Over the past decade, Los Angeles has developed a well-earned reputation as one of the nation’s most vibrant centers of labor organizing. Even as unions have faced tremendous challenges in many regions of the country, L.A. has produced a string of impressive organizing victories, from hotel workers on Century Boulevard to janitors and security officers across the city.
Less attention has been paid, however, to the city’s human rights movement – and even less to the convergence in our metropolis of the immigrant rights, human rights and workers rights causes.
If any city in the world can be said to sit on the front lines of these inextricably linked movements, it is Los Angeles. Here in the nation’s second largest metropolis, labor activists have defied the national decline in union organizing, immigrant rights leaders have organized some of the largest demonstrations of the past generation and human rights advocates have been quietly rebuilding the lives of the largest U.S. population of torture victims, asylum seekers and refugees.
As a labor lawyer and executive director of a human rights organization that works with torture survivors, I have witnessed firsthand how our city’s labor, immigrant rights and human rights communities — though they maintain largely separate identities — are all deeply connected and at the forefront of profound social change in our region.
In the broadest sense, these three causes are fundamentally about the same thing: the right to human dignity. Each draws its power from the broadly shared value that every human being has certain inalienable rights — whether it be the right to decent working conditions, the right to seek prosperity in a new land or the right to live free of persecution.
In my work at the Program for Torture Victims, the nexus between the struggle for human, immigrant and workers rights is evident in the stories of survivors such as Mario Avila. Born in Guatemala, Mario became a labor activist in his impoverished country and paid a steep price, enduring torture and imprisonment at the hands of a brutal authoritarian regime. Like hundreds of thousands of others, he fled north to the U.S., where he was eventually arrested and deported. Undeterred, he crossed the border again, reuniting with his wife and daughter, and eventually was granted asylum.
The experience of deprivation – sometimes our own, sometimes that of others — and the resulting determination to fight for human dignity are what motivate so many of us to do what we do. It’s why we insist on organizing and defending the rights of workers who have no voice. It’s why we organize and advocate for the rights of immigrants facing hostility and xenophobia. It’s why we work to rebuild the lives of torture survivors who have suffered unimaginable horrors.
It is no coincidence that some of the most important work in the labor, immigrant and human rights movements is happening here in Los Angeles. In the same way that L.A.’s innovative progressive leaders and vast population of poor, largely immigrant workers have combined to fuel labor’s resurgence, our city’s largely unsung human rights leaders — combined with the largest number of refugees, asylum seekers and torture survivors in the United States — have made L.A. one of the country’s leading centers for torture victim treatment and advocacy.
That’s why I call L.A. the city of second chances: the place where people can rebuild their lives, whether that means climbing out of poverty and into the middle class, finding new opportunity in a new land or healing the wounds of torture.
There are many fronts in the battle for human dignity. But it is all one fight that we must engage in together.
Julie B. Gutman
Julie B. Gutman is the executive director of the Program for Torture Victims and former Senior Labor Advisor to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.