Dolores Huerta, leading workers' rights advocate, delivers Sheinberg Lecture (VIDEO)

Dolores Huerta, who co-founded United Farm Workers of America (UFW) with César Chávez and has worked as an organizer and advocate for low-wage workers, women, and children for more than half a century, received a standing ovation when she delivered the 17th annual Rose Sheinberg Lecture on October 5.

Introducing the lecture, Professor Cristina Rodríguez touched on Huerta’s important role in pushing for key workers’ rights victories, including the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act and part of the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 pertaining to agricultural workers. The latter legislation granted amnesty to some 1.3 million laborers.

Her visible energy belying her octogenarian status, Huerta recalled her four-year stint in New York City while leading a national UFW grape boycott on behalf of workers who had been denied toilets, drinking water, and rest periods. Huerta pointed out audience member Paul Kurland ’70, past president of the NYU Law Alumni Association, who represented workers arrested for picketing the produce distribution center in Hunts Point in the Bronx. UFW’s nationwide efforts ultimately resulted in a collective bargaining agreement between workers and growers.

Pointing to racism as a primary cause of anti-immigrant sentiment and poor working conditions in the U.S., Huerta suggested that recent legal crackdowns and calls for further restrictions were applied selectively, and “not aimed at immigrants who come from Europe or from Canada. They’re aimed at those of us who happen to be people of color.” She maintained that undocumented workers contribute to the economy through their labor and their Social Security contributions, which, as non-citizens, they cannot recoup. Huerta also argued that U.S. free-trade policies contribute to the problem by adversely affecting foreign economies, thus forcing unemployed workers to cross the border illegally in search of jobs.

Now the president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which seeks to bring together different civil rights causes encompassing immigrants, LGBT individuals, feminists, environmental activists, and labor rights advocates, Huerta acknowledged her connection to the country’s most famous community organizer: President Barack Obama. Obama’s famous “Yes we can” campaign slogan, she said, is a translation of “Sí, se puede,” a phrase she coined in 1972 when Chávez staged a protest fast in Arizona.

“When I met President Obama,” Huerta recalled wryly, “he said to me, ‘I stole your slogan.’ And I said, ‘Yes, you did.’”

Huerta urged her audience to support workers’ rights and wider equality: “It is so important that people who became attorneys always reach out to the community, because you never know unless you’re in a community what laws need to be changed.... If we don’t have a strong working class, if we don’t have strong labor unions, we don’t have a democracy in this country.”

Watch the full video of the event (1 hr, 17 min):

Posted on October 11, 2010