Labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta speaks during the Moral Action on Climate Justice rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. (Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Dolores Huerta: “The Resources of Our World Belong to the People and Not to Corporations”

A conversation with the feminist Latina labor leader at the center of a new documentary

BY Ed Rampell

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It’s imperative and incumbent upon all of us to start passing this knowledge to our young people so we won’t have all of this racism, misogyny and homophobia in our society.

Dolores, the new documentary about Dolores Huerta, chronicles the life and activism of one of America’s foremost feminists, Latinas and labor leaders, who created the United Farm Workers union with César Chávez in the 1960s. The 87-year-old iconic organizer still has that “si se puede” spirit: Last year Huerta traveled to Standing Rock to support the indigenous-led anti-pipeline cause.

The 97-minute nonfiction film directed by Peter Bratt and produced by Carlos Santana includes interviews with Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem. Huerta was interviewed for In These Times at a Los Angeles movie theater and answered follow up questions by phone.

Ed Rampell: Discuss President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown and the role of the labor movement in addressing it.

Dolores Huerta: Right now, they are deporting farm workers. At the same time, they want to increase the importation of what they call H-2A workers. These are farm workers they’d bring in from other countries. They have no rights: They don’t get unemployment insurance, they don’t get social security and they’re not allowed to become citizens or residents of the United States. It’s a step above slavery.

But they’re not going to limit it to farm workers. What they’re going to do is use it for hotel workers, for the service industry and other industries. These workers have no say over their wages or labor conditions. It will be a big degradation of the workforce in America. The Trump administration is already planning to do that.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein has a bill in to have a “blue card,” which would mean the workers who are here right now—undocumented people—could stay here. But the deportations they’re doing right now are separating families.

The labor movement has been very, very supportive of trying to stop these attacks on our undocumented community. In California, they actually have funded many groups to go out there and have forums so people will know what their rights are. On job sites, right now, the labor movement is supporting a bill in California to make this a sanctuary state. It has already passed the Senate and is in the Assembly. We’re hoping Gov. Jerry Brown will sign it. We want to ask people to email Jerry Brown and tell him be sure and sign SB 54 when it passes the assembly!

Ed: What’s your response to the Trump administration’s moves and announcements regarding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program?

Dolores: Jeff Sessions is not telling the truth. When he was criticizing Obama for taking the action on DACA, he was saying presidents can’t do this. And that is such a lie. Because presidents have taken initiatives on immigration over the years, since the country was born. After the end of the H-2A agricultural foreign worker program, they legalized tens of thousands of braceros—the guest workers brought in from Mexico to the United States to work in agriculture. When that ended, they legalized these workers, and there was no act of Congress to do it.

César and I actually were able to process the papers for hundreds of these workers when we were starting to organize the United Farm Workers. John Steinbeck wrote at the turn of the last century when they were bringing in people from Mexico to work in the fields that they actually allowed organizations to issue the visas. Immigration has always been a political tool that different administrations have used. So, Sessions is telling a lie.

In terms of what Trump did, I am suspicious. I’m really worried they’re going to try and use DACA as a devil’s bargain to say, “Okay, we’re going to pass a law to allow DACA students to stay here.” They know there are millions of people showing overwhelming support for the DACA students. And then, at the same time, they’ll say, “Okay, we’ll pass this, but we want money for the border.” Or they will dangle some other negative thing they want to do against undocumented and immigrants. They will try to sanitize and placate the public and DACA students. In the meantime, they’ll go after other undocumented people.

So, I’m a little concerned about that, but I am also hopeful. I think the Democrats will try to stop that if they do it. And I’m hopeful because Eric Schneiderman, the Attorney General of New York, is filing a lawsuit saying that this is discrimination against a class.

Trump is attacking Mexicans right out of the gate—calling us rapists and criminals—and going after Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel, the judge on the Trump University case. And Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of racial profiling against people of color—especially Latinos. All of this shows Trump is against us.

I’m hopeful. I know many DACA individuals right now are really, really panicked and worried about what’s going to happen to them. I can tell them: Millions of people in the United States are supporting you.

Ed: What is the state of the labor movement today, and what organizing gives you hope?

Dolores: We know that the labor movement has been very involved in the battle to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. They are very active, especially the health unions, like the Service Employees’ International Union and United Healthcare Workers up in Northern California. The United Food and Commercial Workers are very active now in organizing supermarkets. Many unions, like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), have really great programs, in terms of training programs for kids in our inner cities so they can learn new crafts.

The only thing we have to worry about is that a lot of people forget that the labor movement created the middle class in the United States. If you don’t have a middle class, you don’t have a democracy. We know the corporate world is trying to destroy the labor movement. Republicans are pushing charter schools, and this will destroy public education. And public education is one of those benefits we get from the labor movement, in addition to the eight-hour day, safety standards, social security, workers’ compensation, the weekend and a ban on child labor.

Ed: All those commie plots! What lessons can today’s labor organizers take from your time organizing with the United Farm Workers?

Dolores: I really do believe that the best way to organize people is in their homes. That’s why we call them “house meetings.” We were taught that by the great Fred Ross Sr., who actually trained lots of people who are still active—he’s in our movie. His son, Fred Ross Jr., is very active in the IBEW. Many people working in the labor movement came out of the Fred Ross school of organizing at the grassroots level.

When people think of that famous Delano grape strike in 1965, we had actually started organizing three years before in 1962. So, we organized workers in their homes for three years before that strike happened. That’s a really good way, because then people really understand the complexities and the things they have to be aware of to go out there and organize into a union.

Ed: What’s your reaction to the recent white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville?

Dolores: This is the outcome of the abysmal ignorance we have in our society. All of those people who have embraced the Nazi cause of prejudice, discrimination and violence have never been taught about the contributions of people of color. The indigenous Native Americans were the first slaves in our society. It was African slaves who built the White House and Congress. People from Mexico and Asia built the infrastructure of this country. Somehow, they don’t know about the contributions of people of color.

It’s imperative and incumbent upon all of us to start passing this knowledge to our young people so we won’t have all of this racism, misogyny and homophobia in our society.

Ed: Early in Dolores, Glenn Beck calls you a “democratic socialist.” At the top of the Democratic Socialists of America website is a photo of you, and it says “honorary chair.” Are you a member of DSA now or have you been?

Dolores: Actually, I had the good fortune of being there at the founding convention with Michael Harrington, Gloria Steinem and John Sweeney. I was there on a mission with the grape boycott. I do believe that the resources of our world belong to the people and not to corporations. If we want to think of a way we can have universal healthcare, and college education for everybody, how do we pay for it? We have to pay for it the way they do in the Scandinavian countries, the way that they do it in Cuba: The people own the resources of the world, not the corporations.

Ed: Further down the page of the DSA is a picture of Bernie Sanders, a self-avowed “democratic socialist.” During the 2016 campaign, why did you support the machine candidate who took lots of money from Wall Street instead of the movement candidate? Bernie was obviously to the left of Hillary.

Dolores: Well, Bernie may have been to the left of Hillary. But I have to say, in my many years of activism, I never saw Bernie once on any demonstration, march or picket line—ever. In 2007, when we had the great opportunity to get an immigration bill passed, Bernie—then a congressman—didn’t support us on that. That was very, very hurtful. Who knows how many people could have been saved from deportation? I think Bernie has a great philosophy, but I do believe Hillary Clinton would have had the capacity to do many of the things Bernie was espousing—which I also believe in.            

Ed: And how did that strategy of backing Hillary instead of Bernie work out?

Dolores: Well, I think maybe we can look back and say whose fault it was that Hillary didn’t win. A lot of people didn’t engage. Bernie hurt Hillary’s campaign—especially since he wasn’t a Democrat to begin with. Like I said, he had been pretty absent in all of the movements I’d been involved in since the 1960s. If Bernie was supporting Hillary, we could have won. And I do believe still, to this day, that many of the things Bernie was fighting for—which I strongly believe in—we could have made happen.

It’s got to be a gradual evolution to get to that point where we own the resources, our oil, our transportation system and our utilities. It’s obscene that the salaries of the heads of AT&T are millions of dollars when people sometimes can’t even afford to pay their electricity or computer bills. I think that eventually has got to change.

Ed: You said you “never saw Bernie once on any demonstration, march, picket line, ever.” But in the September 6, 2015 issue of The Nation, John Nichols wrote that Bernie “join[ed] a [Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 100G] picket line [outside the Penford Products plant] in Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” and that “Sanders… has a long history of joining union picket lines in Vermont and around the country.” The Huffington Post reported April 13, 2016 that Bernie marched with Verizon picketers in New York. HuffPo added: “Sanders, however, is no stranger to picket lines—or to labor disputes with Verizon, for that matter. In 2003, he joined protesting workers in New England when they were locked in a contract fight with the company.” Bernie told The Nation, “being out on a picket line and standing with workers is something that I have been doing for my entire life.”

So, when you say you hadn’t seen Bernie at demos, marches and picket lines, which ones are you talking about?

Dolores: Not the ones I’ve been on. And I have been on many over the last 60 years. We were on strike in Delano for five years. We demonstrated in front of the White House many times. When we demonstrated in front of the White House, we had Rep. John Lewis and Sen. Paul Wellstone join us. We demonstrated many, many times in front of the White House: It was really easy for representatives to come out and join us. A woman was fighting deportation in a Methodist church in Chicago, and we had a special meeting in Washington where senators and representatives joined us to support her. Bernie never came.

So, I’m not disputing that he was on picket lines. I know about the Communications Workers of America picketing right before the election. Personally, I have been on so many picket lines—in New York City and throughout the country—on issues of labor, civil rights and immigration. I have never seen Bernie on any of them. I’m not saying he didn’t picket. This is not a competition.

I don’t want to revisit that whole 2016 presidential campaign. Whatever happened between Bernie and Hillary we really can’t solve anymore. The lesson we have to learn is that we have to go forward together. I know many of the people who supported Bernie attacked me, saying I was “no longer relevant.” But I don’t think that matters anymore. What matters now is that we have to go forward together, because Donald Trump got elected. He is the president, and he’s enacting some really horrible, harmful policies against immigrants in particular. We are seeing attacks on DACA, the environment, women and the transgender community.

Ed: Just one more question. You also said, “If Bernie was supporting Hillary, we could have won.” But, in fact, didn’t Bernie endorse Clinton by July 12, 2016 at a New Hampshire event? On July 25, he endorsed her at the Democratic National Convention and went on to campaign for her during the general election.

Dolores: I remember I was working as a volunteer on the Hillary campaign and time and again we kept asking Bernie Sanders, “Are you going to tell your people to support Hillary?” And he’d say something like, “Well, that’s their decision.” I think Bernie could have come out stronger and the people who had supported Bernie could have come out stronger. A lot of the people who had supported Bernie Sanders were disillusioned after he lost the primary.

I think that we can learn a lesson from that right now. Regardless of what side you were on (hopefully on the progressive side), we’ve got to come together and vote. We’ve got to go out there and campaign for progressive candidates. We have to build a wall of resistance in Washington, D.C. in 2018. But we can’t do it unless we all join in and do the work. Si se puede!

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Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic, journalist and author who wrote Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book. Rampell is Co-Organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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