By Chaitram Aklu
August 18, 2019 marked the 99th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment which barred states from denying women the right to vote based solely on their sex. Two days later, on August 20, Dolores Huerta, a fierce advocate for workers and women’s rights, (together with seven others) was arrested in Fresno County California for doing something she had been doing for decades beginning in the early 1960s.
Huerta was leading a protest that demanded fair pay for Homecare workers, 89 percent of whom primarily comprised of women and people of color, and work in residential institutions, nursing homes, private homes and communities, according to PHI, an organization that works to transform eldercare and disability services. The workers in Fresno are paid the $12 minimum wage and have not received a raise of pay in 10 years.
The median hourly wage nationwide is $10.11 in mainly part time positions and therefore a worker barely makes an average $13,300 annually.
Dolores Clara Fernandez Huerta, is known to protests and demonstrations when it comes to the struggle for workers’ and women’s rights. She has been beaten and arrested dozens of times for her role in union actions. During one California protest, she suffered two broken ribs inflicted by the police during an arrest.
She did not set out to become an activist. Born in Dawson, New Mexico to Mexican American parents, she attended school and college and became a teacher but quit after only a short stint. She said, “I quit teaching because 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.” It was that reality that led her to join with Cesar Chavez to found the National Farmworkers Association which later became the United Farm Workers.
Farm workers were and still are migrants from mainly Mexico and other Latin American countries and their numbers account for a significant percentage of the US population. According to the Pew Research Center the Hispanic and Latino population in the United States is now 17 percent of the total population – totaling over 58 million. This demographic accounts for 50 percent of the US population growth since 2000. And almost 40 percent of the 25 and older age group have gone to college – an increase of 30 percent since 2000. During the same period 52 percent of those born in the US have gone to college an increase of 41 percent.
They identify closely with their countries of origin. In fact Hispanic Heritage Month, September 15 – October 15 which began in 1968 recognizes and celebrates the contributions of Hispanics and Latinos. The beginning date, September 15 is significant as it is the Independence anniversary of five of their countries of origin: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Mexico, Chile and Belize also celebrate their independence day during this period. And Columbus Day is (Dia de la Raza) October 10.
In July 2016, Huerta addressed the American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT) 100th Anniversary and Convention in Minneapolis where she urged teachers “to ensure students know that while people come ‘in all different shades and colors,’ we are all one human race.”
At the convention she also committed to continue to work to improve the lives of working people. “We have to work very, very hard against the forces of evil trying to put profits first and workers second. We cannot allow this.”
Her Fresno arrest at the age of 89 proves that her commitment is as profound and unwavering as when she quit her teaching job to become an activist for the poor and powerless.Huerta, whose home state is home to the largest share (47 percent) of the Hispanic and Latino population in the US is a national figure and compares to US Congressman John Lewis, who in spite of numerous arrests and beatings, remained undeterred in his commitment and involvement in the Civil Rights movement.
When Barack Obama launched his campaign for President, he chose the slogan “Si Se Puede” – “Yes, We Can” and credited Huerta for creating the phrase which became the rallying cry during the long and dangerous struggle to win collective bargaining rights, decent contracts with growers, and health and benefit agreements for farm workers in this country. She was instrumental in getting the Agricultural Labor Relations Act passed in 1975 – the first law that gave collective bargaining rights to workers in California.
Huerta received numerous awards for her role in the struggle to make the lives of workers and their families better. In 2017 her life was featured in an American documentary which won seven awards. Her honors include the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, the highest civilian award in the United States. She continues to work very, very hard to put workers first.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.