Rafa Espinosa’s Lessons from Organizing Workers in UNITE HERE Local 2: Listen to the Workers and Never Forget Them!
by Larry Hendel. Posted March 14, 2023.
Rafael Espinoza, is a former League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS) member, who spent decades fighting for immigrant and worker justice. The bulk of his work was in UNITE-HERE Local 2 in San Francisco where he served five terms as Vice-president, from 1985 to 2000. During his tenure the local moved from an undemocratic, top down, Anglo-centered organization to a democratic, bottom up union supporting equality of languages as a principle and respect for all workers. Rafa was a key player in that transition. Larry Hendel, also a former LRS member, interviewed him in December 2022 and January 2023.
Larry Hendel: Did you always live in the Bay Area? If not, where did you live before?
Rafael Espinoza: I came in 1965 from El Salvador. I had an uncle who sponsored me. He wanted me to go to school here. So, I lived with him in San Francisco. I was fifteen. He had a small closet in the garage, with a single bed, and that’s where I slept, for all the time I was going to high school.
Larry Hendel: Did you speak English when you got here?
Rafael Espinoza: Not at all. I went through a big culture shock. Because when I was in El Salvador, I went out a lot to have fun, but coming to the US with the language and the intimidation I went through about learning English, I became shy. I was really self- conscious about myself.
Larry Hendel: If you don’t mind me asking this, was your family in El Salvador politically active at that time?
Rafael Espinoza: No, none of us were politically active; we were just regular people.
Larry Hendel: So how was high school in the US?
Rafael Espinoza: When I came to the US, I lived in San Francisco, but my uncle wanted me to go to Jefferson High School in Daly City. And from Jefferson High School they bussed me to another school called Terra Nova in Pacifica. When I was there, 99% of the students were Caucasians. That was the first experience I had with racism and discrimination. We were a small group of Latinos and Latinas; they started calling me dirty Mexican and told me to go back to Mexico; it was constant harassment and intimidation. At that time, I didn’t understand what the deal was, because I never had experienced racism.
When the Latinos at Jefferson heard that these Caucasians were harassing us, they organized a trip down to Terra Nova. There were about twenty to thirty Latino brothers with their leather jackets, and they were acting really bad at Terra Nova High, trying to have confrontations with white students. They came in their cars, they raised hell, and then they left. But the message was “these guys are not alone; we are close.” That was the message.
Larry Hendel: How did they know to come down?
Rafael Espinoza: I have no idea how they knew something was going on, but they came to show solidarity. There were a few Latinos down there. Maybe someone called them and told them what was going on, and they came.
Larry Hendel: Were you surprised when they showed up?
Rafael Espinoza: Yes, but I was proud to see them. For me it was a scary time. I even brought a knife to carry in my pocket for self-defense. I’m glad I never had to use it, but it was weird. When I had learned enough basic English I was sent back to Jefferson. That’s where I met two brothers. They had a key part in what happened to me. I used to go to their home, after school, to watch TV with them. We became friends.
When they were at Jefferson they played soccer, and I played soccer with them. I was a goalkeeper. We participated in a league. There was a teacher who organized the team. Every Saturday we played at Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park. There are soccer fields there. Every Saturday I would go play; my uncle would pick me up from the gas station where I worked and take me to the game and bring me back to work after the game. After I finished high school, I got a job at Safeway and moved out of my uncle’s house. I needed to be more independent.
After high school, my two friends went to College of San Mateo (a community college) and became activists at the college. And their goal was to recruit more Latinos to attend that college. They came to meet with Latinos and encourage us to seek higher education. “You gotta go to college man; we’re going to help you,” they said. I never thought about going to college. For me, everything was new. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I ended up listening to them and going to San Mateo College with them, and the school was trying to block me from getting in because of my grades and because I didn’t speak enough English. But somehow, the staff and my friends managed to get me into college. The first semester was OK, and then things changed. My two friends, the brothers, got into trouble. They were part of Los Siete de la Raza.
Larry Hendel: Can you talk more about Los Siete?
Rafael Espinoza: What happened was in the Mission (district of San Francisco), there was a lot of, in that period, racist stuff concerning police abuse. I remember at that time you had to be a certain size to be a cop, so many minorities could not become cops. Most officers were Caucasian. What happened was seven friends were coming out from a friend’s home. They were carrying a TV. They were bringing it to another house. It was in the daytime, and these two cops in plain clothes stopped them. They accused them of stealing the TV and started getting rough with them. The seven started fighting back. Then one of the cops got shot. People said one cop shot the other while going after the Latino guys.
Larry Hendel: Were the Latino guys armed?
Rafael Espinoza: No, they had no guns. The only gun that was used was the cop’s. Then the seven guys decided to run; they were going to go to Mexico. They stole a car, I think, and they were hiding, six of them, somewhere in San Mateo. One of them was too slick; he decided to go on his own. The six were arrested. Later on, they said the seventh hijacked an airplane and went to Cuba. He was not my friend; I don’t remember him. Anyway, there was a big campaign to free the other six. At that time the Black Panthers were heavily engaged fighting for social justice. And they helped support the Los Sieteorganization. They helped us raise funds, and the attorney for the Panthers, Charles Garry, became part of the Los Siete defense team. The District Attorney, after the cop died, was pushing for the death penalty. And that’s when all of us were thinking what we should do.
I was asked if I could help.
“I can help,” I said, “whatever I can do, but I live by myself, and I have to work part time, and I’m going to school, but whenever I can do I will.” So, I got involved with Los Siete but not 100% because I had to support myself. But I was involved on the periphery helping whenever I could. We opened a clinic, the people’s clinic, where we were helping people through Los Siete to be tested, to be given exams, whatever they needed. Some doctors came to train us in first aid. Every time that we had demonstrations in the Mission, I carried my red cross bag in case somebody got beat up or something, I would help them. So how I started getting involved in the community was through the Campaign to Free Los Siete. I learned about political economy and people fighting the injustice that was going on.
Larry Hendel: I would imagine, though, that even before they got arrested the Los Siete guys would talk politics with you.
Rafael Espinoza: Not really. They were mostly involved in trying to get people to go to college, let’s get an education, that was their focus. But in the community, in the Mission, there were other activists protesting police brutality. The police were harassing Latinos, the people were walking the streets at night to monitor the police. I became more political after Los Siete went on trial, and I started getting more involved in politics by organizing demonstrations and going to the hearings. All of the things started evolving. Being around the Los Siete organization changed my life. At some time, I don’t know when, the organization of Los Siete joined the August 29th Movement (ATM). (Note: ATM was primarily Latinx organization that followed Marxism-Leninism and eventually became part of the League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS).) At the time it was a national movement helping Latinos. Because most of us were Latinos. And they used to have study groups on Marxism Leninism basic principles, and I participated in some of them. I even lived in La Casa de La Raza, the Los Siete collective house in the Mission for a few months.
Larry Hendel: Then what happened?
Rafael Espinoza: After that, I became a student activist at the College of San Mateo. I don’t know how, but they elected me chairman of the MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán). Here is a guy from El Salvador, and they elected me chair of a Chicano organization. But that’s how I evolved. And even though it was something very difficult, it was good for me. Every Thursday I had to chair a MEChA meeting. I woke up each morning with a stomachache, with butterflies. But it helped me develop confidence in running meetings and public speaking. The meetings were in English, which was an additional challenge. At that time, I decided I wanted to become a teacher, and that was my goal at San Mateo College. Before leaving, one of my teachers suggested that I should apply for a scholarship. And I got a scholarship from the Ford Foundation to go anywhere. But I screwed it up, because I had no guidance and no knowledge of any support system. I ended up at this university called Antioch University, School Without Walls, but unfortunately it was not an accredited university. I left Safeway at that time, which was during the Grape Strike. The counselors at Antioch helped me to get a job with high school students at Opportunity High School as part of my training to be a teacher. And it was good; I enjoyed working with the students. But then there were financial problems with the school district, and they cut the staff. They cut my hours, which put me in a really bad financial situation.
One of my friends from Los Siete was Jose from Nicaragua. Jose said, “You should come to work at the hotels. I work in this hotel. You should come.”
“Where?” I asked him.
“St. Francis Hotel,” he said.
“I don’t know where that is,” I said. “What kind of work do you do?”
“I do night work; we clean the hotels at night,” he said.
Later on, two things happened: I got involved in the fight at the Saint Francis, because there was a lot of racism, especially the way Latinos were being treated. It was just crazy. There was a woman, I forgot her name, she was a Housekeeper, and she was a B. One time I went by the ladies, and I would say in Spanish “Good morning ladies.”. But this woman told me, “Around here you’re going to speak English, only English.” I looked at her, but you know what? When you have been involved with students and raising hell, you don’t get intimidated, you get pissed off. The following day I showed up and said very loudly “Good morning ladies, buenos dias, how are you, coma esta!!!!” Just to mess with her.
Later they decided to get a subcontractor to run the night shift. And they brought in this guy, he was a piece of work. He was always harassing people, blaming them for screwing up when it was really him who was screwing up. He had cut the work force and was increasing the workload for the workers.
I remember talking to the workers one day. “Look, this is too much,” I said. “We should go on strike.”
And they said, “really?”
And I said, “Yeah, fuck it man let’s stop working, let’s go outside and put up a picket line.”
And my friend Jose came and said, “Rafa what are you doing?”
“Fuck it,” I said, “These people are bad to us, we need to go on strike and protest how badly they treat us.”
“You can’t do that,” Jose said, “because they are all going to get fired.”
“Because it’s an illegal strike, it’s a wildcat.”
“What is a wildcat?”
“A wildcat strike is when the union has not approved the strike.”
“What should we do?”
“We go to the union and complain.”
That’s how much I knew about unions.
We took some workers to the union and told them the way we were treated and how the subcontractor was increasing the work on everyone. And writing up people for not finishing the work when it wasn’t their fault. The union didn’t respond. They really didn’t give a shit. We said we wanted the union to send someone to talk to the workers at 11:30 PM. That’s when they were at work. The union didn’t want to do that. Finally, one guy showed up. He was named Roger Cardenas, and at least he showed up. I was glad he did.
Larry Hendel: Staff person or officer?
Rafael Espinoza: Officer, after they merged the smaller unions into Local 2. The merger I think was in 1975. What happened was when I joined in ‘74 there were six or seven different locals, small unions. They had the Waiters union, the Waitresses union, the Housekeepers, the Bartenders, the Dishwashers, the Cooks. Everybody was divided. In ‘75 the International merged those locals into one that became Local 2. And all the officers of the small unions came to work for Local 2. Joe Bellardi was a cook, but he was the President of the Cook’s Union. He became the first President of Local 2 after the merger. Roger Cardenas had been the Vice President of the Dishwashers union. He became an officer at Local 2 as well. So, he came and helped us out a little bit. Eventually we were able to force the subcontractor out of the building. Anyway, my first instinct was to go on strike. A wildcat.
Larry Hendel: That’s a damn good first instinct.
Rafael Espinoza: And the other thing I should tell you, when Belardi was still there and we had learned we had to go to meetings, there was a guy named Joe, and people used to say that he was Belardi’s bodyguard. He would go in front of us, the Latinos, and say things like “why don’t you get on your banana leaf and get the fuck out of here.” That was how union leadership treated us. But we just kept pushing, pushing the rank and file agenda. Then we had to learn how to use Robert’s Rules and the union’s constitution. We would strategize, “OK, when they try to pass something, most of us should leave the meeting, but some people should stay behind and call for a quorum.” So, people would leave, but a few would stay and call for a quorum, and then nothing could happen. Belardi and those guys used to get pissed at us, because they couldn’t get their agenda approved because we always managed to get people out of the meetings. But you learn how to do things by reading and putting theory into practice.
My participation in the rank and file movement was hard because I was working graveyard shift. I quit and went to work at the Sheraton Palace as a dishwasher. I worked in that department for maybe four to six months. When I was working as a dishwasher I met this guy, an older man, Carl, an ex-Communist Party member. And I saw him passing out a flyer at work. I said, “Give me one.” I started reading it, but it was only in English. I said to him, “Do you have one in Spanish? He said no. I told him I could translate it.”
“Don’t talk to me here,” he said. “I am a marked man. You are on probation. Let us meet outside, it’s better than inside.” Lesson learned; he was protecting my job. He took me to a coffee shop. We met and we talked, and I started doing translations for him and his group.
After that, I transferred to another department; I went to what is called storeroom keeper. This is the person who checks the merchandise coming from outside and keeps records of what goes out. I was doing a good job, and the manager liked me.
“Rafa,” she told me, “I can teach you to become my assistant.”
But I knew she was having problems with a Latino manager, and I felt she was trying to use me.
“No,” I said, “I’m not interested in becoming management.”
“Look here,” she said, “Why don’t you become a bellman?” That’s how I became a bellman. I had more freedom to go all around the hotel. I could go everywhere. That’s when I started becoming more of a union activist. I developed good relationships with other workers, especially the room cleaners.
Larry Hendel: So, you’re working in the hotel and you start getting involved in the union. It doesn’t pay that much, but you stick with it. Why is it that you didn’t pursue promotions into management, so you could earn more?
Rafael Espinoza: Yes, I could have gone into management. I agree. A couple of times that opportunity came up. But at that time, I was committed to social justice and fighting for workers’ rights. One of the things I have always done is to observe behaviors. I knew that management, especially lower management, was always afraid of top management. Some of those managers were, what do they say, “kick down, kiss up”? I always knew who those guys were; they were chickenshit when it came to upper management because they didn’t have any protection. I realized that by having a union, I had protection. Even though it was a weak union, I knew how to protect myself and protect my coworkers. The other point was I had such good friends at the hotel, and people trusted me. People would come to me and talk to me about their problems at home and their problems at work. I listened to them, and I never shared information with other people, so people knew they could come and trust me with different issues. I remember once a friend of mine asked me to mediate stuff with him and his wife. He was a good friend of mine.
“Please just listen to what she has to say and help us make a decision here,” he said. You know it’s very dangerous to get into that kind of domestic involvement, but I went. The issue was, to get into the details, the wife was pissed off at him because with all his tips he made as a bellman he was playing the horses and he was losing money. She said she wanted to save money to buy a home. That was the issue. My friend said when I win, I give you money and you don’t complain. So, my friend asked me what to do. What I did was to start keeping notes. Every time that he went to the horse races, I wrote down how much he won, how much he lost, every day that he went, I kept that tab for a month, which he did not know. I added up everything, and I came back and said “OK I have an answer for you. You’re losing money.”
“What?” he said.
“Here are the numbers,” I said. “Your wife is right, you’re losing money. You better change.” And he did change. And he stopped betting on the horses, and a year later they were able to buy a house.
Larry Hendel: That’s a great story.
Rafael Espinoza: Isn’t that a trip? Even now she calls me from Florida every year or so to ask how I’m doing. I still talk to her, but my friend passed away about five years ago. Once you have those roots in the community, at work, you cannot walk away. But if you are a manager, you can’t maintain that. I enjoyed what I was doing, being a union activist. I wasn’t ready to leave. I knew I didn’t want to become a manager. I wanted to be part of the fight for the union to change because I had problems with the union, too.
Larry Hendel: What did you do next?
Rafael Espinoza: In 1978 some of the more political members in Local 2 formed a new caucus, the Alliance for Rank and File (ARF). They invited me to become part of this group, and I became active. It drew different activists from hotels and restaurants. I met a lot of young activists from different backgrounds. In 1980 we had the first hotel strike. It was the first strike of my life. It felt invigorating to be able to strike. But I learned after 30 days of seeing coworkers going through struggles, it was hard, so my lesson was always that going on strike should be the last resort. If you are going to go on strike, you better make sure your members are ready and organized. We were lucky in a way because the hotels had a lockout agreement. The union decided to take a few people out on strike, but the hotel locked everybody out. It forced everyone to go on strike, which turned out to be a good thing. This strike changed our membership. Workers were empowered and no longer afraid to fight back. New leadership from the rank and file began to emerge.
Larry Hendel: At that time, were you a steward?
Rafael Espinoza: I was a rank and file activist and elected to the negotiating committee for the hotel contract. We were pushing for changes within the union, and we decided to demand more time for shop stewards to represent workers. Because our shop steward in the Bellman Department did not even join the picket line, I challenged him and became the new steward. I believe it was in the early 80’s I was also starting to meet LRS people. When I was elected to the negotiating team for the first time, I met Alex Hing. I’m not sure when, sometime in the 80’s. And he was involved already, so he pulled me aside and said, “Rafa, let me give you some advice about what to do when you are in negotiations.”
“What should I do man?”
“Whenever you have time to eat, you eat, even if you are not hungry,” he said.
“Because you don’t know when your next meal is coming. And the other rule is, when there is a break and management leaves the room, make sure you rest. Don’t bullshit with other people, go to sleep, you need to be alert later. If anything is going to happen it’s going to happen around 4 or 5 in the morning, and you better be alert.”
I said, “OK brother, that’s good.” And actually, I look back and that was good advice. Because I remember we were negotiating, and management said they are going to caucus, and left us waiting, and went to have dinner. Psychological warfare. I remember my brother Alex saying, “eat anytime even if you are not hungry.” Alex, man, Alex did really good work.”
Larry Hendel: That’s really interesting. Because I know Alex has done tai chi for many years. It makes sense that he would advise you to make sure you eat and rest, so you can be centered in yourself and prepared for the struggle.
Rafael Espinoza: I remember Alex, when I lived in Daly City, there were times I would pick him up in San Francisco and take him to Daly City because there was a master of martial arts, and I gave Alex rides a lot of times for his training. He taught me a lot , and I respected his politics and commitment.
Larry Hendel: How did you end up running for union office?
Rafael Espinoza: Actually, I didn’t participate in 1978 when Local 2 had its first election. David McDonald beat Joe Belardi. McDonald was a cook, and there was a rank and file coalition that supported him. But there was a problem; they didn’t win the whole slate. A lot of the Business Agents (BA’s) were part of the executive board, so Belardi still had considerable influence in the union. Some of the business agents were also executive board members, and the union was not functioning because of the internal fighting. The mistake that McDonald made was that as soon as he got into power, he tried to fire people. You don’t do that. People fought back and the union stopped functioning. Maybe five or six months later, the union was put into trusteeship. And that’s when Vincent Sirabella came in as the trustee. But I want to tell you one thing about Joe Belardi. Once I became an officer of the union, I had to read the contract that he had worked on with a different perspective concerning the language that they had developed. The language is really good. They understood the industry. The problem was that they did not enforce the contract. I learned that it is much easier to criticize leadership when you are on the outside. It is like when you are watching a baseball game and criticize the mistakes made by a baseball player. It is a whole different experience when you are the one playing the game.
Also, the language they had for medical benefits was really beneficial because anyone who worked three hours a day, five days a week for three weeks a month, could qualify for medical benefits. Very important language, and still is. And the management has tried to eliminate this, and we have been in many fights trying to protect that language, and that was Joe Belardi’s work. You know when you’re young, you don’t recognize those things, you just want to fight. Once when I realized how important some language was to protect the workers, we had to fight to make management enforce it. And we had to fight for the election of shop stewards; that was key for us.
Larry Hendel: So Sirabella’s in there. At this point, is there a caucus? Are you working with the LRS?
Rafael Espinoza: Yes, at that point, the League was involved. During the trusteeship League members and rank and file formed the Coalition Against Trusteeship (CAT). As I stated before, I was on the negotiating team in 1980 during the hotel strike. There was one other comrade on the committee, and we had several comrades working in different hotels. We had 30 to 40 rank and filers on the negotiating team; some of them were members of other left organizations.
Larry Hendel: Thirty to Forty?
Rafael Espinoza: Yes, a large committee.
Larry Hendel: That’s huge.
Rafael Espinoza: Remember, this was a rebellious local, and Sirabella was trying to pacify us and find a way to work with us. So, he brought a lot of people, and what was weird was that the union agreed to pay our salaries, which was amazing. Anyway, he brought a lot of people in, and some of them were good people, but he was running the show. Personally, I liked Vincent Sirabella. He was charming, and he knew what he was doing. Some people didn’t like him because they felt he was a threat. Our group adapted a united front and took the position not to challenge the administration all the time. We decided to pick our fights, whatever was needed. If it benefitted the members, we supported them. If it didn’t, we would fight it. That’s how we differentiated ourselves from the other groups. Because some of the other people just wanted to be in opposition, we didn’t want to do that. Whenever we could, we worked with the administration or other groups.
Larry Hendel: When you say other groups, you mean the left?
Rafael Espinoza: Yes, oh man, there were so many left groups. Line of March, the Trotskyists, CPML, the CP, and some were trying to mess with us. Always trying to isolate us because they had more history than us in the industry. But we were always fighting on the issues. Sometimes we united to fight together, but we always had to keep an eye on them, because they always tried to screw us.
I should add that in 1979, by court order, the international union had to have elections for Local 2. Charles Lamb ran for President with the support of the international union. Sherri Chiesa ran for Secretary-Treasurer.
Larry Hendel: Did you guys support Lamb?
Rafael Espinoza: We didn’t support Lamb, but we ran some executive board members. Lamb did win the election. But in Lamb’s next election, 1982, people decided that I should run. And I ran as a rank and filer with other groups. We lost. We ran against Lamb, Sherri Chiesa (they were together) and Larry Tom. That was the first time we ran for office, and there were several slates in the election. We had a slate of rank and filers. Anyway, we lost. But what became clear was I came in second for VP in numbers. I came with enough support that we realized we had a base to move forward in the future because the people supported our agenda. We had a program we were pushing: to hire more people of color, to translate the contract into different languages, and to bring more rank and file members into the union. We translated everything into Chinese, Spanish, sometimes Tagalog, just to show equality of language. We were saying translate this and hire more people who speak these languages.
In 1984 the union had a restaurant strike. It was bad. People were not organized. Lamb just put a picket line in front of the restaurants, and some people decided not to go on strike, they crossed the line and worked. In the restaurants, sometimes the owners are good friends/mentors/develop personal relationships with the workers. There were a lot of relationships that were not going to break, and to put up a picket line in front of people without their say, was really hard. Some people decided to cross, and we lost a lot of restaurants, especially in Fisherman’s Wharf. And then our group started thinking, well, the hotels are going to come after the union when the hotel contract expires, and we have to get ready. To prepare for the 1985 election, we decided I should run for president, and we created The Rainbow Coalition of Local 2. Our goals were to develop new contacts and to develop a network of workers to help us fight in the event of a hotel strike. I didn’t think I was going to win. I told my friend, “Hey, after the election we should go to Puerto Rico man, because I’m not going to win.” Our elections always had nine or ten slates. There were a lot of activists. One of the activist slates came to talk to me and offered me a staff job if I supported their slate. And I said, “No, I’m already working, I’m not looking for work. I want some political power. I want an elected position. And I want you to give me some executive board slots for my friends to run with me. I’m not going to go alone. I want people in my group to run too.”
“No, we can’t do that,” they said.
“OK,” I said. Then I said, “What’s your plan for the strike?”
“There’s not going to be a strike, Rafa,” they said. “If we talk to the bosses like humans they will understand.”
“Oh shit,” I thought, “management is going to kick our asses.” We caucused and decided we couldn’t let this activist slate win. Then Lamb offered me a position with him as well if we supported his slate. I said no. Then Sherri Chiesa, the Secretary-Treasurer, who had split from Lamb’s slate, said she wanted to meet with me. Someone arranged a meeting, and I went to meet with her. She said, “Rafa, I’m not here to offer you a job. I want to hear what you think. What is your agenda? I hope we can work together, let me see what you got. But I’m not offering you a staff job or position on the ticket.”
I was glad to hear that. So, we started exchanging views. I would say that our views were about 80% in alignment.
“I’m concerned with the next contract,” I said. “We think that the hotels are going to come after us, and they are going to want to break the union. We need a strike plan.”
“I agree with you,” she said. “I have a plan for that.”
“Good,” I said. We agreed on a lot of things, such as hiring more minorities and enforcing the contract. I added, “The only thing is I don’t like that we have to pay the International Union so much money per capita; we should cut them.”
“I don’t agree; we’ve got to support the International Union,” she said. After that conversation, I called our campaign manager and suggested we should support Sherri. We discussed it and agreed that even if she didn’t offer us a position, we should go with her, we should support her, she was the best hope for the union to survive. We agreed to see what would happen. A couple of days later Sherri called me and offered me a position to run as her VP. We got other caucus members to run for the Executive Board on that slate. Our slate and her slate merged. When the news came out that we merged, Charles Lamb fired Sherri. Charles Lamb accused her of mishandling union money from the restaurant strike fund, which was bullshit. But it was a political move. We had a meeting scheduled with Sherri to confirm the merger.
When we arrived, Sherri told us, “You know I have been fired,” she said. “If you want to pull out of our deal, I understand.”
“Sherri,” I said, “our slate discussed your termination, and we’re in this together. We are united, we are going to fight together, we are one now.” And then we became the team to be defeated. Supporting Sherri unified our group better; we were able to organize and win. In my opinion, it was one of the best decisions we made because Sherri set the foundation to organize the unorganized in the hotels, improve pensions and provide fair wage increases for workers. She helped to establish Local 2 as a fighting union by forming worker’s committees and encouraging worker participation in all the hotels.
Larry Hendel: Can you summarize your platform?
Rafael Espinoza: We were fighting for workers’ rights, equality of languages, hiring more people of color, better union representation and translation of the contract into other languages.
Larry Hendel: At that point, were you still working with the League?
Rafael Espinoza: Yes.
Larry Hendel: Did people know you were in the League?
Rafael Espinoza: No one knew I was in the League, there was only one open member. Whenever I had questions or issues to discuss, I went to LRS people for discussion and strategy. It was hard when it dissolved. I didn’t know what had happened, because I was not involved in the leadership. I just knew that it was dissolved.
Larry Hendel: So, you were VP. How many terms did you do with Sherri?
Rafael Espinoza: Two. And I was going to quit in the second term because I was tired of the politics. But then Sherri came and told me she was not going to run, and she was proposing this other guy to run for president. I didn’t agree with her choice. And I said I don’t agree this guy should run for the union position and I think we should make that decision as a team. She said no, I want him to run, and please don’t tell anybody. As soon as she left I called Jim McCormick, my close friend and Secretary-Treasurer of Local 2, and I told him, “This is happening man, we have to get it together, we cannot allow this guy to run.” So, we called Mike Casey, a union organizer and another close friend. Mike told me, “Rafa you should run for president.” I felt that I was not a good negotiator because you need to be precise in developing contract language, and I always felt insecure with my English skills. I always felt my greatest contribution was my relationship with workers, and the administrative aspect of the President’s job would have separated me from the day-to-day contact with rank and file members. “I cannot run for president, but you should run.” Then we went back and forth about who should run for president, and we agreed that Mike should run for President. We started organizing the staff to support the change. By the time Sherri found out we had organized, Sherri’s candidate could not run because we blocked him. I don’t think rank and file members knew about the internal struggle that was taking place. I decided to run with Mike Casey to make sure that he was elected. I ran three times as Vice President with Mike Casey. The reason I supported Mike from the beginning is his unwavering commitment to workers and social justice. He was a passionate organizer.
Larry Hendel: So, you were VP for a total of five terms. Three year terms. Fifteen years. Wow. That must have been difficult. I mean every union position I’ve ever heard of, if people are doing it well, they are working around the clock, it takes up their whole life. I imagine Local 2 was even more intense. What was your life like then?
Rafael Espinoza: It was crazy man, I worked six days a week, sometimes ten to twelve hours a day, depending on the campaign. However, for every fire that we put out, a few more sprang up to keep us busy. But you know I loved the job. It’s a different thing when you love the work that you do. It is a privilege to go raise hell and get paid for it.
Two of the reasons I left were because my kids were getting older, and drugs were in my neighborhood. I was also burnt out from the work.
Larry Hendel: You were living in Oakland?
Rafael Espinoza: Yes, and my neighbor’s son got hooked into drugs, and he was a kid I used to help, I would buy from his fundraisers to help him out at school. At fourteen he’s using drugs, and that scared the hell out of me. And I told my wife, “You’ve been trying to persuade me to leave the Bay Area, and now I’m ready to find a place to go.” And that’s when I decided not to run for a sixth term with Local 2.
Larry Hendel: And then you moved to Sacramento?
Rafael Espinoza: We did a search to find where the best public schools were located. All this time I was paying for private school for my kids. Local 2’s salary was low, I was broke all the time. But school was a priority for my kids. So, when we moved to Davis, it was different, they went to public schools. My kids were not happy about leaving Oakland.
“What are we doing here,” they said. “This is a farm town.”
“This is not a farm town,” I responded. “This is a greenhouse for my two flowers.”
Larry Hendel: You lived in the Sacramento area for ten years and worked for SEIU Local 250 and CSEA Local 1000. Then you went back to Local 2 for a couple of years. What was it like to come back?
Rafael Espinoza: I was impressed. They had hired Latinos, Asians, African Americans, Caucasians: a mixture of people and most of them were rank and file leaders, and I was impressed with that. The contract was translated into Spanish, Chinese and English, a change we had fought for. The one thing that surprised me was that the participation of the Latinos was limited, and there weren’t as many Latinos as when I was there before. (I later learned that Latinos who lived in San Francisco were forced out of the city due to the high rents and home prices. They relocated to other cities such as Richmond, Antioch and Oakland where there was more affordable housing.) However, there was a large portion of Asian participants, and I was impressed with how many Asians were participating in different leadership levels and fights. I was really happy to see that. The other thing I was impressed with was when during the hotel strikes, the workers were taking leadership and running those picket lines. They were chanting in their own language, they were maintaining discipline, and developing leadership among the rank and file. In my time as VP, it was the staff that used to do that. There were major improvements with the rank and file that I observed.
The other change that I saw was a political change for the union. Because a lot of workers left San Francisco when the housing prices started going up, people couldn’t afford to buy homes. Most people started moving to Richmond and other areas where they could afford homes. It was a challenge for people to stay after work for meetings and fights because they had to catch BART or whatever transportation, and that was a setback for the union. However, the union still does effective political work in San Francisco.
The foundation is still there that the organization pushed for. Good thing too is people feel comfortable speaking in their language, and then having it translated. And before that we had limited translations. It felt really good to see that. Really positive.
Larry Hendel: What lessons can you share?
Rafael Espinoza: As I look back on my years in the labor movement, I think about what I learned that might help other organizers. I was a good listener; I always believed that there was a lesson to be learned in every conversation. I was a good observer of people’s behavior, and I always evaluated people by their actions, not their words. While I was working in the industry, it was important for me to be a good worker in order to have the respect of my coworkers. I had knowledge of the contract and I understood the house rules and followed them. I was an activist, and I was aware that management would look for reasons to discipline me if I violated the rules. However, I always “kept a paper trail” to document when management was inconsistent. This practice protected not only me but my coworkers. I tried to develop social relationships within the workplace to personalize the relationship of the workers with the union. I tried to encourage union members to grow beyond “what’s in for me,” to “we are the union.” As the saying goes, “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
Interviewer’s Bio: Larry Hendel, a former LRS member, worked in the labor movement for many years, mostly with SEIU Local 1021 and the California Faculty Association. In his youth he did organizing with active duty GI’s during the Vietnam era.
4 thoughts on “Rafa Espinosa’s Lessons from Organizing Workers in UNITE HERE Local 2: Listen to the Workers and Never Forget Them!”
Thank you, Rafa, for writing this history. So useful to help me remember things I know, and fill in things I didn’t know, or have forgotten. And so inspiring.
Hi Jeanne, this interview brought memories that I had also forgotten. I am grateful to so many friends who struggled with me and gave me guidance. Social struggle is a team effort.
Rafa and Larry: thanks for putting together this article, it was great! Rafa: your descriptions of the racist and arrogant treatment hotel workers have to put up with — and the strength and militancy of these workers — were perfect. The workers are ready to fight, the leaders have to lead. I really liked your lessons for future activists and leaders about listening to workers, being a “good worker” yourself, taking a principled but strong approach with current leaders (and learning about strong contact language), and putting the overall needs of the union and members in front of any personal goals of you and other leaders/potential leaders. And you were lucky to get advice early-on from Alex Hing, another great organizer in this industry. Thanks again!
Hi Tracy, yes, I was lucky to have Alex and other great organizers who guided and challenged me. It was an honor to be part of the labor movement.
Thank you for your kind words.