Charting a new path to workers' rights

Posted: September 05, 2011

Labor entrepreneur Fabricio Rodriguez, 37, didn't come up the traditional way through the rank-and-file of an official AFL-CIO labor union, yet he started two worker organizations. One now represents security guards at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His latest venture is the Philadelphia Restaurant Opportunity Center, an advocacy group. Just in time for Labor Day, Rodriguez spoke with Inquirer staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen about fighting for workers.

 Question: You were a high school dropout who drifted from job to job. But while working with your father in a mine in Alaska, you had an experience that led you to get an education and advocate for workers. What happened?

Fabricio Rodriguez: It was a real cowboy kind of a mine, fairly unregulated, private owner. A real tough guy. He decided he was going to push my father around because he knew he was undocumented, but my dad's not the kind of guy you can push around.

Q: What was the dispute?

Rodriguez: At one point, he walked up on my father, who had stopped working and was eating his lunch. The boss said, you have to work and eat at the same time. My dad laughed and kept eating.

Q: To make a point, your father tried to get the other workers to join him eating lunch in front of the boss.

Rodriguez: It was just me and my dad. Everybody else got scared. At the end of the shift, the boss screamed at us in front of everybody. I was terrified. When the boss got done, my father just took a deep breath and said, "[Boss], every day you stop working and you wash your hands and you eat your lunch. I am a man just like you are and every day, I am going to do the same thing. That moment, it changed my life - to see that kind of courage and that kind of dignity.

Q: You both got fired. How did it eventually turn out?

Rodriguez: My father got his citizenship and fought that firing through the National Labor Relations Board. Eventually he won. They had to give him his job back and his back pay. And more importantly, they had to create lunch stations. To this day, all those guys have somewhere to wash their hands and somewhere to eat their lunch.

Q: You've started two worker groups from the bottom up - what motivates you?

Rodriguez: The most exciting part of this work is deeply tied to my own transformation. Seeing regular working people get empowered and build strength and utilize their shared resources and be creative together and be courageous together. To me that's the essence of what we do.

Q: You've operated outside the traditional union structure. What's labor's future?

Rodriguez: Well, I would say, it doesn't look good for the traditional labor movement and it doesn't bring me any joy to say that. But the trajectory over the last 50 years is a steady decline.

Q: Just to play the devil's advocate here, but so what?

Rodriguez: I think the labor movement is essential, that's why I'm involved in it. Working people have to have a voice in this economy. Traditional labor unions have served that role, but they have internal problems.

Q: What kinds of problems?

Rodriguez: Employers have found every way to prevent justice by advantaging that [National Labor Relations Board] system. Because of that system, labor unions are more dependent on attorneys and experts and consultants, and that takes a lot of money. I think a true worker justice movement is fundamentally at a disadvantage because we're not about the experts.

Q: So what's next?

Rodriguez: More than anything, [unions] aren't going to come back for us. When you talk about organized labor being 9 percent [of private sector employment], unions can't save most of the American workforce. Working people have to have a voice, but we can't wait around to be saved. We're going to have to save ourselves. Working people have to take some initiative and organize themselves.

Q: Usually we'd see you at today's Labor Day parade, but instead you are spending three weeks in a mini-sabbatical in Washington's Olympic Peninsula in a remote cabin staffed with a guide and chef, but with no Internet or cell access. Wow!

Rodriguez: I won the Windcall Residency, which is an honor awarded to people who work in the social-justice movement. I'm going to do some hiking, some fishing, and some reflection on my work and the impact I want to have on the world.

Q: You mentioned that you might outline a book on organizing workers.

Rodriguez: I'm going to try to frame that out, but mostly I want to sleep in and catch some fresh air.


Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com, or @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read more about Rodriguez in Von Bergen's "Jobbing" blog: www.philly.com/jobbing

 

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