The University Record, January 28, 1998

Labor union movement is 'alive and well'


By Joel Seguine
University Relations

The labor union movement is alive and in the strawberry fields of California. That message was delivered with gusto Jan. 21 by Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers (UFW), before a nearly full house at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater.

As they had for Native American leader John Trudell four days earlier, the TreeTown singers drummed and sang a ceremonial honor song for Huerta, who has devoted her life since 1962 to improving what she terms inhuman conditions encountered by mostly Hispanic farm workers in fields owned by large agribusiness firms.

Accompanied by two workers, Carmen and David, currently on the front lines of the strawberry pickers' struggle, Huerta challenged everyone present to join in their fight against this and all forms of racism.

"Racism doesn't hurt just people of color," Huerta said, "it hurts everyone." She paraphrased a story told by Bernice King, daughter of the civil rights leader, in which King described racism as a hole in a big ship carrying all people. Water is rushing in and the ship will sink without action to plug the leak.

Huerta said that agribusiness profits are soaring while the wages of farm workers, about $8,000 per year for the strawberry pickers, have remained stagnant in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement, and working conditions, including serious health hazards, are not being addressed by the companies.

Carmen, who has been picking berries 14 years for the same wage, and David, 17 years in the strawberry fields, both spoke eloquently, through an interpreter, to these and other problems, relating their own stories of being sprayed by hazardous pesticides that were being applied in fields near their worksite, and being threatened by supervisors for trying to organize the workers.

Huerta paid tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez by recognizing that they both knew that change had to come from the people. They showed, she said, that people, individually and collectively, can effect change; but, she added, much is left to be done. "There are millions to take the place of Martin and Cesar" to continue the struggle, but they must have the will to do it, she said.

Huerta recognized two U-M graduates who are in key positions with the UFW: current president Arturo Rodriguez, and long-time activist Rebecca Flores-Harrington. She also introduced Michigan UFW organizer, Todd Morales, who described local efforts to secure cooperation from food retailers in the campaign to pressure large strawberry growers to improve conditions for their workers.

Huerta's presentation was sponsored by the MLK Symposium Planning Committee, MEChA, Alianza and La Voz Mexicana.