Labor legend Dolores Huerta spoke in 2019 to students and staff at Bates College about the need for activism. Submitted photo

LEWISTON — Bates College kicked off its academic year in 2019 with a stirring speech by a legendary labor leader, Dolores Huerta, calling for students to become activists for justice.

It ended with the co-founder of the United Farm Workers leading a chant of, “Yes we can! ¡Sí, se puede!”

Chanting right along with her on the campus’ historic quad was Bates President Clayton Spencer, who called her a living legend.

Spencer heard again this week from Huerta, given an honorary doctorate by Bates, after she issued an open letter to the educators and staff at Bates to throw her support behind a bid to unionize many of the college’s employees.

“I want to stress that you have a right to form a union and to bargain over wages, benefits and working conditions,” Huerta wrote. “This is your decision to make.”

Huerta said she felt disappointed to learn that Bates “has strayed from the values they presented to me at the 2019 convocation,” but she urged union backers to press ahead anyway.

“Forming a union is about having a voice,” she said. “It is part of creating a balance of power at work and building democracy in our society.”

A pro-union group called Friends of Bates Educators and Staff, which shared Huerta’s letter, said it also celebrates Bates employees’ “choice to form a collective voice” and renewed its call for the college administration to remain neutral while employees decide whether to form a union.

Bates officials have said they need to retain the right to discuss issues related to the union.

But organizers for the Bates Educators & Staff Organization have claimed the college is using unfair labor practices to block their efforts.

Huerta, 91, who led a grape boycott in the 1960s and won a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, said in her letter this week that “together we can make a difference and we should never give up on that.”

“We should never doubt ourselves that we can change things and make them better in our world,” Huerta said. “Sí, se puede!”

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