Women's History Month: Interview with Dolores Huerta

On March 29th, the Arizona AFL-CIO co-sponsored Women in Organized Labor, a Women’s History Month celebration featuring legendary labor leader and civil rights activist, Dolores Huerta. As one of the most influential labor activists of the 20th century, Dolores co-founded the United Farm Workers Association and most notably, led the historic Delano grape boycott from 1965 to 1970. The following conversation is an abridged transcript of an interview with Dolores Huerta by Tucson Mayor Regina Romero:

Mayor Romero:

Over a lifetime of advocacy, your work through the United Farm Workers Union and the Dolores Huerta Foundation has contributed to immeasurable victories for working people. In 1993, you were the first Latina inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 1998, you received the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award from President Clinton, and in 2012 you received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, from President Obama. As one of the most decorated civil rights icons alive today, what does International Women’s Day mean to you?

Dolores Huerta:
Oh, well, it means a lot. Number one, it's great that women are being recognized. We're going to hear President Biden announce that he is [appointing] a Black woman to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. And here in California, we're having the first Latina, also that’s been appointed to the California State Supreme Court. We have a woman now who is the head of the labor movement, Liz Shuler… She is now the president of the AFL-CIO, which includes all of the labor organizations in the United States of America. And so as we celebrate International Women's Day, we're also celebrating all of the great achievements. And then we have seen our great leaders in Congress like Nancy Pelosi, and AOC. I'm including this Liz Cheney in here. She's a Republican, but she's standing up there for the democracy of the United States of America. So it's just great to see so many women leaders that have evolved. And not only here, but then, of course, we know, on the international scene also, that there are so many women. One of the things that I like to quote is what Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s widow said, that, “we will never have peace in the world until women take power…”

Mayor Romero:
So I wanted to talk a little bit about your work in Arizona. Many people know that as the Vice President and co-founder of the UFW. You directed the Delano grape boycott. But what they may not know is that you also helped organize boycotts here in Arizona, on grapes grown in Arizona. Can you reflect on that time and your time here in Arizona and in what it meant to UFW?

Dolores Huerta:
Well, actually, one of the important things that happened in Arizona is that when we were doing the boycott there of Lucky stores in Arizona then filed a big lawsuit against United Farmworkers... They had passed a law in Arizona that if farmworkers went on strike, they’d go to prison. And if anybody said “boycott” anything, that was before the boycott that I was just going to mention, and of course, that’s when Cesar [Chavez] did his 25 days of only drinking water and that's when we  came up with the slogan “Sí, se puede.” Later on, and this is just before Cesar died, we were doing a boycott on Lucky stores and they filed an interference with commerce and that's the campaign that we were working on Cesar passed away… Had we lost it, it would have been millions of dollars and that would have put the union out of business. Luckily, eventually, that was overturned, but right in the middle of that campaign that's when Cesar passed away there in San Luis, Arizona, not too far from Yuma. So that was very, very unfortunate. Of course, we've been involved in the political campaigns in Arizona, as we have been there doing some demonstrations against your Senator, Kyrsten Sinema, which I think has the whole country in anguish over her behavior….

Mayor Romero:
Arizona always had a special place in the heart of the Chavez family. Because they originated from Yuma, Arizona. There are connections also to Tucson through Cesar through the Estrada side of his family. And we also know, you mentioned a couple of times, that “Sí, se puede,” was coined here in Arizona, back in 1972 while you were supporting the farmworkers in Phoenix and in the West Valley. Can you walk us through that moment? How did it happen? 

Dolores Huerta:
When Cesar was doing that 25-day water-only fast that I mentioned, and we were trying to get some of the professional Latinos in Arizona to come and support Cesar and to try to overturn that law that I mentioned, many of them said, “No, in Arizona, no, se puede. In Arizona, you can’t do this. In California, you can do all of these great things, but in Arizona no se puede,” and my response to them was “Sí, se puede in Arizona. Yes, we can in Arizona.” And that night, when I reported that to our group there was a meeting with Cesar, while he was doing this 25-day water-only fast. Everybody got up when they started shouting and clapping their hands, “Sí, se puede! Sí, se puede!” “Yes, we can! Yes, we can!” And so that kind of became the slogan for that campaign. But actually, in that campaign, what happened was after Cesar finished his fast, he didn't come back to California. He stayed in Arizona, starting right down there at the border in San Luis and Yuma. Then he went throughout the whole state of Arizona registering people to vote. And after that registration drive that he did, they got the first Latino elected to the State Senate, Manuel Peña, and they got the first Navajo ever elected to the Arizona state legislature, and the first African American woman ever elected to the state legislature. So that was really quite historic. And I think that was just kind of a good example of what we need to do everywhere is, get down there and register people to vote. But even as we've talked about all of the gains that women are making and the positions that they have, we know that there's still a long way to go. You know, right now they have the equal rights amendment that is stalled in the US Senate. Now the Equal Rights Amendment, when it's finally passed by the US Senate will give equal rights, it will be in the Constitution of the United States that women and men have equal rights. And a lot of people say, “oh, well don’t we already have that?” No, we don't. The United States is only one of a handful of countries that have not passed the equal rights amendment for women. And that that is kind of shameful when you think about it, that, that we should, we should have been one of the first countries that would put that in our Constitution. And so that's one thing that we have to think about, that we have to fight for, as we continue to do our political work…

Mayor Romero:
How do you not lose hope? And how do you not lose that strength to continue forward in fighting for justice in this country and throughout the world? And I think that people want to know, what, what keeps you, Dolores, engaged, what keeps you energized? And with hope for the future?

Dolores Huerta:
Well, one of the things that you have to do, you have to look back, and you have to see how things were there before. And then look at the progress that we have been able to make, like what I was going to college there were very few Latinos, we had a handful of Latinos and not very many women. And now we know that you go to any college, you have at least 50% of the people that are women, and you have women, doctors, engineers, scientists, etc. So women have made a lot of progress in the educational field. And as people of color. Also, we still have some way to go on that. But we do know that we have made a lot of progress. And so that's the one thing that we always have to remember, even when things look a little dark and dismal. I think the one area though, that we do have to do more work on is in the labor movement, and thankfully that our President Biden, he is supportive of workers, he is supportive of labor unions, because we know that labor unions have had a really tough time. And many laws have been passed to make it harder for workers to organize. But that’s one place that we really have to do more work…

Mayor Romero:
You talked about working to strengthen unions in this country. And you lead in the development and passage of the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which recognized the rights of California farmworkers to bargain collectively. Today, workers across the country are taking action to organize workplaces yet, union membership is still at an all-time low. So what steps can we take both elected officials and advocates and workers alike, to empower the next generation of workers to collectively organize and join a union?

Dolores Huerta:
Well, one of the things that we have to do is get rid of what they call the Right to Work laws, which makes it more difficult for workers to join a union, basically, because, under the Right to Work laws, labor unions cannot (automatically) deduct union dues from a workers paycheck. And so they have to go to each individual worker to be able to get their dues and put up the money. Like you might say that that is the blood of a labor union to be able to pay their organizers to represent the workers on the site, to be able to go to the Capitol there in Phoenix, to go to Washington DC to pass laws that will help workers. And so if they can get rid of some of those Right to Work laws, then that will make it easier for us to be able to organize. And that's really important, because sometimes people don't think about this, but you could not have a democracy unless you have a middle class and you can't have a middle class unless you have labor unions, because labor unions raise the wages, and they get more benefits for workers, and so labor unions actually have created the middle class in the United States of America. And when we say that the middle class in our country is shrinking, that's because labor unions have not had the resources that they need to be able to organize workers and create that middle class.

Mayor Romero:
And we have a possible path through the PRO Act that was introduced in Congress. And I think the House passed it and is waiting for Senate approval, it is a path to be able to create policy changes that we're trying to do so that we can collectively bargain and organize. And that we have fair labor policies throughout the country. The PRO Act is a possibility and hopefully, we can continue pushing the Senate to be able to pass bills like the PRO Act… 

Too often, the contributions of powerful women, particularly women of color, are overlooked or entirely erased from history. How do we ensure that the contributions of Dolores Huerta and so many other powerful women in this country are preserved into the future? 

Dolores Huerta:
Well, I think events like this one today. Thank you for honoring women, and for letting me represent all of those women out there that are not getting on and this is one of the ways that we can do it. Because again, when we honor women that this is a symbol and a signal to younger women that hey, they can do this. And the other thing that we have to fight for, which I know was part of the Build Back Better Act that was stalled in the Senate, was to make sure that we get universal daycare for all of our women because we know that women that have children and fathers too for that matter, they really can't engage in civic life unless they make sure that their children are taken care of. And not only that they're safe, but also that they’re getting educated in the process. And we know that when children do get an early education, their chances of going to college are a lot better.

Mayor Romero:
What advice do you have for the next generation of women in the labor movement?

Dolores Huerta:
Well, I will say not only in the labor movement but throughout, that we have to step in there. We know that labor unions are democratic institutions, democratic organizations. So we want to say to women, “yeah, get out there and run for those offices!” I think all of the United States that we have so many Central Labor Councils that are headed up by women. And in fact, one of the Central Labor Council presidents here in Bakersfield, California, her name is Imelda Ceja and she's now running for the Senate of California. We have a couple of other labor leaders, Maria Elena Durazo who was the head of the Los Angeles Central Labor Council is now in the Senate also. And so it's good to have labor because we have people that represent working people in our legislatures and on the city council, what then we know that they're going to support workers. And so we say to women, don't hold back and, don't be hesitant. We need women's leadership, we need women’s intuition, and we need women's vision. So we want to say to women, please get involved. Because this is an election year, the best way to get involved is to get out there, phone banking to get people elected, go out there, knock on doors, and register people to vote. I call it organizing 101 when we get involved at the grassroots level. And then we can say to all those women out there if you're in the workplace where you're not being treated fairly, call up your Central Labor Council called your labor leaders, and ask them for help. I think a lot of times we as women tend to hold back and we say if I asked for help with this, or help with my children, to help with my job, that somehow we feel that somehow we're lacking. If we ask for help, no, but we should never hesitate to ask for help in anything that we need to do. And we should never be afraid to step up. And that's the thing I like to say to women. If there's some job that you aspire to, something that you would like to do, you sometimes feel well, I don't have the proper education. I'm not experienced enough. You know what, just do it as the guys do. Okay? Learn on the job! So just be strong, use your voice, and never be afraid to step up and step out. Okay? Never hold back.

Mayor Romero: 
Thank you so much, Dolores, for your generosity with your time. Again, we're so happy to have you in this incredible event, celebrating I[nternational] Women's Day, but also celebrating you. Celebrating all of the work that you continue to do to this day. I'm so proud. I want to thank the AFL-CIO of Arizona, for thinking about me to interview you, it's an incredible honor for you to be my friend, my mentor, and an icon, an example to so many women around the world. Muchísimas gracias, we really appreciate your time, Dolores.

Watch the Women in Organized Labor Video Interview here