Sarah Sanger arranged for United Farm Workers (UFW) co-founder Dolores Huerta to speak recently at Santa Ynez High School, where Sanger is a student. Sanger interviewed Huerta at the school, in person, for the Indy.
SARAH SANGER: First I wanted to start with your role in the farm workers’ rights movement just so people can know who you are and what you did. What was your role in that movement? What did you do?
DOLORES HUERTA: Well, before Cesar Chavez and I organized the National Farm Workers Association, [a predecessor to the UFW], I had actually been involved in organizing two other farm worker groups, and this is after I got involved with the Community Service Organization (CSO). There were a lot of farm workers where I grew up in Stockton, California. They were a big part of the group that we had organized. So we started a farm worker committee.
There was an intellectual writer named Ernesto Galarza, and he had received some money from the Meatcutters Union in Chicago to organize farm workers. And so we set up a farm worker committee. I became the chair of the farm workers committee as part of the Community Service Organization. I went out and started having house meetings with workers and organized a group of about maybe 150 workers. Once they were organized, I turned the group over to the Meatcutters Union. But then after they had a couple of meetings, they asked me not to come to the meetings anymore. Subsequently that group just fell apart, they didn’t continue. There was a group of us and a priest named Father McCulla who decided to try again.
So then I organized another group of about 400 farm workers, and we called ourselves the Agricultural Worker’s Association. We then invited Father McCulla and others to drive all the way to Washington, D.C., to get the AFL/CIO to come and finance the organizing of farm workers. They sent someone out, and so we get all these farm workers together at Church Hall, and they were just blown away when they saw these farm workers. And the great thing about the group I organized was they were all different ethnic groups: We had African American workers, of course the Latino workers, and a lot of Filipino workers, and the white workers, you know, what they called the Okies and the Arkies, the people who come in from the Dust Bowl. So they decided to fund that group and they called it the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee.
In the meantime, while I was working up here in Stockton, California, Cesar Chavez was doing something similar in Southern California; in fact, in Oxnard. He organized a group of farm workers and he turned his group over to the United Packing House Workers of America. Cesar’s experience was the same as mine. Once he stopped working with them, the group fell apart.
In Stockton we started off fine. The group that I had organized, that became the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, started out as the Agricultural Workers Association. We were doing fine, we were having meetings, and then they hired the fellow who came out to run that group, Norman Smith, who had been an official in the United Autos Workers union in the South. I think he was not comfortable working with people of color to begin with because his previous organizing had been mostly with white people in the southern part of the United States.
Anyway, he hired someone to come and work with us, and the person he hired then decided not to have any more meetings. As the executive secretary, I used to send postcards to invite people to meetings, but he said we were not going to have any more meetings. Then they made this decision to work with the labor contractors. One day I walked into the office and there were all these labor contractors-all these crooks-in there and I said, “What’s going on?” and he said we were going to work with the labor contractors. What they did was set up a system where they would deduct from people’s paychecks like $1 a day. In those days, farm workers were only making 40 to 50 cents an hour. Especially in the Latino families-because you would have them go out and work in families-they would get $4 and $5 a day deducted from the family. Prices were very different then; in those days, the dollar meant a lot more. Gasoline was 27 cents a gallon and rents were $30 a month. So it was a lot of money for them.
I was very upset about that decision, and so I left; I left the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. One man, named Larry Itliong, who I had organized the Agricultural Workers Association with, stayed. The Filipino workers were mostly single men-most of them didn’t marry because of the racism against Asians. Filipino workers always worked together in crews and they would travel from place to place together. And they always had a crew leader who would negotiate the wages for the whole group. The other thing they did to kind of save money is that they would hire their own cook and they would pool their money for the food. And so they ended up making a little bit more money than the other workers did. So Larry Itliong, who was the leader of that group, stayed with them, and I left.
I made the decision to start the National Farm workers Association. Anyways, I was like a principle organizer. I did house meetings and Cesar did house meetings and so we formed the foundation of the National Farm Workers Association. I moved to Delano, and worked in an office and did services for workers to build up our membership. We ran a term life insurance program, and so we would collect $2.50 from the workers. Half of it would go to our insurance plan and the rest would go to the expenses of our work. Every family that bought a membership was covered with a $1000 life insurance in case somebody died. It was $1000 for the head of the family and $500 for a dependent. That’s how we initially started the union. We were doing that pretty successfully. We started a newspaper. We started a credit union. Up until 1965 when the strike broke out and that changed everything.
[The National Farm Workers Assocation and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee first joined forces to strike against grape growers in Delano, California, in September, 1965. These two unions merged a year later to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, which then became the UFW.]
SS: You were there when the Japanese-Americans were being taken to the internment camps. What did you think about that at the time?
DH: I was 11 years old. All I knew is that from one day to the next, our Japanese friends were gone. They had taken them to a jail, to a concentration camp, and it was just very devastating. The propaganda was that the Japanese were this or that. We knew these families and we were in their homes, and it was just so far from the truth. We just all felt terrible. One day you’re walking to school with your Japanese friend and the next day they’re gone. It just happened so fast. The other thing, I don’t know if you’ve seen the Spike Lee movie, Miracle at St. Anna. If you get a chance to see the movie, it really got bombed in the reviews, but I think it’s an excellent movie because it shows things in that movie that you’ll probably never see anywhere else.
One scene in that movie was when they had some prisoners of war in this restaurant who were black and they wouldn’t serve them. In Stockton, I saw that. They had the Japanese and the Italian prisoners of war in these neat little white cottages. They would take them into town to the movies and to restaurants, or take them out to the fields to work. And they had all the Mexican workers they had brought in, like behind barbed wire, and they wouldn’t let families see these workers. We made a big complaint about that to the CSO so they would let families see their own relatives. They would come up to help the United States by working and yet they treated them like they were the POWs. They had the POWs in these really nice cottages and they had the Mexican farm workers in these bunks, like at the fair grounds, in really horrible looking circumstances.
SS: You met Gloria Steinem, and realized how much you had in common with her words. What is your view on feminism and do you think it was a middle-class movement?
DH: My take on it is that I do call myself a born-again feminist. So I was really blessed because I got to meet Gloria Steinem and a lot of the feminist leaders. But I was so busy talking about the great boycott and the farm workers that I wasn’t thinking about the issues of women. I was just pushing the boycott. I don’t think I ever disparaged any of those women because they were so helpful to us with our boycott, and doing shop-ins in the stores. So I really respected all of the women in the women’s movement. Not only that, but I had an open door to all of the conventions to get them to help us. I know a lot of women of color think of it as a middle-class white women’s movement, which it was, but I don’t think I would ever say that.
SS: Did you ever combine elements of the feminist movement with the farmers workers movement?
DH: Well actually, because of the way I was raised, with my mother being the power in our family as a negotiator of all the contracts, it didn’t occur to me to have a separate wage for women. All of our contracts have the same wages for woman and men. In fact, I once had a whole strike because the company brought in these lettuce-cutting machines [run by women] at a lower wage than the lettuce cutters, the men. We had a strike over it, so we could get the women’s wages to match the men’s wages.
We did negotiations for the pruning. The company didn’t want to let any women do the pruning, and I said, “Well why not? The women can do the pruning just as good as the men, right?” We got all the women in to do the pruning.
I wasn’t thinking of it so much in feminist terms, but just the way I was raised that women were equal. When my epiphany came is when I started seeing that within the movement, once everything kind of got settled down, and all the women who had been on the front lines and on strike-all of a sudden you look around and where are the women? I would try to get women on the ranch committees. I would have to argue with them and say, “No, you can do this,” and sometimes their husbands wouldn’t let them. So we had women on the negotiations team that would bring their husbands with them to the negotiations. Well that’s okay, too, as long as they’re there and they’re learning.
SS: You’ve been arrested about 20 times. I’m sure it got kind of scary. What kept you going?
DH: When you see what you can accomplish and the gains that can be made and you see how many people are helped, that is very heady. You want to see that. You want to see that more people can be helped. And the leadership grows when you’re in struggle. When you’re doing things, when leadership emerges it’s what drives you; you want to see more of that happening. You want to see more results.
SS: We’ve come a long way. What is there left to do? What is there left to fight for?
DH: Well, everything. For farm workers, even though we won really great legislation for farm workers here in California, very few farm workers today have contracts, so all of that struggle has to be continued. The kind of legislation we won for farm workers in California-farm workers in other states don’t have it. Even the state of New Mexico doesn’t have a workers compensation bill for their farm workers. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done just on the issue of farm workers alone. On the issue of working people alone-and the number of working people that are covered by labor unions are very small, I think it’s 12 percent now or maybe less-the majority of workers are now service workers not manufacturing workers. That is a challenge to our democracy. Unions create a middle class. If you don’t have a strong middle class, that means democracy itself is in danger.
The unionization of workers is a big struggle. The civil rights struggle is not over. And of course, now we have the environmental issues. And all of these issues are important. The way that our economic systems are run-there was just recently a poll, I haven’t seen it yet, but someone was reporting to me yesterday that they have done these different polls in different countries about “Is capitalism working?” and the numbers are really high: Many people in many countries including the United States say something is wrong and something is not working. We see with the economic meltdown, people losing their homes and yet all of these bankers and these people from investment houses giving themselves millions and millions and millions of dollars. That is an obscenity.
SS: How can the rest of the community help?
DH: Well, I think we have a lot of power but we have to learn how to use that power. We have to learn how to act on our power. One of the best places we can start is right in our own local communities. On a personal level, to end racism, homophobia, sexism, and all these other things. And on a political level, get involved and see what our legislators are doing on a state level and on a national level. Just stay on top of things and be ready to send those emails when someone is doing something they shouldn’t be doing. Try to use our forces to really make democracy work, but we can only do that by being active. We can’t do it by sitting out. We have to act on it.