Interview with Dolores Huerta
‘You have to make a commitment, if we want to make changes’
On July 5, writers for Fight Back! interviewed Dolores Huerta. Huerta is a longtime organizer best known as a co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO (UFW). She is vice president and secretary-treasurer emeritus of that organization, and currently heads the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
Fight Back!: What is your assessment of the labor movement today and what is needed for the AFL-CIO to better serve the struggle of workers?
Dolores Huerta: Well, I think that the debate is very genuine and very badly needed. John Sweeny, when he took over the AFL-CIO, his whole focus was on organizing. But he met resistance, because you have a lot of labor leaders that are entrenched, they have their positions, they have their power, and they have their big salaries, and they don’t want to give it up. So the new movement started by Andy Stern [president of the SEIU] and other unions wants a stronger commitment to organizing. My understanding is that they are going to present a set of resolutions to the convention, and if these are not accepted, then there is some kind of a threat of a walk out. I think that it is exciting, for whatever happens, it is out there, they have to do some organizing.
Fight Back!: With the 40th anniversary of the historic Delano strike approaching, what is your assessment of the farm workers’ struggle today? [Note: On Sept. 8, 1965, mainly Filipino farm workers with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee struck the grape growers and were joined two weeks later by the National Farm Workers Association, which was largely Chicano and led by Cesar Chavez.]
Dolores Huerta: If you look at what the situation is like today, you have a lot of farm worker groups that are organizing. You have the Immokalee workers [Florida] that successfully had the Taco Bell boycott, you have FLOC [Farm Labor Organizing Committee in the Midwest], you have PCUN in Oregon and New York and so you have a lot of different movements – and of course the United Farm Workers, which continues to organize. I think that the racism of the growers is still very strong, and that they will continue to do everything that they can to make sure the farm workers don’t get organized, so it is still going to be very long struggle.
Fight Back!: In your opinion, what is wrong with CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement?
Dolores Huerta: What is wrong with all the free trade agreements is that they take the resources out of the [developing] country, the profits go out of the country and people become just wage-earners, and low-wage earners at that, so that they are not even able to sustain themselves, and their families. It is not good for those workers or for American workers either. Because our manufacturing is going overseas, it is setting up a global slave industry, that is what it is, and it doesn’t really help those countries at all.
Many of the people who come here to work are displaced farmers from Mexico, plus the workers who used to work for them. There was this one young man, who worked with the farm workers union, they had a small farm in Mexico, and they would hire about harvest time, about 40 workers. Well, that person is here, plus the 40 workers they used to hire! Because there is no way that they can compete with American agricultural companies going to Mexico.
Fight Back!: What is your view of the accomplishments of the Cuban people?
Dolores Huerta: I think that Cuba is a shining example of what a society can do for their citizens in terms of education, health care, organization, with the little resources that they have, what they have been able to do, it is just incredible; it is just a model for society. And I think this government knows this, and that is why they do not want people to go to Cuba, because if people go to Cuba and they see what they have been able to accomplish there with so little resources, it puts all the wealthy countries to shame!
Fight Back!: For those of us in the struggle for justice and interested in serving the community, what lessons would you like to pass on?
Dolores Huerta: I think you have to make a commitment, if we want to make changes. That means that people have to commit their time to make it happen and it is not going to happen by wishful thinking…we really have to commit our time. I think that is the main problem that we as activists have, is that we do not reach out to people and let them know what’s going on in Washington, D.C. and in their community, because the press is just so controlled now, and people do not even know what is going on politically that affects their lives! We have to take the message to the streets.
Fight Back!: What challenges do you see women organizers facing today?
Dolores Huerta: I think we have to do a lot more work with the women of color, or immigrant women, you know, and I also believe that we have to educate the men in the process. I think it is not enough to get the women. We have to reach out again to form coalitions because a lot of the women’s organizations are so focused on women. You have to include the whole fight about the Supreme Court. She [Justice Sandra Day O’Connor] has stepped down and we don’t know who they are going to appoint. I am co-chair for Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary, and this committee has been formed to look at the judges, and say we don’t want a judge who just happens to be Latino, but doesn’t represent the interests of the Latino community. The same thing for women, we don’t want a woman like Priscilla Owens or Janice Brown.
Fight Back!: What is your personal understanding of the term ‘empowerment’ that is used widely in media?
Dolores Huerta: Well, I think that true empowerment means that ordinary people can understand, first of all, that they have power. But it not enough just knowing about it, they have the responsibility to use the power that they have. And it’s a collective power, not an individual power, you have to work together, to make an organization, to make things happen. So it is not just a few people, it’s a lot of people who can really contribute and do something.
Fight Back!: In your work and talking to young people, how do you try to move them to what you were saying is needed in terms of having more commitment to the movement?
Dolores Huerta: I think that young people, once they understand what is happening, then they do want to do something. I think where we fall short is that we don’t have anything that tells them what to do, we don’t have anything to get them involved. That’s why the organizing that we [the Dolores Huerta Foundation] are doing is basically creating a vehicle for people to take action for positive change.
We are in such dire straits in our country right now, we are at a crossroads with the people who are in power right now, we all have to think, “Well wait a moment, I’m just going to get a minimal salary, or get just enough to live on, and spend my time to just do this organizing that needs to be done, this organizing to educate the public.”