Dolores Huerta was born on April 10, 1930 in a mining town in northern New Mexico, where her father, Juan Fernandez, was a miner, field worker, union activist and State Assemblyman. Her parents divorced when she was three years old and her mother raised Dolores, along with her two brothers, and two sisters, in the San Joaquin Valley community of Stockton, California. Dolores worked as an elementary school teacher before leaving her job 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.”
That revelation, as well as her keen, first-hand understanding of the plight of farm workers and Latino immigrants led to a lifetime of activism and achievement almost unparalleled in US history.
In 1955, Dolores Huerta was a founding member of the Stockton chapter of the Community Service Organization, which fought segregation and police brutality, led voter registration drives, pushed for improved public services and better labor legislation. In order to serve mostly Latino farm workers, Dolores organized and founded the Agricultural Workers Association in 1960. In 1962, after the CSO turned down a request by its president, Cesar Chavez, to organize farm workers, Chavez and Dolores both resigned from the CSO and formed the National Farm Workers Association, the predecessor to the United Farm Worker’s union.
By 1965 Dolores and Cesar had recruited farm workers, and their families, throughout the San Joaquin Valley. On September 8th of that year, Filipino members of the Agricultual Workers Organizing Committee demanded higher wages and went on strike against local grape growers. The NFWA voted to join in the strike and merged with the AWOC to form the UFW. Over 5,000 grape workers walked off their jobs in a strike that would last five years. The following year, Dolores negotiated the first UFW contract with the Schenley Wine Company. It was the first time in American history that farmworkers negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with a major agricultural corporation.
The UFW continued to organize not only the grape workers but other workers in the vegetable industry as well, creating enough publicity about agricultural industry abuses to launch a consumer boycott of grapes, lettuce, and Gallo wines. The boycott resulted in the enactment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the first law of its kind in the United States, which granted farm workers the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions. In 1975 Dolores lobbied against federal guest worker programs and spearheaded legislation granting amnesty for farm workers who had lived, worked, and paid taxes for many years. This resulted in the Immigration Act of 1985.
In addition to organizing, Dolores continued to lobby for civil rights and welfare issues, advocating for the passage of Aid For Dependent Families (AFDC) and creating programs that gave disability and medical insurance, pensions and created a credit union for farm workers in California. She also was instrumental in passage of legislation allowing people to vote and test for their driver’s license in their native language.
In September 1988 in front of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, Dolores Huerta was severely beaten by San Francisco Police officers armed with batons during a peaceful protest against then-candidate George H.W. Bush. The beating—caught on videotape and broadcast widely—resulted in several broken ribs and emergency surgery to remove her spleen. Dolores later won a large judgment against the SFPD and the City of San Francisco, the proceeds of which were used in benefit of farm workers.
At almost 71, Dolores Huerta has received numerous awards and honorary degrees, and still works for the union she she co-founded and nurtured, promoting “La Causa” (the farmworkers’ cause) and women’s rights, including reproductive rights. She is the mother of eleven children as well as the co-mother of the American labor movement.