Portrait of an Organizer

Union organizer Yolanda Miranda gazes out of her Venice apartment at the crowd on the boardwalk. She’s finally kicking back – or so it seems, until she pronounces, “I would bet you anything, half those people hate their jobs and their bosses.”

Organizing is not a job for 53-year-old Miranda. It’s a way of life. “I’ve been organizing since I was a kid, picking grapes with my family in the San Joaquin Valley,” says Miranda. “You’ve got to be born with a love of people and a hatred for injustice if you want to be a union organizer – and a lack of sense about when to keep your mouth shut,” she laughs.

The phone rings. It’s a hospital worker in Palm Springs complaining about discrimination against Filipino nurses. “Don’t worry. You’re not alone,” Miranda assures her. “We’re gonna keep at them until management learns it’s got to treat everyone with respect.”

Yolanda Miranda is a bad boss’ worst nightmare. She is what Pete Wilson or Ronald Reagan would describe as an outside agitator or rabble-rouser. Always behind the scenes, always pushing workers to stand up for their rights. “I’m a front-line organizer,” she says, “constantly out there with the workers. I’d go crazy sitting in an office being a union official.”

Miranda is not someone who can be easily run over – literally. Once, while leafleting in front of a garment shop in Arizona, she was intentionally struck by a supervisor driving a van. Miranda picked herself up and chased the van down the street to the cheers of the organizing committee.

Her four children received a liberal education by participating in rallies, marches, picketlines, strikes and boycotts with their mother. Two of them grew up to be boxers. One – Paul Banke – was world Super Bantamweight champion and local hero at the Inglewood Forum before being diagnosed with AIDS. Banke credits his mother with giving him the courage to become the first fighter to go public with his condition in order to build awareness of the AIDS epidemic.

Miranda bristles when I suggest she empowers people. “That’s a Yuppie word. No one can empower anyone else. All you can do is show people that they have the power within themselves to determine their future or change the way they’re treated at work.”

Fear is the great enemy that has to be defeated before people can be free, Miranda believes. “Cesar (Chavez) taught me the importance of having hopes and dreams. Without them, you can’t overcome your fears and stand up for your rights on the job.”

It was natural for Miranda, coming from a migrant farmworker family, to embrace the hopes and dreams of Chavez and the United Farm Workers union. She became a field organizer in Salinas, and loved it. “That was my first experience with seeing how people in an organizing campaign can grow right before your eyes. They stop being depressed. They stop fighting with each other. You can see the energy radiating right out of them.”

By now, Miranda, herself, seems to be glowing. “I admit it. Organizing is my passion. I get high being around people who are fighting injustice,” she cries.

Suddenly, her eyes flash with fire when I ask if unions are out of date. “That’s crazy. As long as there’s management, corporations, bad bosses, workers will need to organize.” It’s true, Miranda admits, unions have been losing ground lately. “That’s because people are scared silly of losing their jobs. It’s the fear factor at work. But it’s turning around. Just wait and see,” she predicts.

Miranda came to the urban labor battleground during the UFW grape boycott, and has since became a much sought-after organizer. In the last fifteen years, she’s organized garment workers, hospital workers, reporters, pressmen, office workers and registered nurses for a variety of unions.

All workers are pretty much the same, says Miranda, whether they think of themselves as professionals or whether they have dirt and grease under their finger nails after a day at work. “Everyone wants the same things, a little dignity and respect, the ability to make ends meet and to know they’ll have a job next week or next year. But, that’s becoming harder and harder to realize in this country. That’s why unions will make a strong comeback. People have not choice but to organize,” she confides.

In the past few months, Miranda has rebuilt a long-dormant organizing committee at a desert hospital. A two-year delay caused when the hospital went to court to try to block a union election victory made the job harder than usual.

Miranda outlines her basic approach to organizing. “The first step is getting workers talking to one another about their common problems. Any group of workers can do it, you don’t need an organizer to hold your hand. A union organizer’s role is to give workers the resources and technical assistance they need to win,” says Miranda. “Just don’t wait until massive layoffs are announced or the company is sold,” she cautions. “Then it may be too late.”

“Once people develop trust with their coworkers, they’re ready to take on the boss,” she declares. “It’s easier in a small workplace where everyone knows everyone else. If there are hundreds of workers, that’s where my computer and database come in. We make sure every department is represented by someone at regular meetings.”

In an organizing drive, most unions collect workers’ authorization signatures calling for an election for collective bargaining. If the union wins, its bargaining committee can negotiate a binding contract that gives workers some protections and guaranteed pay and benefit levels.

“We can also ask for direct recognition of our union by the boss. That’s faster, but hard to do if the boss was the problem in the first place,” says Miranda. “Another way is to strike for recognition, but this takes a higher level of commitment than most workers are willing to make in today’s political climate.”

Being a woman and a Latina (don’t call her a Hispanic – “that’s the government’s name for us,” growls Miranda) has both helped and hurt her work as an organizer. “People of color are often nearly invisible to management. I can go into a workplace and blend in without anyone getting wise.”

On the other hand, discrimination is a constant factor. “Racism is the best tool ever invented to divide workers. Sexism is very close behind. In organizing, we have to break down the barriers of workers congregating only with their own type. Unions are the most racially mixed organizations in America. Like everything else it’s a struggle. I have to constantly urge women and people of color into leadership roles in organizing campaigns.”

One of 14 children, Yolanda Miranda is as Californian as they come. Her family (which includes cousin Luis Valdez, playwright and founder of the Teatro Campesino) has toiled for generations in the fields, and like most farmworkers has reaped few benefits. She believes it is this heritage that motivates both her and Valdez to dedicate their lives to a fight for a better and happier society.

Fighting for a more just society has been an uphill struggle in recent years. “Our family has lived here in California for generations,” Miranda reflects. “We’ve welcomed immigrants coming over California’s eastern border, only to see many of them turn into racists and bigots with Proposition 187 and English-only campaigns.”

The struggle is an uphill one, acknowledges Miranda, observing that we live in two societies in this country. “Out on the street, it’s a democratic country. We have freedom of speech, we can talk and do as we feel. But once we go to work, it’s fascism. For the next eight hours, we have no rights. If we say the wrong thing or the boss just doesn’t like us, he can terminate us. Termination. Now there’s a scary word.”

For Miranda, then, the challenge is to break down the barriers between the political and economic spheres. “All we’re doing by organizing unions is bringing a little democracy into the workplace. It gives us the right to a voice on the job, the right to a vote on a contract, the right to have a job steward stand up for us just as a lawyer would on the outside. How could anyone with a heart by opposed to this?” asks Miranda.

Beyond Miranda’s apartment, the crowd on the boardwalk is thinning out. “They’ve had their whiff of democracy and freedom,” says the organizer. “Monday morning, it’s back to regimentation and fascism on their jobs.”

(A version of this article appeared in the Los Angeles View)

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