Huerta, Dolores (1930—)

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Huerta, Dolores (1930—)

American Chicana labor organizer, co-founder with Cesar Chávez of the United Farm Workers of America, and a major personality in the world of American unionism. Born in Dawson, New Mexico, on April 10, 1930; daughter of Juan Fernández and Alicia Chávez Fernández; had two brothers; married Ralph Head (divorced); married Ventura Huerta (divorced); companion, Richard Chávez; children: eleven.

Although her name translates literally to "Sorrow in the Orchards," Dolores Huerta grew up in circumstances considerably better than those of the migrant farmworkers whose cause she would later champion. She was born in the mining town of Dawson, New Mexico, in 1930. Her father was a miner who in time became a union leader and member of the state legislature where he worked for better labor laws. After her parents divorced when she was five, Dolores and her two brothers were taken by their mother to Stockton, California. While her mother worked two shifts, by night in a cannery, by day as a waitress, the children were raised by their maternal grandfather, Herculana Chávez. Dolores' mother went on to manage and eventually buy a hotel whose Japanese-American owners were interned soon after Pearl Harbor, and she later started a successful restaurant. Although the family now moved into the middle class, they did not forget the hard times they left behind. On many occasions, the hotel hosted down-on-their-luck relatives or virtually penniless farmworkers. During these early years, Dolores learned about charity and solidarity: "We were taught that you didn't receive anything for a favor. We grew up with the mentality of helping people." Her mother's involvement in a cannery strike in 1938, as well as a strike of asparagus workers that shook Stockton in the 1940s, provided an example for Dolores which taught that helping one's neighbors was morally right and which demonstrated the power of workers' solidarity to bring about significant social improvement.

Dolores learned from her mother that women should be treated the same as men, a concept exemplified in her own family where her two brothers received no special favors. In the 1990s, she recalled, "We all shared equally in the household tasks. I never had to cook for my brothers or do their chores like many traditional Mexican families." After taking dance lessons in a WPA program, she dreamed of becoming a professional dancer (in her adult life, dance would prove to be one of her few leisure activities). After graduation from high school, however, she married classmate Ralph Head and soon after gave birth to two daughters. While her mother took care of her children, Dolores attended college, received her teaching credentials, and began teaching in a local elementary school. She soon became frustrated trying to meet the basic material needs of her students, most of whom came to class hungry and without shoes. In a 1995 interview, she recalled a growing belief in the early 1950s that she "could do more by organizing farmworkers than by trying to teach their hungry children."

In 1955, she met Fred Ross, an organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Mexican-American self-help association based in Los Angeles. Ross had come to Stockton to establish a local CSO chapter, and Dolores Huerta—her new name after she divorced her first husband to marry Ventura Huerta—was at first suspicious of his beliefs and motives. At the time, she was living a middle-class lifestyle and working in a record store, though her mother wanted her to go to law school. Huerta, then a registered Republican, went so far as to check out Ross' non-radical credentials with the local FBI office. She soon became a CSO activist as a founding member of the organization in Stockton, dedicating her time to such projects as voter registration. By the end of the 1950s, Huerta had become a prominent CSO member and was working as a lobbyist for the organization in the state capital, Sacramento. Among the legislation that she successfully supported was a law that required businesses to provide legal immigrants with pensions.

While working for the CSO, Huerta also became an active member of the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA), a northern California group committed to improved labor conditions. At this time, California's mostly Hispanic migrant farmworkers existed in horrid conditions. Working stoop-backed in the searing sun, they picked grapes, tomatoes, and other crops until they were on the brink of collapse, and during the cold nights they often slept in shacks barely fit for animals. The men, women, and children who brought food to the nation's tables received wages so low that every basket might bring a pitiful 50, or in some instances even 20, cents. Some employers deducted from a worker's pay for the water they consumed while working in the fields. Since most of their workers were Mexicans or Mexican-Americans who knew little or no English, some employers swindled their laborers out of significant amounts of their pay with impunity.

Soon after joining the AWA, Huerta met César Chávez, who had also been active for many years in the CSO. A shy, quiet man who

was dedicated to the cause of improving the lives of California's migrant farmworkers, Chávez at first found it difficult to communicate with a woman whose personality differed so completely from his own. Soon, however, they found that they had much in common. Although Chávez had become the CSO general director, in 1962 that group's general assembly rejected his idea of organizing a union for California's farmworkers. From a coldly objective viewpoint, a major organizing effort in the California farm fields was at best a quixotic effort. Even their friends and supporters believed that Chávez and Huerta had lost touch with reality, given the fact that the farmworkers were virtually penniless, powerless immigrants, most of whom did not vote and had no previous experience in labor struggles.

In 1962, Chávez and Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), with Huerta appointed one of the organization's vice presidents. At the time, her personal life was in crisis; she was divorcing her second husband and was locked in a court fight for custody of their five children. Ventura Huerta, who held traditional views of a woman's role, disapproved of his wife's activism and was convinced that as a result she had neglected their children. While attempting to cope with her personal problems, Dolores spent virtually every waking moment organizing the struggling NFWA. She raised her family on her subsistence wages, and her children went to school with holes in their shoe soles. Years later, she noted that living this way served as a reminder of what farmworker families "go through every day of their lives."

In 1965, with about 1,200 members, the NFWA joined an AFL-CIO affiliated union in a major strike against California grape growers in the Delano area of the San Joaquin valley (the strike eventually extended to the Coachella valley in Southern California). In 1966, this organization and the NFWA merged to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), which also affiliated itself with the AFL-CIO. During the grape pickers' huelga (strike), which lasted from 1965 to 1970, Huerta was arrested numerous times. J. Edgar Hoover's FBI placed Huerta and Chávez under surveillance, convinced that they were under communist influence (both union leaders were committed to an ideology of nonviolence based on the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.). In time, the grape strike sparked national media attention, receiving support and encouragement from other unions and from national political leaders including Robert F. Kennedy. By 1967, even though she had previously never even read a union contract, Huerta had become the chief negotiator of UFWOC and successfully hammered out several contracts with wine-grape growers. These agreements brought revolutionary improvements to the grape pickers, including job security, health-care benefits, and significant protection from the toxic pesticides which were starting to be linked to higher rates of cancer in workers and birth defects in their families.

Although some grape growers signed contracts with the union, others dug in their heels and resisted all attempts to negotiate. Using scabs, and counting on the support of local officials, the growers were able to use harsh and violent measures against the strikers. In the face of this situation, the UFWOC called for a national boycott of one of the most stubbornly anti-union growers, which soon escalated into a national boycott of all California table grapes. In 1968, during what was clearly a critical time for the survival of the union's efforts, Huerta was sent to New York City to coordinate the national boycott. Her energy and enthusiasm proved infectious, and the grape boycott became one of the most successful boycotts in U.S. history. Sales of grapes dropped dramatically in supermarkets across the nation. In time, several growers caved, a response which became a mass phenomenon in July 1970 when 26 growers from the Delano area capitulated. Negotiated by Huerta, the contracts brought many hitherto unimagined economic and social benefits for grape workers.

In Huerta's relationship with Chávez, for whom she had immense respect, debates over tactics often led to passionate arguments that sometimes ended with Huerta quitting or Chávez firing her. Quickly, however, their partnership would be renewed in order to bring more victories for the union. "Don't ever stop fighting with me," Chávez once told her. Indeed, she never did. In later years, Huerta would state with a sense of accomplishment that she, Chávez and the thousands of farmworkers who supported the union had "brought to the world, the United States anyway, the whole idea of boycotting as a nonviolent tactic. I think we showed the world that nonviolence can work to make social change." In a decade filled with bloodshed and fear of nuclear annihilation, this peacefully achieved social change was for many a beacon of hope for a better and less violent future global society.

Seen in retrospect, the early 1970s became the high-water mark for the union which Chávez and Huerta had created. While membership expanded dramatically to about 80,000, the union received a charter in 1972 from the AFL-CIO as an independent affiliate and was now known officially as the United Farm Workers (UFW) of America, AFL-CIO. Not surprisingly, business interests did not remain passive during these years, crafting increasingly sophisticated strategies to either negate union contracts or negotiate new ones more favorable to their bottom lines. In 1975, the California legislature passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), guaranteeing for the first time the rights of farmworkers in that state to organize and hold elections on the issue of union representation; the law also required growers to bargain in good faith for contracts if workers did in fact vote in favor of a union. Soon after this, a special board was created by the legislature to oversee successful implementation of the ALRA. On paper, these moves looked beneficial to the union, but in practice enforcement of the law was significantly undermined by conservative Republican governors who appointed board members not in sympathy with agricultural labor. Steady erosion of union membership took place over two decades, and by the time César Chávez died in 1993, UFW membership had dwindled to a discouraging 22,000.

A new vigor and optimistic spirit could be seen in the UFW in the mid-1990s under the leadership of new president Arturo Rodriguez. Union membership began to rise, and morale improved. As the organization's secretary-treasurer, Dolores Huerta reported that by mid-1997 the UFW had won 15 consecutive secret-ballot elections and signed 16 new contracts with wine-grape and other growers. That same year, the union inaugurated a campaign to organize the workers in California's strawberry fields. Besides meeting the continuing demands of her UFW leadership role, Huerta has worked tirelessly as an activist, appearing at rallies from coast to coast and serving on the boards of numerous organizations including the California Labor Federation, the Fund for the Feminist Majority, and the National Farm Workers Service Center. She has also served as vice president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

In 1988, Huerta had participated in a San Francisco demonstration against Vice President George Bush and was beaten by a baton-wielding police officer. She was taken to an emergency room in grave condition suffering from loss of blood due to a ruptured spleen and three broken ribs. Huerta sued, and in an out-of-court settlement she received a substantial sum from the city of San Francisco. More important to her

than the financial component was the city's agreement as part of the settlement to change police crowd-control practices regarding the use of batons and to eliminate the presence of SWAT teams at demonstrations.

Dolores Huerta gave birth to 11 children, the last when she was 46 (by 1997, she could boast of 14 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren). After her second divorce, she began living with César's brother, Richard Chávez, with whom she had her last four children. Due to her union commitments, he did not see her for weeks at a time. Often she was so busy with her union activities that she "changed diapers between organizing meetings and nursed babies during breaks in negotiations." There were times when her children lived with friends and union supporters, ate donated food, and had to cope with frequent moves and their mother's imprisonment or absence on trips. When her children showed anger or disappointment over her many absences from home, Huerta would tell them, "Your sacrifice helps 100 farmworker kids." Looking back on these family sacrifices, Huerta's daughter Juanita, a high school teacher and aspiring writer, remarked, "You couldn't argue with that. We saw the conditions with our own eyes." Never interested in acquiring wealth, Huerta sacrificed the material things, "which don't amount to much anyway," she said. Since the UFW constitution forbade paying wages to officials, the union paid Huerta's rent, and she and her family lived on food stamps. A small clothing allowance, often supplemented by donations, resulted in "very exotic wardrobes" for herself and other union leaders.

In her 60s, Huerta did not slow down. In 1998, her daughter Maria Elena noted that Huerta was "like the Tasmanian Devil. Like a whirling dervish. Like a hummingbird." In the late 1990s, she continued to appear at rallies, board meetings, seminars and interfaith prayer breakfasts, crossing the country twice during a typical week. Her passion for fair treatment not only for farmworkers, but for all people, remained the basic motivation of her public life. In the final phase of her career, Huerta remained convinced that "Non-violence is a very strong spiritual force. We have to have a faith that has power and that works. I have seen this. This is why this movement has worked. People that practice non-violence are stronger in many ways. It even changes those people that are themselves oppressing and committing violent acts. I have seen it change people."


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John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia