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Truthdig Radio: Power in a Union
Posted on Apr 7, 2011
Robert Scheer: How do you—you know, Dolores, I want to ask you—how do you guys keep going, you know? I mean, you’ve been at this a long time, you and Paul. And how do you keep up your spirit, your idealism, you’re still out there organizing, you’re still optimistic … what do you drink? What’s the secret, here?
Paul Schrade: [Laughs] No, it’s the passion for justice, for one thing, and the fact that we have been effective in many ways; we’ve lost a lot of battles, but we’re effective. Dolores worked with us on getting the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools built, after we were opposed by Donald Trump and by the school board and by the [Los Angeles] Conservancy. We won that school; it was a 23-year fight, but we did it. And that keeps me going after, you know, you walk into that school now and see the kids, thirty-five hundred kids are going to a very marvelously constructed school.
Robert Scheer: This is the same location where you were shot, and where Bobby Kennedy was killed.
Paul Schrade: Yeah.
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Paul Schrade: In fact, during the dedication, on November 13th—Dolores was with us then—we were standing, when we were speaking, right where Robert Kennedy made his victory speech. But that location, which was the Embassy Ballroom, is now the library. And it’s such a beautiful structure now, all the false ceilings and draperies out of there, it’s just a beautiful room, an exact replica of the Embassy Ballroom where Bob made his victory speech. And Bill Rosendahl, who was with us that night too, just was in tears, because it was such a happy moment to have that library and that school dedicated for the people.
Robert Scheer: Bill Rosendahl [is now] on the City Council. You know, I was there that night, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a more depressing scene; I had just interviewed Bobby Kennedy upstairs; John Lewis, the great congressman from Georgia, was crying on the floor, a civil rights veteran. So, Dolores, how do you pick yourself up each time, and keep going? I mean, you’ve spoken in my classes; I know you have this enormous enthusiasm. What keeps you going? We need some optimism now.
Paul Schrade: She’s great.
Dolores Huerta: Well, it’s like Paul said—we’ve been through … social justice, right, and that gives us the energy. And Cesar always used to say that … the struggle itself gives you the energy to continue, and not to give up. And that’s the other thing I love to quote about Cesar, since we’re celebrating his birthday, is he always said that you’re always going to win as long as you don’t quit. No matter how long it takes … ultimately you will win, as long as you don’t quit; that’s the important thing. And the other thing I love to quote Cesar on, when he talked about nonviolence, you know—nonviolence also means having the patience to hang in there. To know it’s not going to happen quickly, that it’s going to take a lot of work to achieve the justice that we’re seeking, that we’re working for. And you know the other thing—I just want to comment on something that you mentioned a little while ago, about how California, we were so different than the rest of the country—and I want to give credit again to the labor movement, especially to Maria Elena Durazo, who is the head of the labor council there in Los Angeles. But you know, I had the good fortune, at her invitation, to join some of those people that were walking the precincts in this last election, and who were they? They were immigrants; they were the people from the hotels; they were the people from the—the janitors, you know? You know, the homemakers … the hotel keepers, and you know, this is like immigrant people, you know, that have just become citizens, and many of them were not yet citizens, that were knocking on those doors in Los Angeles in this last election, and they knocked on over 300,000 doors. And we saw somewhat of a miracle, I call it, because we ended up with the most progressive slate in the country, you know. From Jerry Brown, Kamala Harris—the first African-American, also [Asian] Indian, woman to be elected to [the attorney general’s] office, you know, in the state. And all of the constitutional offices were from Northern California, and they were elected with the Latino votes from Southern California. And I think that’s just incredible, and I think that sets a model for the rest of the country. That they’ve got to realize that the only way we’re going to win, and we’re going to counteract the tea baggers and these anti-union, anti-immigrant, anti-women—because, you know, they’re also going after choice and after the LGBT community—the only way that we can counteract that is with organizing on the ground. And this is what laborers do, this is what labor unions do. And this is why they want to get rid of labor unions. And I think the governor of Wisconsin said, well, if we get rid of the labor unions then we get rid of the Democrats. And if we get rid of the Democrats and we get rid of labor unions, then the Republicans have complete control, and they’ve already shown us what they’re trying to do; you know, by getting rid of education and privatizing education, privatizing everything. So … and I know people don’t like to use that word, fascism, but this is where we’re at; this is the road that these people want to put us on. And I think it’s up to us to fight back. We have to remind people that Hitler was elected to office, you know? It wasn’t a coup; he was elected. And that we see some of the same patterns there; the xenophobia, the fighting people of color, wanting to put everybody in prison. It’s really scary.
Robert Scheer: Yeah, you know, it’s an important point, I think maybe the most important point, to be made. Because we’ve really seen a classic bait-and-switch, you know; we’ve seen the hijacking of what should be a real populism and are given a phony populism. So instead of focusing attention on Wall Street—on the big corporate, on the big banks and the damage they did to everybody in this country, beginning with working people—instead, we have the blame, as I said before, on the immigrants and now on the teachers, and on people working in the public sector, on unionized workers. But what’s so positive about what you’ve just said—and I think we need to hear this from time to time—is that California did not go the way of the rest of the country. California—which, you know, is not Greenwich Village; it’s not some isolated, bohemian center—California gave us Richard Nixon, it gave us Ronald Reagan—you know, it’s a real state, and the most important state, I would argue. And yet in this last election—and the media didn’t notice it, really, very much—California went the other way. And I think your point, Dolores, is really the one to take away from this: It is the role of the immigrant labor force that the unions have so effectively organized in California. And that has changed the whole balance.
Paul Schrade: And just like it was the workforce back in the ’30s, when the UAW first got organized; a lot of those people were from the South and the Midwest, and they really carried the ball, and through sit-down strikes, changed the life of workers in the automobile industry.
Dolores Huerta: Right, and they’re celebrating 100 years of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York, you know, when the garment workers—you know, out of that tragedy came the garment workers’ union … that was organized. And then that, of course, led the way to many of the other labor unions, also, that happened on the East Coast after that tragic fire, which killed all these young women that were locked into a building, and they couldn’t get out. All these shirt-makers, these young women who sat at their sewing machines. So, and that was an immigrant labor force at that time also, that worked in those garment factories. So we know that the working people are really the ones that are the engine of the economy, the engine of progress, and if anything, if our country has gone down the tube economically, it’s because we have disdained our working people, we’ve taken their jobs away and sent them overseas, and we’re just making them into a nation of bankers. And this is very wrong. But we’ve got to kind of remind people—and this is what we do with our organizing—is that we have it within our power to change these things. I just came from New Mexico, and you know, we have now a Latina governor, Susana Martinez, very conservative. But good news for everybody—even though she had her agenda, very anti-immigrant agenda, taking away driver’s licenses from people who were undocumented—the state Senate of New Mexico stopped her in her tracks, and she couldn’t get her agenda through the Legislature. So there’s some glimmers of hope out there.
Robert Scheer: You know, I want to end this on a note of hope about older people; you know, it happens that as we’re recording this, I’m experiencing my 75th birthday. And I’ve known you guys for a long time; I remember going back to those early rallies, and so forth, when I was editing Ramparts magazine. And 75 years ago my father lost his job—the day I was born, had to tell my mother that—didn’t get it back for four years; they were both garment workers. And when you mentioned the Triangle disaster—my parents talked about it all the time, and unions were the basis of our life. And ironically, if you read Ronald Reagan’s own autobiography, he’ll tell you Roosevelt was, you know, a god in their family’s house; his father went to work for the New Deal. And without the New Deal, Ronald Reagan, of all people, said his family would have starved. And I think some of us old-timers have to remind people that it was, as you said before, unions that gave this country the gift of the middle class that is the basis of democracy. So do you guys have a last, positive word? I know you always do. Paul?
Paul Schrade: Well, it’s good to be with the Scheer family, and happy birthday!
Robert Scheer: [Laughs] OK! And Dolores?
Dolores Huerta: Well … thank you for your great light of journalism; you were a light back there in the ’60s, when everything seemed so dark, and to know that your light is still shining—and also that you have, I guess, your son following in your footsteps…
Robert Scheer: Yeah … all three of them, all three of them.
Dolores Huerta: … so that more people can hear the way that you really interpret what’s happening in our world for the rest of us. And happy birthday, also!
Robert Scheer: OK. Great, guys, thanks.
Dolores Huerta: Si se puede!
Peter Scheer: That’s it for this special edition of Truthdig Radio from KPFK Los Angeles. Thanks to all our guests, Dolores Huerta, Paul Schrade, Jim Mamer, Bill Boyarsky, Mark Heisler and Philip Dray. Special thanks to engineer Sam Mizrahi and also Alan Minsky. For Robert Scheer, Kasia Anderson, Howard Stier, Josh Scheer and myself, thanks for listening.
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