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In September 1965, Filipino grape workers in Delano, California, went on strike for more pay and better working conditions. A week later, the predominantly Mexican American National Farm Workers' Association joined the strike. Within a year, the two groups merged to form the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), a group that used a variety of nonviolent resistance strategies to push for higher wages and humane working conditions for grape workers. From 1969 to 1970, after a lengthy consumer boycott of California table grapes, the UFW won historic contracts with many growers. The union was a strong force behind the 1975 passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which protected the rights of farm workers to organize and negotiate with their employers.
Behind much of the UFW's success were its two leaders—the charismatic President Cesar Chavez and the tireless, brilliant, and fearless leader who was the union's principal organizer, Vice President Dolores Huerta.
Dolores Huerta was born in 1930 in Dawson, New Mexico, where her father was a miner and union activist, who sometimes worked on local farms. After her parents divorced when she was three, her mother moved with Huerta and her four siblings to a farm worker community in Stockton, California, which is in the San Joaquin Valley. Her mother worked hard, and eventually bought a restaurant and a hotel. A community and union activist, she taught her children to work hard and to care for others.
Huerta married right out of high school and soon had two children. The marriage did not last, and after the divorce, she earned a teaching degree. Her career in the classroom was brief, however, as she explains, "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." Huerta joined the Community Service Organization, which worked on grassroots organizing of Mexican American farm workers. During her five years with the Community Service Organization, she learned many of the organizing skills she would use to great effect throughout her life. She spoke Spanish as she worked on voter registration drives, and English as she lobbied at the state capital for improved public services and voting access for Mexican Americans. In those years, she married for a second time, giving birth to five more children. And she met Cesar Chavez.
While working for the Community Service Organization, Huerta paid attention to the needs of the farm workers she was organizing. Whole families, including children, worked in the fields for low wages. There were no sanitary facilities and no drinking water provided for the agricultural workers. They were continually exposed to the effects of high doses of pesticides used to increase the growers' yields. It became clear to her that the workers needed more than the right to vote in elections. They needed a union. When in 1962 the Community Service Organization decided not to become involved in union organizing, she and Chavez resigned and formed the National Farm Workers' Association, a union that would four years later join with the Filipino union to become the UFW. In the years leading up to the grape workers' strike, Chavez and Huerta joined the workers picking grapes in the field as a way to earn money to finance the union efforts. There they experienced the inhumane conditions firsthand as they recruited many workers to join their fledgling union.
During the five-year-long grape workers' strike, Huerta proved a formidable organizer and advocate. She fully supported Chavez's principled commitment to nonviolent action and, with him, decided to launch a table grape boycott that raised awareness of conditions for farm workers and gave people across the country an opportunity to do something in support of the UFW. She mentored many people, men and women alike, in leadership roles within the union, knowing just how far to stretch them with each action, so that they grew in skill without being overwhelmed. She was a firm believer in involving entire families in union actions, marches, and pickets, noting that women and children had long worked in the fields, and should be full participants in actions to improve their working conditions. In addition, the presence of women and children helped to keep the union movement nonviolent. It helped to win over public opinion, as Huerta began negotiations with organizers by focusing on what she called "motherhood kinds of things, like clean water and toilets" as well as the risk of pesticides to the children in the field. She said:
Excluding women, protecting them, keeping women at home, that's the middle class way. Poor people's movements have always had whole families on the line, ready to move at a moment's notice, with more courage because that's all we had. It's a class not an ethnic thing. (Mario Garcia, A Delores Huerta Reader (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2008))
By the time the contracts were signed with growers, a first for migrant farm workers, Dolores Huerta had a firmly established reputation as an organizer.
Throughout that time, and in the decades that followed, she faced enormous criticism about her personal life. She divorced her second husband and began a relationship with Cesar Chavez's brother, Richard, with whom she had four more children. She took very little pay for her work, and her family often survived on donations. She brought her children along on her organizing trips if they were small enough to be nursing or old enough to help; those in between were often cared for by relatives or neighbors. Many of her children, now well into adulthood, continue to work for the union.
In 1988, while demonstrating in San Francisco outside of an event that featured presidential candidate George H. W. Bush, Huerta was clubbed and beaten severely by police officers, who broke six of her ribs and damaged her spleen so badly that it had to be surgically removed. A videotape of the beating proved so damaging that the city settled with Huerta out of court for $825,000. She used that money to set up the Dolores Huerta Foundation, whose mission is "to inspire and motivate people to organize sustainable communities to attain social justice." She serves on the board of the foundation as she continues her life's work—educating, agitating, organizing, advocating, and motivating at the grassroots to help immigrants and other economically marginalized people act to better their communities and the conditions under which they live and work.