Fight Against “Exploitation,” Initial Efforts

Initial Efforts: The Migration Division

The Migration Division (the office of Puerto Rico's Labor Department in New York) was involved in promoting the organization of workers and in linking Puerto Ricans to “legitimate” unions. Among the different interventions the MD carried out, it sent its own investigators to visit plants and then followed up with union, city or federal agencies, using the contacts of MD staff and directors in the union movement to encourage organizing drives or decertification votes against corrupt locals. The MD balanced its need to be discrete with its intimate knowledge of worker experiences and complaints. It often chose a quiet path to address worker demands because of the sensitive politics of Puerto Rican politics in New York and the official status of the office.In the mid-1950s, the MD intensified its role as a facilitator and instigator of worker’s demands. During the early 1950s it had been involved in crisis minor interventions and large scale facilitation among the major AFL and CIO unions, but the MD was not ready to handle the deluge of protests that its own work had helped generate after the mid 1950s.

The signs of the exploitation of this large minority of Puerto Rican workers were visible to community leaders since at least 1950. Federal Labor Department officials including Arthur White, Labor Department Regional Director for New York, noted in their bulletin that "many Puerto Ricans working in New York City may not be receiving the minimum wage of 75 cents and are not being paid time and one-half for overtime.”[3] Practically any article written about Puerto Rican migrants in the post-war years at last mentioned the exploitative conditions that many found in factories and other workplaces.

Escalating complaints in 1955 involved the Migration Division further. The revolt of workers at Jay Kay Metal Specialties Corp of Long Island City in Queens provided one example of Migration Division involvement with workers. Other complaints received by the Migration Division increased after 1955 once workers became bolder and learned on how to call for support from various actors, including the MD. By the mid-1950s the work of the Migration Division was so visible that Communist Party activist Jesus Colon, who still led the party’s Spanish speaking section, commended the Migration Division for its approach to labor organizing in the mid-1950s.[4]

Continue to The Association of Catholic Trade Unionists

[3] "Exploitation of Puerto Ricans." Labor Law Journal 1, no. 6 (1950): 469; Wage Thieves Facing Big Fine New York Amsterdam News, 11 October 1952, 21.

[4] Position Paper, Jesus Colon Collection, Centro Archive.