On the Latino Union: An interview with Eric Rodriguez

In July AREA Chicago interviewed Eric Rodriguez, an organizer on the Northwest side in Albany Park with Latino Union’s worker center at 3416 W. Bryn Mawr.

Can you describe the process of how LU spreads information both internally and externally about a new challenges or policies? How does that internal spreading of information then develop into a response?

Basically, we use a lot of popular education. Using this method, everyone is recognized as having something to contribute and to teach. It is not structured where everyone sits down and listens to one person. Instead we all get into a circle and share what we know and compile it together. Popular education is a teaching tool, but it’s also an organizing tool. The Latino Union has worked hard through the years since its founding to develop a democratic decision-making process internally with its members and staff. This decision making process, much inspired by the popular education method, generates a space for reflection and learning in order to insure the complete participation of those being affected.
Lis Conde, our organizer who works with workers on the south side, has developed a very dynamic workshop called “Know Your Rights.” This workshop focuses on what to do and what your rights are as a resident if you are approached by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The training gets everyone involved in the learning process, where individuals can reflect on the realities of an actual raid happening, their potential responses, how they and their families would be affected… It creates a space for learning which involves the active participation of those attending the workshop by means of role playing and discussions on various real life cases. It also creates room for decision-making. As a group, the attendees of the workshop create steps they would take to protect their rights as residents in case of a raid.
The “Know Your Rights” workshop is an example of how the Latino Union spreads information internally and develops its responses. Staff and members come from various backgrounds and bring different perspectives to an issue, and the opinion of everyone is important in order to insure a complete understanding of an issue and the formation of a response by the group. The spread of information happens through various means which can include workshops, flyers (including pictures which help illustrate the information being spread), discussions, art, music, meetings, press conferences (which can reach people besides our members), and other creative forms.

In the fall you are starting a Day Labor University. What will this look like and how will it work? Are there models that you are influenced by?

We are definitely influenced by popular education. So through these methods we want to make sure that everyone is developed as a leader, so that if something happens to me or any other organizer, the workers know what do and how to do it. Through the university, we hope to ensure that all the workers know the basic skills of public speaking, decision-making process, facilitation of meetings, power analysis, talking to the media, who to contact in case of emergencies, how to collect stolen wages (we have a procedure for that—all the basic tools to organize yourself. The Latino Union’s mission is to insure that our members, who we collaborate with in order to improve their social and economic conditions, are developed as leaders of their own struggle. Our members have unique, different backgrounds, and many of them bring different skills to the table. The Day Labor University will serve as a tool to sharpen those skills and to facilitate the process of learning new skills.

A lot of the stuff you are talking about focuses on peoples’ daily lives as workers. What is the role of political education?

One of the other topics we are going to cover is a history of day labor. For a lot of folks who are new to this country, it is important to understand what has happened over the last 100 years here. This is especially important because of the new collaboration between AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions with the National Day Labor Network.

What role do you see the day labor movement having in shaping the traditional labor movement these days? It seems like you are less isolated from them now.

Well, I think its just a phase in history. If you remember when unions were starting here, some workers were day laborers, some were street workers—they were all immigrants and so when I read that history it amazes me how much it resembles what we are doing today. What happens is that a lot of those radical immigrants who started the union movement in this country had kids and generations passed and they kind of forgot about the immigrant. Now they are seeing that if they want to survive and increase their membership, they need to go back to that and create that renewed recognition. Not all unions are there yet. Especially here in Chicago. We are going to be working with the Workers’ Collaborative, Interfaith Workers Center, and San Lucas Workers Center—to work with labor allies and prepare them for more collaboration. In other places, the unions are there and are ready for that already. We still need to do that education here, which involves having the workers participate in these education sessions. So far it has mostly been us being invited to forums organized by trade unions and having discussions in that way. What we have to help some unions (not all of them) understand is that corner day laborers are not effecting them or the number of jobs they get. Many studies have shown that they serve a really specific sector of the construction industry that the unions really forgot about: the small contractors and the home owners. Being able to just have conversations right now about how our different organizations work is really important as a start. It is a way of introducing ourselves to one another and talking through those stereotypes that we might all have of each other.

How are worker centers influencing policy or regulatory bodies?

The US Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has worked with the Latino Union—and other sister organizations of ours from other states—in educating workers about safety precautions to take at work, and informing workers about the obligation that contractors have in assuring a safe environment for them to work in. The Latino Union entered into a collaboration with OSHA, Truman College, and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) to provide scholarships for corner day laborers from the center and the street corner to attend two day-long workshops on health and safety at the workplace given by OSHA instructors. Previously, their trainings had focused on reporting violations or problems to OSHA, which will get them to come do an investigation. We had to explain to them that in day labor we are not there permanently—we work there one day and then move on to another job. We explained that their system of reporting violations wouldn’t work for us. After hearing this from us, they are now redeveloping their workshops for day laborers that focus on moving from job site to job site. This collaboration has widened the understanding of the importance of creating trainings designed exclusively for the day labor sector, since the amount of abuse and hazardous working conditions is so prevalent.

What about working with academics?

The Latino Union is very proud with the relationships we have been able to establish with various different academic institutions through out the years. One of our ongoing projects is in collaboration with the UIC School of Public Health, Joe Zanoni and Chicago Labor Education Program’s Francisco Montalvo Jr, to create a new method of teaching workers about health and safety topics—which includes much of their own perspectives and experiences. We have held three different charlas [discussions] with workers from the Albany Park Workers’ Center on topics such as health and safety at the workplace, demolition safety practices, safety at high altitudes and others. Our goals were to facilitate a discussion between the workers—in order for them to share their experiences and knowledge on health and safety at the job site—and to combine it with information brought by other sources, in order to create workshops and materials designed exclusively for day laborers in the construction industry. We hope that this new method of sharing experiences and knowledge can help promote the importance of being safe at the workplace and help create awareness in the corners and center.