How LIUNA helps workers realize the American Dream

“We desperately need people who want to work,” said Jason Mendenhall, Business Manager of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 663 in Kansas City, Missouri. There is, in other words, tremendous opportunity right now.

The need for workers due to the passage of the Biden Administration’s “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act” is going to be great. LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan has said the bill is going to “put Laborers to work in every community, revitalize our nation’s economy, and open doors to the middle-class for hundreds of thousands of working men and women.”

Opportunity is what convinced Santos Cayetano Gomez to set out with his son and travel from Guatemala to the United States. The journey was arduous. “Most of the time we walked, and had barely any money or food to eat,” he recalled. “My seven-year old son was with me, exposed to these harsh conditions, and after all that we had to spend another month at the border, sleeping outside.”

He was looking for the opportunity to work and support his family, to have a roof over his head, the means to send his son to the doctor, and the opportunity to save to bring his family together again. “I had to pay off local gangs every week so my son could safely cross the bridge to get to school,” he recalled. The opportunity for safety for his family motivated him.

Gomez had extended family in Kansas City, Missouri, so he was allowed to stay there and find work. The construction jobs he landed were adequate, certainly better than Guatemala where he “sometimes would make two hundred dollars in a month – barely enough to survive.” But he heard a common refrain from the other workers – get a work visa, and join a union.

He didn’t know any English or where to begin, so Gomez Googled “union” and eventually found in the results a number for a LIUNA local in California. Since he was in Missouri, they directed him to the LIUNA Midwest Regional Office, and soon LIUNA Organizer Carlos Escobar and Gomez were connected. Escobar could speak Spanish, and explained the process of joining, the benefits, and the steps Gomez would have to take.

Escobar also came to the United States from Guatemala more than 30 years ago to pursue opportunities, but was fighting in California to just get paid a living wage. His wife was from St. Louis, so they relocated and he took on a roofing job during the day, and UPS at night. At his night job, “everyone was talking about the union, the union – I found out what it was and how it offered benefits and safety, protection, not to mention the pay then was more than $20 an hour,” he said.

It was LIUNA that gave Escobar access to the opportunity he came here for, and now as an organizer and recruiter, he helps people like Santos find good, dependable work.

“We had always heard that the United States is the land of opportunity, and I am living proof of that. I am forever thankful for this country, LIUNA, and every person who has helped me and my family build a better life,” Gomez concluded.

Now, thanks to the strength of LIUNA, Gomez is also finding the opportunity to continue his journey. “In Guatemala he could sometimes make barely enough to support his family,” Escobar explained. “Now he’s able to take his kid to the doctor without worrying about it, and do the same for his wife and other child still in Guatemala while saving to bring them here.”

Opportunities truly abound. There is an incoming wave of work that Mendenhall explains is unprecedented. “General President Terry O’Sullivan has compared it to the work funded by Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. The next 10 years will see a need for workers like we’ve never seen,” he said.

Mendenhall explained that unions in general, but LIUNA in particular, really are for everyone – for people like Santos, the kid just graduating high school, the guy out of rehab – “this is a good place, a safe place, where you are seen as an equal and you can build your life.” There’s opportunity, community, and strength.

And LIUNA has long supported legal immigration and the rights of immigrant workers – it’s good for every Union member. The work Union Laborers do can’t be outsourced, and there’s going to be a lot of it for workers who want to work hard and keep the Union strong.

“It’s important to build a diverse workforce because we need as many people as we can to do the work today and help support the retirement funds and the strength of the Union,” said Mendenhall. “It doesn’t matter if we speak the same language; if you have a Union card in your pocket I’ll call you brother or sister.

“The only thing better than getting 150 people like Santos, is if I can get 250. You can make a good living doing this work, but you have to show up and want it, and Santos shows up, he’s got grit.“

Gomez is now helping recruit new workers, and has found an unexpected benefit since becoming a LIUNA Laborer, one harder to quantify than money – the opportunity for respect and dignity. While he admits the pay is important, because he can help his family and give them a better, safer home and future, one thing he immediately noticed was “the respect we get at the job site from other workers and supervisors,” he said, “and the safety in knowing that, as a LIUNA Laborer, someone has my back.

“Coming to this country to work and joining LIUNA was the best thing that could happen to me and my family,” he added. “Now I can imagine a brighter future without fear and intimidation from local gangs.

Featured image: LIUNA Laborer Santos Cayetano Gomez on the jobsite

Gomez's family

Gomez’s wife and child in Guatemala