Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated annually in the United States from September 15 to October 15 to recognize the contributions of people of Hispanic or Latino heritage to our country. With this issue of the UE NEWS, we’re launching an annual feature that will highlight what Latino members have done to built the labor movement, and our union and helped win important victories.
Hispanic workers of many national backgrounds have been members of UE over the decades and have contributed to the union’s success. This includes members whose family origins were in Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and many countries of Central America and South America.
UE members across the country felt enormous pride in our union in December 2008. For five days in Chicago, the members of UE Local 1110 occupied their factory, Republic Windows and Doors, for five days, focused national attention on economic injustice with their slogan, “The bank got bailed out, we got sold out,” and won an important victory. Those workers were primarily Latino immigrants.
Many other struggles by UE members in predominantly Latino workplaces have made us all proud and moved our union forward. Other Latino members in shops where Latinos are a minority have made major contributions to the union and in many cases have served as elected stewards and officers. One of the leaders of Local 332, which is engaged in a tough plant closing fight with GE, is Angel Sardina, born in Puerto Rico. Many past and present UE staff members of Hispanic heritage have done much to build this union.
Below we hear from retired UE International Representative Humberto Camacho and former Field Organizer Jacobo Rodriguez about UE in California, in an interview recently conducted by current Field Organizer Kari Thompson.
Humberto Camacho was born in Torreón, Mexico, where he was raised by a father who worked in the mining industry and was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Camacho immigrated legally to the U.S.with the assistance of his family in 1956. He got a job at Topps Records in Los Angeles, manufacturing vinyl phonograph records. After a frustrating experience with another union, Camacho learned about UE. UE organized workers in the record industry starting in the 1940s, and by the 1960s UE Local 1421 represented nearly all workers in the record manufacturing industry in Los Angeles, including Columbia, Decca, Monarch and dozens of smaller companies.
Camacho helped bring UE into his shop, became a leader in both his shop and in Local 1421, which was then a large amalgamated local in Greater Los Angeles. The local hired him as a staff organizer in late 1962. Later the local officers convinced UE General Secretary-Treasurer James Matles to put Camacho on the national union staff. Camacho worked as an organizer for UE for 35 years, successfully organizing many shops and coordinating solidarity work with community organizations and unions in other countries. He became a UE international representative, and for several years in the late 1980s he served as the elected president of UE District 10 and a member of UE’s General Executive Board.
Jacobo Rodriguez is a friend of Camacho’s from Torreón, where they grew up together. He was primarily a community organizer in the Los Angeles area, but he also worked as an organizer with UE during one of the union’s most important efforts to organize undocumented Latino workers. His brother Ricardo Rodriguez has been an activist and leader in UE’s recent organizing campaign among Renzenberger drivers in California.
THE KRACO STRIKE OF 1979
In the late 1970s, workers at Kraco in Compton, CA, wanted a union, but previous organizing attempts failed, in part due to the number of undocumented workers there. Rodriguez estimates about 80 percent of the 350 workers were undocumented. They manufactured car radios and other components. Workers there faced a great deal of unfair treatment by their boss. For example, if one of the workers wanted to go back to Mexico to visit family, “They would get permission,” said Rodriguez, “but when they were hired back, they would be hired back as though they were new employees,” losing any pay raises they’d previously earned.
“The AFL-CIO thought undocumented workers could not be organized,” noted Rodriguez. The UAW, Steelworkers and Teamsters had all tried but failed to organize Kraco. “We wanted to prove they could be.”
Together with a rank-and-file organizing committee, Camacho and Rodriquez developed a plan that would allow their organizing efforts to flourish through contacts in the communities near the plant and where the workers lived. Camacho knew that, “If we won, it’s going to benefit not only working people here but the whole community.” Rather than passing literature through the plant that looked like union organizing and would tip off the boss, they passed and mailed out a piece called “Know Your Rights”, in English and Spanish, that appeared to be from a community organization, the “Committee for the Bill of Rights,” rather than the union. Before the company caught on, UE has most of the workers organized and ready for an election, which the union won 3 to 1.
Community support became increasingly necessary. Kraco refused to recognize UE as the union for its workers, despite the overwhelming election win for the union. On May 31, 1979, UE members went on strike. The AFL-CIO, who still thought it was impossible to have members who were undocumented workers, would not endorse the strike, but the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and United Auto Workers did.
Camacho and many members at the plant feared that the company would call immigration in order to end the strike, so they made a plan to enforce their rights as working people, regardless of their citizenship.
Under the strike banner, Camacho told the workers, “We belong here. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, we’re supposed to be here, with free access to both sides of the border.” (That’s the 1848 treaty ending the U.S.-Mexican War, recognizing U.S. sovereignty over California, Texas, New Mexico and rest of the Southwest, and establishing citizenship rights for Mexican residents of the region.) “Based on that history and the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the people began to say, ‘Yea, we have a right to be here. They are not honoring the treaty between the United States and Mexico. Why should we be afraid of immigration?’
“We said, well, we have to make something a little more to the times.” Camacho came up with a plan for ID cards for all the workers. It had the UE logo on it, “with a picture of the person, and on the back the Fifth Amendment in English and Spanish. [The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution includes the right to legal due process.] It said, ‘My name is so-and-so, I live at this address. Call my attorney.’ And we made it in green plastic… You don’t have to worry: you have a green card now!” he told the workers.
Some form of identification was only part of the plan for keeping workers from being deported to break the strike. The organizers also sent a letter about the strike to the director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Camacho recalls that the director replied, “We will respect the strike and we won’t go over there.” Camacho went to the strike line and said, “We got it! Immigration’s not going to come over here!’ And the company was so upset.”
The following week, things turned violent at the picket line. “Boy, did they throw the dogs at us,” Camacho remembers. “In the middle of the night, they opened the gates and out came all those scabs with knives and chains and everything, and they tried to beat everybody on the picket line.”
The prolonged strike led the union to reach back into its base of community support, calling on neighbors around the plant to help out by emphasizing UE’s commitment to equality of all workers. “We went block by block,” in the neighborhood around the plant, Camacho said. “We were asking people to help us to chase away scabs, and saying, ‘If you see one of the police arresting one of our workers, demand for our people to be released.’ And they did that. Even the black people. We were demanding equal opportunities for the community. Black people weren’t allowed to work at Kraco, and we wanted Kraco to hire black people.” Compton is a predominantly African American city adjacent to Los Angeles. To curry favor with the Compton police department, Kraco gave them a helicopter. But UE members marched on Compton City Hall, demanding that the police stop attacking the pickets, and that Kraco hire black workers from Compton. This solidified community support for the strike.
Over the years, Camacho did pioneering work building solidarity relationships between UE and progressive unions in Mexico, particularly the Mexican electrical workers and the nuclear workers. His work laid the groundwork for UE’s relationships with Mexican labor today. Those efforts paid off during the Kraco strike, when our labor allies in Mexico purchased a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times, advocating for the needs and demands of UE Local 1421 members.
But violence continued on the picket line. “One worker was hit real bad and had to be hospitalized,” said Rodriguez. Camacho said, “He was hit close to the heart, and I had a press conference, and I showed the shirt with a bullet hole on the chest on the left side.” Through statements such as this, UE continued to demonstrate that the company was the aggressor and our members were just defending themselves.
The bad publicity from the shooting helped force Kraco to the bargaining table, where they settled the strike with a first contract that brought significant pay increases to the workers.
“The AFL-CIO had it wrong,” Rodriguez noted. “They thought all undocumented workers would be afraid, but most Mexican workers have unions, or were part of cooperatives.” The fight to organize workers at Kraco showed not only that Latino workers wanted union representation, but that they were willing to overcome their fears about immigration to fight for one.
“Kraco was basically hostile to establishing the right of undocumented workers to be inside the union, and we won that,” Camacho said. “We didn’t tell the people that that was our goal, but we took the fear out of the people when we gave them the green card they wanted—the UE Green Card!”
Kraco workers, now represented by Local 1021, recently negotiated a contract extension after defeating an attempt by the company to decertify the union. The company remains hostile to workers’ rights, 35 years after workers organized their union.
IMMIGRANT WORKER RIGHTS
Camacho continued to work for UE through the 1990s, not only in Southern California but also in California’s Central Valley. Especially around Fresno, and often working with UE Field Organizer John Hovis (who was later UE’s director of organization, and general president from 1987 to 2011), Camacho helped organize several major plants and thousands of members. In addition to organizing shops, he worked on getting bilingual education in public schools, the right of immigrant workers to have drivers’ licenses, and the ability to apply for citizenship. “The biggest challenge was to convince people to come out of the shadows,” Camacho says.
UE in Los Angeles led the way not only in organizing immigrant workers, but also in fighting to protect immigrants’ rights, and in winning contract language addressing their needs. Local 1421 was in the forefront of this work, and provided leadership not only in UE, but to other unions in Southern California. UE played a major role in organizing a mass march in Los Angeles in 1985 against the anti-immigrant Proposition 187. More than 100,000 people participated in that march, and no union was more prominent than UE. Says Humberto Camacho, “No other union had the guts to do that.”
Humberto Camacho played a major role in moving UE in this work, including organizing a number of low-wage shops in industries that would not have interested UE in earlier decades. Working with Robin Alexander, who was then UE’s general counsel and later director of international labor affairs, Camacho helped develop a training program for workers, local union officers and stewards, and organizing committees, on how to protect workers, including what to do in cases of raids by the INS (which is now called ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement). UE continued providing workers with photo ID cards – union green cards -- that identified the holder as a union member in good standing, and told workers how to invoke their rights, including the right to remain silence, if they were picked up by the police or La Migra (federal immigration agents.)
As a result of this training, many UE locals with significant immigrant membership negotiated model contract language, including: strong no-discrimination clauses to protect immigrants;
immediate notice to the union if the company learns that the INS is coming to the plant; requiring the company to deny admittance to the INS, and refuse to surrender information to them, unless they have a search warrant; retroactive leaves of absence for workers detained by INS or forced to attend INS proceedings; and the right to a leave of absence for workers to visit their families in their countries of origin.
MORE ON HISPANIC HERITAGE MONTH:
Interview with Rocío Peréz, Local 1110
Interview with Lauro Bonilla, Local 1103