In this excerpt of a 1995 speech on multi-union organizing strategy, David Sickler recounts the changing relationship between immigrant workers and organized labor in southern California and identifies some of the mistakes unions have made in their approach to immigrant workers. As the Regional Director for the AFL-CIO and head of the Los Angeles-Orange County Organizing Committee (LAOCOC), Sickler launched the California Immigrant Workers Association (CIWA) to organize undocumented workers into unions. This speech was delivered at the UCLA Labor Center.
Now I’m somebody who’s tried to organize immigrant workers in this town for 20 years. We’ve had some success here and there, but the movement’s never been able to prove to immigrant workers that it could deliver. That it could put its money where its mouth was.
Immigrant workers have always agreed with us philosophically. They know we’re advocates; they know we’re on their side. But they’ve been reluctant to get on board with us on a large scale because they’ve watched our failures. They know that some of our own unions in the past, when they’d go out and organize companies that had immigrant workers, if those workers went on strike and the employer replaced them with other immigrant workers, the union would call the INS and have the scab workers deported. The employer would then call the INS and have the strikers deported. That’s a great deal for immigrant workers. Welcome! Welcome to the institutions of the United States. But the labor movement changed its act in the 70s and the 80s, and we aren’t doing those kinds of things any more. Still, these workers just weren’t sure we could deliver. What happened with the signing of the Justice for Janitors contract sent shockwaves through the immigrant community in Southern California. It will never be the same, ever. Because about six months after the signing of that contract, 900 workers at American Racing Equipment in Rancho Domingas-and I’m telling you it’s 100 percent immigrant-staged a five-day walkout.
Now, I’m an organizer. I’m gonna tell you, 900 workers do not spontaneously walk out of a plant. There’s some leadership in there somewhere. There’s some organizing going on. You hear about hot-shop organizing? This was a super, super red-hot shop. These people organized themselves. And, of course, this is a classic example of how we as a movement respond. The day after 900 workers at American Racing Equipment go out on the street in a wildcat by themselves, 97 unions are out there with their jackets and their leaflets. “Join us; I’m with the Office Workers!” “Join us; I’m with CWA!” “Join us; I’m with the Steel workers!” “Join us; I’m with the IUE!” “Join us; we’re with UAW!”
“People wanted to change things so bad they organized themselves and went into the street.”
In the summer of 1992, immigrant construction workers across southern California launched a militant strike that surprised both their employers and the Anglo leaders of trade unions. Aided by the California Immigrant Workers Association (CIWA), the drywallers' strike succeeded in improving working conditions in residential construction across the region. This account is from CIWA organizer Jose De Paz. CIWA operated from 1989-1994 as an associate membership organization of the AFL-CIO.
Three main ingredients account for the success of the drywallers strike. First, the determination of the strikers. They were not doing “strike duty”. They embraced their cause 24 hours a day and everything else became secondary to the strike. Additionally, the strikers were aware that they were being oppressed not only as workers but also as Mexicans, which made their bond twice as strong. This came particularly handy when entire families were evicted from their homes for non-payment of rent and had to move in with one or more families in a single dwelling.
Second, organized labor’s considerable contribution to the independent drywall strike fund. In addition to individuals and community organizations, more than 21 AFL-CIO affiliated unions and six Central Labor Councils in California made significant donations to the fund.
Third, CIWA’s unique participation. Besides coordinating legal and immigration defense, CIWA served as a communication bridge between the strikers and police agencies. CIWA also functioned as the strikers’ spokesperson with the media (particularly the Spanish-language media) and as the coordinator of support from Latino community and labor organizations. CIWA’s unique com bination of skills and its dual credentials in the labor and Latino communities enabled it to convert the drywallers’ struggle from a localized labor dispute into a Latino workers movement.
The AFL-CIO published this information for unions and workers in the wake of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. The law created a process for many undocumented residents to regularize their status, and the pamphlet highlights organized labor’s role in helping “undocumented workers attain legal status and prevent discrimination by employers.” In Los Angeles, the Labor Immigrant Assistance Project (LIAP) supported workers’ amnesty applications, and the California Immigrant Workers Association (CIWA) served as a general union for immigrant workers without collective bargaining in their workplaces. IRCA also created a new federal prohibition on hiring undocumented workers, something immigrant rights advocates and organized labor in Los Angeles had strongly opposed, but the national AFL-CIO supported. The AFL-CIO abandoned this policy in 2000. View the Document.