That stopped everything

Rosa Beltran reflects on the power of rank-and-file union members

Rosa Beltran (right) and Mauela Ramos (center) in 2011.
Rosa Beltran (right) and Mauela Ramos (center) in 2011.

La huelga del 2000 fue una victoria— Yo estaba fuera de mi edificio piqueteando 24 horas seguidas, 24 horas deteniendo, durmiendo, pegado a los containers de basura porque como Uniones, si la Unión de los basureros miraba un janitor que estaba piqueteando, se respetaba eso. El UPS [United Parcel Service] si miraba a alguien piqueteando, respetaba eso. El correo, si miraba a alguien, no había movimiento de nada. Ahí se detenía todo; pero si no había nadie, es por eso que le digo yo de qué sirve tener un sindicato con ejecutivos con buenas ideas, si soldados no habemos. Porque los soldados somos los que llevamos a cabo todo, al final del día. Ésa es la representación que nosotros tenemos.

The strike of 2000 was a victory— I was outside my building picketing 24 hours in a row, resting and even sleeping by the dumpsters because the unions, if the sanitation workers saw a janitor who was picketing, they respected that. If UPS saw someone picketing, they respected that. The postal workers, if they saw someone, nothing moved. That stopped everything; but if there had been no one there, that is why I say what good is it having leaders with good ideas, if you don’t have soldiers. Because at the end of the day the soldiers are the ones that carry it all. That is the representation we have.

From the interview of Rosa Beltran by Andrew Gomez.

Donde Haiga Un Trabajador Explotado, Ahí Estaré Yo: Justice for Janitors’ Workers, Organizers, and Allies, n.d. https://oralhistory.library.ucla.edu.

We call each other sister unions

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

— Rocio Sáenz

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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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