Labor Department names auditorium for Cesar Chavez

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis dedicated the Cesar Chavez mural in March 2010. The department's auditorium was named after Chavez. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis dedicated the Cesar Chavez mural in March 2010. The department's auditorium was named after Chavez. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis hosted hundreds of members of the United Farm Workers, Cabinet officials and Labor Department employees at a two-part ceremony on Monday to induct farmworker activists into the department’s Hall of Honor and to rename its auditorium for the late labor leader Cesar Chavez.

Assisted by Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, Solis stood with members of the Chavez family at the auditorium’s entrance and unveiled an inscription and a mosaic of Chavez created by Arizona schoolchildren. “The auditorium is a place where we at the Department of Labor come together to draw inspiration from each other,” she said. “His words still echo through these halls.”

Solis and Chavez’s son Paul said Chavez “would have been uncomfortable with all this recognition” because his decades-long movement to organize fruit and vegetable pickers to improve health and safety conditions relied on “so many names who’ve been lost to history.”

Before the dedication of the Cesar E. Chavez Memorial Auditorium -- the first commemoration of Chavez in Washington -- an audience approaching 1,000 gathered in Labor’s Great Hall for the induction of five “martyrs” and an unnamed number of living or deceased pioneers of the farmworkers movement into the Hall of Honor.

That display features inscriptions on a wall across from the auditorium that includes such luminaries as Chavez, Helen Keller and, more recently, the Memphis, Tenn., sanitation workers whom Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was seeking to help when he was assassinated in1968. The individual stories of the activists who lost their lives to violence while helping the farmworkers were recounted with many of their relatives present.

“This is one of America’s most powerful stories of courage and victory, and I am proud to give them the Department of Labor’s highest honor,” Solis said. She also introduced Dolores Huerta, co-founder and treasurer of the UFW, who “endured death threats and worked mano a mano with one of the celebrated icons of the American labor movement.”

President Obama on Friday issued a proclamation declaring March 31 as Cesar Chavez Day. Solis noted that her own father was a bracero, adding, “only in America could a farmworker’s daughter stand before you as secretary of Labor.” She recalled that upon taking office, she immediately hired 300 new wage and hour division workplace inspectors, two-thirds of whom are bilingual. “We will continue our aggressive enforcement,” she said. “As long as I am secretary, I will not rest until every farmworker can claim the dignity that is his or her birthright.”

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar praised Solis as the nation’s first Latina Labor secretary, stressing the importance of celebrating ignored minority groups “who are an important part of the American story.” He noted that only 4 percent of national historic sites honor Latinos and African-Americans, and mentioned the coming Museum of African-American History and Culture on the National Mall. He also noted that Chavez’s former home base in Delano, Calif., in 2011 was designated a national historic landmark.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who referred to Labor as “Hilda’s House,” said he had struggled “as the only white male Caucasian” on the stage to find his direct connection to the ethnic flavor of the event. He settled on the fact that he was born in an orphanage, which helped him to recognize the “dignity of those who for far too long were orphaned in this country because they worked the land, picked our food, processed our food and packaged our food, sacrificing under extraordinary conditions.”

Vilsack broadened the discussion to immigrants, saying, “it’s time to ask political leaders in Congress to fix the immigration system.” Cecelia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, praised Chavez’s movement tactics, noting how he “focused not just on the mission but how he did his work, focusing on hope not fear, love instead of hate.” Also in attendance were Reps. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., and Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

Hollywood actor Michael Pena, the son of farmworkers who is starring in an upcoming biopic of Chavez, served as master of ceremonies for the event, which included a mariachi band. “It’s not always easy to get something done, but with good intentions, good hearts and perseverance,” movements can succeed, he said. The crowd responded with chants of “Yes, we can!” and “Viva Chavez!”

The event at times took on the ambience of a political rally. UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, who is preparing to celebrate the union’s 50th anniversary in May, said he didn’t wish to mention “the name of the previous president,” but he is glad that Solis is Labor secretary because “elections do matter.”

Those who are used to boycotting E.&J. Gallo Winery for its treatment of workers, he added, should know “we have a contract so it’s OK to buy Boone’s Farm and Strawberry Hill, which taste better now because they’re union-picked.”

Huerta recalled the early days when Chavez grew discouraged about prospects for a national farmworkers’ union, saying, “the owners are too powerful, too rich and too racist.”

In the final benediction, the Rev. Deacon Sal Alvarez blessed, among other causes, Obama for defending the health care law.

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