Rocio Sáenz recalls the spirit of solidarity among unions in the early 1990s
I come from Mexico City, and I had a union there. Even though, looking back at the unions in Mexico, they were often very corrupt, at the time I thought it was better than nothing. When I came to the U.S., I did a lot of different jobs. I was a domestic worker, I was a salesperson in a store, and stuff like that. But I wanted to be in a unionized workplace, and so I was trying to get a job through a local union. I didn’t know that there was such a thing as being an organizer, but I was making posters and banners for he ILGWU. A few months later, I met someone in Local 11 of HERE and they hired me. Even then, for a few months, I didn’t do organizing. I didn’t even know what it was. But then I got very involved.
I saw a different way to organize [in HERE]. To bring the trust back from the members, and to show that this was a different union. In any organizing drive, you have to show the workers that, yes, you can make a difference. Little victories that you have to deliver, in order to say there is a change. It has to be very, very specific and concrete. And you have to see things as industry-wide. When I was with HERE I remember organizing my first hotel, reorganizing it for the first time in then years. That was in Manhattan Beach, close to the airport. We did it through elections. Well we organized 300 workers, and that was not going to make a big difference for the industry. You have to look at the whole industry, instead of one single work site. You have to do it in a market competitive way. If you’re going to organize, it has to be like all of downtown L.A. has got to go union. It has to be a long-term plan It takes a lot of effort, a lot of persistence, and a lot of resources.
“You’ve got to keep the heat on in different ways, and you’ve got to be very unpredictable
As leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Miguel Contreras (1952-2005) reshaped LA’s unions into a powerful political, economic, and social force. The child of farm workers, Contreras was an organizer for the United Farm Workers union (UFW), and later the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union (HERE). He led the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor from 1996 until is death in 2005. The LA Alliance for a New Economy produced this video documenting Contreras’s life story and his impact on the city’s labor movement and working people.
Release shortly after the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles, City on the Edge criticized the low-wage policies of the tourism industry and challenged political leaders to embrace equitable development. Featuring interviews with historian Mike Davis, business leaders, city officials, and workers, the film offers a glimpse of LA contending with deep social and economic divides.
This video and others are available to researchers at the UCLA Library Department of Special Collections:
In 1978 members of HERE Local 11 launched a campaign to unseat long-time union leader Andrew “Scotty” Allan. United Workers of Local 11 ran a multiracial slate of men and women committed to greater member participation in the 20,000 member union. Their candidate for the office of secretary-treasurer was Daniel Ruiz, a resident immigrant and respected leader among the workers at the Hyatt hotel. However, the election committee of Local 11, citing the constitution of the international union, declared Ruiz ineligible for office because he was not a U.S. citizen.
“Denying non-citizens the right to run for office means, in effect, that the Spanish-speaking majority is without representation, without equality under the law, and that the minority of the membership exercises all decision making powers while the majority is left out.”
With the help of the ACLU of Southern California, Ruiz and his allies sued Local 11 for violating Ruiz’s right to full participation in the union and other members’ right to nominate the person of their choosing. The union’s election committee quickly backed down and allowed Ruiz’s nomination. Although United Workers of Local 11 did not win the election, members of the union continued to demand a more responsive union leadership. Following the 1978 lawsuit Local 11 began translating contracts and other key documents, but the English-speaking members who dominated union meetings routinely voted down proposals for simultaneous translation of meetings. In 1985, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit against Local 11 on behalf of two members demanding full translation of meetings, and in 1987 a judge ruled in their favor. A year later Scotty Allan was out of office.