They were willing to break with tradition

Maria Elena Durazo recalls her first organizing job

On a trip to Mexico I met Cristina Vázquez and others from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILG), now [Workers United]. And when we came back, Cristina referred me to the union for a job. I was already familiar with the work of the ILG at that point. It was the only union that was openly, aggressively organizing immigrants. They were doing things like challenging the INS for raiding the factories without arrest warrants. In conjunction with its aggressive program of organizing workers in the shops, the ILG also had a legal program that backed it up to push the INS out of the shops. Because ultimately, as long as they continued with those raids, it was gonna be pretty much impossible to organize. So I just loved the fact that they were so bold and they were out there on the front lines in a vanguard position.

The ILG was “willing to break with the traditional way of looking at immigrant workers.”

Once I got to know Cristina I saw the way that the ILG approached organizing. It was very experimental in the sense that the organizers were given the freedom to organize anyway they liked. “Figure it out, do whatever you can. Be creative!” They were almost, in a sense, given carte blanche, instead of, “This is the way, and this is the only way.” All those elements made the ILG even more appealing to me.

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“We were the union they’d call”

Cristina Vázquez on the lessons of organizing immigrant workers in the 1970s

In 1976, when I started working for the ILGWU, we had several thousand members, but for ten years they had hardly organized a shop. The union had not paid much attention to the situation in L.A. … but then the ILGWU decided to bring an organizing director from back east, Phil Russo.  He was an organizer himself and he had a vision. He thought there was a lot of potential here, and he said he was going to find and hire the best organizers. He started going to the universities and recruiting people who were active in political groups. He put a team together, and among them was my husband, Mario F. Vázquez, who had just graduated from UCLA law school after emigrating from Mexico at age 15. He saw this ad, “Organizers Needed at ILGWU.” At the time he was doing some volunteer work for CASA (Centro de Acción Social Autónomo), the Chicano pro-immigrant organization, writing and translating for its newspaper, Sin Fronteras [Without Borders], and doing all this political work.

Workers celebrate a union victory outside of a garment factory in Los Angeles, 1980. They stand waving and smiling while holding a sign that indicates that 149 workers voted for the union and 10 against it.

“This union was in front of the fight against employer abuses in the immigrant community”

–Cristina Vázquez

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