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Close to Home: Memories of a father's labor and his lessons

I knew my father was undocumented by the time I was 5 or 6, and my father's arduous journey from Michoac?, Mexico, to California had already become part of our family lore. I heard how exhausting it was for him, as a young boy, to work every day picking cotton, strawberries and grapes in 100-degree heat. His stories captured my imagination when I considered how hard he worked and how far he had come to make a better life for himself.

My father's story is similar to those who still come to the U.S. for a better life — a life of working in the fields, of sleeping outside or in a rundown shack; of always being afraid of being hunted down and captured, and of never being certain of getting enough work to live. He told me stories of the kind of exploitation an undocumented workforce faces — use of the dreaded short-handled hoe, which damaged your back and shoulders; being sprayed with chemicals and pesticides in the fields without any protection; bosses who called immigration enforcement on their own farmworkers after the job was finished and before workers were paid.

My father told about one particular Immigration and Naturalization Service officer who marched him and his co-workers up to the boss' house before deporting them and told the farmer, "I'm taking these guys but not until you pay them the wages they worked for." My father said the farmer hemmed and hawed, but they got their wages. Exploitation: the daily reality of an undocumented workforce.

When my father, who eventually became a legal resident and a citizen, met my mother and joined the Laborers Local 339 and then the Teamsters Local 216, his life — and the lives of everyone in our family — really improved. Because of the union, we got health care for the first time. My brother and I got our Kaiser Permanente cards and had our first physicals. My father worked construction, made decent wages with benefits and had a modest retirement. With his union job and my mom's union salary as a kindergarten teacher, our family moved into the middle class. My parents bought a house, paid their taxes, voted in every election and sent my brother and me to college. They saved enough money to have a dignified but modest retirement. We were raised with blue-collar values that included a strong support of unions, of which my dad was a stalwart member.

On car trips, he loved pointing out the jobs he had — San Francisco airport, the I-280 freeway, the BART tunnel — telling us, "Kids, I helped build that."

My father never missed picket-line duty, and he urged family and friends to join a union and learn a skilled trade. Then their labor would be rewarded, he said, and they would have rights on the job and would not be afraid to speak up as he was as an undocumented worker.

I suppose that's why I'm so proud to work for the AFL-CIO today. The labor movement gave my family a ticket to the middle class, and I believe that every family deserves the same opportunity. Immigrants have been the backbone of the labor movement and the American way of life, and they are the future of the labor movement.

I keep a picture of my father, as a farmworker, in my office at the North Bay Labor Council, right next to my law school diploma and my admission to the California State Bar, to remind myself of how far my parents' hard work and union membership helped bring our family — and to remind me of all those hard workers waiting to improve their lives and the lives of their children, the way my dad did.

(Lisa Maldonado is executive director of the North Bay Labor Council.)


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