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Latinos and Labor 

Trailblazer of the Day | Saturday, September 21, 2013

While we celebrated Labor Day earlier this month, let us pause to remember the struggles of the labor movement and some heroic Latino activists who led the fight for all working people.

Lucy Gonzalez Parsons is considered to be one of the first minority activists in American history. Of Mexican, African and Native American descent, she fought for decades for the rights of women, minorities, and most notably, laborers. Throughout the late 19th Century, Parsons and her husband Albert championed the eight-hour workday and fair pay. Despite Albert’s execution in connection with the Chicago Haymarket riots, Lucy Parsons continued to be an outspoken leader of the labor movement, eventually founding the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Seeing the plight of laborers during the Great Depression, Emma Tenayuca began her career as a labor activist before graduating from high school. Tenayuca founded two ladies’ garment workers unions and went on to organize the successful 1938 Pecan Shellers’ Strike, one of the most significant events of the labor movement in Texas and the first real victory for Mexican-American equality in the United States.

Perhaps the best-known Latino labor leader, César Chávez was a first-generation Mexican-American whose family toiled as migrant farm workers in California after the Great Depression. Inspired by the efforts of pioneering activists such as Emma Tenayuca, in 1962 Chávez founded the National Farm Workers Association (now the United Farm Workers) and focused heavily on nonviolent means, including strikes, marches and fasts, to improve the rights of farm laborers nationwide. His now-famous motto “Sí, se puede” (“Yes, it can be done”) is still widely used as a rallying cry by labor and civil rights groups. On April 2, 2013, Governor Pat Quinn proclaimed César Chávez Day in Illinois in order to “celebrate his vision, struggle and ethic of service”.

Community organizer Dolores Huerta worked alongside César Chávez to establish the National Farm Workers Association and has followed a decades-long career as an advocate for laborers, immigrants and women which continues to this day. Huerta has received the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights (1998) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012) to honor her activism on behalf of millions of Americans.

The past and current U.S. Secretaries of Labor are both Latino: Hilda Solis (of Nicaraguan-Mexican descent), who was the first Latina in the Cabinet, serving from 2009 to 2013, and Thomas Perez (born of Dominican immigrant parents), who was sworn in earlier this year.