Another Labor Day has rolled around. The online world is filled with enticing invitations to buy clothes, cars, electronics and whatever else might catch your eye. It’s hard to remember that Labor Day was originally meant to honor the workers who made all the stuff that’s now for sale. Instead the day has become just part of a long holiday weekend to mark the end of summer and the beginning of the school year.
But 56 years ago, on September 8, 1965, an important movement that would change agricultural workers’ lives forever, was started in California—the Delano Grape Strike. At that time, most agricultural workers in California were either Filipino or Hispanic immigrants. Their wages were below the federal minimum wage of $1.20 an hour and working conditions were abysmal. Hours were long and there were no required breaks. Often water was unavailable despite the heat; housing was inadequate with many workers forced to sleep in barren shacks without beds or toilet facilities.
A group of Filipino workers were the first to revolt and demand better conditions. Soon they joined with Hispanic leaders. The two groups worked together to begin one of the biggest and most effective labor movements in the United States. This led eventually to the founding of the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW) and grew into one of America’s most important labor unions.
Labor Day is a good time to remember some of the people who made that change possible. And to remember that change occurred only because of shoppers across the country who were willing to boycott California grapes.
The two co-founders of the National Farm Workers Association were Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Today I would like to pay tribute to Dolores Huerta, who is still alive at the age of 91 and still continues her work.
Huerta was born in New Mexico in 1930 and grew up mostly in Stockton, California. During her high school years, she felt discriminated against by teachers because of her Hispanic background. After she went to college and became a teacher, she noticed that many children in her class were suffering from hunger and poverty. She decided that activism was more important than teaching, so she co-founded Stockton’s Community Service Organization
It was through her work as an activist that Huerta met Cesar Chavez and began working with him. She worked with him to organize the 1965 Delano strike of 5,000 grape workers. When the strike finally ended after five long years, she was the lead negotiator as the workers’ contract was finally written and signed.
In 1973, Huerta led another consumer boycott of grapes that resulted in the ground-breaking California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which allowed farm workers to form unions and bargain for better wages and conditions. This change revolutionized the lives of farm workers in California and other states.
Labor organizing is not easy work and in 1988, Huerta was badly beaten by police during a peaceful demonstration in San Francisco. Nonetheless, her activism continued. In 2002 she founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation which has continued the work to which she has devoted her life. The list of honors she has received is too long to include here, but you can find them in the Wikipedia article about her life.
Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, and the other activists who fought to make life better for workers would not have succeeded without the support of everyday shoppers who refused to buy grapes during the strike. Enough people supported the effort to ensure that change happened. That’s something to remember as we move into another Labor Day. Perhaps as we browse through the enticing ads for ways to spend money, we should give some thought to the workers who produce those products. Ethical shopping—supporting the fair treatment of workers around the world is well worth considering. Boycotts work. They have made life better for many workers. Think before you click that “buy” button.