This year, California Labor celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month by elevating various female leaders in labor movement history. It doesn’t take much to realize how profound their sacrifices have been in creating safer workplaces and a more just country. From the fields of the Central Valley to the highest halls of power in Washington, Latina labor leaders have organized and led some of the most significant advancements of workers’ rights. We cannot honor our community’s sacrifices, joys & struggles in creating an America that believes in us like we believe in America without recognizing some of these notable labor leaders.
Linda Chavez-Thompson is a second-generation American of Mexican descent who began her Labor career in 1967. After leaving school at an early age to pick cotton with her father, she was hired for a secretary position at the Laborers’ local union in Lubbock, Texas. Throughout her career, Chavez-Thompson served as a member of the Board of Governors for the United Way of America and as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. In 1995, Chavez-Thompson was elected executive vice president of the AFL-CIO and was the first person of color to be elected to one of the federation’s three highest offices.
Her most successful initiatives included the promotion of unionization through community groups such as churches, schools, civil rights groups like the NAACP, women’s groups and more.
Jessie Lopez de la Cruz
Jessie Lopez de la Cruz grew up in a family of Mexican migrant workers. From a young age, Lopez de la Cruz worked in the fields across California, experiencing firsthand the grueling living conditions, poverty-level wages, and daily brutal exploitation – conditions farm workers continue fighting today. That changed in 1960 when, inspired by Cesar Chavez and his growing movement in California, Lopez de la Cruz joined the National Farm Workers Association (which would later become the United Farm Workers) as its first female recruiter. In becoming the union’s top recruiter, she enrolled resident and migrant workers and led or participated in a variety of actions, such as picketing stores, advocating for the safety of Mexican American workers and against employer corruption and abuse.
Through her activism, Lopez de la Cruz led a successful campaign to outlaw the use of the short-handled hoe, a tool that harmed workers by forcing them to bend their bodies at distressing angles for prolonged periods of time, which often led to crippling back injuries. Additionally, Lopez de la Cruz served as an advisor to municipal and state governments on farm worker rights, remaining active until her retirement in the early 1990s.
Born Blanca Rosa López Rodríguez to a prominent Guatemalan family, Rodríguez moved to the United States in her early 20s and changed her name to Luisa Moreno. When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, Moreno joined the Communist Party and—later—the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1934.
Serving as a full-time advocate for immigrant laborers everywhere, Moreno traveled across several states, drawing attention to the abominable working conditions in sweatshops, canneries and agricultural fields. In 1938, Moreno established the Congreso de Pueblos que Hablan Español (National Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples). In the 1950s, amid rising tension as a result of the “red scare”, Moreno left the U.S. for Mexico City, where she continued to organize workers in Mexico, Cuba and Guatemala.