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

Ed Rampell September 11, 2017

Dolores Huerta worked to organize the farm workers in California through the National Farm Workers Association, which later became United Farm Workers.

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.

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.

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!

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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