The labor movement loses a giant in Mike Garcia

By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist

The labor movement is mourning a giant following the death last weekend of Mike Garcia, the longtime president of SEIU 1877 and United Service Workers West who spent his life standing with workers for social and economic justice, particularly low-wage and immigrant workers most vulnerable to exploitation.

Mike started his career in the 1980s relentlessly organizing janitors, instilling the support and encouragement each worker would need to claim a voice on the job and in the community. He led successful efforts to unionize janitors working in major tech corporations, such as Oracle and Apple. In 2000, he led a historic three-week strike in the city of Los Angeles that shut down streets and ultimately led to meaningful gains for thousands of workers.

Mike built power for low-wage workers. His encouragement helped people stand up, make their voices heard, and believe in their own dignity and strength. He helped build a movement in Southern California that required elected officials, CEOs and anyone with power in our communities to take notice when the janitors walked into a room.

Those efforts bled into Orange County, where many of our community’s organizers cut their teeth mapping corporate high rises in Fashion Island, Anaheim, Irvine and throughout Orange County where janitors would ultimately join the union.

I was only fortunate enough to meet Mike a handful of times.

But along with workers across the country, I feel like I know him because of the legacy he’s left and the people he has touched and inspired.

Mike was a national labor leader, served on the California Labor Federation’s executive council, and led a union representing more than 40,000 workers. But he didn’t lead from a board room, rather he led by standing alongside janitors and security guards in the workplace, at their homes and in the streets fighting for fairness.

His example has influenced and elevated the labor movement. Art Pulaski, secretary treasurer of the California Labor Federation, called him “the most committed organizer of a generation.”

Countless workers and activists throughout Southern California carry with them stories about learning what they could accomplish because Mike led them, pushed them, believed in them. Marisol Rivera was a 19-year-old mom when Mike convinced her to become a strike captain in 2000. Now she is the leader of SEIU-USWW’s Orange County chapter.

Everyone from Senate Pro Tem Kevin de Leon to SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry paid tribute to Mike’s life and legacy this week.

“I am blessed to have walked with and learned from Mike Garcia,” wrote Mary Kay Henry. “The union is better, bolder and stronger thanks to his tireless efforts and Sí Se Puede Leadership.”

Today is Cesar Chavez Day — a day when we find inspiration and motivation in the history of those workers who came before us struggling to make our nation more fair and just. Today, the memory of Mike Garcia joins the chorus of leaders like Cesar Chavez. And his legacy lives on in everyone who continues asking themselves, as he demonstrated throughout his life, “How can I do more? How can I do better? How can I push on for workers?”

Mike is survived by his wife Gloria, daughters Suzanna and Estrella and son Henry and his grandchildren, as well as his brothers and sisters in the labor movement.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: March 31, 2017