Puerto Ricans and Labor Organizing during the 1930s

In June 1937, the newly united and restructured Food and Hotel unions launched a massive organizing drive. An initial victory came with the organizing of the 52 restaurants and 3200 workers in the Childs restaurant chain, and many others followed.  But the 1937 strike at Horn and Hardart ended in failure.[22]  A January 1939 agreement with the members of the Hotel Association (63 hotels) set a standard for the entire industry of 41 cents/hour and a 48-hour week. The Hotel unions and their leaders helped form two of the Puerto Rican Community’s important activists. Gilberto Gerena Valentin and Armando Betances were both trained in these days of battle. One became a relatively apolitical union leader, while the other became perhaps the best-known radical Puerto Rican community leader through the 1970s.

Hotel organizer Armando Betances was born in Yauco in 1911 and migrated to New York after family troubles in 1927. He and his brother worked at the Plaza Hotel as silver polishers. In 1939, he was visited by a union agent at the hotel’s workers entrance and committed to the organizing effort. It took three years. He was fired once for getting workers to sign the cards required for an NLRB unionization vote, but his complaint to the Department of Labor got him reinstated. For Betances, Hotel union leader Jay Rubin was “el hombre que yo estaba esperando.” The hotel started improving conditions as soon as they learned the union drive was going on. Betances described his philosophy of organizing: “[I} was a rebel…I’ll fight for every little thing that is mine…and that’s the way I was all the time.”[23] Once the union arrived, pay was raised to $35/week for most workers, with many earning higher rates, twice the typical early-Depression era wages. Betances became a full-time union organizer in 1954.

Community activist Victor Gerena Valentin first migrated to New York with his parents around 1919. His impoverished and crisis ridden childhood was spent in New York and the island. His father was a Partido Socialista member who took him to marches, and later he was exposed to Albizu Campos’s Nationalism. Teased for being pale, blonde and blue-eyed (his grandparents were Spanish immigrants to Puerto Rico), he returned to join his siblings in New York in 1937 after finishing high school. His sister, a waitress, got him a dishwasher’s job at a restaurant and he started working as a volunteer organizer with Local 302 of the Cafeteria Workers Union. He recruited Spanish-speaking workers for the campaigns to organize the midtown cafeterias.  When he started working in hotels (turning down a full-time organizer position with Local 302) he moved up quickly from dishwasher to much better pay cleaning rooms. He wrote of his pride at being one of the first to sign the union card to organize hotel workers under Local 6 of the Hotel Workers Union. He was elected union delegate in 1939 and started studying at nights at city college. His aptitude tests as well as his skin color got him on the exam to become an air force officer during WWII, but he purposefully botched the exam and ended up as radio operator and gunner on bombers. His contact with communist-led guerillas in the Philippines fighting the Japanese occupation helped reinforce his anti-imperialism. When he returned as a decorated veteran to his hotel job in New York he became a close collaborator of the Communist Party and the American Labor Party. By the late 1950s, Gerena Valentin would become one of the Puerto Rican community’s most important civil rights leaders.

Continue to Puerto Ricans, The Communist Party and
The Hispanic Popular Front, 1929-1948

[20]Herbart Solow, “The New York Hotel Strike,” The Nation, 28 February 1934; “LaGuardia Hears Hotel Strike Pleas, New York Times, 8 February 1934.

[21] “Walkout is Called at 17 More Hotels,” New York Times, 17 March 1936.

[22] Labor Action, 30 December 1940.

[23] Interview with Armando Betances, Oral History Collection, Centro Archive; Interview with Armando Betances, Oral History Collection, The Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.