The Rebellion of the “Exploited” Workers
During 1956 and early 1957, the fight against racket unions exploded on the New York and national scene. At the national level federal authorities led the effort in part as an effort by pro-business groups to weaken militant unionism. But in New York this movement connected initially disparate interests, bringing together groups that had made efforts to improve the status of Puerto Rican workers but had not yet coalesced. By the summer of 1957, worker insurgency and interventions from multiple actors had exploded into a dizzying daily narrative. At the factory level, the movement had no central leadership and involved thousands of workers and dozens of leaders and institutional actors. This was just the start. Puerto Rican workers mobilized pickets, met with journalists and lawyers, migration division staff, filed NLRB petitions, scuffled with police and managed the tremendous workplace demands of organizing, often clandestinely, petitions, protests, strike plans and rebellions aimed at both the bosses and the union. The list of actions is impressive, as well as the commitment by both workers and their allies to rid themselves of a sinister threat that not only diminished the wages of the “exploited” workers but threatened the image and politics of the entire labor movement.
The first major intervention by the ACTU developed in early October 1956 at leather products factories Rudees and Morgan’s. Initially both efforts failed as employers were able to break the resolve of many of the workers, even after strikes and pickets were formed. Before the October strike and NLRB decertification filing, workers had organized the “Workers Organizing Committee.” The WOC, led by Juan Hernandez and others, publicly challenged AFL-CIO leadership in September to support their efforts and their insurgency against those who “prey on Puerto Rican workers.” They explained that they “Want to belong to the American labor movement but could never remain a party to this city-wide exploitation of Puerto Rican workers by Lustigman…Help us and other workers who are in the clutches…we are in great fear of our lives, and our bosses who are now instituting speed ups and are firing some of our workers.” That September the NLRB recognized the WOC as a legal union.
By late 1956, ACTU was helping coordinate worker revolts in a few dozen factories and had embarked in a major campaign against the corrupt unions that were part of the AFL-CIO. ACTU had been using its networks of workers and activists to investigate the IJWU since January 1956 when workers at one plant visited Perez, coordinator for the PR Labor Committee to complain about their local. In March Puerto Rican women from Lido Toys complained of bias with a formal complaint to the State Commission against Discrimination (SCAD) against Local 222. A cascade of revolts against Jewelry Worker’s Local 222 followed. Workers at Knomark Manufacturing, Emenee Industries, Deliza and Ester Co., Fulton Manufacturing, Lomart Industries, Barjo Manufacturing, Perma Plating, Grand Novelty, Inc. and others filed petitions throughout 1957 for National Labor Relations Board decertification votes.
The process was not an easy. At Emenee Toy Co. nearly 200 workers were called back to the shop after they staged a wildcat strike and Local 222 threatened workers with lay off if they did not withdraw the NLRB petition. After months of delays and preemptive wage concessions the decertification vote lost but workers gained a 25% raise and some health benefits.
JWU and other large operators with corrupt locals was not the only problem. ILGWU, Teamsters, IBEW and the Meat Cutters had some local that received complaints. ILGWU in particular was singled out for having locals that did little to move workers, the majority of them Puerto Rican women, out of the $45/week minimum wages mandated by the union contract. Workers under contract went “unserviced” for years and employers could determine workloads freely, while firing those who complained when vacation or holiday pay was not fulfilled. ACTU concluded, probably in an exaggerated mode so typical of its denunciations, that “very few unions, even the legitimate ones, are solicitous of their Puerto Rican members.”
By the spring of 1957 ACTU had encouraged a torrent of protest and mobilization. The workers of nineteen factories were involved and more would join in. ACTU tactics combined legal strategies with direct militant action at workplaces followed by a campaign of letter writing and public protest. Their efforts received increased attention when Puerto Rican workers went to picket the AFL-CIO’s second national convention in Atlantic City for inaction in ridding the New York City labor movement of corrupt locals. A few months later AFL-CIO president Meany claimed to be shocked by reports in the New York Times that Puerto Ricans when seeking jobs from employment offices requested non-union jobs because of the “bad name given to unions by racketeers and ‘sweetheart’ contracts.”
In coordination with workers and the ACTU during 1957, the Spanish language press, the Migration Division, the Mayor’s Committee and other entities began logging complaint cases with the AFL-CIO itself. After its own central review of these complaints the AFL-CIO took its own tally of the massive work that had to be done.
Both Spanish language dailies ran daily stories and columns on the labor fights to end “exploitation.” El Diario provided an outlet for grievances which allowed journalist Jose Lumen Roman to magnify and perhaps multiply the initial efforts of workers, lending support and legitimacy to their complaints. Complaints were referrd to unions, the CLC, the MD and other agencies and and Lumen himself presented hundreds of complaint letters when he testified in Congress at the McClellan hearings. For years, he kept the complaints and demands of Latino workers on the front cover of El Diario.
Between 1953 and the early 1960s, workers, unions and their allies carried out a pitched fight against the corrupt racket unions typical of the low wage, low skill factories described above. The process became the center of Puerto Rican-labor movement relationship at many levels, mobilizing the resources that other Puerto Rican gained from membership in higher skill, higher pay positions and their membership in legitimate unions. The critical piece in this linkage was the support of the Central Labor Council—a consensus emerged among these leaders that the problem was simultaneously political, moral, and economic and could be framed as one central to the core goals and principles of the labor movement.