When COVID-19 hit, service laborers like grocery workers, supply chain workers and farm workers were labelled essential. Society called them heroes for keeping the country going through tough times. But behind the scenes, many were not provided the personal protective equipment or labor protections necessary to safely conduct their work, and the infections spread.
Farmworkers contracted COVID-19 at ratesmuch higherthan other industries, due in part to working and living conditions that make social distancing impossible, according to a Frontline documentary last year.
"We still have unfortunately a situation where farmworkers are still not respected or recognized," legendary civil rights and labor activist Dolores Huerta told Boston Public Radio on Friday.
"Unfortunately, I'd say the majority — besides California and Hawaii — other states in the United States of America do not have comprehensive workers' compensation when they get hurt on the job, they do not have unemployment insurance when they're caught between jobs when they're migrating, and they don't have the right to form a union," said Huerta. "So we still have a lot of work to do for farmworkers in the industry."
Huerta, along with Cesar Chavez, co-founded the United Farmworkers of America union in 1962 and organized agricultural laborers who worked for 70 cents an hour in brutal conditions. Huerta highlighted how the conditions were particularly harsh for women — who in the 1960s had to bring towels or sheets to the fields and gather in a circle to protect each other's privacy when one had to relieve themselves.
Today, Huerta said, workers are dealing with some of the same anti-union sentiments and poor working conditions as when she first became involved in organizing. During the pandemic, workers were not provided personal protective equipment or safe transportation to and from work, she said.
She noted work stoppages in California in protest of a lack of personal protective equipment, where some laborers were fired for their advocacy or for not returning to work.
The recent union push at Amazon — where warehouse employees have had to work in close proximity to each other during the pandemic and delivery workers shared this year that they often relieve themselves in water bottles due to pressures to meet quotas — harkens back to Huerta and Chavez's work starting in the 1960s. On Thursday, Amazon workers in Alabama voted not to form a union, though the union is now filing a legal challenge, decrying union-busting practices at the company.
"It's unfortunate that you have this anti-union sentiment," she said.
"Basically what a union is is an organization of workers, and when you think of the employers, they have many organizations they belong to," she said, referring to trade groups in the agricultural industry.
"Workers should have that same democratic right of having their own organization so they can be represented, not only on the work side but also in the state legislatures and in the U.S. Congress," she said. "This anti-union sentiment is actually anti-democratic. We know labor unions are essential to our democracy, because labor unions create the middle class."
Huerta — a mother of 11 children herself — also reflected on how society largely saw her as Chavez's sidekick in the labor movement.
"We as women so often are so socialized that we are here to serve others, especially men, and that we have to really change that to take credit for the work we do, to be able to stand up and be proud of who we are … and kind of not think we’re conceited when we stand up for ourselves,:" she said. "That’s I think part of our socialization that we have to change as women."
Huerte's sidelining is apparent even when it comes to credit for the farmworker movement's famous slogan, "Sí se puede" — Spanish for "Yes, we can" — which inspired President Obama's campaign slogan in 2008.
"Well actually the first conversation I had with President Obama when I met him — of course when he was running for the presidency — the first thing he said to me after he said hello, was 'I stole your slogan,'" Huerte said. "My response to the president when he said that was, 'Yes you did.'"
Obama later acknowledged he stole her slogan in 2012 when he awarded her the Medal of Freedom.