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Cesar Chavez Day: United Farm Workers Co-Founder Dolores Huerta Reflects on the Life and Legacy of the Legendary Labor Activist

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Cesar Estrada Chavez, legendary labor activist, civil rights leader and founder of the first successful farm workers union, would have been eighty-one years old today. Events are planned across the country to honor his life and legacy. Thousands marched in his memory over the weekend, and nine states recognize March 31st as an official holiday. We speak with Dolores Huerta. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today is the birthday of Cesar Chavez, the legendary labor activist, civil rights leader and founder of the first successful farm workers union. He would have been eighty-one years old today. Events are planned across the country to honor his life and legacy. Thousands marched in his memory over the weekend. Nine states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin, recognize March 31st as an official holiday.

The man who led the nationwide nonviolent struggle for the rights and dignity of farm workers was born in Yuma, Arizona in 1927. His family became migrant farm workers after the Great Depression. He began his life as a community organizer in 1952 with the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group. Ten years later, he founded the National Farm Workers Association, which would later become the United Farm Workers of America, led the union for the next three decades, and the strikes and boycotts he organized helped realize several important victories, including the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act to protect farm workers.

This year also marks the fortieth anniversary of Chavez’s twenty-five-day water-only fast in California at the height of the five-year grape strike and boycott. It ended March 1968, just a few weeks before the assassination of one of Chavez’s heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Cesar Chavez was fasting to recommit the farm workers’ movement to nonviolence.

In a moment, I’ll be joined by longtime labor activist Dolores Huerta. She co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with Chavez in 1962. But first, a clip of Cesar Chavez. He was speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in November of 1984, a few months after he had launched the third and longest grape boycott.

    CESAR CHAVEZ: Twenty-one years ago last September, on a lonely stretch of railroad track paralleling US Highway 101 near Salinas, thirty-two bracero farm workers lost their lives in a tragic accident. The braceros had been imported from Mexico to work on California farms. They died when their bus, which was converted from a flatbed truck, drove in front of a freight train. Conversion of the bus had not been approved by any government agency. The driver had tunnel vision. Most of the bodies laid unidentified for days. No one, including the grower who employed the workers, even knew their names.

    Today, thousands of farm workers live under savage conditions, beneath trees and amid garbage and human excrement, near tomato fields in San Diego County, tomato fields which use the most modern farm technology. Vicious rats gnaw at them as they sleep. They walk miles to buy food at inflated prices, and they carry in water from irrigation ditches.

    Child labor is still common in many farm areas. As much as 30 percent of Northern California’s garlic harvesters are under-aged children. Kids as young as six years old have voted in state-conducted union elections since they qualified as workers. Some 800,000 under-aged children work with their families harvesting crops across America.

    All my life, I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: to overthrow a farm labor system in this nation that treats farm workers as if they were not important human beings. Farm workers are not agricultural implements. They are not beasts of burden to be used and discarded.

AMY GOODMAN: Cesar Chavez, speaking November 1984 at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. I’m joined now in Chicago by activist, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, longtime comrade of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dolores.

DOLORES HUERTA: Hi. How are you doing, Amy?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. As you listen to Cesar Chavez, your thoughts?

DOLORES HUERTA: Well, we know that we still have a long way to go, that even though in California we were able to bring toilets into the fields and cold drinking water, rest periods, the right to organize, unemployment insurance, we know that in most of the United States of America, farm workers still do not have some of those basic, basic social labor rights that other workers have. And so — but I really do believe at this point in time it will be almost impossible to get those benefits on a state-by-state basis. I think we’re going to have to wait ’til we get a new president — hopefully Hillary Clinton — so that we can start, you know, making some of those — getting some of those laws on the national basis, like workers’ compensation, where if workers get injured in the field, that they — somebody will pay the disability for them, somebody will pay their doctor bill for them, and then, of course, the right to organize, which farm workers, of course, were left out of the national law back in 1935.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the greatest obstacles to forming the union, to organizing back when — well, you founded it with Cesar Chavez.

DOLORES HUERTA: Well, it’s always been the racism of the employers and the fact that they do not see the workers, as Cesar said in his talk to the Commonwealth Club — they do not see them as people. And as long as they don’t see them as people, then they don’t really feel that they have to have those rights.

But we can also say that in this administration, that all of the labor unions have suffered tremendously, and it’s been extremely hard for labor unions to be able to organize under the current Bush administration. And, of course, when we think about other workers, when we think of farm workers, it’s even harder. And now, of course, with all of this anti-immigration hysteria, when so many people have been deported, so we have a situation now, for instance, in both California and Arizona, where for the first time since 1986, when we passed the amnesty bill, we now have these Bracero programs, these foreign worker programs, where workers are being brought in to work without having the right to residency or the right to citizenship. This has happened just recently, because so many deportations have taken place, where so many farm workers and other workers have been deported.

AMY GOODMAN: Dolores, I wanted to play another clip of Cesar Chavez speaking in 1984. This is about the importance of the farm workers’ struggle to all people of Latino descent in the United States.

    CESAR CHAVEZ: All Hispanics, urban and rural, young and old, are connected to the farm workers’ experience. We had all lived through the fields, or our parents had. We shared that common humiliation. How could we progress as a people, even if we lived in the cities, while the farm workers, men and women of our color, were condemned to a life without pride? How could we progress as a people, while the farm workers, who symbolized our history in this land, were denied self-respect? How could our people believe that their children could become lawyers and doctors and judges and businesspeople, while this shame, this injustice was permitted to continue?

    Those who attack our union often say, “It’s not really a union. It’s something else: a social movement, a civil rights movement. It’s something dangerous.” They’re half right. The United Farm Workers is, first and foremost, a union, a union like any other, a union that either produces for its members on the bread and butter issues or doesn’t survive. But the UFW has always been something more than a union, although it’s never been dangerous if you believe in the Bill of Rights.

    The UFW was the beginning. We attacked that historical source of shame and infamy that our people in this country lived with. We attacked that injustice, not by complaining, not by seeking hand-outs, not by becoming soldiers in the war on poverty; we organized.

AMY GOODMAN: Cesar Chavez in 1984. Dolores Huerta, if you could talk about the United Farm Workers’ strike, grape boycott, the one that lasted five years, how you organized this to this national level to — ultimately led to its success? People like Robert Kennedy, who would later be assassinated, of course, joining with the United Farm Workers and talking about the importance of the dignity of the farm workers and, most importantly, their pay.

DOLORES HUERTA: Well, it was actually millions of Americans that didn’t eat any grapes or didn’t shop as stores that carried grapes that actually brought the growers to the table, and we were able to get those first contracts to get those benefits that I mentioned for the farm workers.

And referring to Robert Kennedy, you know, Cesar did that first fast that you mentioned earlier; for twenty-five days, he went with — had a water-only fast, only took water and holy communion, and Senator Robert Kennedy joined Cesar when he ended that fast in 1968. And that fast was, of course, for nonviolence, and the grape boycott was also a nonviolent economic sanction that we were able to use against the grape growers. But it really showed that the power of nonviolence still continues to work. And, of course, it was the people of the United States that all came — fourteen million Americans that stopped eating grapes that made this possible for — to bring the growers to the negotiating table.

So this is, I think, Cesar Chavez’s message, is that, number one, nothing is going to change unless we change it; number two, that we have to work together to be able to make those changes and that we have to work together in a nonviolent way and reach out to everybody, to be inclusive, so that we can bring justice to our world.

And, of course, farm workers today continue to feed us. So many of those farm workers out there are undocumented, and we know there’s anti-immigrant hysteria that’s happened. So many of those farm workers today are suffering. And so, I think part of Cesar’s message, of course, would be also to call upon everyone to consider this, that the undocumented workers that are in our country are the ones that are not only feeding us, but taking care of our children, you know, doing our gardens and cleaning our buildings, preparing our food. And these are the same people that Cesar was working for, that he dedicated his life for.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to a break, but I want to ask you to stay with us, Dolores Huerta. She is in Chicago, Illinois, one of the nine states that celebrate today, March 31st, Cesar Chavez’s birthday, as an official holiday. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with her in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest, Dolores Huerta in Chicago. I want to play a final clip of Cesar Chavez, talking about the future of the farm workers’ struggle and the immigrant rights movement, as he saw it in 1984.

    CESAR CHAVEZ: We have looked into the future, and the future is ours. History and inevitability are on our side. The farm workers and their children, and the Hispanics and their children, are the future in California. And corporate growers are the past.

    Those politicians who ally themselves with the corporate growers and against farm workers and the Hispanics are in for a big surprise. They want to make their careers in politics. They want to hold power twenty and thirty years from now. But twenty and thirty years from now, in Modesto, in Salinas, in Fresno, in Bakersfield, in the Imperial Valley and in many of the great cities of California, those communities will be dominated by farm workers and not by growers, by the children and grandchildren of farm workers and not by the children and grandchildren of growers.

    Like the other immigrant groups, the day will come when we win the economic and political rewards which are in keeping with our numbers in society. The day will come when the politicians will do the right thing for our people out of political necessity and not out of charity or idealism. That day may not come this year. That day may not come during this decade. But it will come someday. And when that day comes, we shall see the fulfillment of that passage from the Book of Matthew in the New Testament: the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. And on that day, our nation shall fulfill its creed, and that fulfillment shall enrich us all.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Cesar Chavez. Dolores Huerta, Chavez’s view on immigration, the issue of illegal immigrants being used by the growers to take the jobs of migrant workers?

DOLORES HUERTA: Well, it wasn’t so much the issue of them taking the jobs of migrant workers. In fact, the United Farm Workers was always the largest organization of undocumented. And when we started the union, Cesar and I actually legalized hundreds and hundreds of immigrants, because when the first Bracero program ended back in 1963, then we actually legalized over a half a million of the ex-braceros without any legislation. It just sort of happened. And then, of course, in 1986, I actually worked in Washington for four months to get the amnesty bill, and we had 1,400,000 undocumented farm workers then that became legalized. And now, of course, it’s time for another legalization. So, it was always trying to get justice.

The one issue that we always had with the farm workers union and building the union was to keep out strikebreakers. And sometimes people would confuse this, will say you’re against undocumented. We have never been against undocumented. We’ve actually been on the forefront of legalization for people who were undocumented and continue to be so to this day. The farm workers union has offices where they actually help people become legalized, and we also have offices in Washington, D.C. They’re working continuously to try to get legalization for the farm workers and for other workers, for that matter.

AMY GOODMAN: Dolores Huerta, there is a state holiday, nine states, including the one you’re in, in Illinois, honoring Cesar Chavez today, his birthday. Is there an effort to make it a federal holiday?

DOLORES HUERTA: Yes. Actually, there is a national effort right now that is going on, and Joe Baca, who is the head of the Latino Caucus in the Congress, has actually introduced a bill to make Cesar’s day a national holiday. And actually, there’s another bill that you might be interested in that’s by Congresswoman Hilda Solis to make all of the places where Cesar lived and worked — to make them historical sites. But that is currently being blocked by the Republicans in the Senate right now. But we have hopes that that will be able to pass.

And I think Cesar’s statement was very prophetic in what he mentioned about the role of the Latinos. We’ve seen that the Latinos have been extremely effective in this last election in terms of supporting Senator Clinton, and they have actually made a really big mark because of their voting. And in California, they actually voted thirty times more than the other populations. So I would say that I never thought of Cesar as a prophet, but obviously with his last statement that he did, he did show that.

The other thing I want to mention is this, is that in some of Cesar’s greatest moments, like during his fast — you know, he did three fasts: the first one for nonviolence, the second one for people to get the political courage that they needed to fight for themselves, and the third one was against pesticides. And that was the fast that he did for thirty-six days in Delano to bring attention to the economic poisons that are being put on our food. The point I wanted to make, Amy, was that sometimes his voice was louder when he didn’t say anything, because during all of those three fasts, Cesar never was able to speak. When Senator Kennedy came to Delano to break that first fast, you know, he didn’t speak at all. But yet, his voice was so loud. And that was kind of like that silent voice of justice, and it still is, of course — we can hear the ramifications of his voice on this day, March the 31st, where so many states and so many places are having events and parades, marches, luncheons, breakfasts, whatever, masses, honoring Cesar Chavez. That voice of justice of his is very loud, and it still is resounding throughout our country today.

AMY GOODMAN: Dolores Huerta, I want to thank you very much for being with us, joining us in the studio in Chicago, Illinois, co-founder of the United Farm Workers with her longtime comrade Cesar Chavez. Today, he would have been eighty-one, his birthday celebrated as an official holiday in nine states. We’ll see if it will be celebrated by the entire country, if the federal effort to succeed in making his holiday — his birthday a federal holiday succeeds. Thank you.

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