Dolores Huerta

Interview with Maria Huffman - Feb. 23, 1968

Dolores Huerta
February 23, 1968
Radio interview
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Dolores Huerta, vice president of the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, discusses the Delano grape strike, racial discrimination, and farm work with WBAI's Maria Huffman.

MARIA HUFFMAN: We are speaking with Dolores Huerta, vice president of the United Farm Workers Committee. Mrs. Huerta, can you tell us what the goals of the organization are?

HUERTA: Well, the United Farm Workers organizing committee, which began a few years ago, has its main objectives the betterment of life for farm workers, for the agricultural workers of the United States. And when I mean betterment, I mean not only in terms of trying to improve their economic situation by trying to get them enough money so that they can live properly, but also to improve their social condition because farm workers are really considered no more than second class citizens classes. There's such a stigma on the farm worker that many parents are even ashamed that they are farmer workers or are ashamed to have their children do farm work, although they are relegated to this position. So we are trying to remove that stigma from agricultural work.

One of the reasons, of course, that it has been so easy for farm workers to remain in that category is that most of the agricultural work done in this country is done by people of minority groups. The growers of this country has consistently imported workers from other countries such as…. They started with the Chinese and the Japanese and the Filipinos. Mexicans. In New York there are many Puerto Ricans, and also in California. And of course there have been vast migrations of the people in the South to California and up here to the northern part of the country to do farmer work. So we have a large number of Negro people in agricultural work. So in addition to having a stigma in terms of the type of work that we have to do, we are also faced with all of the problems of racial discrimination.

HUFFMAN: What are the working conditions of the farm workers, is it mainly out in California?

HUERTA: Well, I think that the working conditions are very, very bad in that they don't have any type of protections at all. Farm workers are not given even the basic human necessities. They are not given toilets or drinking water in the fields. They cannot defend themselves when they are being degraded or humiliated or subjected to inhumane working conditions. They are subjected to speed ups that…

They have to work so fast that unless you are an agricultural worker and experienced farm worker, you cannot keep up the pace with the farm worker. I don't know if you can imagine this, but a farm worker can pick as many as four tons of grape in one day – one person. And the same type of speed-ups that we have in grapes are in other types of jobs, too, so that the farm worker is subjected to a brutalization of the human body that is absolutely inhumane.

And if he tries to defend himself in any way from being degraded or being sworn at, he is fired. He has no kind of job security at all. And in job security I mean, under union contract, a farm worker, if an employer speaks to him in a way that is inhumane, he has a grievance against employer. But if you're a farm worker and you try to defend your rights or the rights of your wife or your daughter who are working next to you, you are fired. And it even goes farther. The employers will pass your name around you can't get a job with anybody else if you try to defend yourself.

HUFFMAN: Unions offer no protection for the farm worker, or have any attempts at organizing unions been successful?

HUERTA: Well, ours is the first one who has had any success at all. They have tried to organize agricultural workers in this country I guess for the last 50 years and attempts have always failed. I believe that our union is the first one that has had any success at all, and it's of course primarily based on… Well, the political situation in California has changed somewhat over the last 30 years, particularly since labor unions became strong in the country, so that now we have political backing because of the labor unions, in California specifically. And I think a lot of credit has to go to Cesar Chavez, the director of the union, who has done such a tremendous job. He has set such an example by his own personal commitment. Cesar decided that the farm workers were not going to get organized until they started doing something for themselves, and so he set about to do it in and without any money. Just went around and talked to workers and first of all, gave them faith in themselves that they could do something, and once he was able to do this he drew them into an organization and began working to try to get to record recognition as a union, which we now have.

HUFFMAN: What victories has the union gained, would you say? What conditions have been bettered or….

HUERTA: Well, since we started organizing, which was in 1962, we have been able to gain eight union contracts that we now have. Most of these contacts are with the winery, with wineries. These are, of course, wine companies that grow their own grapes to make their own wine, such as Schenley and Almaden, Christian Brothers and the Gallo company, but also I should say DiGiorgio, who has, of course, other types of crops. And the main reason, of course, the way that we got these contracts was first of all through tremendous community support for our boycott efforts. We had to have a big boycott against Schenley and against DiGiorgio in order to try to get a union contract. And in our union contracts, the workers have, of course, a lot of protections. We have a hiring hall so that we can break discrimination patterns. And they have to have toilets in the field for the workers. They have to have fresh drinking water, and cold drinking water. They have to have protective equipment to protect them from insecticides, which makes their skin even fall off. Where we have a contact, they have to have goggles and protective clothing for them. A worker cannot be fired unless there is a just cause for him to be fired. They have to have rest periods every year 15 minutes – I mean, every 4 hours they have a 15-minute rest period. And they can't work the workers over 9 hours a day. In some of the places, before we had a union contract, workers were working 14 hours a day. And it's a 5 1/2-day week now instead of a seven-day week. So they have had a lot of improvements. Also we have a paid vacation and, let's see, there was one other thing I wanted to mention. Oh yeah – we also have the beginnings of a health and welfare plan, so that the workers working under union contact will have some kind of medical coverage.

HUFFMAN: Have any success against Giumarra, who I understand is the largest grower in California?

HUERTA: No, we have not. Giumarra was one of the original dirty growers that was struck in 1965, and he has resisted all of the union's efforts to try to bring him to the negotiating table. His workers wanted in election and he refused to give them an election, so they went out on strike on August 3 of last year. Nine hundred and fifty of his thousand workers went out on strike. So then we thought we would be able to launch a boycott against Giumarra. We sent farm workers out all over the country to the big major cities of the United States and Canada. However, he managed to get around our boycott by changing the labels on his grape boxes. And many of the other Delano growers that were on strike lent him other labels, so instead of trying to have a boycott against four labels we were faced with having to try to run a boycott against 70 labels. As a result of this illegal practice – because it is illegal and the Food & Drug Administration investigated and found in fact that is was going on – we have now had to change our strategy against Giumarra and we are now asking all of the consumers of the country, especially those in New York, not to buy any California table grape at all, unless it happens to be DiGiorgio, but the rest of the California table grape is on strike.

HUFFMAN: What type of help has your organization received from the law?

HUERTA: From the law?

HUFFMAN: Yes, from legal sources.

HUERTA: Well, very little. Actually, we find that the law enforcement bodies are against us, right from Delano up to the federal government. In Delano, although many things happen to our people, we can never get any kind of protection. One of our workers was just beaten very badly last week. He was put in the hospital for two days. He was beat up on one of the Giumarra fields, and believe it or not, we cannot get the district attorney's office to file a complaint, although we know exactly who beat him. It was one of the Giumarra crew leaders, one of their foremen. And on the other, if any of our people do anything we get put in jail. Here in New York City, just two weeks ago, 22 farm workers were arrested while they were on their picket line at Hunts Point Market. And we've tried to get some help from the Food and Drug Administration on this illegal labeling and there's nothing. We tried to get help from the attorney general's office in New York State, because there is a law which says that you cannot legally label any kind of agricultural product, and we're still waiting to hear from Attorney General Lefkowitz. He hasn't told us what his investigation has found. And even from the Department of Immigration the Department of Justice, we could not get any help.

HUFFMAN: What would you consider to be some of the greatest obstacles preventing your strike from being effective in California? Why hasn't it succeeded out in California, your strike?

HUERTA: One of them is, of course, this lack of legal protections, because even when there are some laws that will help us, they won't enforce them. One of these lack of legal protections is the fact that they do bring in large numbers of people from Mexico. These are alien residents who have a right to live and work in the United States, but in actuality they live in Mexico and come to the United States to work. They can do this because in the United States, $1 becomes 12 pesos in Mexico, or $12 in Mexico. So the growers bring these people in by the thousands and appeal to them, and they do respond and they come out of the fields. But since Delano is so close to Mexico – we're about five hours away from Mexico – that if we get a cloud of the fields and they join the picket line, then two days later there's another full crew in the field – sometimes just right the next morning. So this is the kind of thing that the union is face with. We are not covered by the National Labor Relations law, which means that cannot have an election in the field.

HUFFMAN: Would you say the Mexican workers are sympathetic to your cause?

HUERTA: Yes, they are sympathetic and once they understand what it is we are trying to do, they do respond. But it's just a never-ending flow because Mexico is a country of so many poor people that there's always somebody that's willing to come to work. And when they come to work, they have to pay their transportation. They are charged for their board and room every day, so that they really arrive penniless and they have to work a few days to get enough money to return home on.

HUFFMAN: Is it true that there's a slave labor shortage in California and that's why the growers bring in workers from Mexico?

HUERTA: No, there isn't a labor shortage in California. Actually, there are many unemployed people in California. The growers bring in people from Mexico because these people will work for less money, because they're not working for the American standard, they're working at the Mexican standard. And they do this to break the strike and to prevent organization. But even where the Giumarra vineyards is located, they hire up to 3,000 people at peak season. They will not hire Negros, but they prefer to go thousands of miles into Mexico to bring in people to work for less money. And this is just to try to prevent the local people from organizing into a union and to perpetuate discrimination.

HUFFMAN: Would you say the working conditions have changed importantly under the Reagan administration?

HUERTA: Well, if anything I guess there been kind of a going backwards instead of forwards, because many protections that the workers might have had before, they don't have. We've appealed to the Reagan administration to enforce some of the existing laws and have refused. In fact, the Department of Employment under this administration is trying to refer people to the struck ranches, and they've also cut back the people in the Industrial Welfare Commission and the Public Health Department. The labor law enforcement agencies have been cut back so they can't do an effective job anymore.

HUFFMAN: You mention the National Labor Relations Law. How does that affect the farm workers?

HUERTA: Well, we don't have any protection under the National Labor Relations Law, in that if the workers want a union contract there isn't any law that says the employer has to negotiate wages and working conditions with you. Now if we were covered under the NLRB like other workers are, all we would have to do is sign up the workers on cards and petition for an election. Then the NLRB would grant an election, and if we won the election, the union won the election, then they would have to sit down and negotiate with us. But because we're not covered by this law, the employer doesn't have to even the answer our mail or meet with us, and that's exactly where we're at now, so that we are not covered by the NLRB. However, on occasion, the NLRB has tried to say, or they have tried to tell us that we are covered by the punitive the parts of the law, that we cannot indulge in secondary boycotts. However, we have just received a decision just yesterday which says that the National Labor Relations Board has decided that we are not covered under the punitive section, so that our union can now involve itself in secondary boycotts. A secondary boycott is different from a consumer boycott in that in a secondary boycott, you can ask workers that are handling the struck products of growers, ask them not to handle it, see? In a consumer boycott, which is the kind that we're carrying on now against all table grapes, all you can do is ask consumers not to buy it, or ask retail chain stores or wholesalers not to buy any of these struck products.

HUFFMAN: Have you received any help from organized labor in New York in your attempt to boycott the grape market?

HUERTA: Well, yes, as a matter of fact, the Seafarers International Union – this is Mr. Paul Hall's union – are putting us up. There are 50 farm workers that came from California in a bus. We travelled cross-country and the Seafarers union is housing us and they're feeding us. They've set up an office for us and they've even provided six automobile with drivers for us to do our work here in the city. They're footing the bill entirely during our stay here. And of course the other labor unions are also helping us in terms of getting the word across to their membership not to buy any California grapes. So we're getting a tremendous amount of help from them. I might say that since our merger with the AFL-CIO and even before it, the labor unions and other people that contribute to the union are what have kept us alive, because our union – none of the people in the union are on a payroll. We have 300 families that are on strike benefits and all they receive is just their bare subsistence. But we depend almost entirely on our survival on contributions that come into the union.

HUFFMAN: How successful would you say your boycott has been in New York?

HUERTA: Well, the first part of the boycott when we were concentrating on labels was not successful. And it's pretty hard to measure our success at this point now since we have switched from a few labels to all grapes except DiGiorgio's. We are concentrating on Giumarra's largest agent, a firm named Victor Joseph & Son that is located in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. And the main thrust of our campaign is first of all, to get people and organizations to say they will support by not buying any California grapes and then trying to get that organization or person to write a letter to Giumarra, who is the biggest grower, and also to Don Joseph, his agent in Englewood Cliffs, telling them that they are not going to buy any table grapes.

HUFFMAN: Which retailers have agreed to this? Are there any specific who are…?

HUERTA: Well, a few of the chain stores have agreed not to handle any of the struck grapes, such as A&P and Bohacks. Waldbaums agreed – reagreed – the other day, and also Grand Union. Those are the chain stores that have agreed, and we are now in the negotiations with some of the wholesalers to try to get similar agreements. Of course if the consumers of New York City…. You know, New York City is the biggest grape market in the United States and all of the grape comes from our area, so if the consumers agree not to buy any grapes, the people that go to the stores, there won't be very much for the wholesalers to sell. It's pretty easy to get them to agree if we can get most of the New York consumers to agree not to buy grapes.

HUFFMAN: Doesn't welfare out in California help the farms workers at all?

HUERTA: Well, it might be some kind of a subsidy for their wages, but farm workers do not like to be on welfare, first of all, because it's such a humiliating experience. In order for them to try to get any welfare, they may have to wait as long as two months in a period of unemployment, and by that time most of them would be dead from starvation. So then they have the whole problem of residency requirements. If the workers cannot prove they have resided in-state for long enough, then they don't get welfare. It's really been very bad and the Reagan administration is, of course, trying to make cutbacks on welfare. So things look very bleak for the farm workers in terms of welfare programs. One of the things, what workers have to do, and many people in the cities, are being forced to work at very, very low wages – substandard wages – so that they can get on welfare rolls. And this is really a direct subsidy to the growers, who don't need any subsidies, because the growers receive billions of dollars from the federal government right now in subsidies. Why, in Fresno County, which is one of the counties in California, the growers is that one county receive more money in federal subsidies than the whole state does in all of the welfare programs. And this means aid to needy children, disability, you know, blind, crippled. These growers in this one county get more money in subsidies that the whole state does in all the welfare programs that state has. But these things are kept very quiet. Growers receive up to $500 an acre in water subsidies. And this money is coming out of the taxpayers, you know? The taxpayers are paying to make these men wealthy is men wealthy so that they in turn can keep the farm workers in slavery.

HUFFMAN: What wage does the union guarantee farm workers, and what wage are they paid if they're working for Giumarra? What is the discrepancy there?

HUERTA: Well, the wages in farm work range anywhere from 50 cents an hour in Texas, or $2 a day, up to $1.40, and then under union contractor our base wage, our lowest wage that we have, is $1.70 dollar. Our top wage that we have is $1.80, and that will be going to $1.90 minimum. That's our guaranteed base pay. On a piece rater, what they can an incentive system, the workers are guaranteed $3 an hour where we have a union contract. There is no guarantee where you do not have a union contract. But it's amazing to think that in the last 20 years that the farm workers' wages have just gone up such a little bit. In 1948 when they were trying to organize workers in California, the wages were 80 cents an hour. And now in many places in California, the wages are only $1.25 an hour.

HUFFMAN: Maybe you'd like to talk more about how you hope the boycott will affect the growers, what kind of pressure that would put on the growers?

HUERTA: Well, you know, as amazing as it sounds, in New York you have a direct lifeline to the growers because they ship all of their grape, you know they put it in boxcars and ship it all lover back East, so you have a direct line. And if there's any fear at all that they're to lose their New York market, this is of course what we're trying to do, then we think that we may be able to scare them into negotiation with the union. Now, of the 50 farm workers that are here, what they're doing is they are walking up and down New York, picketing, store by store, asking each individual store please not to buy any California table grapes, except DiGiorgio's, until the strike in Delano is settled. And they've had, you know, a wonderful reception. Now some places they might have a few problems. Well then, they just start picketing up and down in front of the store until the store owner agrees to write a letter to Giumarra and to call Don Joseph of Victor Joseph & Son. He picks up the phone and he telephones him that he's not going to be more grapes. And so this is what our pickets have been doing, the farm workers been doing in New York City. In addition to this type of activity, every night they go speak to as any meetings as they can go to. We're trying to get invited to meetings and every night they go and they tell a story to these various organizations. One day we addressed as many as 25 meetings, so you can imagine how many people we're speaking to, especially when you get before large groups that have a couple thousand people in a meeting. So that we think we are getting the word across to people in New York why it's important for them not to buy any grapes. Now, if we are successful in New York – and actually we've already been very successful – we're going to go on to Boston and then we're going to go to Philadelphia and we're going to go to Chicago and to every large grape center in the country, and we're going to do the same thing. And we are establishing committees in each segment of the New York community – by that I mean the ethnic groups and the civic groups, labor groups, church groups – and we're asking them to set up committees to keep this going. And there's been a big committee that has been formed, an overall New York committee, that is being headed by A. Philip Randolph and Paul Hall is co-chairman, and it includes such people as Mike Harrington and Mr. John Bennett of Union Theological Seminary, leading the members of the Puerto Rican community such as Amalia Betanzos, so that we really have a wide presentation and sympathy among the New York communities. So I think that we are going to be very successful in New York. Furthermore, we've gotten great promises of support. If there are any more grapes that come in to the New York market, there will be thousands of people that will be picking out there so that the buyers will be discouraged to handle any of the grape that comes from California.

HUFFMAN: I understand you had some trouble in Hunts Point. How did that turn out?

HUERTA: Well, there were 24 workers that were picketing out there and one of them was a 6-year-old child and they were arrested. The police asked them to reduce the picket line and they refused to reduce the picket line so they threw them all in jail. However, the fellow that placed the charges against them, he withdrew the charges and we have been having meetings with them to see if they won't assist us in trying to settle the dispute in California. You might be interested to know some of the other things that the union is trying to do. We are also doing other things besides just union activity. The goals of the union are not, as I said, just bread and butter, but we hope that we will have a group of workers that has a social conscience, also. We have a credit union for the farm workers where they put their money, and they also borrow from that fund. We have a clinic, where we have volunteer doctors that come down. We just recently got a full-time doctor, where farm workers can come and be treated, you know, like human beings. Because the other doctors in Delano won't even treat them properly. We have cases of people that have died of almost died because they don't get proper medical attention by the local doctors. Then we're also starting a cooperative there, a cooperative store and a cooperative gas station. And we have a building there that was built by the farm workers themselves made of adobe – and it's a very beautiful building – where our gas station will be at. But we are, you know, thinking in areas other than just, in other social areas rather than just the union contracts.

HUFFMAN: Yes. Do you have any protection from the law in California? For instance, contesting the legality of the strike injunction?

HUERTA: Oh, I guess I didn't mention it. The strike at Giumarra was really very badly hampered because after the first three or four days when all of the people came out on strike, Giumarra went to the local courts and was handed an injunction against us which limited our picket line to six people to a field and they also took away our loud speakers – I mean, our bullhorns – and without bullhorns you could not possibly get to the people in the field, because these fields are way out in the country and they're, you know, miles from nowhere and they're so vast, so big that if you don't have a bullhorn then the people that they bring inside, to have no way of knowing what the picket line is about or what you're trying to do. So we had to go to the state Supreme Court and we were able to get our bullhorns back, but the injunction that they gave us still stands. California rural areas are very much like the South. They're grower dominated and grower controlled, and everybody from the city council on down to the police department and the courts are all against the union. People in California think that there's something illegal about unions. They keep talking about an illegal strike, you know, as if this was not legal. You don't have the same attitudes towards labor relations as you have back east.

HUFFMAN: Is there any chance of taking any of your other problems to the supreme court besides the bullhorn?

HUERTA: Well, I imagine that we could, but it would, you know, be a long and lengthy process. Our attorneys are working at things like this so, though. We have filed suits against Giumarra for not having the proper sanity facilities in the field. I should not say "we," but other attorneys have done this. He has been charged with about 60 violations, he and his agents, for not having drinking water or toilets in the fields and for working minors over 8 hours. They have 60 violations against them now. We've also charged them with illegally recruiting strikebreakers and also you might be interested to know there was a suit filed in New York State against Giumarra and also against his agent Victor Joseph for bringing in products that were illegally labeled. And this suit has been filed in New York State. It's also been filed in five other states.

HUFFMAN: Do you think your chances of winning these suits are good? Do you think it will prove effective?

HUERTA: Well, I hope so. That's all that we can try. Actually, the suit was brought about by the union and also by New York consumers that they had been that they had been defrauded when they went to buy grapes and thought they were okay grapes and found out they were scab grapes. So the suits were brought against Giumarra and Don Joseph by them. We would like, of course, if anybody would like to help the union, we would like to write letters to Giumarra and also to Don Joseph of Victor Joseph & Son. And if people want to help the farm workers, a good way to do it is first of all, not to buy grapes and then to write to these fellows and tell them, I'm not going to buy any grapes until you sign a contract with the union.

HUFFMAN: Well, thank you very much.

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