District 65 of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union followed a distinct trajectory of commitment to minorities and organizing diverse industrial work sites. District 65, and its long-time president David Livingston, worked to organize factories that other unions neglected. Their commitment to racial justice led them to disaffiliate from their “International” office for their lack of work to combat discrimination. Puerto Rican workers intersected with District 65 organizing efforts frequently and it was one of the first unions to develop a Hispanic committee during the 1940s. By 1945 the membership of District 65 was roughly 15% Puerto Rican, spread out around the Union’s 500 organized factories and other workplaces.
Puerto Rican workers joined District 65 in growing numbers after efforts like the sit-down strike in Brooklyn factory Zy Lite Opitical in 1947, part of the city-wide strike wave of that year. In 1949 Puerto Rican members of District 65 wrote demanding an investigation by Congress of the airplane crash that killed many migrants from the island, including some of their relatives. Many Puerto Ricans remembered District 65 and its anti-discrimination work. Juan Vazquez who began work in a leather factory in 1947 remembered how the discrimination was stopped when they brought Local 65 in 1940. Ramon Acosta remembered how their first union at a packing company “no daba resultado…no hacia nada por nosotros.” Then workers organized and: “nos unimos toditos y la cambiamos para la 65.” Even unionists with the Teamsters, like Julio Espeta, remembered the value of District 65 to Puerto Rican workers before the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s.
During the 1950s D65 carried out a major organizing drive for department store workers and miscellaneous factories ignored by other unions. Because of its militant organizing of workers and its unusual combination of service and industrial worksites, District 65 became very large by the early 1960s with a strong pension fund and membership services that included medical and classes for new members. Continued organizing drives in the early 1960s kept the union large, with 835 worksites in 1969 despite the frequent closing of shops.
District 65 contracts helped raise the standard of living of all its members and were solidly above the minimum wage and the $1/hour common (in the mid-1950s) in the racket union or unorganized factories. District 65 inherited from one of its mergers with other small unions many of the old cigar shops, the few that survived in New York City after the demise of most hand-made cigar making during the 1930s. Most of them were very small shops, with an aging mostly Latino workforce earning very low wages. The union tried to improve the meager wages in these shops with the knowledge that increasing wage demands might force owners to close them.Puerto Rican unionists Mario Abreu and Evelina Antonetty were trained by District 65. Antonnety, noted community leader who led United Bronx Parents, began her training when she was hired as an organizer by District 65 in 1946, motivated by the increase number of Spanish speaking workers in their union.
In the mid-1950s the union boasted of how it had developed 300 black and 75 Puerto Rican shop stewards and promoted a “credo of equality,” similar in scale and timing to the accomplishments of some of the ILGWU, IBEW and IUE locals. President Livingston calculated that by the early 1960s 20% of District 65’s shop stewards were Puerto Rican. But unlike other industrial unions, District 65 moved early to promote a long list of Puerto Ricans (and other Latinos) to positions as paid organizers. By the mid-1960s the District had an even more extensive number of Latino organizers and staffers. Helen Vazquez and Ida Paniagua worked in the press office for the union, while others worked organizing new shops. Carmen Oviedo led the board meeting for the Garment Center 1 membership meeting and about half of the union reps and organizers were Latinos.
After Livingston took District 65 out of its parent union, because of its “lily white” character, it moved to promote mid-level Latino and Black union leaders to positions of greater prominence including Bill Tate, Julio Mojica and Rene Mendez. Mendez went on to become Regional Director for New Jersey and was elected in 1983 to the top post of administrative director. Livingston, who was the force behind many of these demands, remained President of the union through the 1980s but by then most of his union’s top officials were Puerto Rican: Eddie Santiago, Tom Acosta, and Julio Mojica.
In the late 1950s, as part of the city-wide campaign against “exploitation,” racket unions and in support of Puerto Rican workers, the union organized a (named “organizing the unorganized”) for worker recruitment in the Puerto Rican community. District 65, with the Migration Division, the Congress of Puerto Rican Hometown Associations, the Puerto Rican Parade Committee, United Bronx Organizations and the New York Central Trade and Labor Council planned a street campaign encompassing all of East Harlem involving flyers, sound trucks and local meetings. El Diario and District 65’s own Spanish-language radio show on WHOM (La Voz del 65) would get the word out on the importance of the union, led by its “Spanish Committee.”
During the early 60s, when a new generation of civil rights-oriented organizations were being founded by Puerto Ricans, Livingston and District 65 gave their overwhelming support. In 1965 Gilberto Gerena Valentin, one of the founders of the National Association for Puerto Rican Civil Rights, and a well-known labor leader, wrote to Livingston to “express warmest thanks…for gracious cooperation in helping us organize founding convention. Without your assistance it would not have been possible.”