Breaking Through Barriers with Unite Here’s Ada Briceno

If you’re vocal and active in organized labor for a long enough period of time, the chances are pretty good that you may see the back seat of a police car

Unite Here Local 11 Co-President Ada Briceno knows this full well. Last week, Briceno gathered with thousands of protesters to protest the working conditions of Unite Here employees at the Sheraton Park and Anaheim Hilton.  And Briceno — who is also the newly elected chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County —  left the demonstration in handcuffs after she and several others were arrested after blocking traffic and refusing to leave.

Briceno found it fitting that the protest took place days after our nation celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.  She cited the words of Howard Zinn: “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”

Labor 411 spoke to Briceno while she was attending a union conference in New Orleans.

Labor 411: Congratulations on the arrest.

Ada Briceno: Thank you. A few days later, you saw, we got a victory at the Sheraton Park Hotel. They called us into negotiations and we were able to finalize it in one day.

Labor 411: Many of the Los Angeles and Orange County area hotels seem to be signing contracts.

AB: Yes. They seem to be coming around. I feel that.

Labor 411: Can you talk about the role that civil disobedience plays in activism?

AB: I think it’s important to take risks, to use the things that other folks have used, Martin Luther King taught us to take on peaceful civil disobedience and take a stand on issues. These are issues that are of importance to our paycheck, of importance to our pension and of importance to our healthcare. We have learned from what King and the Civil Rights Movement did, and I think really it sort of sheds light. It’s a moment for people to reflect on what kind of a world are we building.

Labor 411: You have been through this before.

AB: This is my fifth arrest, and they’re all different but they’re all very dear to my heart. There’s such a bond that’s created with people who want to uplift the fight.

Labor 411: What should people know about acts of civil disobedience?

AB: It’s something you never forget. I believe that it bonds the people that were there, but it also creates this visual of people that when we are all speaking with one voice in a peaceful manner, it sort of elevates it to a different place. For folks that are there, I believe it’s so inspirational, and I think it opens up the doors for others to think about other peaceful civil ways of pushing the envelope. So I find that a lot of people ask “How can I get arrested next time?” It opens up a different sort of dialog, I’ve heard a lot of people say, “Oh your group takes it to another level. You put your money where your mouth is.”

Labor 411: How did your interest in labor activism develop?

AB: I was born in Nicaragua where there was a dictator and a revolution occurring and I lived in a place where, as a child, I could not sing the revolutionary songs that I had learned at home. So coming to this country as a hotel worker and really struggling to make ends meet, and finding my own voice in the workplace was life-changing for me, and so it’s been part of my being since I was 18 years old. Maybe it comes a little bit from my struggle as an immigrant in this country and just really understanding that I’m going to use my First Amendment rights because I came from place where I didn’t have any.

Labor 411: You’re living and working in a part of the state that historically has not been especially friendly towards Democrats. What has that been like?

AB: I can’t even tell you how proud I am to be living in Orange County. I started organizing in Orange County many moons ago, in 1992. I started working at the union office after working in the hotel, and in 2001 I took over the leadership of that union and so, along with the group, I inserted action, public action and demonstration. And in 2001, we were one of the few groups that was bold enough to do these sorts of actions and open up people’s minds in Orange County. It has been controversial for working families to have a voice there, and I feel so proud my union has taken the leadership to help change and break through the deep structures of how oppressed our workers and disenfranchised our communities have been for so long. To be organizing on the ground and now to see all these groups really stand up, and say “That’s it!” Seeing women at the forefront of that change. Seeing workers, it takes over my soul.






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