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
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 (ILGWU or ILG, now Workers United-SEIU). 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.
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.
“This union was in front of the fight against employer abuses in the immigrant community”
How can progressive political movements win power in geographically expansive and multiracial cities like Los Angeles? The answer, according to the Los Angeles Jobs with Peace campaign was “coalition architecture,” an intentional strategy to link the interests of organized labor with the peace movement, the women’s movement, and the African American civil rights movement through the shared goal of creating good jobs for all by redirecting money from military to domestic spending. In 1984 and 1986, the campaign backed citywide ballot initiatives and built a network of supporters at the precinct level to turnout voters. The 1984 Proposition X called on the city to research and report on pension and contract funds that flowed to military contractors. It passed by a comfortable margin. Proposition V in 1986 would have established a commission to advise the city on how to redirect funds away from military contractors. Proposition V faced a well-funded opposition campaign from business interests and lost by a wide margin. Despite the defeat, the campaign built an effective get-out-the-vote operation at the precinct level that would be the basis of future progressive victories.
In 1984, workers at the Somma waterbed factory in East Los Angeles began organizing fellow workers at neighborhood soccer games and decide to join the ILGWU. Most of the workers were immigrants from Mexico and Central America, many without documentation. Their employer was Angel Echevarria, a prominent figure in the Latino community and in Los Angeles politics. In January 1985, Somma workers voted for a union by a wide margin. The company refused to negotiate with the union and illegally fired more than 20 key union activists.
The ILGWU and the fired Somma workers held continuous pickets outside the factory, joined by other workers on their lunch breaks and by community supporters. They also launched a boycott of Somma waterbeds designed to bring their employer to the bargaining table. When the company fired another group of organizers, workers walked out on strike and won their jobs back. After a long delay, the NLRB ordered the fired workers rehired with back pay and upheld the union election over the companies objections.
Sources: ILGWU Photographs, Box 3, Folder 9, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives at the Cornell University Library. Rosalio Muñoz papers, Box 64, Folder 3, UCLA Library Department of Special Collections.