CommunityFDL Main Blog

Fred Azcarate: Making the American Dream a Reality for Working People

At the AFL-CIO, we have a great new Voice@Work director, Fred Azcarate, who joined us in January. Our Voice@Work team does the nitty-gritty of connecting organizing with political action—for instance, staff are playing a big role in the campaign to move the Employee Free Choice Act through Congress. Azcarate, 42, has spent 20 years in the progressive movement, including nearly 15 years as director of Jobs with Justice and several years as president of the United States Student Association (USSA). I want to share with you a Q&A interview with Azcarate by one of our AFL-CIO Now bloggers, James Parks.

Question: You’ve spent your life working with the union movement in one way or another. What’s been your motivation?

Azcarate: I grew up in a labor family. My folks are immigrants from the Philippines. My mom came over as a contract nurse and was a member of a couple of unions. My godfather was a steel worker up in Pittsburgh. My godmother was an unorganized seamstress—she actually worked in a sweatshop. So from early on I got to really see what it was like to work in this country. In my family there were folks who were in unions and those who weren’t. The difference was dramatic not only in wages and benefits, but basic working conditions, and that’s always helped me form my politics. We’re in the middle of what I think is one of the most exciting campaigns now to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. If we don’t have a strong labor movement, we’re not going to be able to have the kind of country we want, the kind of world we want. There’s no other organization I know of that can stand up for the rights of working people not just on the job but stand up for the kind of issues that we care about. That’s why the Employee Free Choice Act is so important. Labor is in crisis for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the kind of employer intimidation that workers go through when they try to form a union. I think the momentum we’re starting to build for the Employee Free Choice Act is going to turn that around. That’s why I’m at the AFL-CIO.

Q.: When did you get your start as an activist?

Azcarate: I started out at SUNY-Binghamton [State University of New York]. I got involved first on campus around the issue of tuition. The governor [Mario Cuomo] wanted to raise tuition and I said I came here because it was cheap and if they raised tuition, I’d be priced out of an education. I really didn’t think we could do anything about it. Then an organizer came by and said we actually are going to fight this. We did and we actually won. And that’s when I first understood that if we organize and act collectively, we can actually change things. That opened my eyes to a lot of things.

Q.: The 1980s, when you were at SUNY-Binghamton, were not known for student activism. Has that changed now?

Azcarate: We didn’t enjoy the kind of ties students have now with progressive organizations and with the labor movement. Now you see groups like USSA being housed at the AFL-CIO, Union Summer and the Organizing Institute, you see a lot more organizational connections between labor and students. And that’s benefited both movements. You have a group of students and young people who understand that the freedom to form unions is critical for everybody, that it raises the wages and living standards, not just for the folks who are in the labor movement, but for everybody. That’s the kind of consciousness we need to build as a labor movement so that we are once again taking our rightful place fighting for our members, the people in our communities, the people we go to church with on a whole range of issues.

Q.: At Jobs with Justice you were involved heavily in the living wage campaign. How did you decide that was something you wanted to take on and how did you organize to win?

Azcarate: When I got to Jobs with Justice, there were three staff people. So we focused on how to build local capacity and infrastructure. It seemed always like we were being pushed to react to bad things that were happening to us. Folks said how can we be more proactive—that’s how the whole living wage movement came about. It was extremely successful not just to pass the legislation and raise the wages of the specific workers that were covered, but because it allowed us to have a conversation about what kind of jobs we want our governments supporting in our communities. That allows us to start up the discussion of what kind of communities we want. We want good jobs in these communities. We want high-road development and part of that has to be raising wages, but part of that has to be fighting for peoples’ right to form unions and see collective bargaining as a good thing.

Q.: How does your experience at Jobs with Justice inform your work at the AFL-CIO?

Azcarate: There are a few principles I carry with me: At Jobs with Justice we really believed in this idea of local coalition autonomy. Just because I’m the national director in Washington, D.C., doesn’t mean that I know best how to organize in Louisville, Ky. I need to be in contact and connection with those folks in Louisville and really trust them. They live in their communities, they know the labor movement there, they know the religious community there.

The second principle is that relationships matter. Whether it’s organizing or movement building, it’s about relationships. It’s about the kind of relationships built over time and how we know one another. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen where we were building coalitions around the country that people [brought] preconceived notions about the labor movement or community groups. Yet when you got people to sit down around a table instead of it being, “Oh, that’s the union, they don’t care about our issues,” it becomes, “Oh, that’s Joe. I know Joe. I know Joe cares because he lives in this community.”

The third principle is that we need to not just talk the talk but walk the walk. We need to build these relationships, but we’ve got to put folks in motion. That’s why I’m excited about building the stewards army. [The AFL-CIO stewards army is a movement-wide network of stewards—the union official closest to the members, who works alongside the rank-and-file members—to educate, organize and mobilize members around key issues.] We’re not going to change things no matter how smart we may be if our own members don’t understand the situation we’re facing, if our own members don’t understand we’ve got to do something about it. There’s been an economic shift in this country. Take for example the unions at General Electric. They can’t just win at GE and get a fair contract only in Louisville, Ky., or Lynn, Mass. They’ve got to be united across that company across the U.S. and across the world because that company has operations all across the world. We need to get outside our silos—it’s simple solidarity. We have to make solidarity mean something in this world again.

Q.: What role do you see for bloggers in creating change?

Azcarate: It’s been an amazing phenomenon to watch this democratization of information and how powerful it’s been. You see it in all different ways, people just wanting to put up some information and it gets a following. The role of bloggers, especially progressive bloggers, is critical. So often the major campaigns we work on locally and nationally don’t get the exposure we need to get. So the blogging community helps us to get the word out to a whole new level of folks and in some ways in a much more reliable way than in the mainstream media. The blogging community is another way to get our message out and engage people in our campaigns.

Q.: You just had a new son, Danilo, your first child. What kind of world do you want to see him live in?

Azcarate: I know its corny, but I want to see a world where people can be what they want to be. You earn a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. I want to see a world where people don’t have to go hungry and folks don’t have to go without housing. It’s partly coming from an immigrant family, coming here thinking about the American Dream. So let’s make that dream a reality not just for a few, but for everybody. We have the resources. It’s a question of the political will and our ability to organize to make it happen.

Previous post


Next post

Gonzales' Hack Prep Coaches

Tula Connell

Tula Connell