Membership in New York’s’ unions expanded dramatically during the WWII and the post-war economic boom of the 1940s and early 1950s. During the war, aggressive organizing by unions expanded their benefits and culture to hotels, food production, and throughout the vast world of garment, electrical, metal, and paper manufacturing. During these years most older Puerto Ricans and their US born children were part of these trends and benefited from rising wage levels. In many industries the post-war migrants also saw benefits as they joined industrial and service worksites that had been recently unionized.
Unions affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations ended up organizing more Puerto Rican workers than trade-based (and often ethnic exclusivist) AFL unions but in the 1940s and 1950s Puerto Ricans also entered many AFL unions in specific trades like painting, carpentry and printing. Unions led by Communist Party members or former Communists helped bring up Puerto Ricans through their leadership ranks more quickly. Between the late 1930s and the late 1950s a generation of Puerto Rican (both island born and second generation) labor leaders and activists trained and rose through the unions.
Unions supported Hispanic leaders in part to strengthen unionism among their growing Spanish speaking membership but also as a regular part of leadership formation in multi-ethnic (and often multi-lingual) workplaces. The Puerto Rican (and larger Latino) presence had expanded significantly during the mid-1940s but Latinos did not become a majority of the workers in any industries until the early 1950s after tens of thousands of new migrants arrived from Puerto Rico (and many thousands also from Cuba). In the 1940s and early 1950s, emerging Hispanic labor leaders participated in an ethnic, immigrant, unionist world in which they interacted with Italians, Jews than with Spanish speakers. In many unions the incorporation of thousands of new members with limited English skills opened opportunities for second generation bilingual Puerto Ricans to serve as intermediaries.
Unionization rates for Puerto Ricans before the post-war migrant wave were very high, perhaps higher than for white workers. Estimates of the unionization rate ranged from about 60% in 1950 to even higher estimates in 1955.
When the migration from Puerto Rico expanded after 1943, thousands of Puerto Ricans were already in organized workplaces and many were activists within their unions. By 1943, even before the peak moment of war-related economic expansion there were 66 well-known Puerto Rican and Spanish leaders within the labor movement, most of these low-level union officials with AFL and CIO affiliated unions. they were present in areas that had significant numbers of Spanish speaking workers like the Sugar Refinery Workers, the NMU, Local 302 of Restaurant and Cafeteria Workers and Hotel workers. Puerto Ricans were spread out in many workplaces but their concentrations in manufacturing and services brought them into the strike wave of 1947 through their increased membership in the D65, IUE, ILGWU, Hotel, Restaurant, 302 food workers.
During the war years unions developed into sophisticated institutions. They started research departments that tracked the profitability and economic wellbeing of their employers, as many transitioned from small family owned firms to corporate entities. After the war they were poised to demand increased wages and benefits for their members, establishing medical, legal and cultural service centers for their memberships and negotiation employer contributions towards pensions, services as well as increased wages.
About half of the migrants who arrived at New York workplaces in the later 1940s and early 1950s joined worksites that had unions and in industries that already had at least a minor Puerto Rican presence. At the same time, the pattern for many in the second-generation Puerto Ricans was to enter new areas of work and union life in trade, specialized and white-collar unions in which there were few Puerto Ricans.
By far the largest industries and unions that organized Puerto Ricans were in garment (ILGWU, ACWA, Fur Workers), metal and electrical work (IUE, UE, IBEW, District 65), Hotels and cafeterias, (Hotel Workers and Cafeteria Workers) dock work (ILA and others), maritime work (NMU, SIU), Jewelry Workers, Laundry Workers, Building Service Employees Local 32. A plethora of unaffiliated unions also existed (many of them boss or mob controlled) also dotted the union landscape.
The Puerto Rican presence in Maritime work, already strong since the 1920s, also expanded during the 1940s and 1950s. As most ships and docks were unionized, unionization rates were very high in these areas of work. In 1947 there were about 20,000 New York-based Puerto Ricans in sea-going maritime work. The National Maritime Union had about 14,000 Puerto Rican members and another 3,000 in the Seafarers International Union, with another 2000 in other maritime unions.