Interview with Patricia Campos-Medina on April 6, 2015 at the ILR School, Cornell University.
How did you first get introduced to the labor movement, and how did you get involved in some of your first organizing efforts?
I first arrived in the United States from El Salvador at age 14. Both of my parents had been undocumented workers so they didn’t have much when we arrived in the USA. As the daughter of immigrant parents, I saw firsthand the struggles that they faced as low wage workers, such as a lack of health insurance and benefits. When I arrived as a student at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, I wanted to better understand the U.S. labor law system so I could help people like them. During my time as a student, there was a lot of activism going on around campus.
For example, the UAW was organizing food service workers on campus, and COLA (The Cornell Organization for Labor Action) was supporting them. I became involved with COLA in support of the Justice for Cornell Workers Campaign and got my first taste of what power students can have if we organized. That initial experience led to my participation as a leader of the Day Hall Takeover, which was a protest by Latino students at Cornell demanding respect and more programs to support our academic experience. Also, around the same time UNITE brought maquiladora workers from El Salvador to Cornell’s campus to speak about their experiences making clothing for brands such as the GAP and NIKE. Many of these maquiladora workers were the same age as me, so I saw a lot of myself in them. The combination of these experiences while I was a student at Cornell sparked my interest and involvement in union activism.
In what ways have you seen the labor movement evolve over time?
One of the biggest evolutions of the labor movement has been the shift from excluding immigrant workers towards supporting and working with them. In 1995, John Sweeney became the new president of the AFL-CIO. Prior to this time period, immigrants were largely excluded from the labor movement. However, certain sectors began recognizing that in order to be successful, they needed to have a cooperative relationship with our Latin American neighbors. This included things such as having a regional understanding of what drives immigration flows, and the push and pull factors. Certain sectors began realizing that we need some sort of agreement to regulate this flow. For example, this was demonstrated in one immigration proposal wherein the AFL-CIO agreed to discuss a temporary worker visa program.
Although this proposal did not go anywhere in Congress, it nonetheless represented progress towards the inclusion of immigrant workers and the realization that we must have a regional solutions to immigration flows from Mexico and Central America. After the 9/11 terrorists attacks, the whole idea of a regional solution for immigration flows died, but I truly believe one day we will have to move the needle forward in finding a regional solution. Today, the labor movement is in fact one of the largest supporters of immigrant workers, and major unions dedicate their resources to organizing them. There is an understanding that in order to improve working conditions for all workers, we must not allow immigrant workers to be exploited. We must raise the standards for everyone.
How did your time serving on President Clinton’s Labor Advisory Committee on Trade influence your interests or perspectives on the labor movement?
As a member of Clinton’s Labor Advisory Committee on Trade, my role was to give advice to the USTR (United States office on Trade) on what issues labor cared about on specific trade agreements. At that time, I represented UNITE (the Apparel and Textile Workers Union) as the Legislative Director in Congress, so I felt a lot of responsibility representing textile workers in the US and advancing workers' rights for workers in Central America and the rest of the world. So working for fair trade policies changed my perspective. For example, it made me examine things such as how specific labor rights language impact people and why they should be a part of trade agreements. My role on this Committee was to give advice to the trade negotiators; however, right away I realized that our concerns as labor were an afterthought to them.
The Advisory Committee was only allowed to review the agreements after they had already been negotiated. So, essentially, we were there to talk about what the labor movement wanted to see, but this was not the place where things were going to change. There was more impact outside of the boardroom through lobbying Congress and organizing protests during each negotiation session. Nonetheless, my role was to give advice on how certain trade agreements would impact the apparel and textile industry, so I learned a lot about trade law and the negative impact those laws had on American workers.
What unique challenges exist when organizing immigrant workers, and where do we go from here?
In my experience, I have faced challenges organizing across industries, such as how to gain the trust of the workers, how to get workers to trust the union, and how to minimize anti-union tactics used by employers. The economic idea that the market gets rid of inefficiencies has existed for a long time, but it doesn’t happen by a magic hand. It happens because people make it happen. In recent years, globalization has led to a decline in manufacturing, and trade policies put an increasing number of permanent jobs overseas. In our service economy, some unions were slow to react to the changing economy and organize service workers. Organizations such as the UFCW and UNITEHERE, among others, recognized this struggle right away and launched early organizing efforts in the service industry in order to gain strength and maintain standards.
However, the biggest impediment for organizing today is that employers use the NLRA to stall elections. Going forward, we need to be more creative and learn from non-traditional worker organizations that are organizing workers outside of the NLRB boundaries. As a Co-Director of the Union Leadership Institute, we bring leaders together from traditional unions and leaders of non-traditional workers led organizations, like the Day Laborers and Workers Centers, to share experiences and learn from each other. At the end of the day, workers will always find a way to stand up and demand respect on the job. It is part of the history of mankind. As leaders of traditional organizations, we must be flexible and adapt to the changing dynamics of work, but always be unchangeable in our quest for fairness and justice for working people.