By Evan Henerson
Students of the labor movement can gain a new perspective on the life of activist United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta with the release of the new documentary “Dolores” opening over Labor Day weekend in New York and across the country over the next few weeks. The film is produced by Huerta’s longtime friend, the musician Carlos Santana and directed by Peter Bratt.
Huerta, 87, has been traveling to different festivals to speak at screenings of “Dolores.” Even without the film, Huerta keeps a busy schedule lobbying and training the next generation of organizers through the Dolores Huerta Foundation. After spending Labor Day weekend in New York City promoting the film, she will appear in person at the Nuart Theatre with Bratt and Santana prior to the 7:30 pm screening on Friday, Sept. 9.
Labor 411 interviewed Huerta shortly before Labor Day.
Labor 411: How did you feel when you were approached with the idea of a film being made about your life?
Dolores Huerta: It was Carlos Santana’s idea. He’s been a friend for many years and been very supportive of my foundation and of the Farm Workers Unions, so obviously, you’re not going to say no to Carlos Santana when he says he wants to do a film about your work.
Labor 411: What are some of the issues or campaigns that you are working on now.
DH: In our foundation, we’re working on several different fronts. One of the main ones is to stop the school-to-prison pipeline. We’ve been very involved in organizing parents and students and the community to try to counter expulsions and suspensions of African American and Latino students. We recently settled a lawsuit with the Kern High School District in Bakersfield because they had suspended about 2,000 African-American and Latino students in a 2 year period which we thought was really excessive. Many of those students were suspended or expelled for reasons that didn’t really merit a suspension or expulsion.
We’re also engaged in getting people to register to vote and become citizens and also to run for office because we believe that in order to make a real change, we’ve got to have ordinary people sitting on school boards and city councils, recreation boards and public utilities districts. We know that when they take these positions, people can make a great difference in their community. Also when we do this grass roots organizing, we are able to develop a lot of local leaders and I think this is what we need in our community. We need more people to become active at the local level.
Labor 411: What qualities do you think a person needs to be a successful activist or organizer?
DH: You need to give up a little bit of your time to commit to become involved in one of the local organizations and definitely to become involved in elections. We’re encouraging people to be supportive of local progressive organizations but also to take time in the political campaigns to volunteer to do phone banking, to do canvassing, going door to door, to pass out information about local candidates. I think it’s really important especially coming up on 2018 that we do elect more progressive candidates to the Congress. So I think that people that are not happy with the current administration, one of the things they can do is make sure we get some good progressive candidates elected to the U.S. Congress because all of the congressmen have to run for reelection in 2018. For some of those policies that we fought so hard for that are now being rolled back by the Trump administration, one way that we can maybe stop the rollback is to get good people elected to the Congress that will be able to have some power over the decisions that are being made.
Labor 411: When you see non progressive politicians in office or worker-friendly policies being rolled back, how do you keep from being demoralized?
DH: As an organizer, I think we also see these as organizing opportunities. People are not paying attention or people had not been involved, and all of a sudden, they see it’s touching their lives and they realize they have to become engaged or things can get a lot worse than what they are.
Labor 411: In the more than six decades that you have been working for the labor movement, how has organizing changed?
DH: people have a lot of social media tools now at their disposal that we didn’t have back in the 60s and 70s. You can mobilize thousands of people to the Internet and through your cell phone, your devices through Facebook through Twitter, all of these tools that we now have. It’s so much easier to mobilize people. We’ve seen that now when we have 40,000 people marching on Boston. We know that people are coming together to counteract the alt right and Neo Nazi rallies. I think it’s very good that’s happening. Also to see all the young people who are engaged.
By the same token we know this is not all that we have to do. We have to get those marchers to go to the ballot box. At the end of the day, you have policy makers who are the people that we elect to office because they’re the ones that decide what policies are going to be enacted an implemented and also where our tax dollars are going to go. Are they going to build more prisons or are they going to build more schools or more money for healthcare?
Labor 411: Are you using the release of the film as an opportunity to raise awareness for some of your causes?
DH: That’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m trying to follow the film around to as many places all over the country as I can because I think when we see people on a personal basis, then we can kind of further address the issues that are in the film and then talk about some of the remedies that we need. One of those remedies is just voting, getting involved at your local level. Even involved with your political parties whether you’re a democrat or a republican, or green to make sure we get progressive people that are running for office.
Labor 411: On the occasion of Labor Day, can you speak the accomplishments of the labor movement?
DH: If it were not for labor, we would not have the weekend, we would not have the eight hour work day, we wouldn’t have social security , workers compensation, public education, safety standards. These are all the things we owe to labor unions and yet people don’t know that because they have no clue what labor did to build the United States of America.
I think one of the great things that’s happened as a result of our movement is that many of the labor movements have sort of copied the methods we used with the United Farm Workers in terms of really getting their members of labor involved. So we see that now, many of the labor unions, Unite Here, UFCW, the SEIU, they use the same methods that we started including. Sometimes it’s things like boycotting which they can legally do and I think that really helps a lot.
I want to share a quotation I have been saying to our audiences as they come and see the film, what Pablo Neruda the poet said: ”they can cut all the flowers but they can’t hold back the spring.” I believe that we, the voters, are the spring and we will bring justice to our society and to our communities.