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A lesson in labor history from Dolores Huerta

 May 28, 2024 at 2:16 PM PDT

S1: It's time for Midday Edition on KPBS. Today we are looking at past and present labor movements across California and San Diego. I'm Jade Hindman. Here's the conversations that keep you informed , inspired , and make you think. I'll have a conversation with trailblazing labour activist Dolores Huerta.

S2: And that's the main thing that we want to do as organizers , is to let people know that , yes , they have the power to. They can change things , and all they have to do is become activists to make it happen.

S1: Then we'll move the conversation to San Diego's history of labor movements. That's all ahead on Midday Edition. See somewhere. Yes we can. That famous slogan is now a rallying cry for activists across the globe. But it all started with civil rights icon Dolores Huerta in the late 60s , where to co-founded the United Farm Workers Union alongside Cesar Chavez. She was also its first vice president. Huerta led the historic five year Delano grape strike , which won higher wages and working conditions for farm workers. Here's a 1966 clip courtesy of KQED archives , of her delivering a speech in Sacramento demanding a collective bargaining law for farm workers.

S3: The developments of the past seven months are only a slight indication of what is to come. The workers are on the rise. There will be strikes all over the state and throughout the country because Delano has shown what can be done , and the workers know that they are no longer alone.

S1: A few years later , her organizing efforts helped pass the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. In the decades since , Huerta has continued to fight for civil rights and fair labor practices across the country. She now runs the Dolores Huerta Foundation , which supports volunteer organizations pursuing social justice , and she's also received a lot of recognition for her advocacy over the years , including a Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Barack Obama. Now , at 94 years old , she just received yet another award on Friday at San Diego's annual Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast. She was honored with their Lifetime Achievement Award last week. It was my great honor and privilege to speak with Dolores Huerta about her life's work. I began by asking how she first found her voice as a young activist.

S2: Oh my gosh , it goes back many , many years. Um , I was always an activist. I was active in Girl Scouts for ten years , from the time I was eight to the time I was 18 years old. I was active in my church groups. I was active in local civic organizations. When I was a teenager , I formed my own organization to have recreational activities for the kids that I grew up with , because they were mostly kids of color that were always being discriminated. And then when I found out about how you could really change things by getting people organized at the grassroots level and taking direct action and , you know , advocating for legislation , you know , getting people to get up there and register to vote and then making some real differences in terms of , uh , getting policies and laws passed that could be implemented. Then you might say finding my voice was a little gradual , because at first , like many , many people , I didn't know , I had that power to make a change and to make a difference. So once I found that voice and I , you know , been using it ever since. Wow.

S1: Wow.

S2: They had tried to get someone , a Latino person , elected to the City council of Los Angeles. They were not successful. So , um , the Jewish community from Los Angeles brought in a fellow named Saul Alinsky from Chicago who had done organize what they call the back of the yards movement in Chicago , Illinois , to give people color empowerment. He , Alinsky , recommended to them that they hire an organizer to organize the Latino community. Of course , city council didn't want to really organize the Latino community. So Alinsky raised money from his Jewish friends , and they hired an organizer , an Anglo organizer named Fred Ross Senior. And then he started organizing chapters up and down the state of California. He found this out in San Jose , California. I met Fred Ross in Stockton , California , and that's where I first met Sessa , and both Cecil and I were organizing farmworkers in our community because they were being so oppressed and discriminated. And but to organize a group of farmworkers down in Ventura County. And he turned this group of farmworkers over to another labor union. And I had the same experience. I did exactly the same thing. I organized the farm workers up in Stockton , California , turned them over to the meat cutters union. The two groups that we had organized , they kind of fell apart when we turned them over to somebody else. So that's what Cesar said. No , we have to just get together and organize our own union. And that's what we did. That's a long history.

S1: It's a long history. But I mean , it's a rich one. And you and Seth are debated a lot , too.

S2: We never disagreed in terms of our goals was to organize farmworkers. And as we did in the communities organization , we organized poor people. Right. And in my foundation , we continue to do that. I'll give you a good example. So when we when we started the grape boycott , Cesar wanted to boycott potatoes because one of the big major growers here in Kern County is the Jamaica Corporation. And they have both potatoes and grapes. And Cesar thought it would be good to boycott the potatoes. And I told Cesar I didn't think so , because when people think of California , they don't think of potatoes , they think of potatoes connected to Idaho. So I thought grapes would be more appropriate for us to boycott grapes. And I won that debate. Okay.

S1: Just so we know. Listen. Yeah.

S2: Yeah. Another difference is and I call this the feminist kind of point of view. When we started the boycott , I flew back east to New York City and I started the boycott from New York and did anything from Chicago. Uh , you know , North and South and , uh , I was still in charge of the boycott and in California. But my my tactic was to get the smaller grocery stores to take off the grapes and that we would we would have a clean store to send people to and then go after the little chains and then go after the larger chain stores and then save the big ones for last. Right. And and they started boycotting Safeway here in California. Well , we cleaned up all of the East Coast from Chicago all the way to to Canada and the southern border , including Florida. We cleaned all of those chains out of grapes , and then I had to come back to California and take over the boycott. And on the West Coast , because they were still boycotting Safeway stores , they took on the largest chain instead of using the method that I use as taking on the smaller stores and then building our way up. Wow.

S1: Well , now I want to talk about that grape strike of 1965. It's been nearly 60 years since then.

S2: Initially organizing the boycott. We had farm workers that went to New York City and to Chicago and to , you know , Texas and other places , even to Canada , and to ask people not to buy grapes. And they went to community meetings , they went to labor meetings , they went to the churches , and they just told people about the plight of the farmworkers. And I said , just not to buy grapes and not to shop at stores that carry grapes. Okay. So we were able to get 17 million people not to buy grapes , and that brought the growers to the table to negotiate , because the whole idea of organizing poor people , a low income people , is that you have to convince people that they have power. And the way that we do that and we still do that method with my foundation is we have meetings in people's homes , like house meetings. Uh , it's something like a Tupperware party or a jewelry party where you get a few people together , but instead of instead of talking about jewelry , you talk about issues and about issues in their community , and then you give them examples of how people like themselves can actually change things. If they come together , they work together , and they don't have to have a high school diploma , or they don't even have to learn how to speak English. But if they come together and they use their political will by getting people registered to vote , turning them out to vote , putting pressure on the politicians and introducing legislation , that that's the way you win. And so we organize people house by house , uh , throughout the Central Valley of California. Well , actually , we started organizing in 1962 , and our plan was not to go on strike till 1968. We were going to organize for five years. But then what happened ? The Filipino workers , uh , they went out on strike before we had a chance to finish our organizing plan. So then we had to cut our plan short and support the Filipino workers. But we did that grassroots house by house , person by person organizing. We did that for three years before we had we call the strike.

S1: Well , you faced plenty of challenges and violence on the picket lines.

S2: Uh , it was very dangerous because we were on those picket lines. Uh , the growers and their , their agents would , uh , draw rifles and guns on us. They would spray pesticides on us. It was very dust on us. Uh , and we were out there every day from , you know , really early in the morning as soon as the the sun broke , like from 6:00 in the morning , and we would be out there till 6:00 in the evening , uh , till the sun went down. And I'm talking to the strikebreakers that they kept bringing in day after day. They brought in , we would get people to walk out of the field , and the next day there would be more people in the field because we're so close to the Mexican border that they could bring people in overnight , basically. So , you know , it was it was just very tedious. But in order to keep up our spirits , we sang freedom songs. We did. We would do chants , you know , we would play little games because we were out there in the hot sun all day long on the picket line. So it was hard. It was very hard. And of course , and none of us had any money. Uh , there were some organizations like like the friends , the Quakers , uh , then eventually some of the labor unions , like the Auto Workers Union , who was then not part of the AFL-CIO at that point in time. Then they would give us money to help us pay our rent and stuff. But it was very hard. I mean , we were it was a lot of deprivation , but it was also very exciting. I mean , this is like a once in a lifetime experience. This is something that you cannot duplicate. You know , it happened. We were very blessed to be part of it. Wow.

S1: Wow.

S2: It's like when you're , you know , in a war , everybody's out there on the front line. I think what happens afterwards is when , as I say , the dust settles and then you start , you know , getting the , uh , positions. And , and then this is where the women , uh , get left out. You know , I was the only woman on the executive board of the UFW for many , many years. And then when I would try to get other women to join and then they would sometimes one of the women , I finally got her to get on the board. Then her father got sick , and then she quit the board and said , well , you don't have to quit , you know , take a leave of absence. You know , it's a it was very , very hard. But now today , I just I just have to report this , that , uh , you know , I left the , uh , the union in 2002 , but today the UFW has a majority of women on the board , and the president is a woman. Her name is Teresa Romero.

S1: Well , I mean , I got to ask you this. You know , you also have 11 children.

S2: When we started the union , I only had seven. And so I left , uh , some of my the younger ones , I left them in Stockton , California with some relatives until I could bring them back about the back. And it's interesting when I , when I finally went back and got my kids and the strike started like two weeks later. So good , bad timing. But I had a lot of help from a lot of people to make that happen. And then in the union , we actually set up a daycare. Uh , during the strike , we had to set up a daycare because we had so many women on the picket line. And we had to have , you know , have the children taken care of. So we actually had the first , uh , daycare for farmworkers in the state of California. And there was a wonderful woman from the Bay area , Betty Meredith , who helped us set that up , you know. Yeah.

S1: Yeah.

S2: And this is what I like to say to women especially. I do not think that they just because they're active in political life or civic life , that somehow it's going to hurt your children. My children , uh , grew up to be very resourceful. My oldest son is a doctor. He's a medical doctor , family practice doctor. My second son , Emilio , is an attorney. Uh , I have daughters who are nurses who are teachers. You know , the , uh. And it's a really good. And my son , who's a chef. But one of my sons is an artist. They're all very different , by the way. No matter how many you have , they're all going to be different. Okay. But. So if you give your children , I think , uh , you give them values and you make them believe in them in themselves , that they can do things and they will they will grow into into leaders themselves. All of my children have been on the picket lines , and some of them have been arrested with me. Some have been arrested doing other activities when they were not with me , you know , uh , but it's made them very strong , strong , independent and resourceful.

S1: When we come back , why unions were established and their role in the labour movement.

S2: The fabric of our society is our working people. And so that's why labour unions are so important , because they represent workers.

S1: That's ahead on midday Edition. Welcome back to KPBS Midday Edition. I'm your host , Jade Hindman. Last week , I had the opportunity to speak with Dolores Huerta about her life's work as a trailblazing labor activist. On Friday , she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at San Diego's annual Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast. During our conversation last week , I asked Dolores about the origins of Cesar poetry , the United Farm Workers iconic slogan.

S2: Well , actually , it was in Arizona in 1972. Uh , Cesar was doing a 25 day water only fast. He was going without food for 25 days. Uh , because the governor there had signed a law that if farmworkers went on strike , they could go to jail. If anybody said boycott anything , they could also go to jail. And so we were protesting that law. While Cesar was fasting. And so when I went to some of the local Latino leaders and I asked them to support our campaign , they told me , you can't do that here in Arizona. No se puede. Uh , in California , yes , you can do a lot of a lot of this work. But here in Arizona you can. And my response to them was si se puede. Yes we can here in Arizona also. So that became the battlecry for that campaign in 1972. And we finally won because they took that law to the state Supreme Court of Arizona and it was found unconstitutional.


S2: It makes me feel really good. Yeah. Because , uh , what the chant means , it doesn't just mean. Yes , we can. It means yes , I can. In Spanish , it has a double connotation. And that's the main thing that we want to do as organizers is to let people know that , yes , they have the power , that they can change things , and all they have to do is become activists to make it happen. And by the way , I just want to share one of Cesar's quotes with you in speaking to a group of students. Cesar said to them , when you're in school , you read about history , you write about history , and you talk about history. When you become an activist , you make history. And that's what we have to say to people. You have to not only do you have to become an activist to make history , we have a responsibility to become activists , especially right now in this turbulent times that we're living in.

S1: Well , I mean , you've accomplished so much and you've inspired generations to fight for a better future.

S2: And I usually try to gauge my , uh , um , work. I live with the outcomes , and some of them have been pretty huge. You know , some some of the legislation that I worked on and passed in Sacramento and in Washington , D.C. , but I think one of the biggest ones is the amnesty bill of 1986 , where we were able to pass a law that allowed people to become legal residents of the United States of America. And hundreds of thousands of people have then gotten a legalization status. And this law was actually , uh , let me put this way , I worked with , uh , Ted Kennedy , uh , Howard Berman from California , uh , Schumer from New York , and , uh , Peter Rodino from new Jersey. And these four individuals , uh , you know , really worked hard to pass that law. And it was the , um , the amnesty bill of 1986. Unfortunately , a lot of people gave give Reagan the credit for the law because he signed the law , you know , but he really didn't do anything to work to pass it. And the reason Reagan signed it is because we put a lot of pressure on him to , to sign that law. Yeah.

S1: Yeah. Well , you actually started out as a teacher.

S2: And we know education is challenged right now. And so when we see the state that our country is right now and the division that exists in our country , and when we look at what is that division , the people that I call them , the haters , okay , uh , that that comes from ignorance. And so education is the way that we fix this , but we know that our education is starved , that teachers are not making enough money. They don't get the support that they need in the classroom. Our classroom sizes are too large. The curriculum does not include gender studies , labor studies , ethnic studies , you know , and so this ignorance is going to be perpetuated , uh , if we don't do something. And the other thing is that our educational system , the way that it's funded with property taxes , that means that poor communities get less money , wealthy communities get more money for education. And we have to change this. We have to fund education the way that we fund our Defense Department. Our Defense Department has a lot of money. It's the biggest budget in our in our country. So our education budget should be the biggest budget. So we have a lot of work to do on education. Yeah.

S1: Yeah. Well I mean , it sounds like , you know , ignorance could certainly be our downfall.

S4: It is.

S1: You recently received the lifetime achievement award at San Diego's annual Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast , and you had a relationship with Harvey Milk. Can you tell me something about that ? Yes.

S2: I was very blessed to know Harvey Milk , uh , in San Francisco. And that relationship developed because he was a great supporter of the farmworkers union. And and at a time when a lot of people were not that really friendly to our organizing efforts. But he always was he was always there for supporting the boycott. And I had the good fortune of being able to , uh , go canvassing for him when he was running for office. And by the way , Cesar Chavez was also out there knocking on doors and talking to people to vote for Harvey Milk. Wow.

S1: Wow.

S2: And and that is the one thing that both Harvey and Sessa said , you have to be you have to be determined. And you and you can never quit , because once you quit , then you lose. So you have to continue until you win. And these are the lessons that we have. And , uh , it's really painful when we have those losses , like we lose leaders like that. But then I think that we have a commitment to continue the legacies and , and to promote their legacies , to promote their stories so that other people can be inspired to continue the movement. Yeah.

S1: Yeah.

S2: The working people are the majority of the population in the United States , although people , uh , seem to forget about them all the time or look at labor unions as special interests. This is the fabric of our society , is is our working people. And so that's why labor unions are so important because they represent workers. You know , I always like to ask audiences. I ask , does anybody in the audience know how we got the eight hour day ? You know , we celebrate May day because May day is , uh , celebrates the fact that we got the eight hour workday. But when I asked people in the audience , how many of you know what happened to the labor leaders that the eight hour day , sometimes you'll have 1 or 2 hands go up. And in the audience , the labor leaders that fought for the eight hour day were executed. They were hung. And people don't know that. But we all celebrate working hours a day. So it's very important that all of this history be again put into our curriculums so that people will know how we got these benefits that we that we enjoy today. Absolutely.

S1: Absolutely. And the the labor movement is very much a part of the civil rights movement. When Doctor King was assassinated , it was just before a speech he was to give for sanitation workers in Memphis , Tennessee.

S2: Uh , the labor movement , the civil rights movement , uh , LGBTQ movement , the women's movement , you know , our environmental movement , we're all working together. You know , we have to work together because we are really asking , uh , what we're working for is for social , economic justice , you know , for everybody. And so we just have to keep remembering that. That we can't do. We can't do it alone. The only way that we can win this , if we all work together , we have to put our forces out and and use our collective power and our collective actions to make these things happen. We can't work in silos anymore. That doesn't work. We've all got to. We've all got to bond together and take direct. Together.

S1: It seems like solidarity is key. I've been speaking with Dolores Huerta , a civil rights activist and lifelong labor organizer. She's also co-founder of the United Farm Workers union , along with Cesar Chavez. Dolores , thank you so much for joining us today. No.

S2: No. You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

S1: Still ahead. How San Diego's history in the labor movement led to a fight for free speech.

S5: What this is , is a perfect example of a labor struggle that became really a struggle for democracy , a struggle for freedom of assembly , freedom of speech , you know , really just the right of ordinary working people to exist in American democracy.

S1: More on that when KPBS Midday Edition returns. Welcome back to KPBS Midday Edition. I'm your host , Jade Hindman. We just heard from civil rights icon Dolores Huerta on her life's work as a labor organizer across California. This Labor History Month , we celebrate activists like Huerta , who have laid the foundation for much of the union activism we see today. But key moments in San Diego's labor history are lesser known and less studied. For instance , did you know the San Diego City Council once voted to ban free speech in an area of downtown ? Well , last week , KPBS reporter Andrew Bowen caught up with Jim Miller to hear about that history. Miller teaches labor studies at San Diego City College , and he's vice president for the American Federation of Teachers , local 1931. He's also the author of several books on San Diego history , including Under the Perfect Sun , The San Diego Tourist , Never See.

S6: So Jim Scully's On Some History here , one of the first big landmark events in local labor history is the free speech fight of 1912. So take us back to San Diego in 1912.

S5: So one way of thinking about this if anybody lives in the center city listening , you look at the sidewalks where they have the years. So if you're in neighborhoods like my own in Golden Hill or , you know , places , you know , like North Park , etc. , sometimes you'll come across something in the sidewalk that says , okay , here is , you know , 1912 , you know , and this is as far as the city went at the time that they were building then. So you have a much smaller San Diego , a San Diego , without a huge industrial base. But during this time , the IWW , the Industrial Workers of the world , came into San Diego in an effort to organize. And they did so by standing on Soapboxes to recruit the largely kind of migrant transitory workforces that were in the sting area , which was the kind of multi-ethnic , working class area of downtown San Diego. And there were a very small number of IWW members. And , you know , they really didn't represent a huge threat to the power structure of San Diego at the time. And but they were more radical and more likely to organize unskilled workers and immigrant workers and workers of color and women than was the more conservative AFL of the time. The IWW , you know , really kind of represented a more of a kind of threat to the sort of the imaginary of the power elite at the time , right , that , you know , they were kind of the undesirable citizens , the kind of people that they didn't want San Diego to start drawing. Right ? You know , so , so this free speech fight happened when people were standing on Soapboxes at the corner of fifth and E at the in the center of the contemporary Gaslamp , and basically standing up on a soapbox and saying , you know , fellow workers and friends , you know , why don't you get together and join the one big union , you know , and do what you can to get , you know , a better piece of the pie. This was met with an ordinance which ban free speech and a wide swath of downtown. And there was kind of a battle between local elites at the time where Spreckels and those on his side were very much into the repression of free speech. There were others who , while not at all friendly to the radicalism of the IWW , thought , okay , well , we can't ban free speech. We need to be more tolerant. That would be Marston and those aligned with him. So there was kind of a different attitude amongst local elites. But clearly from the results , you know , the the more conservative , the more repressive aspect of San Diego's , uh , you know , uh , oligarchy won that battle and the free speech fight was brutally repressed. So what happened is they filled the jail with IWW members , and then they put out a call for 5000 people to flood into San Diego and support. And then what happened is this became a kind of cause celeb. And so other people who may , may not have even been as friendly to the IWW as a group came in and said , well , hey , if they can do this to these people , if they can take away the right of public assembly and free speech to to these workers , you know , um , then maybe they can take away mine as well. So you had , you know , other unionists from the AFL , you had people , you know , who were concerned about free speech in general joining them , you know , and then this became not just a national but kind of an international celeb. And it was it was really the most violently repressed , um , free speech battle in the west of the United States. And there were several others and other places like Los Angeles and Fresno , all the way up to Montana , Seattle , you know , and other places in San Diego was notorious enough that it is the first entry in the records of the national American Civil Liberties Union. So , so what this is , is a perfect example of a labor struggle that became really a struggle for democracy. A struggle for freedom of assembly , freedom of speech , you know , and really just the right of ordinary working people to exist in American democracy.

S6: Well , very thorough first answers. And we're going to dig into some of those details that you that you were just talking about. Let's let's drill down into the union. At the center of this event is the Industrial Workers of the world , the IWW , or Wobblies , as they were known at the time. What was this union fighting for and what distinguished it from the other unions at the time , the.

S5: Wobblies or the IWW ? Um , you know , were a union that that was , you know , kind of born out of the fires of the mine wars and the West. And , you know , they were centrally important because of that big difference of organizing the unskilled , crossing the color line , organizing everybody. So that idea at the time was really a radical idea , one big union , and they were primarily nonviolent. This was you know , a union that believed that workers would gain power by , as they said , putting their hands in their pocket , that we're the ones who do the work. And if we all just stop working , you know , and demand a better deal , you know , we'll be able to take over the means of production just through kind of a nonviolent resistance , as we call it today , you know ? So they weren't calling for a violent revolution in any way which which made the repression of the IWW even more kind of remarkable. And as I said earlier , it was because they wanted to organize everyone , because they wanted to essentially , you know , um , upend the racist and sexist , you know , uh , you know , Order of America at that time , you know , and this was something that was seen as as fundamentally unacceptable , not just in San Diego , but really in the country at large.

S6: You mentioned that the IWW were a mostly peaceful union. You know , we think today the labor movement is peaceful. But back in 1912 , this was before the National Labor Relations Act. It was before collective bargaining became this tool for unions to peacefully fight for better wages and working conditions. In 1912 , violence was a tactic that was used by both some unions and their antagonists. Right.

S5: And really I think it's really important for people to know that , like , you know , before this time , if you were a worker and you wanted to fight for just not not even a better contract per se , you know , but just the right to exist as a union , to be recognized as a union , frequently you had to know that you were potentially risking life and limb to do so. So when you think of things like some of the , you know , the strikes and Ludlow , Colorado and other famous instances across the United States , there's lots of us in labor like to say somebody died for your weekend. Somebody dies. Somebody's shed blood for what you think of is the most basic rights to organize a union. And as you mentioned , it's not until you get to the New Deal , period , with the Wagner Act that you have the recognition of unions. And in many places , until that unions were seen , you know , in the eyes of the laws , criminal conspiracies. So to be a member of a union , you know , was was something that took , um , a degree of courage for workers during that period. So this is the really the beginning of a long struggle of ordinary Americans saying , hey , look , you know , I can't really have a stake in democracy both in my city and my state , in the country at large. You know , unless I have some economic rights as well.

S6: So let's go back to the free speech fight of 1912. You've got the IWW coming into the city , putting down their soapboxes , standing on them , making speeches , trying to organize the workers in the city. There was this violent repression , the , you know , the ordinance that was passed and people thrown into jail , people fighting back.

S5: That is a very complicated question. But for the sake of time is really free speech. Fight for we're restored and , you know , public assembly in 1915. So and that's where Emma Goldman came back to give a talk , you know , in San Diego at this period. So there was a long period where this ordinance stood. What this represented is , is a kind of a victory at the time of it being repealed , you know , but but really , you know , um , you can't look at it as anything else except for really a drawing of the line by , you know , kind of a local elite to say there's a certain kind of organizing in a certain kind of , you know , citizen that's seen as undesirable. So this was really about trying to shape the future of San Diego and say , you know , this. This is a city where we don't want to have , you know , the kinds of unruly masses of working people that you see in big East Coast cities , right ? You know , hence the ferocity of the struggle. Those rights were restored. But , you know , um , the shape of San Diego as a city took decades and decades to to change after this point.

S6: Let's talk about some other important figures in the San Diego labor history. One of them is Luisa morena. So tell us about her.

S5: And she organized in the , you know , the packing houses on , On the Waterfront. And she was part of big long name here , the United Cannery , agricultural , Packing and Allied Workers of America or you capture for short. Um , and Marina was , uh , very , very important because , you know , her organizing work , you know , included organizing this diverse group of largely women , you know , multiracial. So they were , you know , Latina , Filipino , uh , Japanese , you know , workers , you know , who were the most powerless workers. So in some ways , going back to the free speech fight , you know , she was interested in organizing the unorganized and organizing some of the least powerful workers in the San Diego workforce and , and some of the people aligned with the owners of these , you know , tuna packing places , you know , on the on the waterfront , you know , we're aligned with the hard right at the time , you know , uh , very , very hostile to her work. So this was heroic organizing. And by the time you get done , she wins , you know , victories and organizing them. And Carrie McWilliams , uh , the famous journalist at the time called you capture the most progressive , best organized , and most intelligently led CIO movement in the country. And of course , the CIO was the progressive wing of the American labor movement during the New Deal era. That really helped make it more inclusive , broaden it. Right. You know , so if you're thinking about the IWW planting a seed for a more inclusive labor movement in the in the Progressive ERA , the CIO made the American labor movement more progressive in the New Deal era. But her work doesn't just stop there. She was also very , very important in terms of doing local civil rights work at the time. You know , um , that you had the Zoot Suit Riots up in Los Angeles and you had a similar kind of wave of , you know , violence waged against , you know , young Chicano men and San Diego at the time. So she stood up to that. She stood up to the US Navy , you know , um , she spoke out against the , uh , you know , internment of Japanese Americans , you know , um , during the World War Two era. So she was in many ways what today you would call a social justice unionist , right ? Somebody who thought that , you know , it wasn't just workplace rights , but the the rights of workers and the broader community that mattered. And again , this kind of saying we need to reshape not just the workplace , but perhaps how the broader society is , is organized to make it more inclusive , to make it more just in a broad based way , got the attention of the , you know , uh , state and national , uh , you know , kind of , uh , red baiters , kind of this is sort of before McCarthy himself , but sort of , you know , the House un-American Activities Committee , uh , you know , and long story short , she was brought before , um , that committee and eventually deported. She was from Guatemala. So she was one of those victims of the McCarthy period. But the legacy that she left in terms of a model of organizing , you know , unskilled workers , you know , across the color line , including women , you know , is a remarkable , you know , moment in local history.

S6: Jim , I've been covering local politics in San Diego for a little over eight years , and I've observed a pretty monumental shift in support for unions in San Diego , among our political leaders and among our voters. Just in the past , you know , 10 to 15 years.

S5: You have , you know , a citywide project labor agreement being signed. You know , much more sympathy toward labor among many local officials. It's really , you know , you're looking at it a couple different ways and one way things have , you know , never been better politically in some ways. But economically , San Diego is still a place that's very difficult for working. Able to afford to live. Right ? You know , we've got a homeless crisis , you know , that is that is out of control. And we have a real split still , you know , along those same old historical lines between the more affluent and the sort of , uh , the workers who , you know , make their living serving affluent tourists in our cities. Right ? You know , so in many ways , we've shedded the the right wing legacy of San Diego history. And you don't have the same kind of repression that we had in the past. But I think that this is , one hopes , just the beginning of a long struggle , you know , toward a genuinely more inclusive San Diego , a San Diego , where when we have a horrible rainstorm , it's not communities of color that end up suffering the result of poor infrastructure where you have that horrible flooding most recently here in San Diego , and you can so you can see both great progress politically. But I think , um , the kind of entrench that economic and racial barriers , um , that , that , you know , decades and decades and decades of San Diego history , you know , have , have put in place , you know , will take more than just a couple elections to overturn.

S1: That was KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bowen speaking with Jim Miller , a professor of labor studies at San Diego City College , vice president for the American Federation of Teachers local 1931 , and the author of several books on San Diego history , including Under the Perfect Sun. The San Diego Tourists Never See.

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Civil rights activist Dolores Huerta speaks in support of health care for all low-income immigrants living in the country illegally during a rally at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on Wednesday, June 29, 2022.
Rich Pedroncelli
Civil rights activist Dolores Huerta speaks in support of health care for all low-income immigrants living in the country illegally during a rally at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on Wednesday, June 29, 2022.

"Sí se puede".... yes we can. That famous slogan is now a rallying cry for activists across the globe, but it all started with Dolores Huerta.

On Midday Edition Tuesday, Huerta shares her life's work in laying the foundation for the labor and civil rights activism seen today. Huerta was honored with the "Lifetime Achievement Award" at San Diego’s annual Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast late last week.

Then, we take a dive into the history of the labor movement here in San Diego. We focus on the San Diego Free Speech Fight of 1912 — when members of the Industrial Workers of the World fought a city ordinance that banned free speech in an area of downtown San Diego.