Cindy Estrada doesn’t look like a conventional labor leader — which may be a good thing. The labor movement has changed radically, and the UAW has a little more than a quarter of the 1.6 million members it had in the 1970s. But the union is growing again and diversifying and needs to appeal to a younger, more female audience.
Estrada, a 47-year-old Latina who can run a meeting in Spanish as well as English, brings a fresh face, and occasionally, her 12-year-old twin sons, to union events. But nobody should think she’s a pushover. She has a reputation as a formidable organizer who in last year’s contract talks, was the UAW’s lead negotiator with General Motors, which is also now led by a woman for the first time in history.
Hour Detroit: How did you go into union organizing?
Cindy Estrada: I was going to school to be a teacher. I had worked with the farmworkers. I was waiting to get a job teaching. I was working in this embroidery shop, it was only supposed to be temporary. They were trying to organize Mexican Industries, and asked me if I wanted to help, so I thought I would give it a try. And I fell in love with the workers, the job, the union, and my husband, though that didn’t happen for a while (laughs). But he trained me to organize.
Some say unions were once important, back in the 1930s and the era of the sit-down strikes. But today, they say they’re dying because their era is past.
Why do we need unions? I have been representing our workers in the parts sector, right? The biggest myth in America is that manufacturing jobs are automatically the path to the middle class. And it’s just not true. Eighty percent of the car is built in the parts sector (where) workers make 10 bucks an hour, nine bucks. And that’s not even including how much they pay for health care. Their real wages, when you subtract the $250 a month they are paying for health care, are poverty wages.
So while nine out of 10 Americans say that increasing the manufacturing sector is going to rebuild the middle class it is just not happening. But beyond wages, when you have democracy in the workplace, when workers have a real voice — things run better. What I’ve found is that everyone wants Japanese-style lean manufacturing (a method that eliminates unnecessary waste), but they don’t realize you can’t have the lean without a culture of workplace democracy.
A successful lean process only comes about when you have cooperation between management and workers, and really getting that team member on the floor’s real opinion and implementing that. Like self-directed work teams. That’s one thing the UAW seeks to give workers today.
The UAW has pretty much failed to organize any foreign automakers’ plants in this country. Two years ago, the management of a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee were completely neutral about the UAW coming in — and still the workers voted the union down. Why?
It had to do with how they saw the union. They really see it as an outside third party coming in. They don’t understand that it is workers coming together, and they make those decisions on the floor, backed by the resources of a union, some people don’t understand that.
And things have changed politically. When I started organizing, the ones who would fight back were the management. Today, in too many places you are really taking on the whole state structure — the political structure.
When we go into a plant, and they call to try and organize them, it’s because the workers have real serious issues. But then the boss comes in and makes them fight among each other. Make them think some outsider is going to come in, and make them think “better the devil you know” divide and conquer.
And that’s what we’re seeing now in our country. Donald Trump is only talking about immigrants and refugees to take our minds off the fact that a handful of billionaires own half the global wealth.
You’re not Central Casting’s image of a labor leader. Are you helping develop a strategy to speak to nontraditional audiences?
Yes. But I think what we are doing, what (UAW President) Dennis Williams is doing, is to help redefine what it means to be a leader in the UAW. We are diversifying the union, but we can’t forget our base.
Do you ever think you might become the first woman president of the UAW in 2018, when Dennis Williams has to step down?
I’m not thinking about that now. I’m just focused on building the union by organizing nonmembers and working internally in our plants. I’m not automatically closed to the possibility someday. Sometimes I think about it because I have a lot of ideas, and would like to have a chance to carry them out. But other times I think, I have two kids, this is a very demanding job, and I don’t know!
Name: Cindy Estrada
Family: Husband: Frank White, a retired UAW official. Twin sons: Jason and Jesse
Education: B.A., education, University of Michigan
Languages: English, Spanish
Occupation: UAW vice president (elected to second term in 2014). She’s the first Latina to serve as an International officer and the first woman to head the UAW’s General Motors Department. Also in charge of the Independents, Parts and Suppliers, and Women’s Departments.
• Helped organize workers at Mexican Industries in Detroit
• Appointed to UAW’s organizing staff; oversaw strategy
• Served as UAW’s national organizing director
Passionately Supports: Her family, her union, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential candidacy
Passionately Loathes: NAFTA, the new Trans-Pacific Trade partnership, and immigrant and refugee bashing