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The female labor pioneer who battled grape growers and sexism

Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, circa the 1970s. (Cathy Murphy/Getty Images)

In the frigid winter of 1965, labor organizer Dolores Huerta stood outside New York City grocery stores and tried to persuade customers not to buy grapes.

California grape farmworkers were striking for better pay and working conditions, and representatives from what later became the United Farm Workers union fanned out across the United States to encourage people to boycott growers who resisted their laborers’ demands.

While Cesar Chavez’s leadership of the UFW made him a folk hero of the U.S. labor movement, Huerta’s impact on workers’ rights has not received as much acclaim. But her leadership, lobbying and negotiations with grape growers were crucial to earning contracts for impoverished workers at a time when few women held top roles in organized labor, said Stacey Sowards, author of “Sí, Ella Puede!: The Rhetorical Legacy of Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers.”

Huerta, who co-founded the UFW with Chavez, led the New York chapter of the boycott, managing the group house where members lived and recruiting unions at other parts of the supply chain to stop grapes from reaching storefronts. She was known for working long hours to organize pickets and meet with grocery store representatives, even while raising young children, Sowards said.

“Cesar Chavez was more shy and soft-spoken,” Sowards said. “And she was pretty successful in getting out there and talking to folks.”

Huerta began her career as a teacher in California. But she came to feel that she could not do enough for her students, many of whom came from poor farm-worker families.

“I couldn’t tolerate seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes,” she once said. “I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children.”

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Huerta’s conviction led her to leave teaching and join the Community Service Organization, which advocated for Mexican Americans across the Southwest. There, she met Chavez, and the pair eventually quit over their shared frustration that the group did not advocate more for farm workers, Margaret E. Rose wrote in “Dolores Huerta: Passionate Defender of La Causa.”

Chavez and Huerta founded the union that became the United Farm Workers against the backdrop of widespread activism against the Vietnam War. Huerta served as the organization’s first contract negotiator and experienced her first of more than 20 arrests while picketing outside a New York grocery store.

Store employees called the police, Huerta said, but the officer responsible for booking her into jail seemed to feel bad about it.

“He was apologizing to me for having to book me,” said Huerta, now 90 and president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which trains organizers in low-income neighborhoods. “But, of course, he had to do it.”

The New York boycott was considered one of the most successful organized in U.S. cities, Sowards said. The resistance efforts ended after 26 grape growers, representing 35 percent of the industry, signed union contracts in 1970.

As Chavez’s vice president, Huerta was his trusted adviser but often fervently disagreed with him about tactics and priorities. She did not hesitate to share her opinions, Rose wrote, and she once reminded Chavez in a letter that she was “not the quiet long suffering type.”

Huerta’s willingness to speak up also applied to the sexism that she faced as a female leader of the union. Many farm workers told her directly that they preferred to deal with Chavez, Sowards said. Huerta would count the number of sexist comments made in meetings, Sowards said, and then tell the attendees the number.

Huerta once struggled to get an appointment with the head of the New York City Central Labor Council and suspected that he did not want to meet with a woman. So, she said, she went to his office every day for a week and waited until he finally agreed to talk with her.

Huerta was also criticized for the amount of time she spent away from her 11 children while she worked. When she became pregnant while unmarried, Sowards said, some union members felt it would be embarrassing for her to interact with lawmakers in light of her Catholicism and many farm workers’ traditional values.

Huerta refused to let them shame her. Her mother, a business executive, taught her to ignore critics.

“She always said, ‘Don’t pay attention to what they tell you. Because if you pay attention, you can’t do anything,’” Huerta said.

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Eventually, Huerta learned to use her young children to her advantage by bringing them to contract negotiations with grape growers, Sowards said. If the infant started crying while a company representative was talking, Huerta would use that as an excuse to request a break and then spend that time honing her strategy.

Although Huerta said someone else usually watched her children during meetings, she remembers one of her babies once becoming noisy during a negotiation session.

“While the union attorneys were talking, she would never cry, and then when the attorneys for the opposition would start talking, she would start crying,” Huerta said. “And one of them said to me, ‘Are you teaching that baby?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not!’ ”

Huerta said she made sure that women were at the table during negotiations with growers, because they were part of the workforce. She also pushed the UFW to consider issues important to female workers, such as child care and sexual harassment. When the farm workers started organizing, Huerta said most did not have access to toilets in the fields — a particularly difficult situation for women, whom she said used to hide behind a towel or sheets when nature called.

Since her years leading the UFW, Huerta said women have made large strides in the labor movement. They now run more unions and encounter less overt sexism.

One thing in particular makes Huerta proud: The current president of the UFW is a woman.

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