Gabriel Mireles, a Boston-based Mexican-American labor organizer and union staffer, has spent years organizing in low-income immigrant communities across Massachusetts to help people realize their power through collective action. Nationally, Mireles helped found the México Solidarity Project, and, as a musician, he’s also using sound and song to connect peoples across cultures. All these experiences give Mireles an ideal vantage point for assessing the recently completed 2022 Labor Notes conference.
Immigrants usually want their kids to rise above the working class. But you decided to place yourself in the union movement. Why?
My father’s family emigrated to the US looking for work as manual laborers. My father belonged to AFSCME, but he didn’t talk about the union much. He wanted me to choose a job not just to survive, as he had had to do, but to choose my own profession and to make more money than he had. Isn’t that what every parent wants? I studied at Berklee College of Music but didn’t graduate. I did have to find work to survive!
I worked as a phone fundraiser, in a unionized workplace, and unintentionally became a union steward, then joined the negotiating committee — and found that while I still wanted to make music, I loved worker organizing as well!
The Labor Notes annual conference, earlier this month, had an Encuentro with a full agenda for Latinx workers. What was that all about?
Labor Notes recognized the need for this day-long track based on the huge number of Latinx workers in the US, the labor struggles they’ve led in sectors where they predominate, like farm work and day labor, and the special barriers to unionization that workers who are immigrants face. The conference clearly needed this space. We had full Encuentro workshops, with about 50 activists in each one, most of them Mexicano.
These workshops showed the close interrelationship between immigration and labor struggles. We explored sanctuary unions, worker centers that help workers with more than workplace issues, and cooperatives controlled by workers themselves. We analyzed how the federal H-2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers only increases the exploitation of immigrant labor.
Do you see commonalities between Mexican worker-led union organizing and the worker-led organizing now going on in the US at Starbucks and Amazon?
What strikes me the most here: We may have, in both México and the US, decent labor laws on the books, but companies are constantly flaunting these laws and workers have to deal with that. The Biden administration is paying lip service to supporting unionization, but not delivering actual support. At the Labor Notes conference, workers from the state-run Mexican news service Notimex spoke about their two-year-old strike that the avowedly pro-labor Mexican government won’t settle.
A flyer from the Notimex struggle
You had a chance to hang out, at Labor Notes, with labor folks from México. What effect did that have on you?
It’s one thing to read a story about a historical event, it’s another to hear an actual participant telling that story. I had read the book El Golpe by Rob McKenzie about an attack by goons at a Ford Plant in México in 1990, so when Hector de la Cueva, one of the Mexicans at the Labor Notes conference, told he was one of the striking workers that day, I felt history coming alive. And then just hanging out with him, getting to know him across the breakfast table, turned out to be very cool. I’m really happy to have made personal connections to activists from my home country.
Did US unionists come away from the Labor Notes conference with a better understanding of why international solidarity must be part of their work?
At the conference workshops, Hector and Israel Cervantes, a leader in the struggle of General Motors workers in central México, spoke to a mainly Latinx audience. I wished that more non-Latinx had come. Labor Notes brought them both to Chicago and gave Israel a plenary role. I hope they continue to do more of this.
But I think we need a stronger case made for “workers of the world to unite.” In this globalized economy, we need to always organize in ways that recognize that US workers affect — and are affected by — what happens to workers in the rest of the world.
Fired GM workers. Photo: WSWS.org
Israel and Hector both see international support as a big factor in the success of the new independent union SINTTIA at General Motors. Labor Notes and the México Solidarity Project raised money for that struggle, circulated petitions, and helped unions and community groups pass — and then send to the GM CEO — resolutions demanding fair contract negotiations and the reinstatement of the fired workers
It’s a lot harder to step on worker rights when the whole world is watching!