by Olivia Sandbothe | March 15, 2016
Dolores Huerta worked for decades to improve conditions for some of our country’s most disadvantaged workers. As we celebrate Women’s History Month by recognizing the women who have helped build the American labor movement, few are more worthy than this living legend.
The Mexican and Filipino farm workers who picked grapes in California’s San Joaquin Valley during the 1960s faced nightmarish conditions. Workers were paid well below the federal minimum wage for their backbreaking labor. Employers ignored safety standards and often denied their workers water or bathroom breaks. Migrant families lived in substandard housing and children toiled alongside adults.
Efforts to organize farm workers had failed many times before, and conventional wisdom said the task was impossible. Migrant workers lived on the margins of society, and decades of racist state and federal policy denied them the workplace rights that other industries enjoyed.
But Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, two community organizers from Stockton, California, were not dissuaded. They formed the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. This organization would later merge with a union of Filipino workers led by Larry Itliong to become the United Farm Workers.
Huerta would soon prove herself as a master organizer, negotiator and lobbyist. Only a year after she began fighting for the farm workers’ cause, she had convinced the California legislature to extend public assistance programs and workers compensation to farm workers and their families.
In 1965, she was put in charge of a national campaign to boycott non-union grapes. Her work brought the plight of agricultural workers to the attention of people all over the world. After a five-year battle, grape pickers reached a historic collective bargaining agreement in 1970. Approximately 50,000 workers gained union representation through this effort.
Over the years, Huerta left her mark as a champion – not just for workers’ rights but for women’s rights and the Chicano community. She will celebrate her 86th birthday this year, but she is still actively fighting for justice as president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which works to train and mobilize organizers who will carry on the activist tradition.
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