Fighting to Empower: Elvis Mendez of National Guestworker Alliance

Fish Processing Workers in New Orleans
May 24, 2016
Helen Shanahan

As the Lead Organizing Director for the Northeast region of the National Guestworker Alliance, Elvis Mendez has experienced first-hand the challenges and triumphs of organizing a primarily immigrant based workforce. We were able to speak with him regarding his current project for fish processing workers in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Elvis Mendez is the Lead Organizing Director for the Northeast region of the National Guestworker Alliance. The alliance’s purpose is to empower guest workers to create a more level playing field.

Elvis began formally working with immigrants and organizing right out of college but has been involved with the broader immigrant experience since he and his family first immigrated to the United States. He grew up with his parents working two to three jobs each and watched how hard it was for them just to try to get ahead.

Elvis is currently working in New Bedford, Massachusetts on the New England Seafood Workers’ Association efforts. This project involves mostly immigrant workers, both documented and undocumented. The goal is to create an environment where workers are able to have a greater voice and better conditions so they can make a greater contribution to their workplace.

The fish processing industries of New Bedford used to have a strong collective voice for the workers but this has disappeared in recent years. The introduction of the temporary work agencies have created an extra barrier between the workers and their employers. The employees no longer have the same voice over their working conditions as they once did.

He expressed the challenge of organizing in this effort and more broadly in getting people to “believe in themselves and their ability to collectively solve things.” Especially in an industry comprised of workers from different countries and cultures, getting people to feel connected and powerful can be a challenge.

Elvis maintains that his group has found it necessary to be clear that what his group is doing in New Bedford is not union organizing but rather building worker centers and promoting work education. Management has resisted with the argument that there is no need for outside organizations to intervene in their work place.

He finds the talk about mass deportation and building walls to be inspiring the immigrant workforce to speak up and take action. He points to the increase in citizenship applications during this year as a possible indicator of this excitement.

Elvis has found that while upper level management are often critical of government oversight, and blame President Obama for the problems in the workplace, they have taken little responsibility for their own actions.

The best part of Elvis’ job, in his opinion, is being able to meet new people and develop relationships and friendships with these people. He points out that by doing this he is able to learn about different cultures and  discover what people’s hopes and aspirations are. And he notes that doing this while being able to help improve people’s livelihoods is powerful.