anniversary of her induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and she may be better known among contemporaries as a crusader for women’s rights than as a labor activist: Her most active role today is in her work as a board member of the Fund for the Feminist Majority.
An Activist’s Roots
Dolores Fernandez Huerta was born in 1930 in a small New Mexico mining town. During the Depression, after the family farm was lost and her parents were divorced, she moved to California with her mother.
Alicia Chavez Fernandez worked at a cannery at night and as a waitress during the day. She remarried and became owner of a restaurant and hotel in Stockton , an agricultural center with a diverse community that included Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Mexican families. Fernandez is said to have frequently given free lodging in the 70-room hotel to migrant farmers and their families.
Huerta’s father, meanwhile, stayed in touch with his children while working throughout the West as a coal miner. Juan Fernandez was the family’s first union activist, and a college graduate who in the late 1930s was elected to the New Mexico state legislature. Huerta gives credit to both parents for her avocation as an activist.
After high school, Dolores earned a teaching degree from Delta Community College. It was while teaching grammar school in California ’s Central Valley that she changed courses. In her words, “I couldn’t stand seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children.”
She quit teaching in 1955 and began to work for the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Mexican-American self help association founded in Los Angeles . She helped register people to vote, organized citizenship classes for immigrants, and pressed local governments for improvements in Hispanic neighborhoods. Before long, CSO officials made her their main lobbyist in the state capital.
Meanwhile, Huerta and Cesar Chavez, CSO’s statewide director, were frustrated in their attempts to interest the organization in forming labor unions. The two joined the Agricultural Workers Association, and eventually branched off to found the National Farm Workers Association, in 1962. It would be another 10 years before the NFWA would become the UFW.
The Seeds of a Union
While lobbying in Sacramento, Huerta worked closely with Phillip Burton, the influential liberal California assemblyman who later served 10 terms in the U.S. House. From 1960 to 1962, Burton and Huerta worked toward the successful passage of more than a dozen bills, including landmark legislation that allowed farm workers to receive public assistance, retirement benefits, and disability and unemployment insurance, regardless of whether they were U.S. citizens.
But farm workers were still excluded from federal labor laws that guarantee the right to picket and form unions, and leaders of the AFL-CIO concluded that, unlike factory workers, they could not be organized. And no one seemed eager to build a union among a migrant workforce of Filipinos and Latinos, many of whom were undocumented. Huerta and Chavez realized that unless they started one, there would never be a farm workers’ union.
In 1962, the National Farm Workers Association was created, with Chavez as president. From the beginning, Huerta was frustrated by the daunting task of building membership. Fortunately, this task was ideally suited to Chavez, and Huerta was able to concentrate on establishing a union infrastructure.
Building the NFWA was a slow process, boosted significantly in 1965 when the NFWA joined with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, a small group of Filipino workers on strike against grape growers. The storied “Delano Grape Strike” put the migrant labor force in the national spotlight and resulted in both a victory for the workers and the birth of a union.
The NFWA and AWOC merged to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, which later became the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO.
Behind the Scenes
As second-in-command to Cesar Chavez (who died in 1993), Huerta was the pragmatist who helped shape and guide the union. She not only mapped out the Delano strike strategy, she was the acknowledged leader on the picket lines. She was the union’s first contract negotiator and, in the late 1960s, directed a widely publicized boycott of table grapes. The boycott was especially significant on the East Coast, the harvested crop’s primary distribution point.
It was during this nationwide boycott that Huerta solidified her reputation as a coalition builder, bringing together feminists, community workers, religious groups, Hispanic associations, student protestors, and peace organizations. Together, these disparate and often contentious groups united to fight for the rights of migrant farm workers.
In 1970, two years after the first UFW contract was signed, the growers’ association agreed to bargain with the union statewide. Besides higher wages, the union also won growers’ contributions to a health and welfare fund (to sponsor a medical clinic and emergency rent support); a protective contract clause limiting the use of dangerous pesticides; and provisions that enabled the union to set hiring guidelines.
An Activist’s Life
Her longtime role as the UFW’s secretary-treasurer perhaps should have kept Dolores Huerta away from the streets. But she has been arrested more than 20 times and, in 1988 during an otherwise peaceful demonstration in San Francisco against the policies of presidential candidate George H.W. Bush, the barely five-foot-tall mother of 11 suffered broken ribs and a ruptured spleen during an encounter with a six-foot-seven baton-swinging police officer.
Down but not out, she recovered from the severe injuries and worked for the union for several more years. In 2000, however, a diagnosis showed that Huerta had an aortic aneurysm and she was told she didn’t have long to live. Incapacitated for several months, she had to relearn how to talk and walk.
By the summer of 2002, she was back on the streets, taking part in a 165-mile march from Bakersfield to Sacramento to show support for a mandatory mediation bill for farm workers. She was portrayed in several news accounts during the 15-day march, which often occurred in 100-degree weather.
In December, Huerta was awarded the Puffin/Nation prize, given annually to “an American who has challenged the status quo through courageous and imaginative work.” Characteristically, Huerta said she would use the $100,000 award to help start an institute for recruiting and training community-based organizers. She just can’t seem to stop.
“There is just so much work to be done, and someone has to do it,” Huerta says. “In organizing, you are not going to reach every person, but you just have to keep pushing for the next one.”