Laborer’s International Local 261 celebrates a Century of Union Activism

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Laborer’s International (LIUNA) Local 261, a 5,200-member public and private sector construction and general laborers union that serves Marin, San Francisco, and San Mateo counties, celebrates its 101-year anniversary this year.

“Local 261 is a construction union in which the doors swing wide open. It really is primarily an entry-level organization, where you see all races and genders,” said Vince Courtney, the Union’s recording secretary.

The chapter, which has its hall at 3271 18th Street, includes journeymen from a wide variety of trades, including gardeners, concrete hands, and general handymen. Local 261’s members work for Plant Construction, Webcor Builders, San Francisco Unified School District and San Francisco Recreation and Park, among others. Some LIUNA members repair and maintain residential complexes where they live or schools that their children attend. 

Local 261 is closely tied to the Southside. Its members have worked on a number of notable projects in the area, including the chapter’s own union hall, Family House, Inc., at 540 Mission Bay Boulevard North, several Mission Bay apartment buildings currently under construction, and the 20th Street historic buildings that Orton Development is restoring at Pier 70.

“Local 261 was chartered on January 3, 1916,” said David de la Torre, the chapter’s secretary-treasurer, who is part of a third generation of union members and officers. “When it was first started, it covered only the City and County of San Francisco. The members were mostly street sweepers and…” workers who carry bricks and mortar to support a bricklaying team. “In 2012, it merged with two other locals in Marin and San Mateo. My father, Mario de la Torre, got in and stayed in office [as union president] until he retired. He was part of the big Latino movement in the Mission District…previously Irish and African-American.”

De la Torre said his paternal grandfather and uncles on both sides were Local 261 members. His brother, Oscar de la Torre, has served as president.

“We represent gardeners in Golden Gate Park, maintenance workers with Muni, and street cleaners with Department of Public Works,” said Theresa Foglio, one of the chapter’s city managers. “We also service the homeless community and clean-up efforts for events such as Superbowl 2016.”

“We have pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs that are jointly administered with the City, where youth can learn the skills for the job while they are still in school,” said Courtney. “These programs are so successful they have been copied by other cities, such as Phoenix…are part of the career pathway and are becoming a national model.”

In pre-apprenticeship programs, high school age students learn basic math and business skills as a means to prepare them for careers in construction and general labor. In apprenticeship programs, junior college and college students are trained in their chosen trade for three years while taking college courses pertaining to their work.

José Gonzales, who has been a Local 261 member for 14 years, said he feels privileged to be part of the union. The organization’s strength makes it easier for him to find good-paying work. “It has great partnerships with the contractors,” said Gonzales.

Miguel Galarza, president and founder of Yerba Buena Engineering and Construction, Inc., agrees. Galarza, a former Local 261 member, founded his own construction business. He now hires chapter members.  “Local 261 is based in the Mission District, which historically has had an immigrant population. The leadership knew it was not the most sought-out union. It wasn’t known as a premier union. But Local 261 reached out to those in the immigrant community. Union leadership brought them in and fostered their development. If you were willing to work, they were willing to train you. When I started in the early 1980s, the rate was $12 an hour. Now the typical rate is $30 an hour, with benefits of about $20. This adds up to a package worth about $55 an hour,” said Galarza. “Union jobs used to be dangerous. Now the expectation is everyone performs the job safely and everyone goes home. This is important. The employees of today are the owners of tomorrow.”

“We’ve been affiliated with Local 261 for at least 50 years,” said Larry Nibbi, chief executive officer of Nibbi Brothers General Contractors. “They’re a great union to work with, always ready to go to work. They’re well-trained, know their craft, work independently of one another, and come equipped. It’s been a pleasure working with them. They’re a first-class organization.”

“I was with the same contractor throughout my career, for 11 years,” said Diego Hernandez, who has been a Local 261 organizer since 2015.  “Without the union, I wouldn’t have had health insurance and a pension.”

According to Courtney, Local 261 supports efforts to develop affordable housing and civic engagement, collaborating with the San Francisco Community Alliance for Jobs and Housing, San Francisco Police Department, San Francisco Association of Realtors, and San Francisco Chamber of Commerce to achieve these goals. “We’re always willing to work with anybody on any issue. We run everything by our members first. In addition, we build coalitions with other unions, including the San Francisco Building Trades Council, the San Francisco Labor Council, and political candidates who support the public sector workforce,” said Courtney.

Local 261 actively supported Senate Bill 1, passed by the California Legislature last April.  The legislation, which will take effect in 2018, increases gas taxes and fees as a means to raise tens of billions of dollars for transportation projects.  Many of the ensuing plans will likely be undertaken by contractors that hire union members, including Local 261 members.

“Primarily, we just want to serve the citizens. We’re there to meet the needs of the people. When men and women are able to support their families and retire with dignity, justice, strength, and honor, that’s amazing,” said Foglio.