November 20, 2020
Veteran Southern California labor organizer Rigo Valdez has joined MLK Labor for a one-year organizing project called the “President’s Organizing Initiative.” This project is a collaboration with several national unions to try new and innovative organizing strategies to bring more workers into the organized labor movement.
We asked Rigo a few questions to get to know him and his vision for growing the power of workers.
Q – Rigo, we are so excited to have you here in King County. Tell me a little about yourself and how you became involved in the labor movement.
A – Central to my story is my experience as an immigrant and my family’s journey to the United States. When I was young, my family immigrated to a small town in Southern California called Indio. From a very very young age, I was shoved into the movement without me even knowing. One of my first jobs was picking grapes with my family. Officially, my first salaried organizing job was with SEIU in San Francisco. Early on, a big part of my focus was on building a rapport of intersectional organizing, focusing on immigrant workers’ rights. It was an interesting time to be an organizer and I carried my identities salient to my work, as an immigrant, Latino, and queer organizer trying to find a space in the movement while building communities and coalitions. I always say that the labor movement found me and after 25 years organizing and now mentoring the next generation of fighters I could not imagine doing anything else.
Q – Before this, you worked at UFCW 770. Tell me about your role there.
A – At UFCW 770 in Los Angeles, I served as the Director of Organizing and one of the Vice Presidents of the local. I went to Local 770 ten years ago to build an organizing department from scratch. The vision was to build an innovative department that could create a pipeline of organizing workers in all of the industries we represent: meatpacking, food processing, pharmacy, retail grocery, and even grow a new industry from the ground up. We built a transformative social equity-based intersectional organizing model that helped create the legal cannabis industry in California. Internally, my responsibility was to build rank-and-file leadership and industry power to support comprehensive contract campaigns that could lead to organizing in those sectors. I was also lucky enough to serve on commissions and committees that form intersectional power around immigration, anti-racism, queer-led movements, and worker power. More than anything, I love that every day I was able to fight and be in community with people who, like me, trust in the power of workers to change our world for the better.
Q – Why are you excited about the work of the President’s Organizing Initiative?
A – We are living in a moment in the labor movement unlike any other I’ve seen. We have a unique opportunity with our wealth of experience and years of organizing to make a meaningful difference for worker’s rights for generations to come. We are witnessing social unrest, to quote Angela Davis “unlike our nation has seen in decades.” People are yearning for change. This is a moment to work and organize, and I am beyond happy to be able to lead this work. People are counting on us to do this right.
Q – What can we do better to organize new workers and expand union rights?
A – It gives me so much hope to see the awakening of young people mobilizing and demanding change. With all the horrible things that have happened in 2020, it brought out millions of first-time voters and youth embracing their role in this moment of history. I think of leaders like Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who organize in creative ways, like playing online games where thousands of young people are watching. Obviously, in labor, we need to find our own ways to engage with the community. I am not saying that the future of our movement is to play video games, but I do think it is about breaking down the barriers and working to encourage more workers to reach us. We need to act like a movement. We are used to working together to elect a president or pass legislation to support workers, but when it comes to organizing we retreat to our local unions rather than coming together as a movement. We need to be more innovative to reach larger demographics of workers and to stand up against injustices outside the bounds of a traditional union contract. I know that by working together and thinking outside the box we can come up with a regional organizing plan that grows our unions, builds our power, strengthens our movement, and transforms our society. It is up to us, again.
For more information about the Presidents’ Organizing Initiative or to get involved please reach out to Rigo (at) mlklabor.org