DOLORES HUERTA, LABOR ORGANIZER
Dolores Clara Fernandez was born in the Northern New Mexico mining town of Dawson, on April 10, 1930. Her father, Juan Fernandez, was a miner and occasional farm worker, union organizer and in later years would become a New Mexico State Assemblyman. Dolores’ parents divorced when she was three and she moved with her mother, Alicia Chavez, and two brothers to Stockton, California where, before long, her enterprising mother had bought two hotels and a restaurant and set up a business that catered largely to the Mexican American farm workers. As a young woman, Dolores helped out at the hotel while attending Stockton high school, was active in the Girl Scouts and distinguishing herself early on by winning second place in a national Girl Scout essay contest.
Growing up in the farm working community of Stockton, Dolores became aware of the discrimination suffered by Mexicans and Mexican Americans, particularly field hands working in the hot San Joaquin Valley sun. Her brother, Marshall, was the victim of World War Two xenophobia when he was beaten and stripped of his clothes for wearing a Zoot-suit to a dance during a Victory in Japan Day celebration. Dolores graduated from Stockton High School in 1947 and then attended the University of the Pacific’s Delta Community College from which she received a teaching degree. It was during this time that she was briefly married and had the first two of what would eventually be eleven children.
In 1955, she was recruited by Fred Ross, Sr., to work in the Community Service Organization, a grass roots group that addressed issues of segregation, discrimination and police brutality and that undertook voter registration drives such as the 1949 campaign that succeeded in electing Edward Roybal to the Los Angeles city council- the first Latino in 68 years. During this time Dolores married Ventura Huerta, another farm labor activist; the two would have five children together. It was while working at the CSO that Dolores met Cesar Chavez who by 1960 had become the CSO’s national director. Dolores shared with Chavez a concern for the plight of the farm workers.
In 1962 Chavez proposed to the CSO that the organization expand and organize farm workers. But the CSO, with its urban bias, denied Chavez’s request. Chavez and Dolores decided to quit the CSO. Using the town Delano, California as a base, the two, with the help of Gilbert Padilla, formed the Farm Workers Association with Chavez as President and Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla as Vice-Presidents. They worked the first year without a salary. In 1965 they changed the name to the National Farm Workers Association. In September of 1965 Coachella Valley grape growers decided to pay Filipino farm hands reduced salaries which forced Filipino members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, led by Larry Itliong, to call a strike. Itliong approached Chavez for support and on September 16, 1965 the 6,000 members of the NFWA voted to go out on strike. Shortly thereafter both unions merged to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC).
The Delano grape strike lasted five years and during that time Dolores Huerta served as the chief negotiator for the union, winning the first union contract with Schenley Wine Company in 1966. Among the gains of the union contract were improved working conditions, health benefits, and the cessation of the use of deadly pesticides. In order for the strike to be effective, the union had to take the struggle to the cities, particularly to the East Coast. Through Huerta’s tireless leadership the farm workers were able to pressure grape growers to the bargaining table through a successful national grape boycott.
Victory came on July 29,1970, when the United Farm Workers, now affiliated with the AFL-CIO, signed a historic agreement with 26 grape growers. Dolores continued to lead the union in its struggles for the rights of farm workers, devoting herself to the lettuce boycott in the 1970s and eventually securing passage in California of the historic Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) of 1975. This act was the first to recognize the right of farm workers to have collective bargaining agreements. By the 1980s Dolores had married again, this time to Richard Chavez, Cesar Chavez’s brother with whom she had four children.
Throughout her five decade long association with Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta has served as Vice-President of the union, involved in all areas of strategy and negotiations, shifting in her roles as necessitated by the circumstances of union struggles. She has been arrested twenty-two times and nearly lost her life in 1988 when she was severely beaten by San Francisco police at a rally against the polices of President George Herbert Walker Bush; she suffered six broken ribs and her spleen had to be removed in an emergency operation that saved her life. Huerta continued to work with the union even after the sudden death of Cesar Chavez on 1993 and has been a close advisor to Arturo Rodriguez who became President of the union after Cesar’s passing. She has received numerous national recognitions, awards and honorary degrees, including the Ellis Island Medal of Freedom, the Eleanor D. Roosevelt Human Rights Award, and being inducted into the Nation’s Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2002, she received the Puffin Foundation/Nation Institute Award for Creative Citizenship; she took the $100,000 given with this award and created the Dolores Huerta Foundation’s Organizing Institute, an institution whose purpose is to bring organizing and training skills to low-income communities. She continues to lecture and speak out on a variety of social issues involved low income people, women and the rights of Latinos.