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This Month in Business History

Dolores Huerta, Labor Activist Born

Jos Sances, artist. Si, se puede! -- An evening in solidarity with Dolores Huerta. 1990. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Dolores Huerta is one of the most influential Hispanics of the 20th century for her work as a community organizer, labor activist, civil rights leader, and advocate for social, economic, and environmental justice. Dolores was the co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association, which later merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to become the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). She served as Vice President of the UFW and played a pivotal role in many of the union's accomplishments over the next forty years, at a time when Hispanics and women were not often found in leadership roles in management or unions. Dolores fought for the rights of farm workers, women, and other underrepresented groups through collective actions such as boycotts and strikes, as well as through social justice initiatives and community organizing.

Dolores was born on April 10,1930 in Dawson, New Mexico, a mining town where her father Juan Fernandez, a U.S. Citizen of mixed Spanish and Mexican ancestry was born.1 He worked as a coal miner and was a member of the migrant labor force. Later, Mr. Fernandez became a union activist, earned a college degree, and was elected as a representative in the New Mexico state legislature. Her mother, Alicia Saint John Chavez used to work in a cannery, but became a small business owner who ran a restaurant and opened a large hotel. Dolores was active in school and community clubs. She went on to earn a teaching credential and became a teacher. Her students were often hungry and lacked essentials like shoes. She left her position to assist her students' farm laborer parents earn more equitable wages and working conditions.

In 1955, at the age of 25, Dolores began organizing for the Latino civil rights Community Service Organization (CSO), focusing on the Stockton Chapter.2 She successfully lobbied in the state capital of Sacramento in support of pensions for noncitizens, the provision of disability insurance for farm workers, and ability to register voters. Dolores was introduced to a fellow organizer, Cesar Chavez by her CSO mentor Fred Ross. Together, Cesar and Dolores became interested in organizing farm workers to fight for better wages and working conditions.

In 1960, Dolores organized the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA), which engaged the community by providing English language classes, voter registration drives, health clinics, and a credit union.3 In 1962, she and Chavez formed the National Farm Workers Association, which became the United Farm Workers of America, the first recognized farm workers union accepted into the AFL-CIO in 1972. The Union led boycotts and strikes, including the grape and lettuce strikes, and negotiated better wages and working conditions for farm workers with their large agribusiness employers.

In 1972, while Chavez was undergoing a hunger strike in opposition to an Arizona law that restricted workers' ability to organize, Dolores used the slogan “!Sí, se puede!” (Yes, we can!) when the workers expressed that what was possible in California could not be done in Arizona. This rallying cry is a registered trademark of the UFW.4 The phrase has been widely adopted by other movements and campaigns.

During her time at the UFW, Dolores worked on the passage of a number of policies related to immigration and farm laborers. Legislative victories included: a California bill that provided driver exams in Spanish, a repeal of the Bracero program which brought replacement workers in from Mexico, the extension of the Aid to Families for Dependent Children (AFDC) to include California farm workers, the right for farm workers to collectively bargain, and the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which legalized most undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country prior to 1982.5

In 2002, Dolores received a $100,000 Nation/Puffin prize for Creative Citizenship, which she used to establish the Dolores Huerta Foundation (DHF) to train individuals to become community activist and organizers.6 The foundation develops leaders by providing hands-on civic-engagement training and opportunities, with a focus on organization building through door-to-door canvassing, tabling and phone banking with an emphasis on voter registration, participation in the electoral process, and promoting awareness of legislative bills that affect local communities. A priority of the Foundation is to serve new immigrants, marginalized individuals and families of the San Joaquin Valley.

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  1. D.A.Miller. Dolores Huerta: Labor Leader. (Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2007), p.11. Back to text
  2. A. Van Tol. Dolores Huerta: Voice for the Working Poor.(New York: Crab Tree, 2011), p. 27. Back to text
  3. FAQs | Dolores Huerta Foundation.External (accessed December 21, 2022). Back to text
  4. UFW Licensing, United Farm Workers.External (accessed December 21, 2022). Back to text
  5. FAQs | Dolores Huerta Foundation.External (accessed December 21, 2022). Back to text
  6. R.S. Doak. Dolores Huerta: Labor Leader and Civil Rights Activist (Minneapolis, MN: Compass, 2008), p. 90. Back to text