As co-founder and first vice-president of the United Farm Workers, Dolores Huerta is one of the best-known women in the American labor movement, as well as the U.S. in general. The slightly-built 60-year-old mother of 11 and grandmother of 10 has been arrested 22 times, usually for disobeying growers' anti-picketing injunctions.
Huerta was born in New Mexico, where her father was a miner, fieldworker, union activist, and state assemblyman. Her parents divorced when she was five and Dolores, with her brothers and sisters, was raised in Stockton, California. Her mother worked as a waitress and cannery worker, and later ran a 70-room hotel which often put up farm worker families for free.
After college, Huerta taught grammar school. But she quit because, in her words, "I couldn't stand seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children."
In 1955, she joined the Community Service Organization, an Hispanic civil rights-civic action movement with a reputation as the largest and most militant group of its kind in the nation. Huerta battled segregation and police brutality, led voter registration drives, pushed for improved public services, and fought to enact new laws that provided state disability insurance to farm workers and old age benefits for non-citizens.
In 1962, Huerta and another CSO organizer, Cesar Chávez, founded the National Farm Workers Association. By 1965, their infant union boasted 1,200 member-families, mostly Hispanics. That year, they joined a walkout against Central Valley grape producers begun by a mostly Filipino union sponsored by the AFL-CIO. It became known as the Delano Grape Strike.
Huerta negotiated contracts with growers, lobbied in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., organized field strikes, directed UFW boycotts, and led farm worker campaigns for political candidates. She negotiated the Union's first contract with a grape grower, faced down burly company goons on tense picket lines, and was arrested nearly two dozen times, often for violating anti-strike court orders. She spoke out early and often against toxic pesticides that threaten farm workers and consumers.
"Dolores is totally fearless, both mentally and physically," Cesar Chávez once remarked.
La Causa-the farm workers' cause-came first, even during pregnancies. She changed diapers between organizing meetings and nursed babies during breaks in negotiations. Huerta's 11 children sometimes lived with friends or supporters, ate donated food, and coped with frequent moves.
For more than 20 years, Dolores Huerta has been one of the UFW's most visible symbols. Senator Robert Kennedy acknowledged her help in winning the 1968 California Democratic Primary movements before he was shot in Los Angeles. She was co-chair-with now Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and Assemblyman John Burton-of the California delegation to the 1972 Democratic convention.
In 1988, Huerta was passing out news releases on the UFW's current grape boycott outside San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel-where then Vice-President Bush was speaking-when she was battered to the pavement by baton-wielding police officers. She underwent emergency surgery to remove a ruptured spleen and repair three broken ribs.
Dolores Huerta still works long hours for the farm workers' union she founded and nurtured. Many days find her in cities across North America, promoting the grape boycott and campaigning against the pesticide poisoning of farm workers and consumers.