“Immigrant workers have always agreed with us philosophically”

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!”

A group of men raise their fists in celebration. The hold a sign in Spanish reading, "Union, Yes!"

“People wanted to change things so bad they organized themselves and went into the street.”

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On a mission to organize immigrant workers

A memorandum appealing for support of the California Immigrant Workers Association
David Sickler and Jose De Paz appeal to fellow union leaders to continue funding the California Immigrant Workers Association.

Launched in 1989, the California Immigrant Workers Association (CIWA) supported a number of break-through union campaigns with immigrant workers. David Sickler, regional director for the AFL-CIO, conceived of CIWA as a way to funnel support for the many organizing drives that developed in the wake of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. CIWA staff provided legal and organizing aid to immigrant workers and connected them with unions, and advised unions on organizing best practices. However, in the spring of 1994 national leaders of the AFL-CIO decided to stop funding the program. In this memo, Sickler and CIWA staffer Jose De Paz appeal to southern California union leaders to help fund CIWA. The demise of CIWA came just months before immigrant rights groups and unions scrambled to fight the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in the November 1994 election. View the document.

From the UNITE HERE Local 11 Records, Box 17 Folder 6, UCLA Library Department of Special Collections.

Baker, Bob. “Unions Try Bilingual Recruiting: A Handful of Aggressive Local Organizers Are Making Unprecedented Efforts to Replenish Their Ranks with Immigrant Workers, Especially Latinos. So Far, the Strategy Is Paying Off.” Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif., March 25, 1991. https://search.proquest.com/hnplatimes/docview/1638431258/abstract/23F841F81AA34934PQ/360.

“They embraced their cause 24 hours a day”

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.

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Building sustainable peace in Guatemala, the union perspective

SEIU local 399 hosted Guatemalan labor leader Rodolfo Robles during a visit to Los Angeles.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, the Central American nations of El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala experienced civil war, government-sponsored death squads, and genocide. Many who fled the violence settled in Los Angeles were they joined other immigrant workers in low-wage service sector jobs, and became part of the unionization drives of the 1990s. Immigrants workers then mobilized their unions in support of the peace process by welcoming visiting delegations and lobbying federal officials. This flyer documents the visit of Guatemalan union leader Rodolfo Robles to SEIU Local 399 in the early 1990s. His union, representing Coca Cola workers, played a leading role in the opposition to military dictatorship by urban workers. Learn more about Justice for Janitors.

Stop the Cooperation between the Police and the INS

Immigrant rights advocates protested the close relationship between the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), 1990.

A flyer announcing a protest rally and march organized by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) in the fall of 1990. Formed in the wake of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, CHIRLA drew together organizations and activists from many communities to demand inclusion for immigrants. Reflecting growing progressive coalition in Los Angeles, co-sponsors of this rally included labor unions, religious, civil liberties, and immigrant rights organizations Los Angeles. From the Tom Bradley Papers, Box 1170, folder 9, UCLA Special Collections. Download the Document.

“Mayor Tom Bradley Administration Papers, 1920-1993 (Bulk 1973-1993).” Accessed January 23, 2019. http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/kt4489n8jd/.