José La Luz (Spanish pronunciation [xo'se la luz], born October 12, 1950) is a labor activist and intellectual who organizes, promotes and advocates for worker rights in Puerto Rico and the United States. Under the leadership of labor leader Gerald McEntee, President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) who assigned La Luz to lead the fight to achieve collective bargaining rights for public workers in Puerto Rico, La Luz is credited as the architect of the grassroots campaign that resulted in the passage of Law 45 in 1998. This law granted bargaining rights and allowed for the unionization of over 120,000 public employees in Puerto Rico. La Luz is currently the Associate Director of the AFSCME, Leadership Academy.
A native of Santurce, Puerto Rico, La Luz comes from a working-class family and spent his primary years living on the island. La Luz credits his grandfather – a self-made small merchant in the mountain town of Ciales- and his mother, a rural school teacher who nurtured and educated poor children in nearby barrios, with being his key role models by mentoring him and instilling a sense of compassion and justice. They were the ones who planted the earliest seeds of consciousness that lead La Luz into advocating for workers rights as an adult, which included bargaining for better wages, work hours, working conditions and overall more humane treatment.
While growing up in Puerto Rico in the 1950s and 1960s, La Luz’s grandfather used to take him to the tobacco, coffee and sugarcane fields in Puerto Rico where he witnessed first hand the plight of poor Puerto Ricans who were toiling these fields to earn their meager livelihoods. Having seen the swollen bellies of their children who were malnourished and whose fathers pushed relentlessly to work the fields while living in the poorest of conditions – many in shacks without running water, electricity and with poor hygienic conditions – La Luz began to understand the importance of working for the sensible human rights of those who had no voice. The fight for basic rights and justice for all people, no matter who they were or where they were from became his life’s passion.
La Luz also credits two past governors of Puerto Rico, Luis Muñoz Marín and Rexford Guy Tugwell, and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), who were household names while growing up in Puerto Rico, as heroes to society. Through these political role models, La Luz observed how valuable and powerful government could be when it stood behind and provided for the common, poor and underserved people.
La Luz sites the example of his grandfather – who worked in a key New Deal program implemented in 1935 by the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA) led by then Governor of Puerto Rico Rexford Tugwell, a close ally and former top advisor to FDR. The government effort provided an ongoing domino effect of positive economic recovery and relief for the impoverished families including La Luz’s grandfather, whose business had collapsed from the devastation caused by the San Felipe (1928) and the San Ciprian (1932) hurricanes that wiped out major farm crops and ruined hundreds of small farmers and merchants in the island. His grandfather was able to secure gainful employment in one of the PRRA programs thus joining the ranks of the Federal Civil Service that allowed him to support his large family.
The PRRA, was one of several alphabet agencies that cascaded from FDR’s New Deal promoted by Governor Tugwell to help people in Puerto Rico out of the Great Depression. Tugwell stimulated the creation of efficient public services and the development of low cost housing for poor and working families thus giving rise to the middle class in the impoverished United States territory. Without this successful example of the government supporting those who were less fortunate, most Puerto Ricans - including La Luz’s family – would have remained poor, illiterate, lacked access to healthcare, nutrition assistance, adult education, training programs, and the basic human right to adequate housing. La Luz was highly inspired by Rexford Tugwell’s overall legacy as well as his book, The Stricken Land: A Story of Puerto Rico, which awakened his passion for progressive thinking and the pursuit working on behalf of the needy as opposed to the greedy.
La Luz attended the University of Puerto Rico where he embarked on the study of social sciences, before transferring with a sports scholarship from the YMCA to Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts. He is a graduate of SUNY’s Empire State College with a Bachelor’s degree in Labor Studies. Later he obtained a master’s degree in labor studies at Rutgers University.
Widely recognized as a labor strategist and intellectual, La Luz has served as a Visiting Labor Leader in residence at Cornell University, having written white papers on organizing strategies in labor unions, as well as serving as an instructor in the Labor Studies Programs at Michigan State and Rutgers universities. He became a Wurf Fellow in the Kennedy School State and Local Government Program at Harvard University in 2007. In 2011, La Luz received a lifetime award for his distinguished career as one of America’s outstanding labor educators from the United Association for Labor Education.
During his college years, La Luz became involved in the Students for a Democratic Society, speaking out on issues such as the war in Vietnam. He also became involved with local Puerto Rican Farm Workers organizations in the Tobacco Valley in Connecticut and Massachusetts. La Luz was one of the key community organizers to secure new rights for migrant workers in the area by putting public pressure on the Labor Department of Puerto Rico and denouncing the deplorable conditions that the migrant workers were working under. He also helped merge the local farm workers with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers of America. La Luz credits César Chávez and Martin Luther King, Jr. as being his greatest influences in understanding the importance of justice and dignity in the quest for civil and human rights.
La Luz has described his time as a young adult in Hartford, involved in the Puerto Rico Socialist Party, as a right of passage and one of establishing “el orgullo Boricua” or Puerto Rican pride. This happened during a time where young Puerto Ricans on the mainland were vigorously asserting and affirming their identity, as well as expressing Puerto Rican nationalism – a similar sentiment expressed by a more famous, yet parallel organization in New York City, the Young Lords.
- “In Hartford, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party looked longingly at events in Latin America, hoping for a world that would include an independent Puerto Rico. And they began challenging an earlier generation of Puerto Ricans in Hartford. The party seemed at times as much neighborhood association as political party, organizing a diverse collection of programs, particularly for youngsters. There were speeches and music by Puerto Rican folk musicians. Everything had an independentista (see independentistas) bent.”
La Luz was eventually expelled from the Puerto Rico Socialist Party because his ideals no longer aligned with the organization. Labeled a “Social Democrat” instead of being primarily nationalist, La Luz decided instead to become active in Democratic Party politics. He also began a career as an organizer for several unions, which sought to organize the growing Hispanic workforce in the low wage manufacturing and service sectors. For him, it had become clear that the most important thing to do was to improve the lives of people who needed basic rights.
- “We became heretics. The party line was that we had to wage (Puerto Rico’s) national liberation struggle in the United States…So there was a struggle within the party. Some people tell me now that we could have taken over the party. At the time, I was just fed up with the whole thing, ... (but I said) I’m going forward,” and that’s how we came up with the idea of a nonpartisan political action committee…”
- In Hartford, A Boy Grows Up Alongside Puerto Rican Nationalism, Hartford Courant, November 8, 1999.
- Cruz, Jose E., Identity and power: Puerto Rican politics and the challenge of ethnicity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.
Alliances and political influence
While leading the fight for passage of collective bargaining rights in Puerto Rico in the early 1990s, La Luz developed a multipartisan strategy in organizing and advocating for public worker rights, and thus he worked with elected officials from all major political parties in the island including former Governors Pedro Rosselló and Sila María Calderón.
- “Pedro Rosselló will sign into law today the unionization project for public workers, of which indicates the process for dozens of labor organizations seeking representation for nearly 200,000 employee in the central government… various union leaders who supported the project will attend the ceremony to sign the legislative piece…among the leaders invited by Rosselló is Jose La Luz, the managing director of the United Public Service Workers, affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).”
After achieving passage of landmark legislation granting collective bargaining rights for public service workers sponsored by the pro-statehood Governor Pedro Rosselló; La Luz would eventually lead the negotiations of the first contracts under a different administration led by the first woman elected Governor of Puerto Rico, Sila Maria Calderon, of the pro Commonwealth PDP.
La Luz has never worked for, nor has he held a staff position with Latinos for Barack Obama. He has, however, been “on loan” from AFSCME – a practice done regularly by key labor organizations across the country - and was assigned to assist in Hillary Clinton’s primary election campaign in several states with large Puerto Rican communities and in Puerto Rico where he played a pivotal role in Hillary’s victorious campaign. He also became one of the trainers in a political boot camp called Latino Camp Obama for Hispanic activists and volunteers who were trained in the political skills and the basics of organizing at the grassroots level.
NAFTA and the ACTWU
La Luz has a long history in Organized Labor, and not just in one union. One of the most important examples of his work is with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU), a union that played a pivotal role in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) debates during the Clinton administration in the early 1990s. During that time, La Luz was the international director of the ACTWU when the NAFTA debate to eliminate barriers to investment and trade between the United States, Mexico and Canada raged in the US.
The ACTWU represented workers in the most vulnerable industries, clothing and textile and instead of opposing trade and economic integration in general, it advocated for the inclusion of strong labor and environmental protections in the main frame of the proposed treaty in order to protect and raise the standard of living of workers affected by the agreement in all three countries, the US, Mexico and Canada. In the early 1990s La Luz became one of the leading voices in debating these topics in many forums sponsored by one of the major Latino organizations in the country, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project before NAFTA was ratified. La Luz engaged in a cross-country discussion with important political figures such as Felipe Calderón long before he became President of Mexico.
Restoration of bargaining rights for public workers
Among La Luz’s most recent achievements is the restoration in May 17, 2011 of public worker rights in Puerto Rico after Puerto Rico Law 45 was nullified by the passage of a new fiscal austerity Law 7 by the current Governor of Puerto Rico Luis Fortuño- a Republican- amidst one of the worst fiscal and economic recessions that Puerto Rico has endured. Law 7 effectively suspended collective agreement clauses in an effort to repress public employees and strip them of collective bargaining rights. Law 7 also caused massive layoffs in Puerto Rico of over 19,000 public sector employees and aggravated an already dismal economic unemployment rate that affected thousands of working families struggling to make ends meet. La Luz was fundamental in speaking out against the injustices by insisting on the need to restore bargaining rights for public workers. In his impassioned speech at the Labor Day celebration sponsored by the President of the PR Senate, La Luz made the case for restoration as he once again led a grassroots lobbying campaign along with other union leaders and the Senate President which resulted in the passage of Law 73 that restored the contracts that had been originally suspended by Law 7.
- LaLuz, Jose (1991) “Creating a Culture of Organizing: ACTWU’s Education for Empowerment,” Labor Research Review Vol. I. No. 17, Article 7. Available at: http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/lrr/vol1/iss17/7