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UFW cofounder discusses Jena, Smithfield, human rights

by Amy Kingsley

Dolores Huerta spent the bulk of her years as a labor activist in the shadow of Cesar Chavez, the man with whom she formed the United Farm Workers union. But on Sept. 20, the organizer took center stage at an event organized by UNCG’s Office of Multicultural Affairs.

Huerta was invited to speak about human rights. The lecture, titled “Making History and Fighting for Those who Cannot,” touched on the Jena Six, high rates of imprisonment and the labor movement.

Huerta, who has spent a lifetime among California’s agricultural workers, has a sympathetic view of their plight.

“Seventy percent of the fruits and vegetables in the US come from California, and most of those come from the San Joaquin Valley. Farm workers should be some of the most respected people on the planet because they feed us. They put food on our table.”

Despite the rights California farm workers have gained in the last 50 years, including the right to bargain collectively, workers still suffer from exposure to pesticides, she said. Farm workers, many of whom are Hispanic or black, still struggle to have their voices heard, she said.

“In the sixties, the governor said they would put a man on the moon before farm workers got unemployment insurance, and he was right,” she said.

Huerta said that farm workers in the Southeast, particularly in right-to-work states like North Carolina, have an even more difficult time lobbying for improved working conditions. She invited a speaker from the local United Farm Workers chapter to address working conditions at the Smithfield pork processing plant in Bladen County that has become a locus of union activity.

“Do you know what right to work means?” she asked. “It means the right to work for low wages and no benefits.”

Huerta said the state has neglected to provide positive opportunities for the young people in her hometown.

“The state of California has built only one institution of higher education – the University of California at Merced – in the San Joaquin Valley,” Huerta said. “During the same period of time, they built 17 prisons.”

The same pattern has been repeated all over the Unites States, she said.

“We have more people in prison than India or China, and they have billions of people,” she said. “And now we have these private prisons. If you want to make money on the stock market, put it in private prison companies.”

One of the chief architects of the 1984 grape boycott, Huerta urged the students in attendance to work to change laws they think are unjust. The labor organizer, a feminist with 11 children, has endorsed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. A Roman Catholic, she supports Roe v. Wade and gay marriage.

“Benito Juarez, the first president of Mexico, had a saying that is known in Mexican homes, ‘Respecting other people’s rights is peace.'”

The Republican Party has added illegal immigrants to its list of targeted groups, which includes gays, lesbians and women, she said. Immigrants have built the United States from its inception, she said, and have always been vital to the country’s well being.

“Why were people brought here?” she asked. “To work. We talk about legalization and amnesty; that has been the policy of the United States from day one.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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