Conversation with Rebecca Flores Harrington

By Robert Jensen
Vol. 1 #3, November 1998
The Working Stiff Journal

Part I, in the November issue

Rebecca Flores Harrington has dedicated most of her adult life to union work for a simple reason: "If you don't have a union that represents you in the workplace, you don't have a voice, and if you don't have a voice, you don't have rights."

After 25 years with the United Farm Workers, Flores Harrington has taken on the challenge of helping workers in the state of Texas use that voice. As the new state field director of the AFL-CIO, her job is to mobilize labor in Texas to increase membership and activate members to protect their rights as workers.

Her approach to the job is equally simple: "The union isn't just the leadership. The union is people, together in the workplace. We are the union."

While her belief in grassroots organizing and activism may be straightforward, Flores Harrington is the first to acknowledge that the task of organizing is complex and the work ahead difficult. In an interview last month with the Working Stiff Journal, she talked about her experience with the UFW and her goals in the new job.

The 55-year-old Flores Harrington grew up in a Texas migrant worker family and graduated from a segregated high school in San Antonio. After working in a civil service job for the Army, she graduated from St. Mary's University and went on to earn a master's degree in social work at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1972, with political activism exploding all around her. With her new husband, civil rights attorney Jim Harrington, she returned to south Texas in 1973 and went to work for the UFW.

Flores Harrington organized Texas farm workers and lobbied the Texas legislature, helping win victories in both places. Laws that discriminated against farm workers in workers compensation and unemployment were changed. Field sanitation and pesticide right-to-know laws were passed. And farm workers got rid of the short-handled hoe.

Flores Harrington traveled to Florida and California for other UFW campaigns but remained based in Texas. When the state field director job came open this summer, she made the move.

WSJ: Why take on this challenge at this point in your life?
RFH: There's a real window of opportunity with (national AFL-CIO President) John Sweeney in charge, providing bold leadership for more activism and organizing. We haven't had that in many years. I want to use my experience and the knowledge of the terrain here in Texas to implement the programs John Sweeney is developing.

WSJ: What form will this take? What are your goals in this job?
RFH: There are two major goals in this work. First is organizing more folks, which means putting more resources into that job. The goal of the national office is for labor organizations to put 30 percent of their resources into organizing. Right now it is much less. It will take some time to change the infrastructure, but when you shift 30 percent of your budget to organizing, that is going to create tremendous movement. The second part is mobilizing the existing membership to protect workers' rights to organize.

WSJ: Is all this strictly a matter of money and resources?
RFH: Money is important, but at the same time we can't wait until the money is allocated. We have to develop a grassroots movement of workers who want to organize. I've always done grassroots organizing. At the UFW, we didn't wait for money; we did it ourselves. Farmworkers have few financial resources, but they have been able to make changes because of their activism. Without money, it forces you to reach out, talk to other workers and ask them to take action for their own interests.

WSJ: So, the job is organizing workers who aren't in unions and mobilizing existing union members. How does that happen?
RFH: One important thing is accurate information. For example, the American people keep getting the message that American workers are lazy. But government studies tell us that worker productivity is increasing. Other government studies report that workers are working more, and their wages have been decreasing rapidly since 1973. Yet we hear a steady drum beat about how great things are. Most of the information we get comes from the media, not from labor's perspective.

WSJ: How do you fight that?
RFH: The AFL-CIO has fantastic training. We are reaching into the locals, to the rank and file. And we are reaching out to folks who aren't in unions but want to organize their workplace. Right now, we have two training modules that we can use. One is on common-sense economics and shows people the facts about work in this country. The second is about mobilizing and organizing. The common-sense economics gets people's attention. Then we start talking about organizing and mobilizing our membership.

Part II, in the December issue

WSJ: How do you reach people who aren't in unions?
RFH: We have to reach out to other organizations in the community. Take LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), for example. Their members are focused mostly on education, but they also are all workers, too. We need to start getting our information into those kinds of organizations. It may seem like a far reach, but that's what we can do. The first thing we have to do is grab people's attention, and then we have to show them that we can change these things. And then we have to establish the structure that allows for that, which involves resources.

WSJ: How do you deal with people who don't trust unions or think unions are all corrupt?
RFH: Many folks think the union is somebody else, but the union is you and me, working together in the workplace. We are the union. There are a few corrupt unions. Unions are democratic, and the way to make sure that your union is a good union is to participate in it and not give up your power to an individual you elect. You have to maintain that control over your leadership. If you sit home and expect a leader to handle your business, then you have given up your power, the same way that we as citizens have given up our power to people whom we elect. We have become disconnected from our responsibilities because we think somebody is going to take care of us, but nobody is going take care of us. Together, we're going to have to take care of ourselves.

WSJ: Where do the negative perceptions of unions come from?
RFH: For every dollar that unions give to political campaigns, corporations give 11. There is a movement against unionization in this country that's being well funded by corporations. They are attacking us in the halls of Congress and in state capitols. They want to make sure that people continue to perceive unions as corrupt.

WSJ: What was the secret to success in organizing farm workers?
RFH: There are lots of reasons farmworkers get together and organize. Sometimes I think it is because they have gone to the "hard knocks" school. They know that "downsizing" means being "fired." They know they are very productive, yet their wages never increase unless they pressure the grower. There are no benevolent owners. They haven't bought into the mythology of extreme individualism. They know they have to rely on one another. For example, my father went to only three years of school, but he knew exactly where to put his finger on a problem. He was clear about right and wrong.

WSJ: What kind of realistic hopes do you have about organizing workers in Texas?
RFH: Less than 10 percent of the work force in Texas is unionized. We're still a right-to-work state, and we have lots of anti-worker legislation being passed. People who have a lot of money manipulate what goes on in the state. I see our job as laying the groundwork so that labor unions start to organize more people and expand their power and influence. Maybe we don't organize the whole population, but we organize enough so that wages do in fact creep up, so that health insurance covers more people, so that workers get pensions.

WSJ: So you don't judge success and failure merely by charting union membership?
RFH: In the short term, you can't organize everybody, but you can organize a sufficient number of people so that these benefits for everyone follow. The bottom line is making the lives of all working people better. The only way that I see that workers have protection is if they have a union. But the labor movement speaks for all working people, not only for labor union members. The question is, how do we make sure that working people across the country are protected?

At the end of the interview, I asked Flores Harrington what motivated her to keep doing work that can be so difficult, even dangerous at times. She answered with a story about a woman she met during a UFW organizing campaign. The woman, who had built her own house, explained to Flores Harrington that when the county permitting office told her she had to file architectural plans to get a building permit, she whipped out a pencil and drew them herself. When the inspectors said the woman couldn't move her family into the house until she had extended a water line from the bathroom into the kitchen, the woman refused to accept that.

Flores Harrington described the woman's response: "She said to the official, 'I've been a migrant farm worker all my life. Do you think we had water in the kitchen wherever we went? And why didn't you raise hell then, when I was traveling the state and working.' She said, 'I'm moving in because I have water in the bathroom, and that's good enough. For now, I can take water into the kitchen. Why all of sudden can't we do these things?'"

WSJ: What did you take away from that encounter?
RFH: It was just wonderful to have met her. She was a wonderful person. She was aggressive, she knew what she wanted, and she got it. When you do this work, you meet the best people, and you see the best in people. No one is perfect, but you see the best in people. You connect to the best in them, and maybe you help them move even further. That is what feeds me, keeps me going.}

For more information about the AFL-CIO, call 477-1811 or 477-6195.