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"Dolores" and the Dignity and Rights of Workers

"Dolores" and the Dignity and Rights of Workers

Everyone has the right to work and to make enough money to live a life that is decent and meaningful.  Believers and people of good will are to make sure that the work place is safe and the lives and rights of workers are protected.

 

Ever since “Rerum Novarum” (“Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor” also called “On the Working Class”) by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, almost every subsequent pontiff has addressed the issue of the dignity and rights of workers. By addressing the rise of Marxism and communism and the condition of the working classes in the late 19th century, Leo XIII opened the door for the Church to speak with credibility about growing industrialization, unrestricted capitalism, social justice, the plight of workers, and the preferential option for the poor. Leo XIII called the principle of solidarity “friendship.” Forty years later Pius XI called solidarity “social charity” and Paul VI speaks of “a civilization of love.”

 

St. John Paul II’s mentions solidarity with and among workers eleven times in his 1981 encyclical “Laborem Exercens” that marked the 90th anniversary of “Rerum Novarum.” He called for a continued study of human work and the living conditions of workers, movements of solidarity between and with workers, and said that we must be the Church of people who are poor “as a result of the violation of the dignity of human work: either because the opportunities for human work are limited as a result of the scourge of unemployment, or because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family.” (8)

 

St. John Paul II’s fourteenth encyclical, “Centesimus Annus,” commemorating the 100th anniversary of “Rerum Novarum,” addresses the issue of a doctrine of solidarity between and with workers to assure their rights. The key points John Paul II emphasized were: empathy with others in view of the common good; that the human person cannot be understood by economics or class structure but instead within culture; complete respect for a person’s conscience; and the rule of law over “the arbitrary will of individuals.” He also clearly said in “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis” in 1987 that solidarity with and between workers "is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all."

 

Pope Benedict addressed the interaction of worker solidarity and globalization in 2009 in “Caritas in Veritate.” For the World Day of Peace in 2014, Pope Francis wrote, “The many situations of inequality, poverty and injustice are signs not only of a profound lack of fraternity, but also of the absence of a culture of solidarity. New ideologies, characterized by rampant individualism, egocentrism and materialistic consumerism, weaken social bonds, fuelling that ‘throw away’ mentality which leads to contempt for, and the abandonment of, the weakest and those considered ‘useless’.” (1)

           

“Dolores” and the Dignity and Rights of Workers

 

This 2017 documentary by Peter Bratt will premiere on PBS on March 27, 2018 with online streaming beginning on March 28 at PBS.org. The film profiles the life and work of Dolores Huerta, a heroine of the rights of farmworkers beginning in California’s central valley in the 1950s. Although she co-founded the United Farm Workers union with Cesar Chavez in 1962, she is rarely mentioned and her role as one of the foremost social activists of our time seldom celebrated. This informative film will hopefully change this and celebrate this Latina woman who has given her life in solidarity for the dignity and rights of workers.

 

Dolores Clara Fernandez was born in a small mining town in New Mexico on April 10, 1930. After her parents’ divorce, she and her brothers moved with their mother to Stockton, CA where her mother became involved in community affairs.

 

Dolores became an elementary school teacher. Seeing her students come to class hungry and often without shoes evoked her empathy and concern. More than anything it made her respond to a call to work to change the system that caused this situation of economic injustice She became a community organizer and worked with the Stockton Community Service Organization (CSO). During the post World War II era she also launched the Agricultural Workers Association to register voters and press local governments to improve workers’ housing.

 

In 1955 she met the like-minded CSO executive Cesar Chavez and together they founded the National Farm Workers Association that would evolve into the United Farm Workers in 1962. Dolores was totally committed and was the only woman who served on the UFW executive board until her resignation after the death of Cesar Chavez in 1993.

 

Dolores was the lobbying force behind legislation for Aid For Dependent Families (AFDC) and disability insurance for farm workers in 1963. She marched with Cesar Chavez and farm workers from Delano, CA to Sacramento in 1965 in solidarity with Filipino farm workers who had gone on strike, precipitating the UFW strike that was still in the planning stages. This non-violent march during Holy Week (told even more vividly in Richard Ray Perez’ 2014 documentary “Cesar’s Last Fast”  -- click here for the NCR article) forced the hand of some growers to bargain with the UFW for better wages, medical care, decent housing and the availability of water and toilets for workers in the fields.

 

Dolores Huerta at a press conference in 1975 (courtesy of Wayne State University Archives)

 

Dolores, who was brought up Catholic, went her own way when it came to living as one. She was married and divorced twice and had a long relationship with Richard Chavez, Cesar’s older brother. All together, Dolores had eleven children who were mostly brought up by others as she campaigned for the rights of farm workers.  Dolores was anti-abortion (she said that after eleven children you know the baby is alive) yet after the grape boycott in New York, where she met the radical feminist Gloria Steinem, she became vocal on a woman’s right to decide how many children she would have.  

Several of her children are interviewed in the film and their words and tears tell of their love for their mostly absent mother. In 1988 Dolores was part of a legal, non-violent protest in San Francisco. She was severely beaten by police and suffered several broken ribs and the loss of her spleen. During Dolores’ long convalescence her children took turns staying with her; indeed they never left her side for months. This resulted in forgiveness and reconciliation between mother and children.

 

After Dolores left the UFW she founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation and continues to work tirelessly for the rights of the poor and marginalized.

 

Perhaps one of the most shocking aspects of the film is when the school boards of the states of Arizona and Texas voted to have the story of her pivotal involvement with agricultural workers removed from history books and curricula because she dared to speak out against a political party.

 

“Dolores” tells the story of Dolores Huerta remarkably well. Catholic viewers may see her as a flawed human being but she continues to be a proud Latina woman who continues to work in solidarity with workers even at the age of 87. She stood up to oppressors wherever she encountered them, including the machismo of her own organization, the UFW. Though she and Cesar Chavez were colleagues who shared the same vision of fair wages and humane working conditions for agricultural workers, they argued a lot. He would fire her and she would quit.  Then she would still be the first one back at work the next morning.

 

Dolores Huerta, like Cesar Chavez, is a model of solidarity with and between workers and the promotion of the dignity and rights of workers.

 

 

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