Column: Without unions, our middle class is vanishing. Without a middle class, we don’t have democracy


How are you spending Labor Day? Dolores Huerta will be doing what she’s always done: laboring — for workers’ rights, immigrants’ rights, women’s rights. And this time she’ll also be barnstorming for a new documentary, “Dolores,” about her life and her work as the co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union. (Its L.A. opening is Sept. 8 at the Nuart Theatre; it will air on PBS next year.)

Nearly 25 years have passed since the death of the UFW’s other and better-known co-founder, Cesar Chavez, and 15 years since Huerta’s foundation began its community, environmental and education projects. Sometimes, it feels to her like history is tilling the same ground that it did when the union began, in 1962. This May, several Central Valley farm workers harvesting cabbage were sickened after a “drift” from a nearby field of a pesticide that had been scheduled to be banned under Obama administration rules; that action was reversed by the Trump administration. (Two growers have been fined by Kern County for violating pesticide rules.) But Huerta still reads hope in the faces of young people who are out protesting for human rights in a way their grandparents were just beginning to some 60 years ago.

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Your life in this documentary is kind of a history of the movement of movements in the United States in the ’60s and forward.

It was so wonderful to see everything that was going on there in the ’60s and the ’70s, and especially when it comes to what’s going on in today’s world, I thought it was very relevant. And when they started making this movie, [executive producer] Carlos Santana and [director/producer/writer] Peter Bratt, four years ago, nobody would have imagined we were going to be in the state we are right now.

What are the issues you see as similar today to when you started community organizing in the 1950s and the United Farm Workers union that you co-founded in 1962?

When you think of the struggles that labor unions are having today, when they have passed so many laws that make it very difficult for labor unions to organize, for one, and not just the farm workers, but all of the labor unions at the national level. They have shrunk in terms of membership, and putting people on the National Labor Relations Board who are really anti-union, which makes it very difficult for them to organize.

People can’t afford to buy houses any more. ... I think economically we’re in much worse shape.

Then of course we have the anti-abortion stuff that’s happening throughout the country, against Planned Parenthood, et cetera. The misogyny that has been at the national level, when you have a man who was a harasser who becomes the president.

And then the attacks on Mexicans and Muslims and African Americans — the one good thing I think is happening is that you do see people rising up, as they have done now, with what happened in Charlottesville, Va.

You have all of these young people that are, many of them — I guess most of them — are Caucasians that are out there saying that they support the Black Lives Matter movement and that they are sick of the racism in our society.

There are people who will say that the economy has changed and therefore we don’t need those kinds of unions, that we have a gig economy, that we have higher minimum wages across the country, Obamacare is still out there to take care of healthcare. Is that not the case for some people, that what the old unions used to be doesn’t suit the economy now?

People can’t afford to buy houses any more. People can’t afford to pay their college tuition. I think economically we’re in much worse shape. And when you think about the minimum wage, yeah, people are fighting for $15, but if the wages would have kept up with the cost of living, the minimum wage should be $30 an hour for people to be able to support themselves.

We just have to look around us at what’s happening in terms of our economy and see why we need organized labor to fight for workers.

As it brings out in the documentary, you really had two major career themes in your life. The first was organizing the UFW, and then you made the turn to feminism. What was the difference between working for farm workers’ rights and working for women’s rights?

I realized that I was fighting really hard for farm workers as a whole, including women, but never really focusing on how important it is that we have women’s rights, and, of course, now reproductive rights also for women.

Because when we look at the entire world, when we see that we are number 70 in the world in terms of having women in government, in legislatures, in congresses, and we’re behind so many countries, and yet we think we’re the most progressive country in the world.

It really means that we have a lot of work to do when it comes to having women in political power. We just saw the importance of women with what recently happened with the two Republican senators who voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act. I think that proves we need more women in office; we need gender balance in the political arena.

I believe that machismo is very alive and well, and probably all over the world. One example is the Equal Rights Amendment has not been passed in the United States. And we are only one of four or five countries, like Sudan and Saudi Arabia, that have not passed that convention in the United Nations that women should be treated equally as men. That convention has to be passed by the United States Senate, and yet we’re not even able to pass that. And we’re supposed to be the leaders of the Free World, right? Not the ones who are behind.

I love to quote Coretta Scott King, who said we will never have peace in the world unless women take power. I think the documentary does show that when we have more women involved, then we have less violence involved.

That’s one of the things that worries me about the current movement. We want to make sure that we reach out to these young people and say to them, “Look, nonviolence is a very strong spiritual force. This is the way that Gandhi was able to liberate India.I want to say to all of those young people out there, when you start using violence, then actually you are joining the other side. You are joining those in the Nazi movement and the alt-right [white nationalist] movement who want to use violence as a weapon, as a tool for their cause. We have to be better than that.

One thing the documentary brings out again and again is that Cesar Chavez was better known than you, and people gave him sometimes exclusive credit starting the United Farm Workers union. Why did he get to be better known than you? And did that matter within the UFW movement?

You know, Cesar was a genius, and when we started, we had a conversation and Cesar said, “One of us has to be the spokesperson for the organization,” and he said to me, “Is it OK if it’s me?” And I said, “Of course, Cesar.” Now, looking back on that conversation, because I didn’t have my feminist lens on, I would have said, “Well you know, Cesar, sometimes you can be spokesperson and other times I can be the spokesperson.”

When we were doing the grape boycott, I was in New York City and I was the spokesperson for the union because Cesar was back in California. I think where it differed is when people would come to Delano, like different reporters, and then they would of course go straight to Cesar and interview him, and not even know that I had anything to do with the union.

Your foundation works with education. What should students be learning about movements like yours?

In terms of our whole education system, we have to get rid of all these -isms that we have. We have to start going to the classrooms and starting at the kindergarten level, teach children about the contributions of people of color. There were so many people, immigrants, who were involved in building this country. It was not just the Caucasian immigrants who did it all.

And also to teach the contributions of the labor movement. People don’t know it was the organized labor movement that fought for the eight-hour day. They wouldn’t have Social Security, they wouldn’t have unemployment insurance, they wouldn’t have disability insurance, we wouldn’t have safety standards for workers.

[U.S. Sen.] Dianne Feinstein [D-Calif.] has a bill right now in the Senate, what they call a blue visa. Her idea is that agricultural workers get to stay here, and give them a blue visa as long as they continue to work in agriculture. That would mean you could save the government money because they wouldn’t have to deport the farm workers who are here already.

And that’s what happening — they’re deporting the farm workers and then they want to bring in foreign workers that will not get the same kind of wages, they won’t get Social Security, they won’t get unemployment insurance, and they can’t become residents or citizens of the United States of America.

That’s a step up from slave labor. And this is what the Trump administration is doing. It’s saying we will deport the workers who are here right now and let’s bring in new foreign workers under what they call a contract H2A program. I believe that is very wrong.

When Cesar and I ran the union, we made sure that we stopped all those visa foreign worker programs that they tried to bring into California, because they were going to lower the wages even more than what the farm workers are making now.

It was striking to me to see in the documentary the attacks on you for your personal life. Do you think it was sexism that lost you the presidency of the UFW after Cesar Chavez died?

Actually, I think the film kind of misrepresents that. I chose not to run. When Cesar died, I was 63 years old and I felt that we needed to get somebody younger to take the union forward.

Also I was doing a lot of work on feminism, and I felt that I wouldn’t be able to do as much work in the feminist area if I was trying to run the union.

You and Cesar were often at loggerheads, but he thanked you for keeping him honest all those years. What did he mean by that?

Because he had so much adulation around him, and I know it was really uncomfortable for him and awkward for him. I would argue with him about tactics that we were using, so I wasn’t always a “yes” person, and I think that’s what he meant by that.

I remember when he was fasting, and I said to Cesar — I felt guilty because I always gave him kind of a hard time — and I said. Cesar, I just want to apologize for always arguing with you.

And you know what he said? He said please don’t ever stop. Don’t ever stop. You’re the one person that I can count on to be straight with me, is what he said. I felt that was a big compliment.

I didn’t know until I saw this film that you’re the one who came up with “Si se puede” — yes we can, yes, it can be done. Did it matter at the time who made it up?

I never thought I would leave the union at that time. So actually I signed the trademark over to United Farm Workers. None of us expected that it was going to become such a powerful slogan that would actually cross the ocean to Spain. They now have a Podemos party in Spain, and its slogan is, ‘Sí se puede.’

The only reason I guess that it matters is, again, we go back to women taking credit for what they do. What I say now is for women to think of Oprah [Winfrey]. Oprah’s our model, so that women can take credit for the work that they do.

And President Obama sort of apologized to you for pinching the English version, “Yes we can.”

When I first met him, that’s exactly what he told me.

What would you like Americans to do on Labor Day? Something special that’s particular to labor?

I would like them to honor working people, especially immigrants, the people who do the hard work in our country to keep the wheels turning, to keep our buildings clean, and working in all of our hospitality industries to serve the food, the farm workers who pick the food the people eat every day.

Respect the workers and respect their organizations, and labor unions are really important because if we don’t have labor unions, we don’t have a middle class. If we don’t have a middle class, we don’t have a democracy.

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