This Day In History: September 14

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On September 14, 1988, labor leader Dolores Huerta is severely beaten by a police officer while at a peaceful protest for farm workers in San Fransisco. The incident triggers widespread outrage in the labor movement and beyond, but does not deter Huerta from decades more organizing and protest.

At the protest outside the St. Francis Hotel, Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW), was distributing a press release criticizing George H. W. Bush, then vice president and the Republican candidate for president. Huerta and the UFW were urging a boycott of table grapes, to pressure growers into discontinuing the use of dangerous pesticides. In September of 1988 alone, according to the UFW, 71 farm workers near Delano, California suffered from pesticide poisoning.

On September 14, Bush declared his opposition to the grape boycott on a campaign stop at a Sunmaid raisin plant in Fresno. In response, nearly 1,000 supporters of the boycott gathered later that day outside a fundraiser for Bush at the St. Francis Hotel. In her press release, Huerta wrote: "Mr. Bush's statement demonstrates again that he is wealthy and comfortable and insensitive to the struggles of working people in our country. It also reveals his ignorance of the pesticide threat to our environment and our people."

Although the protest was peaceful, San Francisco police officers resorted to clubbing demonstrators with batons in an attempt to force the crowd away from the hotel entrance. Huerta was beaten so severely that she required emergency surgery. Her injuries included a ruptured spleen, several broken ribs and life-threatening internal bleeding. The San Francisco Police Department eventually settled with Huerta over the incident for $825,000.

Huerta is an icon of the American labor movement. Raised during the Great Depression in California's Central Valley, Huerta saw firsthand the struggles of the workers who produced America's fruits and vegetables. Along with Cesar Chavez, she founded the United Farm Workers to organize agricultural laborers and advocate for their rights. Together they organized the Delano Grape Strike, which resulted in a landmark deal between growers and workers to improve working conditions.

Huerta's organizing eventually contributed to the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which recognized the collective bargaining rights of farm workers in California. It was the first such law in any state.

After her recovery from the beating in September 1988, Huerta turned her attention to women's issues, encouraging more women to run for political office. President Barack Obama awarded Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.