Farm Workers on the Front Lines

An Interview with Dolores Huerta
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Dolores Huerta negotiating a union contract for the United Farm Workers. Photo: David Bacon.CorpWatch met Dolores Huerta, Secretary/Treasurer of the United Farm Workers, after a press conference where the UFW announced legal action to protect strawberry workers from exposure to the cancer-causing pesticide Captan. Dolores talks about the UFW's history of opposing pesticides and the current strawberry campaign. [Dolores Huerta negotiating a union contract for the United Farm Workers. Photo: David Bacon.]

CorpWatch: What pesticides has the United Farm Workers (UFW) been successful in banning?

Dolores Huerta: We had a list when we first started our campaign against pesticides in 1984, called the Dirty Dozen. We banned Parathion and got others restricted. However, our activity around pesticides goes way back to the early days of the UFW. In 1969, we filed the first lawsuit against DDT. We testified before Congress, and Congressman Murphy tried to put me in jail because he said I was telling lies about DDT and grapes. Of course, later on they found that everything we said was true and then eventually DDT was banned. In fact, in our union contracts (with grape growers), we banned use of DDT and aldrin before they were banned on the national level. And
with parathion, we were able to get a longer re-entry period through our union contract and later banned it.

CW: What have been the major obstacles in banning these pesticides?

DH: Primarily the profits of the pesticide industry. The pesticide manufacturers push pesticides like they're candy through their marketing. Many of the growers that I've negotiated with across the bargaining table don't even know the dangers of these pesticides. Getting a union contract is one of the biggest tools in working to ban pesticides. In our union contracts, one of the provisions is that growers have to notify farm workers before they use pesticides. Our safety committees, which are made up of
workers themselves, sit down with management and talk about what pesticides will be used. A lot of manufacturers push pesticides on the growers so they don't know what they're using and they overdose, using more pesticides than they have to.

God knows how many farm workers

have died from methyl bromide.

CW: Describe your work against methyl bromide. In California, under the 1984 Birth Defects Prevention Act, it was scheduled to be phased out in 1996 after a series of tests.

DH: In 1995, the UFW helped kill a bill that would have done away with the Birth Defects Prevention Act. We also killed a bill for the extension of the use of methyl bromide beyond the 1996 deadline. But in early 1996, Governor Wilson called a special session to extend the use of methyl bromide. We organized people to come to Sacramento to testify, and we held press conferences in key places like Fresno to put pressure on Senator Costa. Of course, we did lose that vote. Senator Mello from Watsonville, who's very close to the strawberry growers, voted for it. So did Cruz Bustamante from Fresno.

CW: When methyl bromide is finally phased out, what will it mean for farm workers?

DH: It will mean more protection for them. Unfortunately there are not enough records kept of farm workers who are injured by methyl bromide. God knows how many farm workers have died from methyl bromide. I personally know one family where the women's husband got sick working in the strawberries in San Diego. He got on a bus and went home and died in Tijuana.

CW: What are the demands of the UFW's strawberry campaign and what can people do to support the strawberry workers?

DH: Our campaign is called "Five Cents for Fairness". We're trying to get people to support the idea of paying five cents more for a basket of strawberries so that workers can get an increase in wages and a medical plan. People can help by going to their local groceries stores,
telling them about the campaign and asking them to sign our pledge to support the workers. Ralph's Supermarket, the number one chain in Southern California, has signed our pledge. We have Dominic's in the Mid-West, Associated in New York City, and Cala in San Francisco. Right now we have over 1,000 stores who have signed our pledge to support the workers. We'd also like to invite people to join us in Watsonville on April 13. We'll have a big march to celebrate Caesar Chavez's life and also let the strawberry growers know that there is a lot of support for the strawberry workers.

AMP Section Name:Food and Agriculture
  • 181 Food and Agriculture