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Bill Fletcher Jr. and Bill Gallegos: What inspired you to become an activist?
Fernando E. Gapasin: I was inspired by anger. During the Second World War, my parents worked in the shipyards in Richmond, California, building Liberty Ships. My mother was a Rosie the Riveter. When veterans returned, women and minorities were laid off. We returned to the fields. We traveled as a family group up and down Highway 99. We usually camped together and when we arrived at any town, we always had to be sure to stay in the “colored” part of town. You had to be careful. Signs, like “No Mexicans, Filipinos, or dogs,” guided our travels. Getting beat up or even killed could be the consequence of being in the wrong part of town. At restaurants, Filipinos and Mexicans could only get food to go. I remember watching my father being refused lodging and how humiliating it was for him. I remember the lack of respect, the insults—greasers, beaners, monkeys, chinks. Whatever we yelled back never seemed sufficient. My father taught me to hunt, fish, and survive in the wild. He was a proud man. I remember throwing rocks at one of the white bosses who scolded him and treated him like a child. We were all fired and forced to leave the ranch. I learned to hold onto anger and channel it differently. My activism was driven by emotion, a visceral response to the humiliation suffered by my family.
I learned family history at social gatherings (adults drinking cheap wine and playing cards). I learned how my grandfather, a guerrilla commander in the Philippines, his brother, and one of my uncles died in the resistance against the Japanese. And from the old men who boasted about riding with Pancho Villa. Once when we were told to go back to Mexico, one of my uncles shouted that California was part of Mexico and that white people were the trespassers.
In 1952, we returned to the Bay Area. I grew up in an all African-American neighborhood. South Berkeley bordered West Oakland. When I was 13, my friends and I met brother Harold X. He taught us about the racial hierarchy in the United States and, using a broom as a prop, he taught us how racial hierarchy is socially created and—flipping the broom—could be recreated differently. He recruited us into the Nation of Islam. Later, after Malcolm X’s murder and Elijah’s death, there was a violent split in the Nation; brother Harold was murdered in his home. When I first studied Marxism-Leninism, I thought I had found the tools to change the racial hierarchy in the United States.
BF and BG: Philip Vera Cruz, the famous United Farm Workers (UFW) leader, was your uncle. What do you remember about him?
FG: He was a symbol of democracy. He was the international cochair in opposition to martial law in the Philippines. His teachings became part of my DNA, but I did not realize it until I was older and was introduced to socialist politics. Uncle Philip attended Gonzaga University, where he was introduced to the Industrial Workers of the World. He was the family intellectual, always reading and talking about capitalism, socialism, and building united fronts against attacks on immigrants. I was the only kid in the family who listened to him. He was a great orator. He organized farmworkers years before the UFW. He and his best friend Benny Vasquez were like Batman and Robin, heroes to campesinos in the tomato fields. Benny was shot twice by growers when he was organizing. I loved the action stories, but I never saw myself being an organizer. The war stories I heard from my relatives about jungle warfare and parachuting behind enemy lines in Korea were exciting, but I did not want to be a soldier either. Turns out, I became both. One, I try to forget about; the other became my duty in life.
BF and BG: Can you talk about some of your experiences with the UFW union?
FG: In 1974, I helped organize a strike of Mexican mushroom workers in Morgan Hill, a rural town, just south of San Jose. For two months, workers and community supporters walked the picket lines. Without telling us organizers, La Paz (UFW headquarters) called in the Immigration and Naturalization Service, la migra, on our strike. Cesar Chávez thought sin papeles (undocumented workers) were scabbing. In fact, because of the strong community support, our strike participation was 100 percent—no one crossed our line. Half of our strikers did not have papers. We were alerted about the raid from a local congressman’s office. We saved our people from it. The company did bring in African-American workers recruited from Oakland to break the strike. They rolled up with buses equipped with cow catchers. We formed a human barricade and blocked them. The scab contractor, Angie Davis, vowed to return with “hard heads” that would bust us up. With the help of our United Auto Workers (UAW) friends, the next day we mobilized one thousand people from the surrounding working-class communities to stop the scabs. Violence erupted when the buses tried to run us over. We stood firm, with dozens of us going to jail. The San Jose Mercury called it the “Battle at Steakmate.” Steakmate got an injunction that limited our picket lines, but we continued to picket. The UFW ended the strike after four months, alleging violence and needing organizers for building the Agricultural Labor Relations Board and lobbying work in Sacramento. Our strike became a boycott of Purina products. The memory of the courage of the workers and community supporters standing together was branded into the souls of workers in Morgan Hill and, two years later, they organized again; this time they won. I learned that when a community cares about workers, they can win.
BF and BG: As well as being a labor organizer, you have also had an extensive career in academia. What caused you to forsake the academy to go back to labor organizing?
FG: Forsake is not the term I would use. Returning from a long vacation is more accurate. I became an academic because I was burned out. I wrote my dissertation as an attempt to understand what I learned as a union and Chicano activist. I participated in my first strike in 1963, when I was a 17-year-old dishwasher at Washington Township Hospital in Fremont. I became a union steward in the hospital kitchen when our union, the Hospital Workers union, later Service Employees International Union 250, struck for recognition. We won after nearly a month on strike. From there, I went to work at Ford Milpitas. I flunked out of college. I went to Vietnam as a combat medic. I returned to the world in 1968. I got married, built a family, and while finishing college got involved in the Chicanx movement. I went to law school and was part of the Chicanx movement in San Jose. I was part of the San Jose contingent in the 1970 Chicano Moratorium. I was expelled for striking against the law school to get minority admissions. I joined the Partido Nacional de La Raza Unida and learned about Marxism-Leninism.
After that, I dedicated myself to ending racism and building worker power by building democratic working-class organizations from the bottom up. I fought many battles, winning some, but mostly losing. I was a rank-and-file member organizer in several unions, such as the UFW, UAW, United Steelworkers, California Nurses Association, International Association of Machinists, and Service Employees International Union. I was part of the union caucus movement, specifically in the UAW and Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), throughout the 1970s and ’80s. The caucus movements railed against undemocratic union bureaucracies, organized reform movements to “dump the chumps,” and moved to organize the unorganized. The caucus movement succeeded in bringing people of color and women into power in unions. The most well-known caucuses were the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, New Directions Caucus, and the Teamsters for a Democratic Union. The union caucus movements were also the impetus for the development of the Labor Research Review (a journal of insightful and practical labor research) and Labor Notes (publication and activist center of the U.S. labor movement).
In auto, I helped build the caucus movement, served on the UAW bargaining committee, and fought the concessions being negotiated by UAW leaders. I was laid off in the late 1970s. I then did some “hot shop” organizing and “salting” for the International Association of Machinists and Communications Workers of America and ended up like many laid off autoworkers at the Santa Clara Transportation Agency. As a mechanic, I became a member of ATU 265, which is where my real story begins. It was there that I began to realize that the assumptions of Marxist-Leninist analysis were limited and, thus, I began to use what has been called an “intersectional” analysis. Namely, I saw how different forms of oppression, based on race, gender, and occupation, intersected to create the structure of a workplace. Using this analytic tool and the base created by laid off autoworkers and friends in the Chicanx movement, we organized the already growing, but divided, dissident movements within ATU 265. For generations, the union had been run by white men. After the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the creation of the Urban Mass Transportation Act, ATU 265 grew from having 120 members to over 2,000, with people of color and women hired in large numbers. We also restructured the union constitution to include representation by occupation, which further aided racial and gender diversity. We negotiated the best contract in the ATU. More significantly, it made us influential participants in county, state, and national politics (such as when Bill Clinton appointed our central labor council business manager, Rick Sawyer, to represent the U.S. Department of Labor on the west coast).
ATU 265 was able to bring its new energy into the Santa Clara County Labor Council (CLC). This CLC had a long history of progressive politics, having led a statewide movement in opposition to the Vietnam War. Rank-and-file leaders like Virginia Muir and Fred Hirsch carried the traditions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and Business Managers like Peter Cervantes-Gauchi, Sawyer, and later Amy Dean brought the union movement into the leadership of the Santa Clara Democratic Party. ATU provided political money and activists. In 1984, I was elected secretary-treasurer, the second highest elected position. Our local political clout advanced our organizing and vice versa. Our downtown organizing project brought together core activists from different unions to organize all the major hotels and most of the restaurants in downtown San Jose, in some cases using “card check” elections. During much of this time, the union that had jurisdiction, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union 19, was out of commission, so organizing took place under the name of the Santa Clara County Labor Council. In 1996, my CLC became the model for the national American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (AFL-CIO) Union Cities project.
I was urged to run for political office. I was introduced to Silicon Valley executives and Democratic Party leaders statewide. I was convinced to run for the San Jose City Council. Local business interests and the funders of the Democratic Party began to tell me what they wanted for their support. I went to one too many cocktail parties hosted by the rich white folks in Santa Clara County and decided to drop out of the race. I was not ready for all the slime. I felt like I was losing my revolutionary soul, so I decided to go into academia.
While in graduate school, I organized professors for the AFT. After my PhD, in 1994, I went to Penn State as an assistant professor of industrial relations. I was advised that it was the best place to start to eventually get a job in the Ivy League. At Penn State, I met Howard Wial, a brilliant Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist and Yale lawyer, who also believed that unions were essential to U.S. democracy. We conducted a national study to determine the capacity of labor councils to implement labor organizing projects like the ones in my CLC. Our findings were published in Organizing to Win, a book that was instrumental in moving the AFL-CIO toward an organizing model. Our piece, “The Role of Central Labor Councils in Union Organizing in the 1990s,” captured the attention of the new AFL-CIO leadership because it framed the labor federation’s potential for community and regional organizing. Consequently, I was hired by the AFL-CIO as the principal researcher to assess the potential of the 602 CLCs to conduct organizing campaigns and build labor’s political power.
My research revealed eight characteristics of successful CLCs that became the pillars of the Union Cities project: (1) Organizing for change, changing to organize, (2) mobilizing against antiunion employers, (3) building political power and community coalitions, (4) promoting economic growth, protecting our communities, (5) educating union members in pocketbook economics, (6) generating support for the right to organize, (7) making sure our leadership mirrors the faces of our members, and (8) encouraging all local unions to increase their membership. (See “The AFL-CIO’s Road to Union City: A Bold Plan to Move Unions to the Left” in WorkingUSA 13 ). I helped organize John Sweeney’s “coming out party,” a thirty-thousand-person march through Watsonville, California, to support UFW strawberry-worker organizing in 1997. Placed in a historical context, I believe Union Cities created a cultural foundation for strategies that are and will advance social and economic justice and organize workers.
Union Cities began in 131 communities. Los Angeles was a pivotal city because 17 percent of the U.S. economy passed through its Alameda Corridor. Since its inception, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor had been led by conservative union leaders who followed George Meany, the first president of the AFL-CIO. Union density in the city in 1996 was about 12 percent compared to the national average of 15 percent. The principal officer of the CLC, James Wood, had just died. After a contentious, racially charged process, Miguel Contreras (former organizer and boycott leader in Canada for the UFW and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union National Representative) emerged as the new executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (LACFL). If Union Cities succeeded in Los Angeles, it could be a model for the rest of the labor movement. I joined the University of California Los Angeles labor center and became an associate professor at the Cesar Chávez Center for Chicano Studies. I also became president of a child care union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 1108.
BF and BG: Those positions connected you to the Chicanx liberation struggle, as well as to the local labor movement. What are some lessons from that experience?
FG: Renaldo Macias, chair of Chicano studies at the University of California Los Angeles, and I had an ongoing discussion. I believed that the UFW belonged, ideologically, to the Chicanx Movement. Macias felt these were two movements that had sympathetic interconnections but were distinct. I argued that strategic and theoretical errors are made when one tries to separate issues of race and class in the United States. I used the Steakmate strike as an example. I never stopped believing that the UFW was part of the Chicanx movement.
At the university, I helped the students establish a permanent Chicanx Studies Department, the Cesar E. Chávez Center. I became the Movimiento Estudiantil de Chicana/Chicanos de Aztlán (MEChA) faculty advisor because of my history in MEChA. I soon became the Southern California chair of the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies. I was also a founding member of the New Raza Left, an initiative to unite different sectors of the Chicanx left around a liberatory vision and program. Macias appointed me as service/learning coordinator and tasked me with developing classes that would link students with Los Angeles community issues. My students became part of the Union Cities project.
Because of my links to developing the AFL-CIO’s Union Cities, I was invited into the LACFL as a consultant. Through the University of California Los Angeles Labor Center, I worked with Contreras to restructure, strategize, and educate members of the LACFL. Kent Wong, chair of the Labor Center, went to law school with Contreras’s wife, Maria Elena Durazo of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees/Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, and other local politicians, including the future mayor. Wong facilitated a strategy group at James Lawson’s (Memphis sanitation workers strike leader) Holman church. This group of community and labor leaders studied and formulated activist ideas for action in Los Angeles. Labor leaders like Durazo, Eliseo Medina, Contreras, and civil rights leaders from the Chicanx and African-American community were making it a Union City. By understanding the demographic and political changes in Los Angeles and developing appropriate political and organizing strategies, union density grew from 12 percent to 18 percent in less than five years. The get-out-the-vote program of the LACFL registered almost two million Latinx voters and turned LACFL into the most potent community political force in California. Thinking outside the box about combining unions, racial justice, and environmental organizing, I found myself at odds with the more traditional labor and academic leaders. So, I retired and moved on.
BF and BG: What kind of labor work have you done in Oregon and what have you learned from organizing in a seemingly quite different place from a large urban center like Los Angeles?
FG: I ended up in Bend, Oregon, a beautiful place surrounded by the Cascade Mountains. Lots of lakes and rivers filled with red band rainbow trout. I learned fly fishing from the self-proclaimed “first Chicano” to live in Bend. I became avid about it. In 2002, I could go out and catch and release sixty fat trout a day.
Bend soon became known as the town of “poverty with a view.” Although billed as a resort and tourist town, Bend has a strong union history, some Industrial Workers of the World history, dating back to 1905. In 2003, I became president of the local central labor council (I was a member of the UAW), which was founded in 1916. Bend’s massive lumber mills were organized after the Second World War and in the 1950s the president of the Wood Workers Union, Jack Dempsey (not the boxer), was elected twice as Bend’s mayor. We maintained a strong working-class presence by hosting May Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Mexican Independence Day celebrations. We even renamed our Labor Day Picnic “Solidarity Day,” where we remembered and celebrated working-class heroes and victories. We hosted cultural presentations by Barbara Ehrenreich, Maya Angelou, and, to jump start our immigrant rights work, Dolores Huerta and David Bacon came to help us.
But the real work we did in Central Oregon was organizing workers. To facilitate union and community strategies, we created a Jobs with Justice chapter—led by Michael Funke, retired from the UAW—that linked ongoing social justice organizing with union battles. We expanded our CLC constitution to include non-AFL-CIO organizations too. This was not as successful given the restrictions of the national AFL-CIO. Wins included helping the Building Trades stop the building of a massive antiunion power plant by uniting Native, agricultural, environmental, and progressive white forces in Madras, where we recalled and elected a more environmentally friendly County Board of Commissioners. In Bend, we elected progressive city council members, created a public transit service, then organized the workers for the ATU. We organized educational and head start workers; recreational and service workers. We were largely successful in stopping all school bus privatization in Central Oregon. We stopped the building of a Walmart superstore. We built a powerful local immigrant rights movement that became part of the most influential immigrant rights movement in the state, Causa. We built Tenants United for Fairness to stop developers from wiping out manufactured home parks and leaving hundreds homeless by passing local and state laws requiring developers to pay homeowners for their losses (State Supreme Court later ruled the laws unconstitutional). And, after several attacks on gay and Black people, with the help of our all-white male building trades allies, we passed the second civil rights ordinance in the state that protected LGBT people and racial minorities from discrimination. This struggle took months of real battles with hundreds of right-wing religious zealots who opposed equal rights. We were able to unite broad mass forces to these campaigns by winning, as well as practicing what Bill Fletcher calls “mass strategic planning.” Through this inclusive process, we created a strategy and projects for working-class power. We consciously built what I call “a community of solidarity.” We had two central mottoes: “In Central Oregon Workers Stand Shoulder to Shoulder for Social Justice” and “No Worker Will Be Left Alone.” Our community of solidarity took material form when leaders in Jobs with Justice rented a building and named it the Social Justice Center, where many unions and social justice organizations shared office space.
In Central Oregon I worked largely with white workers, for which my experience in Pennsylvania helped prepare me. In Pittsburgh in 1996, I helped build a racial justice event focused on police murders. Jonny Gammage, cousin of Pittsburgh Steeler Ray Seals, died of “positional asphyxia” like George Floyd. Massive protests were organized. The Wheeling Pitt steel workers, all white, were on strike at the same time. I asked them to support our racial justice organizing. Pittsburgh is a racially and religiously segregated city. At our event, in zero-degree weather, dozens of Wheeling Pitt workers came carrying posters demanding that police stop attacks on the Black community. The local United Steelworkers president told me, “this is about justice for Black people, we stand for justice too.” I never learned if he was a socialist or not, but I came to believe that if you frame issues around the basic values of fairness, organizers can create connections and even change behavior. In my organizing life, I have seen workers change, including workers who were racist. But if you leave them isolated and never challenge ideas through action, nothing will change. After viewing Donald Trump-instigated “populism,” I now question my more optimistic assumptions.
I moved from Central Oregon to the Willamette Valley, where I organized a large unit of immigrant custodians within the Oregon School Employees Association. A mostly white union, I was told by my boss to be low key because white members did not think we should be organizing “illegals.” I got disciplined when I used Causa to make it a community issue. White members complained on the local right-wing Lars Larson radio show. Despite these racist attacks, we successfully organized and negotiated a contract for the sixty immigrant workers. Unions are part of structural racism. If the labor movement is ever going to represent the working class, they must come to terms with the role they have played in supporting white supremacy and that ending racism is at the center of creating worker power. When Causa became a statewide leader in immigrant rights and immigrants were elected to Oregon School Employees Association leadership, the association changed its “hide the immigrant workers” policy and now supports Causa. Unions can change if they are challenged and we organize for power.
I attempted to form a multiunion coalition to organize over five thousand privatized school bus drivers. As expected from bureaucrats, egos prevailed and union leaders would not buy in. Using aggressive community-based support and “offensive bargaining strategies,” which included all-member bargaining committees, we had success in winning three contracts, but without more union collaboration to create broader market share for bargaining leverage, each contract turned into a 24/7 organizing campaign because of unrelenting antiunion attempts to decertify (such as by the Koch-related National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation), as well as constant leadership turnover. When I retired, the impetus for continued organizing waned and the bad guys eventually won. Unions organized and helped legislate a $15 minimum wage plan and guaranteed sick leave pay, but these reforms did not translate directly into successful organizing.
BF and BG: What do you think the labor movement should be doing, and what are your thoughts about Trump’s support from white workers?
FG: Let us talk about Trump’s base. I have read how the shift in white worker support from Obama to Trump was 13 percent in 2016. True, they are seeking relief from neoliberal policies that seriously harmed them and all of us. But it is not just economics. Based on interviews I have conducted with white Trump supporters, their bond with Trump goes beyond common sense, economics, or even patriotism. It is tied to how they define their own “American” identity. In essence, they are looking for John Wayne, a return to a preconceived identity, values and beliefs rooted in white supremacy. Contrary to reality, these people believe the United States is a white nation. They feel entitled; for them, diversity, racial equality, and so on drains them of their privilege. For many, racial privilege over people of color and women is the only thing they have. When they say workers, they mean white people. Trump, like John Wayne, is a phony and serves only as a personality around which they can hang this delusion. Unfortunately, Trump is currently one of the most powerful personalities in the world.
Intersectional structural analysis could help unions better understand their organizations. But this will require class-conscious leaders, ones who recognize the implications of leading a multiracial, multigender, multioccupation union. Leaders will recognize that some workers suffer from the delusion of white supremacy and need to be challenged, and a large sector is “unrecognized” and faces deep racial, sexual, and gender oppression. Labor needs to build bridges between communities, linking struggles and developing a common program and collective strategies to achieve goals. Communities of solidarity are built out of local struggles. I had an opportunity to do this in Central Oregon, but there are other examples too, like the Richmond Progressive Alliance in California and the Atlanta (Georgia) Labor Council.
BF and BG: Through the Black Lives Matter movement, the Bernie Sanders campaign, the fight for $15 an hour minimum wage, and the DREAMers (those protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program), we are seeing a whole new multiracial generation of activists. What are some lessons you would like to share with them?
FG: At 74, I keep organizing and learning. My advice? Memorialize victories attained through collective struggle, share lessons, and when possible institutionalize social movements. Be willing to step back from what you think you know in new situations. Seek truth. Workers begin to organize because of other organizers. Organizers, like leaders, need training. Do not assume workers know what you know. Learn about the community and its history of struggle, build on local history and progressive values, make your organizing local and global in a practical sense. For example, when organizers beat city council candidates backed by Chevron in Richmond, California, they were part of a global climate justice movement.
Organizers need to develop strategy based on analysis and remember that workers and communities win when the community is invested in the outcome of worker struggle. Create local culture with social justice as the norm. Communities of solidarity permit labor, environmental, racial, and gender activists to maximize their collective power to change their piece of the world.
- Salting is the process by which individual volunteers go to work in a specific workplace to organize from the inside.
- Where the employer agrees to recognize the union if sufficient membership cards are produced by the union, to the satisfaction of the employer.
- An effort to revitalize central labor councils across the country by the national AFL-CIO.
- Kate Bronfenbrenner, Sheldon Friedman, Richard W. Hurd, Rudolph A. Oswald, and Ronald L. Seeber, eds., Organizing to Win (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).
- See Fernando Gapasin, “The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor: A Model of Transformation or Traditional Unionism?,” in Central Labor Councils and the Revival of American Unionism, ed. Immanuel Ness and Stuart Eimer (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2001).
- See Fernando Gapasin, “Building Communities of Solidarity from Madison to Bend,” in Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back, ed. Michael D. Yates (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012).
- Strategies are described in detail by Jane McAlevey in Rising Expectations (and Raising Hell) (New York: Verso, 2013).
- See Steve Early, Refinery Town (Boston: Beacon, 2017); Stewart Acuff, “The Atlanta Labor Council: Building Power Through Mirroring the Membership,” in Central Labor Councils and the Revival of American Unionism.
[Fernando E. Gapasin is a former professor of industrial relations and Chicanx studies. He was the principal researcher for the AFL-CIO Union Cities program. He has fifty-seven years of activism in the U.S. labor movement. He has led local unions and central labor councils. He is coauthor, with Bill Fletcher Jr., of Solidarity Divided. Bill Fletcher Jr. is a writer, longtime trade unionist, and former president of TransAfrica Forum. Bill Gallegos is a longtime Chicano liberation and environmental justice activist. He is the former executive director of Communities for a Better Environment.]