Fernando Gapasin

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Fernando Gapasin

Template:TOCnestleft Fernando Gapasin is a member of Freedom Road Socialist Organization.[1]

Dr. Fernando Gapasin is a former professor of Industrial Relations and Chicano/a Studies. He is a 50-year veteran of the U.S. Labor movement. He is currently a Field Representative for OSEA/AFT Local 6732 and the Oregon State Chair for the National Writers Union/United Auto Workers local 1981. He is also on the Executive Committee of Portland Jobs with Justice.[2]

He is President of the Central Oregon Labor Council and General Board Member of the Oregon State Federation of Labor. He currently teaches at the University of Oregon. He was the principal researcher of the AFL-CIO’s Union Cities program and former faculty at the National Labor College (Labor Studies), Penn State (Industrial Relations), and UCLA (Chicana/o Studies).


Gapasin describes himself as a local labor movement activist, author and labor educator. He co-authored Solidarity Divided with his friend Bill Fletcher, Jr.,

The Gapasins were farm workers and neither parent finished elementary school. His family members were founders of early agricultural unions in California and became founding members of the United Farm Workers Union.

I was a farm worker and an organizer for the UFW. My uncle Philip Veracruz, former vice-president of the UFW, instilled in me ideas about solidarity and socialism. And, as a child he warned me that capitalists would scapegoat immigrants for the economic hardships caused by capitalism.

Despite spending over a decade in academia I have been a worker all of my life. I’ve been a retail clerk, dishwasher, auto worker, steel worker, fiber glass worker, roller coaster assembler, heavy equipment mechanic, bus mechanic as well as a university professor. While in academia I was a recruiter and executive board member of AFT and I was the president of an AFSCME local that represented childcare workers. In the local union movement I have served in every capacity from shop steward to principal officer of two local unions and two Central Labor Councils. I’ve also been a paid union organizer and staffer and the principal researcher for the AFL-CIO’s Union Cities program in 1996 -1997. I have been a staffer or elected leader in a dozen different unions. In all of my various positions on the shop floor or in the unions I have perceived myself as a dissident. I am also a Chicana/o movement activist.[3]

Radical life

In 1952, we returned to the Bay Area. I grew up in an all African-American neighborhood. South Berkeley bordered West Oakland. When I was 13, my friends and I met brother Harold X. He taught us about the racial hierarchy in the United States and, using a broom as a prop, he taught us how racial hierarchy is socially created and—flipping the broom—could be recreated differently. He recruited us into the Nation of Islam. Later, after Malcolm X’s murder and Elijah’s death, there was a violent split in the Nation; brother Harold was murdered in his home. When I first studied Marxism-Leninism, I thought I had found the tools to change the racial hierarchy in the United States.

I participated in my first strike in 1963, when I was a 17-year-old dishwasher at Washington Township Hospital in Fremont. I became a union steward in the hospital kitchen when our union, the Hospital Workers union, later Service Employees International Union 250, struck for recognition. We won after nearly a month on strike. From there, I went to work at Ford Milpitas. I flunked out of college. I went to Vietnam as a combat medic. I returned to the world in 1968. I got married, built a family, and while finishing college got involved in the Chicanx movement. I went to law school and was part of the Chicanx movement in San Jose. I was part of the San Jose contingent in the 1970 Chicano Moratorium. I was expelled for striking against the law school to get minority admissions. I joined the Partido Nacional de La Raza Unida and learned about Marxism-Leninism.

I was a rank-and-file member organizer in several unions, such as the UFW, UAW, United Steelworkers, California Nurses Association, International Association of Machinists, and Service Employees International Union. I was part of the union caucus movement, specifically in the UAW and Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), throughout the 1970s and ’80s. The caucus movements railed against undemocratic union bureaucracies, organized reform movements to “dump the chumps,” and moved to organize the unorganized. The caucus movement succeeded in bringing people of color and women into power in unions. The most well-known caucuses were the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, New Directions Caucus, and the Teamsters for a Democratic Union. The union caucus movements were also the impetus for the development of the Labor Research Review (a journal of insightful and practical labor research) and Labor Notes (publication and activist center of the U.S. labor movement).

In auto, I helped build the caucus movement, served on the UAW bargaining committee, and fought the concessions being negotiated by UAW leaders. I was laid off in the late 1970s. I then did some “hot shop” organizing and “salting” for the International Association of Machinists and Communications Workers of America and ended up like many laid off autoworkers at the Santa Clara Transportation Agency.As a mechanic, I became a member of ATU 265, which is where my real story begins. It was there that I began to realize that the assumptions of Marxist-Leninist analysis were limited and, thus, I began to use what has been called an “intersectional” analysis. Namely, I saw how different forms of oppression, based on race, gender, and occupation, intersected to create the structure of a workplace. Using this analytic tool and the base created by laid off autoworkers and friends in the Chicanx movement, we organized the already growing, but divided, dissident movements within ATU 265. For generations, the union had been run by white men. After the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the creation of the Urban Mass Transportation Act, ATU 265 grew from having 120 members to over 2,000, with people of color and women hired in large numbers. We also restructured the union constitution to include representation by occupation, which further aided racial and gender diversity. We negotiated the best contract in the ATU. More significantly, it made us influential participants in county, state, and national politics (such as when Bill Clinton appointed our central labor council business manager, Rick Sawyer, to represent the U.S. Department of Labor on the west coast).

ATU 265 was able to bring its new energy into the Santa Clara County Labor Council (CLC). This CLC had a long history of progressive politics, having led a statewide movement in opposition to the Vietnam War. Rank-and-file leaders like Virginia Muir and Fred Hirsch carried the traditions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and Business Managers like Peter Cervantes-Gauchi, Sawyer, and later Amy Dean brought the union movement into the leadership of the Santa Clara Democratic Party. ATU provided political money and activists. In 1984, I was elected secretary-treasurer, the second highest elected position. Our local political clout advanced our organizing and vice versa. Our downtown organizing project brought together core activists from different unions to organize all the major hotels and most of the restaurants in downtown San Jose, in some cases using “card check” elections. During much of this time, the union that had jurisdiction, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union 19, was out of commission, so organizing took place under the name of the Santa Clara County Labor Council. In 1996, my CLC became the model for the national American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (AFL-CIO) Union Cities project.

I was urged to run for political office. I was introduced to Silicon Valley executives and Democratic Party leaders statewide. I was convinced to run for the San Jose City Council. Local business interests and the funders of the Democratic Party began to tell me what they wanted for their support. I went to one too many cocktail parties hosted by the rich white folks in Santa Clara County and decided to drop out of the race. I was not ready for all the slime. I felt like I was losing my revolutionary soul, so I decided to go into academia.

While in graduate school, I organized professors for the AFT. After my PhD, in 1994, I went to Penn State as an assistant professor of industrial relations. I was advised that it was the best place to start to eventually get a job in the Ivy League. At Penn State, I met Howard Wial, a brilliant Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist and Yale lawyer, who also believed that unions were essential to U.S. democracy. We conducted a national study to determine the capacity of labor councils to implement labor organizing projects like the ones in my CLC. Our findings were published in Organizing to Win, a book that was instrumental in moving the AFL-CIO toward an organizing model. Our piece, “The Role of Central Labor Councils in Union Organizing in the 1990s,” captured the attention of the new AFL-CIO leadership because it framed the labor federation’s potential for community and regional organizing. Consequently, I was hired by the AFL-CIO as the principal researcher to assess the potential of the 602 CLCs to conduct organizing campaigns and build labor’s political power.

My research revealed eight characteristics of successful CLCs that became the pillars of the Union Cities project: (1) Organizing for change, changing to organize, (2) mobilizing against antiunion employers, (3) building political power and community coalitions, (4) promoting economic growth, protecting our communities, (5) educating union members in pocketbook economics, (6) generating support for the right to organize, (7) making sure our leadership mirrors the faces of our members, and (8) encouraging all local unions to increase their membership. (See “The AFL-CIO’s Road to Union City: A Bold Plan to Move Unions to the Left” in WorkingUSA 13 [2010]). I helped organize John Sweeney’s “coming out party,” a thirty-thousand-person march through Watsonville, California, to support UFW strawberry-worker organizing in 1997. Placed in a historical context, I believe Union Cities created a cultural foundation for strategies that are and will advance social and economic justice and organize workers.

Union Cities began in 131 communities. Los Angeles was a pivotal city because 17 percent of the U.S. economy passed through its Alameda Corridor. Since its inception, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor had been led by conservative union leaders who followed George Meany, the first president of the AFL-CIO. Union density in the city in 1996 was about 12 percent compared to the national average of 15 percent. The principal officer of the CLC, James Wood, had just died. After a contentious, racially charged process, Miguel Contreras (former organizer and boycott leader in Canada for the UFW and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union National Representative) emerged as the new executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (LACFL). If Union Cities succeeded in Los Angeles, it could be a model for the rest of the labor movement. I joined the University of California Los Angeles labor center and became an associate professor at the Cesar Chávez Center for Chicano Studies. I also became president of a child care union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 1108.

Renaldo Macias, chair of Chicano studies at the University of California Los Angeles, and I had an ongoing discussion. I believed that the UFW belonged, ideologically, to the Chicanx Movement. Macias felt these were two movements that had sympathetic interconnections but were distinct. I argued that strategic and theoretical errors are made when one tries to separate issues of race and class in the United States. I used the Steakmate strike as an example. I never stopped believing that the UFW was part of the Chicanx movement.

At the university, I helped the students establish a permanent Chicanx Studies Department, the Cesar E. Chávez Center. I became the Movimiento Estudiantil de Chicana/Chicanos de Aztlán (MEChA) faculty advisor because of my history in MEChA. I soon became the Southern California chair of the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies. I was also a founding member of the New Raza Left, an initiative to unite different sectors of the Chicanx left around a liberatory vision and program. Macias appointed me as service/learning coordinator and tasked me with developing classes that would link students with Los Angeles community issues. My students became part of the Union Cities project.

Because of my links to developing the AFL-CIO’s Union Cities, I was invited into the LACFL as a consultant. Through the University of California Los Angeles Labor Center, I worked with Contreras to restructure, strategize, and educate members of the LACFL. Kent Wong, chair of the Labor Center, went to law school with Contreras’s wife, Maria Elena Durazo of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees/Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, and other local politicians, including the future mayor. Wong facilitated a strategy group at James Lawson’s (Memphis sanitation workers strike leader) Holman church. This group of community and labor leaders studied and formulated activist ideas for action in Los Angeles. Labor leaders like Durazo, Eliseo Medina, Contreras, and civil rights leaders from the Chicanx and African-American community were making it a Union City. By understanding the demographic and political changes in Los Angeles and developing appropriate political and organizing strategies, union density grew from 12 percent to 18 percent in less than five years. The get-out-the-vote program of the LACFL registered almost two million Latinx voters and turned LACFL into the most potent community political force in California. Thinking outside the box about combining unions, racial justice, and environmental organizing, I found myself at odds with the more traditional labor and academic leaders. So, I retired and moved on.

I ended up in Bend, Oregon, a beautiful place surrounded by the Cascade Mountains.

Bend soon became known as the town of “poverty with a view.” Although billed as a resort and tourist town, Bend has a strong union history, some Industrial Workers of the World history, dating back to 1905. In 2003, I became president of the local central labor council (I was a member of the UAW), which was founded in 1916. Bend’s massive lumber mills were organized after the Second World War and in the 1950s the president of the Wood Workers Union, Jack Dempsey (not the boxer), was elected twice as Bend’s mayor. We maintained a strong working-class presence by hosting May Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Mexican Independence Day celebrations. We even renamed our Labor Day Picnic “Solidarity Day,” where we remembered and celebrated working-class heroes and victories. We hosted cultural presentations by Barbara Ehrenreich, Maya Angelou, and, to jump start our immigrant rights work, Dolores Huerta and David Bacon came to help us.

To facilitate union and community strategies, we created a Jobs with Justice chapter—led by Michael Funke, retired from the UAW—that linked ongoing social justice organizing with union battles. We expanded our CLC constitution to include non-AFL-CIO organizations too. This was not as successful given the restrictions of the national AFL-CIO. Wins included helping the Building Trades stop the building of a massive antiunion power plant by uniting Native, agricultural, environmental, and progressive white forces in Madras, where we recalled and elected a more environmentally friendly County Board of Commissioners. In Bend, we elected progressive city council members, created a public transit service, then organized the workers for the ATU. We organized educational and head start workers; recreational and service workers. We were largely successful in stopping all school bus privatization in Central Oregon. We stopped the building of a Walmart superstore. We built a powerful local immigrant rights movement that became part of the most influential immigrant rights movement in the state, Causa. We built Tenants United for Fairness to stop developers from wiping out manufactured home parks and leaving hundreds homeless by passing local and state laws requiring developers to pay homeowners for their losses (State Supreme Court later ruled the laws unconstitutional). And, after several attacks on gay and Black people, with the help of our all-white male building trades allies, we passed the second civil rights ordinance in the state that protected LGBT people and racial minorities from discrimination. This struggle took months of real battles with hundreds of right-wing religious zealots who opposed equal rights. We were able to unite broad mass forces to these campaigns by winning, as well as practicing what Bill Fletcher calls “mass strategic planning.” Through this inclusive process, we created a strategy and projects for working-class power. We consciously built what I call “a community of solidarity.” We had two central mottoes: “In Central Oregon Workers Stand Shoulder to Shoulder for Social Justice” and “No Worker Will Be Left Alone.” Our community of solidarity took material form when leaders in Jobs with Justice rented a building and named it the Social Justice Center, where many unions and social justice organizations shared office space.

In Central Oregon I worked largely with white workers, for which my experience in Pennsylvania helped prepare me. In Pittsburgh in 1996, I helped build a racial justice event focused on police murders. Jonny Gammage, cousin of Pittsburgh Steeler Ray Seals, died of “positional asphyxia” like George Floyd. Massive protests were organized. The Wheeling Pitt steel workers, all white, were on strike at the same time. I asked them to support our racial justice organizing. Pittsburgh is a racially and religiously segregated city. At our event, in zero-degree weather, dozens of Wheeling Pitt workers came carrying posters demanding that police stop attacks on the Black community. The local United Steelworkers president told me, “this is about justice for Black people, we stand for justice too.” I never learned if he was a socialist or not, but I came to believe that if you frame issues around the basic values of fairness, organizers can create connections and even change behavior. In my organizing life, I have seen workers change, including workers who were racist. But if you leave them isolated and never challenge ideas through action, nothing will change. After viewing Donald Trump-instigated “populism,” I now question my more optimistic assumptions.

I moved from Central Oregon to the Willamette Valley, where I organized a large unit of immigrant custodians within the Oregon School Employees Association. A mostly white union, I was told by my boss to be low key because white members did not think we should be organizing “illegals.” I got disciplined when I used Causa to make it a community issue. When Causa became a statewide leader in immigrant rights and immigrants were elected to Oregon School Employees Association leadership, the association changed its “hide the immigrant workers” policy and now supports Causa. Unions can change if they are challenged and we organize for power.

I attempted to form a multiunion coalition to organize over five thousand privatized school bus drivers. As expected from bureaucrats, egos prevailed and union leaders would not buy in. Using aggressive community-based support and “offensive bargaining strategies,” which included all-member bargaining committees, we had success in winning three contracts, but without more union collaboration to create broader market share for bargaining leverage, each contract turned into a 24/7 organizing campaign because of unrelenting antiunion attempts to decertify (such as by the Koch-related National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation), as well as constant leadership turnover. When I retired, the impetus for continued organizing waned and the bad guys eventually won. Unions organized and helped legislate a $15 minimum wage plan and guaranteed sick leave pay, but these reforms did not translate directly into successful organizing.[4]

Freedom Road


In 1991 Fernando Gapasin was a member of Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

Forward Motion

In 1995, Fernando Gapasin, an assistant professor of labor relations Penn State University contributed an article to Freedom Road Socialist Organization's February Forward Motion "Remembering my uncle..Philip Vera Cruz". .[5]



In 1993 Fernando Gapasin contributed an article to the Socialist Organizing Network's Moving Forward.

"Black Workers, Hanging Nooses"

July 19 2008 Modern Times Bookstore 888 Valencia St., at 20th St., SF "Black Workers, Hanging Nooses & The State of The Labor Movement"

Panel discussion with Leo Robinson, Carl Bryant, Fernando Gapasin, Jack Heyman and others.

Labor Campaign for Single Payer

In 2009 Fernando Gapasin, President West Central Oregon CLC served on the National Advisory Board and the Steering Committee of Labor Campaign for Single Payer.

Center for Labor Renewal

In 2009 Fernando Gapasin was listed as an endorser of the Center for Labor Renewal[6].

Solidarity Divided

The book "Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice" (University of California Press, 2008), was co-authored by Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin. The authors, were a longtime union organizer and quondam top assistant to the AFL-CIO’s John Sweeney, and a Central Labor Council president and labor educator.[7]

Left Forum 2011

Solidarity Divided: New Models of Labor/Community Organization

Portland JwJ Executive Board

Portland Jobs with Justice Executive Board of 2015;[8]

Thanked by Zweig

"The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, Second Edition By Michael Zweig acknowledged Joe Berry, Ron Blackwell, Jim Borbely, Ross Borden, Gene Bruskin, Jeff Crosby, Fernando Gapasin, Penny Lewis, Stephanie Luce, Maria Maisto, Jack Metzgar, Rachel Micah-Jones, Dennis O'Neil, Jay D. Mazur, Steven Pitts, Warren Sanderson, Heidi Shierholz, Craig Smith, Megan Smith, Ralph Trioche, Luis Valenzuela, Victor Wallis, Kris Warner, Devon Whitham, Anne Weigard, and Robert Saute for their help.


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