MILR student reflects on union organizing workshop in LA

Reflections on a union organizing workshop
Striking Workers
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Leo Chan, MILR '09, recently attended a three-day union organizing workshop sponsored by the Asian Pacific American Labor Association (APALA) and the AFL-CIO. It was held at the UCLA Labor Center in downtown Los Angeles. Here, Leo shares his personal reflections on the program and his participation in an action campaign against a local car wash taking place during his stay in LA.

When we introduced ourselves to each other that first morning, I was amazed at the diversity of the participants.  We ranged from well-seasoned union leaders from UNITE-HERE, SEIU and various rank and file members from local union chapters to academics and students.  Over half the participants were undergraduate or graduate students studying in schools all over the west coast in a labor-related field.

Through a mixture of role plays and lectures, I was introduced to the union organizing process.  With seminars conducted by union leaders and role-playing hypothetical scenarios to reinforce what was learned, I learned the six stages of a house visit and the strategies that are used within each stage: 

  • Get in the door
  • Get the story
  • Give a vision of the campaign and the union
  • Inoculate against employer,
  • Assess
  • Aggravate

With each stage, we had plenty of opportunities to practice in small and large group simulations and role plays.  The instant feedback by the teachers was quite useful.  It was intense but I found myself receiving better feedback as the training progressed which gave me the motivation to continue on.

Aside from the classroom instruction, many other activities were planned.  A mock captive audience meeting, numerous guest speakers ranging from a speech by an undocumented student to talks given by city council delegates, and designing picket signs were all part of the program.

The highlight event, for me, was when we all participated in an action campaign against a local car wash as part of the "Clean Carwash Campaign."  This particular car wash was underpaying their employees and had just wrongfully discharged an employee.  We joined with a local union and picketed on the sidewalk outside the car wash for three hours. This was my first time walking on a picket line.

Before this, I had been skeptical to the actual impact a picket line has on people. This experience completely made me a believer.  When we were able to turn cars away, an indescribable sense of conviction and optimism swept over our group. It was enlightening to sense the group synergy develop amongst us. The importance of what we were doing can best be summarized by a subtle interaction I had with one of the workers. Given the presence of supervisors, the employees ignored us while working.  However, an employee who was washing a SUV right by the fence said "muchas gracias" to me.  The interaction lasted less than a second, but the impact on me will last a lot longer.

I want to thank Professor Lance Compa for informing me of this training program and to Kent Wong of the UCLA Labor Center for putting together this wonderful workshop.  

A special note of appreciation goes to Malcolm Uno Amado and his staff at APALA for making it possible for me to attend and partake in this wonderful event.  I hope other students at the ILR School who are interested in the labor movement and the advancement of worker rights will be able to attend and participate more in workshops such as this.