Remarks for the Honorable Hilda L. Solis Labor Hall of Honor Induction Ceremony, Pioneers of the Farm Worker Movement

By:  Hilda Solis
Date: March 26, 2012
Location: Washington, DC

Buenos dias. Thank you Michael for that introduction, for being our emcee today and for honoring César's life. I'm so excited to see your movie. I know you will do César proud.

Good morning, everybody. Welcome to the Department of Labor. Today, we celebrate one of America's most powerful stories of courage and victory. The farm worker movement was begun by people who didn't have money or clout. Many were new to this country and lived season to season. They were hard-working people of the land who asked only for dignity and fair treatment, and today we are proud to give them the Department of Labor's highest honor.

We're privileged to welcome so many trailblazers and their family members to the Great Hall today. Let me begin by thanking Secretary Salazar and Secretary Vilsack for all that you do to keep our covenant with the land and the proud people who work on it. I also want to thank Cecilia Munoz for her incredible leadership at the White House on behalf of working families.

I'm so proud today to be joined by these great leaders on the stage. First, I want to honor a trailblazer who was there from the very beginning. She's a luchadora who endured arrests, death threats and beatings -- a fearless woman who had her bones broken in the struggle but never her spirit. I'm proud to call her my teacher, my role model, and mi hermana. Brothers and sisters, let's show our appreciation for one of the living legends of the farm worker movement, Dolores Huerta.

Dolores worked mano a mano with one of the most celebrated icons of the American civil rights movement: the great César Estrada Chávez, who was inducted into our Hall of Honor in 1998. In Part 2 of this morning's program, we'll pay our respects to this incredible leader by naming our auditorium in his memory.

When César passed away, the leadership of his union passed to a man who has dedicated his heart and soul to La Causa -- a fighter and a leader, my friend, Arturo Rodriguez.

On behalf of this department, this administration and this country, happy 50th anniversary to the entire UFW family. Thank you for changing America.

Next, I want to recognize Paul Chávez for his incredible contributions to this movement. Paul has done so much good in two decades as the leader of the César Estrada Chávez Foundation. César's legacy lives through all of his family members who've picked up his mantle of leadership. We are honored to have several members of the Chávez family here today. Will you please stand and be recognized?

We all know the incredible progress that we've made over the years thanks to the United Farm Workers. We also know that some UFW members made the ultimate sacrifice in the fight for justice. Today, we pay our solemn respects to the UFW Martyrs. They are: Nan Freeman, Nagi Daifallah, Juan De La Cruz, Rufino Contreras and Rene Lopez.

Today, we're proud to have with us several family members of the UFW Martyrs. We know you made the ultimate sacrifice for this movement. We honor your loved ones. Their cause is our cause as we continue the struggle in their memory. Thank you all for coming. We're forever in your debt.

Last fall, I was one of thousands of people who gathered at 40 Acres in Delano for the funeral of Richard Chávez. The priest delivered a moving homily that I'll never forget. He said all workers in this country deserve respect. It doesn't matter where they come from or how they got here. It doesn't matter if they have money or means. It doesn't matter if they pick vegetables in our fields or cook them in our restaurants. All working people are entitled to dignity and respect.

Those words ring so true to me. My father was a Bracero. Only in America could a farm worker's daughter stand before you as the United States Secretary of Labor. Coming up the ranks in California, I had the privilege of working alongside many UFW leaders. No challenge was too great. No corporation or politician was too powerful. They built a union unlike any that had come before it. They turned a community into a movement -- and that movement became a powerful force for change.

They inspired many other farm worker leaders to form their own organizations for change. Thanks to Lucas Benitez, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has improved the lives of more than 30,000 Florida tomato workers. Baldemar Velasquez co-founded the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which is now organizing workers in the Midwest and the South. And the Oregon Farm Workers' Union is a powerful national voice because of Ramon Ramirez.

As Labor Secretary, I'm proud to work in a building that houses the Labor Hall of Honor. It serves a reminder not just of our history but also of our continuing responsibility to the American worker. So today, I want to honor our pioneers and remember our history, but I also want affirm our ongoing commitment to the workers who reap our harvest. That's what today's induction is all about.

Some of you joined me last spring when we inducted the Memphis sanitation workers of 1968 into the Hall. Dr. King stood with them in the final crusade of his life. We know that behind every famous civil rights leader are thousands of regular workers standing up for a better future. In our Hall, we remember their sacrifices, too.

The earliest pioneers of the farm worker movement were African-American. In the late 1900s, the Colored Farmers Alliance worked bravely to change the relationship between those who owned the land -- and those who tilled the soil. They organized more than one million African-American farmers across the South. They endured imprisonment and mob violence in Arkansas. But they endured.

And in the 1930s, the Southern Tenants Farmers Union organized 30,000 members, and their union became an integral part of the CIO. Their determination paved the way for generations of pioneers to follow them.

Many of our finest labor leaders today cut their teeth in the fields. The job was never easy. They had to overcome language barriers, educational barriers, fear of deportation, and even physical violence. But they showed it can be done!

Eliseo Medina was leading grape boycotts at the age of 18. He organized the entire state of Illinois as a teenager. Eliseo led critical campaigns for UFW in Illinois, Florida, Ohio, and California and now he's applying those lessons to the large labor movement as an international vice president of SEIU.

The late Miguel Contreras is another pioneer who began in his career in the fields. He built the L.A. County Federation of Labor into a powerful force by registering our community to vote and recruiting allies to our cause.

He showed us the power of our democracy, and we're all better for it. Miguel's legacy lives on today through the remarkable leadership of Maria Elena Durazo -- a former farm worker who's now one of the labor movement's brightest stars.

But it wasn't only Latino leaders who came out of La Causa. So many leaders in the labor movement, in the civil rights movement and the progressive movement got their start by in campaigns for farm worker justice.

Today, we recognize the Filipino Americans who started the Delano grape strike. Community and faith leaders joined forces with UFW, and they rallied millions of Americans to boycott the grape industry because of wage and safety violations. Little boys and little girls were taught to pick the grapes out of their fruit cocktails. In so many communities, children learned at a young age about injustice and their responsibility to fight back.

Today, we remember Fred Ross Sr. -- a white community organizer from San Francisco. His son Fred Ross Jr. is here today. The night Fred's Dad met César, he wrote in his journal, "I think I've found the guy I'm looking for."

Fred Ross showed César and Dolores and hundreds of other pioneers how to mobilize people to create change. He taught them that 90 percent of organizing is follow-up. That it's easy to win people, but twice as easy to lose them. That an organizer is a leader who does not lead, but gets behind and pushes. And my favorite: Good organizers never give up; they get the opposition to do that.

The lessons of this movement are used by members of my staff as we go into the fields today. I'm proud to serve in an administration that's committed to enforcing our labor laws for every worker in this country. All workers in America have the right to safe, clean working conditions. All workers have the right to get paid the full wages they are owed.

When I became Labor Secretary, I hired 300 new Wage & Hour investigators to increase our enforcement. We now have more than 1,000 total, and nearly two thirds of them are bilingual. This allows us to reach some of our most vulnerable workers who are least likely to file complaints. We know that we cannot find and correct wrongdoing without gaining the trust of the people we seek to help. That's why we are partnering with the institutions where they're most likely to go for assistance: their own country's consulates.

We've also raised labor standards under the H-2A program. We're committed to ensuring that farm workers under this program are safe and fully compensated for their work. So we'll continue our aggressive enforcement. We'll continue to support employers that play by the rules. And you better believe we'll continue to go after those that don't.

Today, we're joined by one of our investigators who has been part of this struggle for 38 years. Jim Mooney is one of the original 22 "farm labor specialists" hired by the Department of Labor in 1980 to strengthen our enforcement in the fields, and he continues his work to this day in our Wage & Hour division. I'm proud to have one of the movement's pioneers on my staff. Thank you, Jim, for being here today and for your lifetime of advocacy for our farm workers.

So I'll close today by leaving you with one example of how the work of the pioneers lives on here at the Department of Labor. In the blueberry fields of Michigan in 2010, we found conditions that violated the law as well as common decency.

We found children working in the fields instead of going to school. We changed that. We found overcrowded labor camps with no hot water to bathe or do laundry. We changed that, too.

We found labor camps with sewage gathering in a family's front yard. We got that septic tank fixed immediately. We saw a man in excruciating pain. He had a broken arm and a broken wrist, but no access to medical care. We found a doctor to treat his wounds.

We saw three families with children all sharing one room, and we saw another family cramped in a room infested by insects. We put a stop to that, too.

I want to leave you with the words of one of the investigators who worked on these cases in the blueberry fields. She said:

"I witnessed workers picking for 10 to 12 hours a day -- non-stop -- under the hot and humid sun. They were making barely minimum wage, if at all. It makes me wonder about endurance in the hardest conditions. I witnessed pregnant women working the fields, side by side with their partners. It makes me wonder about bravery put to the limit. I'm amazed at how these workers can endure and live in the moment, wondering what awaits them when the season is over. You've got to wonder about how the smallest things we take for granted can mean so much to other people. We are working long days and, yes, employers are sometimes not happy to see us. But making an impact -- even in the smallest way -- makes me want to say thank you to the universe for putting things into perspective. Thank you."

I shared those words with you because I feel exactly the same way. As long as I'm running this department, I make this promise to you: I will not rest until every farm worker in every community claims the dignity that is their birthright.

As we continue the struggle, we'll look to the pioneers of the farm worker movement to show us the way. Thank you all for being here.

Si se puede!

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