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Latino unionists pursue big goals.

OAKLAND, Calif - While political observers wait for California's growing Hispanic population to make its mark at the ballot box, a new generation of labor activists is eyeing a different route to empowerment. Reared in the struggles of the United Farmworkers in the 1960s and '70s these activists view unions as more than a mechanism for getting higher wages or benefits or supporting this or that candidate at the ballot box. Theirs is a broader vision: to organize those at the bottom rungs of the work force to become a real force in the larger civic life.

"A lot of people talk about the sleeping giant," says Gabriel Hernandez, a union organizer in Oakland, Calif., "and the numbers can't be denied. In San Jose, there's one Latino for every other person and in Los Angeles it's even more. But what hasn't happened yet is a political consciousness to go with the demographic explosion. That's what we're all about."

Hernandez, a staff organizer with the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, uses his office on weekends and evenings to train Hispanic high school students in basic organizing skills. Similarly Mike Garcia went from organizing barrio youth to organizing janitors in Silicon Valley, while Eliseo Medina, born in Mexico and raised on strikes in the Central Valley fields, now heads a union involved in organizing on both sides of the Tijuana-San Diego border.

These activists share the visions of future political power that build on what was achieved through strikes and electoral politics but go further. They are banking on the demographic sea change that has since occurred in the work force, particularly in California where it has become younger, poorer and more immigrant. The key to their strategy is forging ever tighter and more comprehensive cooperative relationships between unions and the workers' communities - the model the UFW pioneered in the 1960s and '70s. Today's Latino organizers have little patience with the idea that unions can just take those communities for granted, counting on them to get out the vote or fill the picket lines when needed. On the contrary, they are immersing themselves in issues at the heart of community concerns - schools, crime, housing, environmental safety.

"Old thinking used to say if you can get economic justice, then social justice will follow," says Gabriel Hernandez. "But it's not necessarily true. Most social justice struggles don't revolve around the workplace. If unions stay out of them, they're not helping the community much at all."

Field laborers have always referred to the UFW as "la causa." They hoped more would come from their struggles than better wages and benefits from growers. They wanted to use the union as a weapon to end discrimination in schools where their children were punished for speaking Spanish, or the political apartheid that ensured a tiny minority of white growers and their allies would hold all the key offices in rural towns where Mexican and Filipino farm workers were the majority.

Under 12 years of Republican governors, that vision became increasingly difficult to achieve. But the new generation of Latino labor activists are now reinvoking the vision with impressive results.

In Los Angeles, organizers among immigrant workers convinced the AFL-CIO to help workers file applications for immigration amnesty after the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in the late 1980s. Thousands of workers became legal residents and many joined the California Immigrant Workers Association, a support network for the state's burgeoning immigrant work force. Under the conservative leadership of Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO hierarchy in Washington criticized the CIWA for not doing more straight organizing and cut its budget. But CIWA nevertheless built a membership base that has helped launch strikes among Southern California construction workers and serves now as a resource for new organizing drives in Los Angeles' industrial sweatshops.

When Proposition 187 became a lightning rod for anti-immigrant sentiment, CIWA organizer Joel Ochoa helped from a coalition of unions, soccer clubs, Mexican hometown associations, churches and immigration rights groups. Two weeks before the election, they led 100,000 people up Cesar Chavez Boulevard through East Los Angeles. Many elected officials criticized the marchers for antagonizing white voters by waving Mexican flags in Los Angeles streets. But Ochoa and other march organizers responded that the act of marching was a way of politicizing immigrants themselves, helping ensure they would not become passive victims of anti-immigrant hysteria.

In northern California, Hernandez faced the same criticism. For two years he worked with Latino students in high schools who walked out of classes to demand curriculum changes reflecting the importance of Spanish-speaking people and culture. When Proposition 187 came along, student walkouts grew more coordinated and threatening.

"Lots of people called me (to complain) when the walkouts began escalating," Hernandez says. "But these young people just don't see anything out there for them. They're really angry. At least they found a way to say what they felt about it."

Ultimately, Hernandez sees himself teaching young people skills they can use in every aspect of their lives. "My job is to help them hook up with each other, hook up their issues with those of other people, hook up their own ideas to a bigger picture of the world - and hook up to unions, too."
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Title Annotation:exploding Spanish-speaking population in California must be mobilized down to the bottom rung of society
Author:Bacon, David
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jan 19, 1996
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