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Featured: Rebecca Flores, as a young woman, with two of her three children.

Featured: Rebecca Flores, as a young woman, with two of her three children.

Photograph:  https://www.sampsoniaway.org/about/

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Rebecca Flores, a champion for farmworkers, to receive Lifetime Achievement Award from La Unión del Pueblo Entero on Friday, October 11

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Legislativemedia@aol.com

Rebecca Flores, a labor activist and renowned champion for farmworkers in Texas and in the United States, on Friday, October 11, 2019, will be honored with the Farmworker Movement Lifetime Achievement Award from La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE).

The event, which will take place beginning at 7 p.m. at Mayrín Banquet Hall, located at 1117 E. Alberta Road in Edinburg, is the featured portion of the organization’s 4th Annual Biennial Gala.

LUPE, which was founded by national labor leaders César Chávez (https://aflcio.org/about/history/labor-history-people/cesar-chavez) and Dolores Huerta (https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/dolores-huerta), “is rooted in the belief that members of the low-income community have the responsibility and the obligation to organize themselves. Through their association, they begin to advocate and articulate for the issues and factors that impact their lives,” according to its website (https://lupenet.org.).

For many years, Rebecca Flores was also well-known by her married name, Rebecca Flores Harrington, until she and her husband, Jim Harrington, an attorney and founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project, divorced.

Juanita Valdéz-Cox, Executive Director for LUPE, described Flores “as a legend of the Farm Worker Movement,” praising her for devoting “her life to social justice fights to improve the lives of immigrant and farmworker families in the Rio Grande Valley and in the State of Texas.”

Flores was born in Atascosa County, Texas to a family of migrant workers. Flores’ family has lived in Texas since the mid-1700s, and several ancestors were involved in prominent Texas historical events. She is one of five children. In 1957, Flores’ family moved from the family farm and settled in San Antonio, where she attended and graduated from Fox Tech High School. After graduation, Flores was hired as a secretary for the Fourth Army Headquarters at Fort Sam Houston. After five years, she resigned and attended St. Mary’s University. Flores graduated with a BA in Sociology in 1970.

From there, Flores attended the University of Michigan School of Social Work, graduating in 1972.

“She worked alongside the founders of the Farm Worker Movement, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, to organize dozens of colonies to raise wages and improve working conditions in the fields,” Valdéz-Cox continued. “Most of the policy changes that protect farmworkers in the State of Texas were led by Rebecca.”

• Beginning in 1975, at the United Farm Workers offices in San Juan, Texas, Flores established a large membership among the Rio Grande valley farmworkers. With these organized farmworkers, she and her committed staff provided social services where there were none; she advocated for change in state services that did not consider the special needs of farmworkers, their migrancy, their poverty, their language. 

• After being trained by the famous leader César Chávez and Fred Ross, she and farm workers organized dozens of committees in the colonias of the Rio Grande valley that then fought to raise wages and working conditions in the fields; elected politicians that would introduce and fight for good farm worker legislation; and who would fund projects that would upgrade the living conditions of colonia residents, through developing an infrastructure of streets, sewage systems, street names, electricity, water, etc.

(The word “colonia” in Spanish means a community or neighborhood. These residential areas are often located within 50 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border and they often lack some of the basic living necessities, such as drinking water and sewer systems, electricity, paved roads, street lighting, and safe and sanitary housing. Unemployment rates are often higher than the state average. (https://people.uwec.edu/ivogeler/w188/border/coloniasTX.htm)) 

• From 1983 to 1988,  she helped pass legislation for workers’ compensation for injured farmworkers, unemployment compensation, raised the Texas minimum wage, prohibited the use of the short-handled hoe; provided for toilets and potable drinking water in the fields; and passed protective Pesticide Right to Know legislation.

• She led annual campaigns in the Texas onion fields to raise piece rates. She organized mushroom pickers in Florida and strawberry and grape pickers in California that resulted in a union contract. For three years she was State Director of the National AFL-CIO. 

• In December 2005, Flores retired from her union job. Since 2014, she began to listen to the issue of the refugee mothers and children being detained in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas, and whose detention was based on the determination by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that they create a national security risk.  With the help of two other women in San Antonio, she formed the Pro Immigrant Coalition in San Antonio, a grassroots organization with 300 members, that supports advocates for policy changes for undocumented immigrants.  

On June 18, 1992, Flores was interviewed by Robert Korstad, for Rutheford Living History, which is part of the Southern Rural Poverty Collection.

During the interview, Flores recalled some of the key moments in the Texas Legislature in which she participated on behalf of farmworkers in the Lone Star State. That portion of the interview follows:

ROBERT KORSTAD 

When did you decide to move to Austin? Basically that means some kind of a change in strategy too of how you work as an activist and an advocate. 

REBECCA FLORES HARRINGTON 

Well, in 1983 we had been trying to pass legislation which we considered to be really important. Texas is a right to work state, you know that, and it is also a very oppressive state in terms of workers. It is not a good boycottable state in terms of we don’t have a big company to boycott, there’s not a big name you can boycott. 

It is very hard to get union contracts and so we said why don’t we shift our vision and try to get benefits through the legislature. In a union contract, you always have worker’s comp, unemployment comp, things like that. So we said, let’s try that since we are not going to get a union contract, let’s try this other thing. 

We came to Austin in 1983 and worked real diligently and put more effort into lobbying. I was a lobbyist. For the rest of that decade, we passed a worker’s comp law that protected farmworkers and an unemployment compensation law and then we passed a right-to-know law which was for the issue of pesticides.

We got field sanitation for farm workers and drinking water. 

We banned the use of the short-handled hoe and I think maybe that was it. 

They meet every two years, so it was a big effort. We were obviously never able to do one in one situation. 

ROBERT KORSTAD 

How were you able to accomplish all that because this is a real anti-union state? 

REBECCA FLORES HARRINGTON 

Oh, it was hard and it wasn’t by the graces of the legislature that we accomplished it. I happen to be married to an attorney. He was a civil liberties attorney and Texas has an equal rights amendment. So, you have to sort of look at that in that context. Jim firmly believed that civil liberties include workplace liberties, that you have a right to work. And then, we had the equal rights amendment and the federal judges were no longer real friendly.

So he started using the equal rights amendment in Texas that says protect you against discrimination because of your sex, national origin and whatever. So he showed the Texas law, it was so discriminatory that they would always say and there will always be worker’s compensation for everybody except farmworkers and we are going to treat them differently. So we were able to show through depositions and through committee meetings and hearings that the majority of the farmworkers in Texas are Mexican. 

And so Jim took that to court and he said these people are being denied protection under the ERA because of their national origin. And we won the cases all the way to the Supreme Court. The Texas Supreme Court by that time was good. We had been able to do a lot of political work, change so that it was progressive. It was almost the first time and it is going back now. He would take the cases to the Supreme Court and then they would find in our favor. And so they would say yes, you are right, you have been discriminated against, and therefore we mandate the legislature to pass a law that won’t discriminate. 

They were forced to. In the forcing of it, we still had to write the legislation, so it was a lot of work between ourselves and the growers and the legislators to come up with something that everybody would work with. We wanted it to work. We didn’t want for us to be so right that the growers would fight it and we would never get anywhere. So we tried to do that and we were successful. 

We did the same thing for every one of those issues. We had to go through the court system first, get support from the Supreme Court to fall back and then do legislative work. And even after we got the blessing from the Supreme Court saying we do not want discrimination anymore the legislature was so against farmworkers that we would only win by a small majority. They wouldn’t say well it’s a done deal, we’ve got to vote for it. We would never have gotten a hundred and fifty votes. It was eighty-one or eighty-two votes and we had to work for every vote still. It was not easy. 

ROBERT KORSTAD 

Did you have to do a lot of coalition building to do that? 

REBECCA FLORES HARRINGTON 

Primarily labor in those issues. Worker’s comp is a labor issue and unemployment comp is a labor issue. The right-to-know actually was kind of funny and I say this because I think it is a good reminder. Right-to-know was passed in 1985 for all the industrialized workers. It was passed here in the state of Texas and the Sierra Club and their labor legislator passed it and once again excluded farmworkers by SIC code, the standard industrial code. Everybody is covered except these guys and it happened to be us. 

So we hit the ceiling. We said how in the hell in 1985 are you still doing that to us? It was labor and environmentalists. Well they said, we wanted to pass it. Yeah, it is fine and dandy for you to say that but where does that leave us? How can you do that to the brothers and sisters who are working right now hard? We already knew how to go about it but it just gave us another two years where we had to go out and hit people over the head with it, fight it out. The last one has been the right to know a thing. I know that the unions right now are working on a thing called right to act which is a part of the right to know. We are starting to talk about it right now. Where we have given up on agencies to protect us, like OCEA, what we are saying is protect us workers in the workplace so that we have protection to act in our own defense, our own behalf. So I’m going to see how that works. 

(http://livinghistory.sanford.duke.edu/interviews/rebecca-harrington/)

More recently, on June 27, 2016, Flores was featured in a series of video interviews conducted by the Civil Rights in Black and Brown Oral History Project, which was funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research Grant (see media coverage), the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the Summerlee Foundation of Dallas, TCU’s AddRan College of Liberal Arts, the Mary Couts Burnett Library at TCU, and other institutional and private sources.

Those video interviews are available at:

https://crbb.tcu.edu/interviews/330/interview-with-rebecca-flores

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For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature(TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).
Featured: Rebecca Flores, as a young woman, with two of her three children.

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