Dolores Huerta runs on righteous ferocity the way cars run on gasoline. The woman who co-founded the United Farm Workers union 50 years ago with Cesar Chavez has harried, prodded, hectored, rallied and protested. She's been arrested more than a score of times, and once, picketing in San Francisco, she was beaten so badly by a police officer that her spleen was ruptured. You'd be hard-pressed to tell, the way she bounces around the Central Valley, a woman on many missions. So, can she stand still next week in Washington long enough for President Obama to present her with the Medal of Freedom, along with honorees such as Toni Morrison, John Glenn and Bob Dylan? Sí, se puede.
What does getting the Medal of Freedom mean to you?
To me it means organizing is recognized. During the campaign there was a lot of fun made of President Obama: Oh, well, he's just a community organizer. When you talk about organizing, you're talking about people power. When people are organized, they have a voice.
What does the Dolores Huerta Foundation do?
Organize! We raise money and hire organizers and train them and go into communities primarily with low-income people and teach them how to organize. They are able to do marvelous deeds. A little town called Weedpatch — it's in "The Grapes of Wrath" — the residents got together, they passed petitions, passed a bond issue and got a brand new gymnasium for their middle school. Another little town in southern Kern County — we passed a 1-cent sales tax increase and raised almost $1 million for police and fire protection.
How do you think Gov. Jerry Brown is doing?
He's got a lot of problems because the state is in such a financial crisis. We've partnered with the governor on this big [tax] initiative to raise money for the state.
Why is union membership across the country diminishing?
It's been very hard for the unions. Under Republican administrations, the National Labor Relations Board was very hostile to unions. Many manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas, so you have a lot of service jobs.
There's been so much propaganda against unions. A labor union is an organization of workers. That's all it is, the way employers have the Chamber of Commerce or manufacturer associations they pay dues to. [Critics] refer to unions as a special interest. They are not a special interest.
It was labor that fought for the eight-hour day, for workers' compensation, for safety standards — we don't have that [taught] in our schools. So many things we take for granted, people fought and died to get these rights.
Does the country need a rewrite of its guest-worker programs to address labor needs?
Oh no, guest-worker programs are bad because people are so exploited. [Successive waves of immigrants solve labor needs.] Every single immigrant group that came to the United States was legalized at one time or another.
You're second-generation American, and you were a teacher in the Central Valley. What made you commit to community organizing?
I was teaching school and seeing these farmworker kids coming to class: These weren't Mexican kids; they were the Dust Bowl children, what they called Okies and Arkies, and so undernourished. I argued with my principal to get school food vouchers for them. He'd say, "Oh, all these people do is drink up all their money." I had already seen how hard they worked and how little money they earned. I thought, this is wrong; farmworkers have to have a union. So I quit teaching to [help]. It was more fulfilling.
You left the UFW about 12 years ago. Why?
Several reasons. The culture of the organization changed a lot after Cesar passed away [in 1993]. There are reasons; I understand why.
Early on, we would organize the community first, then organize the company. Now the union goes straight to the company and not the community.
People in our immigrant communities have so many needs that are not being met, and I thought we could make more of a contribution helping people get organized as a community. If you organize the community first, then afterward it's so much easier to get those union contracts.
Also, I felt that I was being kind of recycled, doing everything I'd done before.
The UFW just celebrated its 50th anniversary, but its membership has fallen along with other unions, and contracts are fewer and sometimes less advantageous. Where is the UFW now?
Looking at it from a positive point of view, the political climate has been difficult for them. They have needed to hang on to contracts they have even though they may not be the best ones. You need to focus on the United Farm Workers [as] the only union that was successful in organizing farmworkers.
Sometimes the workers want to decertify too.
The employer puts pressure on them. People care about their jobs and they're afraid. This law Jerry Brown signed [SB 126; if there is employer misconduct in a unionization election, the employer can be forced to negotiate with that union] is going to make a lot of difference. Some companies I was negotiating with 20 years ago that had not come back to the table are bargaining now. So I think you're going to see a big renaissance with the union because of that law.
You and Cesar Chavez went after each other sometimes.
Oh, we had differences. They were mostly about tactics. They were never personal. Cesar respected me; I respected him. During his first fast, I told Cesar, "I feel so bad because I argue with you," and he said: "Don't ever stop. You're the only one in the organization who really makes me stop and think." We were always together in terms of what we wanted to do.
Cesar's wife, Helen, is a very strong woman. I like to say the only beings Cesar was afraid of were God and Helen.
How much grief have you gotten because you're a woman?
A lot. I grew up with racism. Sexism is always so painful because it comes from the people who are close to you. I think sexism is much more painful for women than racism is. Until we get majority [representation], it's always going to be hard for us.
Cesar [once] said, "You know, Dolores, I treat you and Cecilia [another UFW board member] different," and I said yes, it's called male chauvinism. And he started laughing. But he was really good about having women in positions of power. People would ask why, and he'd say because they do the work.
What did you think when Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor referred to herself as a wise Latina?
Oh I loved it! I know she got a lot of criticism. You can say you're a great Irish person or any other group, but boy, don't say you're a great Latina.
It's so bad [that] one of my staff who happens to be white went to a gathering with his family and he said one relative, who is a liberal, wanted to know if it was politically correct to say the word "Mexican."
Do you still boycott anything?
Grapes. And that's because the United Farm Workers don't have any contracts with [table] grape growers right now. It's just a continuous struggle.
What else are you doing now?
I'm interested in the [microcredit] model that Muhammad Yunus is talking about — ways we can fund organizations and programs. We do a lot of work with young women for teen pregnancy prevention. I'm on the board of Equality California, educating the Latino community on the rights of LGBT people, and the issue of choice.
I tell them what Benito Juarez [president of Mexico in the 19th century] said, that respecting other people's rights is peace. And we have to make sure we see the day when we have gender balance in our society at every level. Coretta King said we will never have peace in the world until women take power.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.