Huerta is nun too pleased.
Huerta is nun too pleased.
Photo by Keith May

Sisterly Concern

On a cold evening last week, some 200people huddled like a swarm of fireflies outside the gates of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange Mother House in Orange, armed with candles and fortified with atole and pan dulce.The workers, union organizers and community supporters were holding a candlelight vigil to call on the head nun, Sister Katherine Gray, to negotiate a pre-union-election agreement with the Service Employees International Union (See "Sister Knows Best," Nov. 28). But the occasion carried with it more than a hint of irony. The guest of honor, tiny union giant Dolores Huerta, once walked picket lines with members of the same order back in the 1970s, when nuns from Orange traveled to Fresno and aggressively joined the farm workers' struggle to form a union.

Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers union with Cesar Chavez, remembers the nuns for their willingness to confront growers during one of the bloodiest summers in Fresno and says she is perplexed by the current controversy at St. Joseph Health System, the order's multibillion-dollar nonprofit hospital network. The National Labor Relations Board has found that the health system has been intimidating employees who favor forming a union at some of its hospitals in Northern and Southern California. The system has also employed some of the biggest and best-known union-busting firms around.

In an exclusive interview with the Weekly before the vigil, the 77-year-old Huerta shared memories of the sisters' involvement in the farm worker struggle and her thoughts on the current situation.

OC WeeklyDo you remember the Sisters of St. Joseph's involvement in the early years of the farm workers' movement?

Dolores Huerta: Oh, absolutely. The Sisters of St. Joseph were always right out there in the forefront with the farm workers' union. Not only here in California, but also in Florida and also other places where we were organizing. It was just like a group that we could always count on for support. And not only for support--they actually joined and worked full-time with the farm workers' union. We always considered them to be a very primary source of support for us.

We had some of the Sisters of St. Joseph that came to work full-time with the union. And when I say that, I mean, because people worked without any wages, that was quite a big sacrifice. One of them, Sister Pearl, went to work with the union in Florida, and she's still there working with farm workers to this day.

Do you have personal memories of working with the sisters directly?

Well, actually, there are a lot of memories because when the sisters would go out there, No. 1, it really gave the farm workers a lot of inspiration and hope to know that they were out there with us, and they were often subjected to the same kind of abuses as the organizers and farm workers that were striking and boycotting were exposed to. So they were really on the front lines with us. It wasn't, you know, just like being there and cheering us on. They were actually out there with us.

Did they stand out as a Catholic group in any way?

Well, we had, of course, a few priests that would come from time to time and also work with the farm workers. But I think the fact that they were women and they were willing to take those kinds of risks, I think that made it more compelling.

There weren't that many orders. The Sisters of Loretto also sent their people to work with us. But the [Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange] were . . . I would say that they did stand out from the other orders that came to work with us, definitely. And I think it was also because they stayed with us a long time. It wasn't just, I'm going to be there for a week or something. They would actually stay there-for years.

Before the Council of Bishops got involved, we had the Sisters of St. Joseph out there with us.

What else do you remember?

I remember Elena Jaramillo. She was there during the most vicious part, when people were getting beaten up and killed. She was out there just standing up to the growers, talking to them directly, you know. That was in Fresno. I think I was on that picket line. She was out there. She was a tiny woman, too. In fact, my daughter Juanita, she was there, and she remembers that. She was only, like, 3 or 4 years old, and she remembered that. She remembered the sisters being out there on the picket line talking to the growers. There's that fantastic picture of [Elena]. They have a great history.

When did you first find out about the situation at St. Joseph Health System?

It was actually up north. Some of the workers who live up in that area [Santa Rosa], they contacted me. Then the union contacted me. Some of the workers who work up there used to be farm workers. Now they work for the hospital.

When you first heard what was going on at St. Joseph's, what did you think?

Well, it's very hard to understand why the sisters support farm workers and don't support their own workers. It's irrational. It doesn't make any sense how you can differentiate between the people who feed us and the people who heal us. Without their workers, it would be impossible for them to function. I mean, they're the ones who do the work to make sure the doctors and the nurses can do their work. It's just unreasonable for them to continue this resistance and opposition to their workers having a union when they so clearly understood why the farm workers needed a union. It's the same principle: Workers need to be able to have an organization to be able to represent them and to communicate with the employer about what needs to be improved in the hospital.

Do you think the history of the order should be separated from the management of a health system?

Oh, of course not. Not if they're going to use the same name. If you're going to use the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, you're not going to use violence, right? If you're going to use the name Cesar Chavez, you're not going to go against farm workers. And even forget St. Joseph. I'm talking about the fact that they're sisters and they represent the Church and they represent women. You'd think that they would be the first ones to be out there, just like their sisters were out there on the front lines, not only demanding justice, but being out there, going to jail, doing the things that needed to be done. I mean, the fact that they're not supporting their own workers, they're tarnishing their own image of what they have stood for all of these years.

Have you tried to speak directly with the sisters?

No. I haven't done that.

If you had a chance to sit down with Sister Katherine, what would you say to her?

I would say, Why? Why the resistance? I would say, Why are you not doing what your traditions have been for all of these years?

What would Cesar [Chavez] say?

Oh, he would be so disappointed. He would just be very disappointed.



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